Transgender Filipina Sex Workers Stay in U.S. Despite Dangers

(Photo from FilAm)

Transgender and transsexual people often face stereotypes and abuse. But for immigrants, especially those who engage in sex work, living as a transgender person brings on a whole slew of other challenges, including social stigmas, cultural conflicts and threats of arrest and deportation, FilAm reports.

In the first of a two-part series in the magazine for Filipino-American New Yorkers, Elton Lugay (with additional reporting from Cristina DC Pastor) looks at the struggles of transgender Filipina sex workers in New York, including some who are undocumented.

Among many Filipino transgender women in New York – out of an estimated transgender population of 12,500 in the city — prostitution is a way of life. Employment and survival are the usual reasons for being a sex worker, but advocates are finding out there are others.

Transgender sex workers who are undocumented often bear the twin burdens of discrimination and oppression, say advocates. In some cases, even those who are gainfully employed engage in the sex trade, prompting sneer comments directed toward a lifestyle some would consider revolting and immoral.

Not all transgender women are sex workers, cautioned Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project (SWP) advocacy organization. Neither is she saying that all transgender women doing sex work feel oppressed or discriminated. “But some of those who chose to do it, do so possibly because there are no other options.”

Several transgender Filipinos explained their reasons for staying in the sex trade here in New York.

“It is the easiest way to make a living without getting exposed to the harsh reality of the world of straight people or heterosexual environment,” explained former school teacher Maria Kristina Falgui, who lost her job when her gender became a sore issue in a New Jersey school.

Malou Hidalgo, a hair-and-makeup artist, opened up about her legal status. “I have no papers, but I am able to send money to my parents and siblings in the Philippines. What I earn from the salon is nothing compared to what I do on the side.”

Like many undocumented Filipinos, the transgender women would rather stay in the U.S. than go back to the Philippines where homosexuals – especially the openly gay ones — are often viewed as freaks, if not errant Catholics.

“Filipinos in the Philippines have not yet fully embraced the gay lifestyle, how much more transgenders?” asked Maxie Kapulong, a nurse. “Besides, why earn pesos, when I can earn it in dollars?”

While social stigmas exist in New York, the city still provides relative safety and a sense of community, said transgender Filipina Leticia Garcia.

“We’ve been marginalized in many undeveloped countries so the only chance is to seek greener pastures in countries in Europe or America,” said poet Leticia Garcia. “And why would you go back to the Philippines when T girls in the Philippines have limited resources to better themselves and discrimination is still prevalent? At least here, you are protected by anti-discrimination laws even if you are not supposed to be here legally.”

Many transgender immigrants often find New York a “safe place,” according to Baskin, who was interviewed for this report. SWP advocates for women as well as transgender sex workers.

“One thing I notice is that people come here looking for a safe place. Not only transgender people but people looking for a community where they can freely express themselves, where they are not isolated,” she said. “They can come from places like Iowa or the Philippines, and they are looking for places where they can meet other people and they have that level of safety (with them).”

Nonetheless, the harsh reality remains that as members of several vulnerable groups — immigrant, transgender and sex worker — these women face great risks. “Sex workers live under the daily threat of arrest, deportation, and violence,” according to Behind Closed Doors: An Analysis of Indoor Sex Work in New York City, a study conducted by the Sex Workers Project. “These dangers are compounded by the stigma, isolation, and invisibility associated with their work.”

There are generally two types of sex workers – street-based and indoors – according to Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project. While the experience may be different, both face the same “risks of violence from customers and law enforcers and stigma because of the way society looks down upon them.”

The second part of the series in the FilAm finds that no organizations exist within the Filipino American community to directly support transgender people.

The FilAm magazine called several non-profit organizations and was told their services are “open to everyone.” But there is nothing geared specifically for transgender or gender non-conforming people, like, for example, the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in Chelsea which offers assistance in terms of housing, insurance benefits, hormone therapy, STD screening and other services.

“There are very few services that provide resources or support for transgender people in general and there are no known services for transgender Filipinos in New York,” said Kevin Nadal, associate professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Filipino and FilAm community services need to do a better job of providing resources and support for transgender people because many of them feel isolated and discriminated from their own community.”

Bu[t] even if there is one, the transgender women said they would rather seek help from non-Filipino organizations because of the fear and “hiya” (shame) of being exposed as a prostitute within their community.

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