Sunday, March 09, 2008

Mary and Jane

from the Trinidad Express, Trinidad & Tobago
Saturday, March 8th 2008
By Cedriann J. Martin

Let's call them that. Mary is from Guyana. She is brash and brave. She shows off her breasts. She names names. Immediately she's an open book.

Jane is Trinidadian. She is polished and discrete. She warms into telling her story only after her trust has been earned.

They are both trendy: low rise jeans, shiny skirt, tight tops, too much perfume. Unlike most of the other sex workers I've interviewed both have a secondary education. Mary turned down the option of going to University. Jane did the eight-to-four thing for a while. Their entry into the sex trade had as much to do with a search for sexual identity and validation as with money.

They were both born boys. Until I was told, I couldn't tell. Jane, in particular, boggles the mind.

Mary describes a happy childhood with her mother and sister. She was a precocious child, eavesdropping on conversations and reading books. That's easy to believe. She starts her story like a children's novel. ("My mother and I on afternoons would go for beautiful walks on the sea wall.") She knew she was attracted to men since age seven. ("When I saw good-looking men I would always be delighted.") By eleven she
had her first sexual experiences with men in their early twenties. She assures that it was consensual. ("They were young boys, really. But to me they were big.") By 15 she was secretly dressing in women's clothes. Two years later she began selling sex.

Jane's journey was traumatic. She was an effeminate boy in an insensitive family. And she was sexually abused by multiple male relatives. It started when she was seven.

"Growing up feminine like that there are wicked people who want to interfere with a boy child. It was forceful at first but I was frightened to tell because I thought I would get licks. But it aint make sense digging it up now," she says. "I done evolve into something else."

I disagree. It's worth exploring. Jane obliges.

"I had a primitive family," she explains." This is 20 years ago. No cable. No "Queer as Folk". We in a primitive, war-like state. If I went to them with that issue you could imagine? I think (the abuse) altered everything about me. It also created a part of my personality too because I keep things to myself. I became more closeted. It drives people to their death. If I was a different person-not as headstrong-I
would have committed suicide. I cried a lot and hoped for better. I wasn't the guilty one or the gay villain. They were."

She describes trying to overcome the trauma by getting girlfriends as a teen.

"I wanted to take a turn and be like everybody else. Then it would just come back up: 'You too girly. Look two girls.' I liked girls. I had sex plenty times. That's why I tell you it's very confusing. Some tansies say 'ooh, I can't stand women'. I have to talk on my own behalf now. Everybody's experience is different so you have to analyse it as such. I was trying to go along the normal line society in
Trinidad was going along. People would come in between and tell the girl 'he is a buller man'. So you're thinking now: 'It makes no sense. Next thing I have children with this girl and people telling the kids their father gay'. It's sad."

A search for escape inadvertently led to sex work. She was depressed and left her job. Then she heard about a gay pageant. The winner would go to New York.

"It was a chance... a means of getting out. At that point I was still living like a boy but I stayed by my gay friend and spent the weekend so we could go try out for the pageant. That was in 1998, the year Wendy Fitzwilliam won. So it was a big thing. Everybody wanted to be in a queen show. That was your gay dream," she recounts.

She was selected as a delegate and spent more time at her friend's apartment during the preparation. She didn't know that her friend was a prostitute. One night Jane's friend took her to work. (Here Mary interjects that seasoned sex workers don't dissuade younger ones: "They never tell you that what they are doing is not in their
interest," she says. "They always encourage you." Earlier on, in a separate interview, a male sex worker revealed that it was Mary who taught him how to apply make-up when he started selling sex in Suriname.) Jane was lent a skirt and ponytail. She wore a pair of girl's shoes that she'd been hiding. She was scared as they pulled up to a curb in San Juan and saw about two dozen men in drag. ("That was
Trinidad's hey-day!" Mary squeals.)

"As I reach a sports car pull up. And a guy, knowing what I was, told me to jump in. I was like 'Wow! This going on here in Trinidad? And watch this nice guy! And watch how much money he giving me just for a blow job!' (TT$400.00) My first experience prostituting had me in awe. Sometimes I feel like it's more than a vibe. It could be a spirit or an entity or something. Because if you go out there and have a good
experience you would be hooked."

Her initiation into the industry was like a charm: expensive cars and who's who, she says. Eventually both Mary and Jane would pinpoint that they wanted to live as women. For Mary encouragement came from a French lover she lived with in French Guiana. He was a doctor who sourced female hormones from Brazil and injected Mary himself. She was so excited about getting breasts that she often sneaked a double dose while he was asleep.

"Within three months I had breasts like yours," she says, pointing to my pair. "I used to admire the way I looked. I used to stand up all day in front the mirror." Eventually she began gaining weight and stopped the injections. Her male hormones came back with a vengeance. She swears that she was once as convincing as Jane.

Jane was more thoughtful and deliberate about the decision: "I did research before. I was afraid because everybody was like 'God make you one way so don't go and change yourself'. But I felt incomplete. I wanted to be a woman so bad."

She looked up hormone regimens on the net. She knew of the risks associated with certain ingredients and, yes, the weight gain.

"You have to maintain diet and exercise," she tells Mary. "You can't just go swallowing hormones." She sourced her hormone cocktails from local pharmacies. The demand from trannies, she says, has driven prices of the once-cheap drugs way up. Jane will like to go abroad eventually for the surgeries that would make her sex change complete. They are done in Trinidad but she'd prefer somewhere with a bigger
market for the procedure: "I don't want them practicing on me".

Whereas strangers wondered aloud whether she was a boy or girl while she lived as a man, she now lives comfortably as a woman.

The pair explains the difference between being transgender and just being gay.

"It is not a woman and not a man. I would put it as the third gender. It comes under the gay umbrella but there are different sections. For instance a gay guy could be closeted or he could be flambouyant. A drag queen is loud make-up, eye lashes and fake nails. That is man playing woman... like theatre. Transgenders are more timid, more ladylike, more feminine."

I ask about the demand for their sexual services. While some customers hire them precisely because they were born male, others don't know. Or pretend not to know. Mary is convinced she's got them fooled: "Some ask if it's a man or a woman. For me, I always say woman."

Jane has a different take: "It is a mind over matter thing. They know it is a man but they don't want to hear it. If you don't tell them you're a man they will go home and lie down with their wives and feel conscience-free that they slept with a woman."

There is the distinct possibility of violence in cases where a client discovers (or pretends to discover) that they aren't real women.

"If you say you're a woman and they find out you're a man they could probably beat you to death. I have a friend who works in Suriname. A customer visited her every week but we never knew he was that against men. One night he found out and he chased her with a big cutlass from one end of the village to the other."

Jane also endured a cutlass ordeal. She was waiting for transport when a man approached, requesting sex. She explained that she wasn't working. He was affronted: No man can't buss style on me dress up like no woman," he told her. They had a cuss-out. He returned minutes later with a concealed cutlass. Jane was chopped twice on her arms. She blocked a swipe to her face with a hand, severing the nerves in those
fingers. Police came to the scene to assist but wouldn't take a report.

"If you are a homosexual and somebody assaults you it is up you to take the law into your own hands," Mary chimes in.

HIV is the other major threat. Jane admits that in the beginning she frequently had unprotected sex with clients.

"I not going to lie and say 'never me' to prove a point. It happened. Thank God nothing came of it. My learning curve came through seeing people dying. It's easy to practice safe sex now. You give your clients your habits. If you know you are not going to have unprotected sex with me you would put on the condom. I really feel people out there are trying to get you sick. And some try to prove a point by
throwing real money."

How much, I ask, is real money. As much as TT$4000-$5000.

"For a night?"

"Fifteen minutes."

Must be some clientele. Jane is deliberately vague: "My clientele is over the top to the bottom of the ladder," she says. I press her further when the recorder is switched off. Businessmen. Lawyers. Musicians. Jane learned not to disclose the identities of her customers early on. A local entertainer commissioned a cut-tail when he found out that she told someone about their encounter.

According to this pair regional artistes routinely seek their services when they perform in the southern Caribbean.

Mary blurts two names. One of them has built a sizeable portion of his career on bunnin' batty man.

Copyright 2008 All rights reserved. Trinidad Express 35 Independence Sq, Port of Spain, Trinidad.


Stassa said...

Great article, thanks for posting it. It reminded me of home...

This bit:

"Their entry into the sex trade had as much to do with a search for sexual identity and validation as with money."

The vast majority of the transwomen outside the English-speaking western world are much like Mary and Jane. My concern is that their experience is invalidated by a certain middle-upper-class, middle-aged transitioner population of North-European descent, who are afraid "they give us all a bad name" and who also have the ear of the medical establishment for the very blatantly obvious reason (they speak the same language.)

All of our voices must be heard and all of our reasons and needs for transition must be given the same value. I'm glad that there are role-models on the internet and off for girls who don't want to go down the sex worker path. At the same time, I don't want to see the girls who do go down that road be swept under the rug and marginalised by the same people who would serve as those role models.

Monica Roberts said...

You're right. Every time I get some person that wants to look down on our sisters doing that work, I just say, "Only the grace of God and circumstances kept you from walking in her pumps."