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High time to see, to really see trans sex workers

I was in Cebu City a few weeks back, interviewing transgender sex workers. In time all their stories will be told, with the stories they told surprising even someone as jaded as myself.

For instance, one started walking the streets when she was seven or eight years old, right after she ran away from home, which was right after her father started beating her for being effeminate. “Matagal na rin akong ganito (I’ve been like this for a while now),” said she, now 28 (meaning she’s been a sex worker for 21 years). “Tumandang ganito (I grew old like this).”

Another – also a minor when she started – has sex in the grassy area near bai Hotel in Mandaue, with clients who were picked from off the streets, usually construction workers or drivers (taxis, pedicabs, and so on). “Tan-aw jud sa location kay daghan tae (You assess the location as people shit there),” she said, adding that lodges are rarely considered since “others could be waiting there to rape us”.

Yet another was almost entrapped by police. She was with five friends who were supposed to be booked, when someone yelled “Pulis!”. She and one other were able to escape (climbing a fence, she said), but three others were taken. One ended up in jail after drugs were allegedly planted on her person, while the two were taken to DSWD as minors. “Grabe ang trauma (The trauma is too much),” she said, adding that even now, she just cries for no reason (except the fear that started from that entrapment).

The thing is, actual figures on transgender people in the sex industry are hard to come by, mainly because of the “forced invisibility” of this sector of the LGBTQIA community. But there are context-specific information on the proportion of transgender people engaged in the sex industry – e.g. in the US, it is estimated that almost 11% of transgender people participated in the sex trade; 99% in Colombia; 76% in Turkey; and 68% in Venezuela.

In the Philippines, we at least know – based on the 2018 Integrated Behavioral and Serologic Surveillance (IHBSS) – that 23% of transgender women (or at least those surveyed) engaged in sex work (that is, received payment in exchange for sex). Cebu City is among the places in the Philippines where transgender involvement in the sex industry continues to be high.

All indicators point to them being at risk for HIV infection – e.g. the median age for first oral sex with a male is 15; first anal sex with a male is 16; first condom sex is 19; and first HIV test is 21. Only 39% used condom during their last anal sex; only 15% consistently used condoms; and 42% claimed to have had no access to condoms.

But yes, STI is only one of their many issues that transgender sex workers face.

One interviewee said she didn’t know of any other work to do, having been forced to stop schooling because of poverty. “Nangahinanglang mangita’g kuwarta (I needed to make a living),” she said, adding that now, even the brothers who used to abuse her actually ask fro financial support from her.

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Still another works as a make-up artist. But then, when in need of “easy money”, she dabbles on sex work. When a client offers to pay a higher rate sans the use of condom, “laban lang (you give in/you continue doing it)! Fight!”

A few of them felt they had to agree to getting tested for HIV before they were to be served by state-owned health centers. BTW: HIV testing is supposed to be voluntary in the Philippines, though for these sex workers, “no test, nganga (you get nothing if you don’t get tested),” as one of them said.

Many for these issues may be commonly tackled by trans people, particularly by those directly affected by these very issues. And yet discourses on transgender rights/movement in the Philippines continues not to include all these… and more, highlighting how the entire LGBTQIA community is neglecting minorities within the already minority LGBTQIA community.

And it’s time we change that.

We change the discourses to include people who would otherwise just be ignored. And it all starts with seeing them, actually seeing them…


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