This story is Part 1 of a two part series by Elton Lugay written for The FilAm, an online magazine for Filipino Americans in New York.
At the recent Miss Asia NYC; pageant for transgender women, contestant Priscilla To Wong Fu was asked: Why is prostitution prevalent among Asian transgender women?
Flustered, but not totally unprepared, she replied, “We are known to be amiable and hardworking people, thank you!”
It was a cheeky reply which the audience wildly applauded. It was brave of Priscilla to have the humor to confront it. But long after she has left the stage, folded her sash and gown and went back to work as a chef’s assistant, the question lingers. It’s a question she is being forced to confront once again for this report.
“Many reasons,” she began, before reciting to The FilAm her litany of heartaches as a transgender immigrant.
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.”
“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?”
The bitter, hard-edged outlook comes from many years of working the bars or finding men online. Kapulong may be earning a respectable sum as a nurse, but there are siblings to send to school, and a family’s middle-class lifestyle to support. When there is a nurse working in the U.S., the family’s living standard in the Philippines is expected to be better than most – it’s like having a family member who is a highly-paid doctor, lawyer or engineer in America.
“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).”
Read Part 2: There’s no FilAm organization advocating for transgender women.
Some names have been changed for privacy reasons. All subjects are males who have transitioned as women.
With additional reporting by Cristina DC Pastor