The harsh reality of a trans woman’s struggles

‘I have suffered so much’

Tamara, a 27-year-old transgender woman. (Danielle Villasana)

Tamara would often tell photographer Danielle Villasana that she was not going to live past 30. Why would she, she defiantly asked, when society treats her as less than human?

Villasana first met Tamara on the streets of downtown Lima, Peru, in the summer of 2013. Tamara was 27 at the time.

Tamara had struggled with her identity since elementary school, where she was bullied by her peers, leading her to drop out in the fifth grade. At 16, she began sniffing “terocal,” or glue, to deal with depression. At 18, she began working as a prostitute.

(Danielle Villasana)

“I want to have a job with somebody I know, someone who trusts me. Because otherwise, they discriminate against you, they look at you up and down when you’re looking for work,” she said.

For most trans women in Lima, their only option is sex work, which creates hostile, exploitative environments where they’re targets of disease, violence and sexual and substance abuse, with limited opportunities for social security and higher education.

After resisting sexual relations with a client without a condom, Tamara was injured with a broken glass that he threw at her face. (Danielle Villasana)

Villasana said her goal in photographing this community was to focus more on life outside of sex work while still highlighting the life-threatening consequences of that work. During three years of photographing Tamara, she photographed a few episodes of violence, fights, or drugs and alcohol abuse — but the vast majority was day-to-day life.

Tamara and Evila, her mother, drink with friends at a nearby bar. (Danielle Villasana)

Tamara kept her distance from most people, occasionally forming fleeting friendships with some. But, there was one person with whom she shared an unwavering bond and that was her mother, Evila.

Tamara waits for clients on the streets. (Danielle Villasana)

After the death of Tamara’s neighbor, who was also a trans woman, she sent Villasana a string of text messages, finally telling her that she had HIV, stating that “prefiero que el bicho me coma,” or “I prefer that the bug eat me,” rather than continue living.

For most trans women, Peru’s complicated public health-care system is incredibly daunting and discriminatory. Many in the health-care sector blame trans women for the existence of HIV/AIDS.

After discussing the meaning of HIV with Tamara and much convincing, she finally decides to get on medication, which is provided by the Peruvian government free-of-charge. (Danielle Villasana)

Eventually, Tamara got on HIV medication. Villasana said it was like a weight had been lifted from Tamara, that there was a lightness in her step, attitude and outlook on life.

Evila and Tamara moved in together, and she stopped drinking and working on the streets. Evila’s income was meager, but they survived and Tamara seemed happy and stable.

Tamara and Evila joke around. (Danielle Villasana)

Tamara and Villasana stayed in touch through social media and during a few visits in 2016. Last year, Tamara turned 30 on Dec. 23. Less than a month later, Villasana learned Tamara had died.

Villasana set up a crowdfunding page to pay for her funeral that reached its goal within a day. The outpouring of support from friends and strangers was incredibly touching and brought Evila to tears.

Evila cries next to Tamara’s body. (Danielle Villasana)

Thirty percent of transwomen in Lima are infected with HIV. At 80 percent, Latin America leads the world in homicides of transgender people and most don’t live past 35.

Original story by Danielle Villasana for The Washington Post.