Transgender Filipinos confront the stigma of prostitution

A way of life

By Elton Lugay

Part 1

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).” – With additional reporting by Cristina DC Pastor

Some names have been changed for privacy reasons. All subjects are males who have transitioned as women.

NEXT: No FilAm organization advocating for transgender women


  1. M. Matthews wrote:

    Elton/Ms. Pastor, a very informative article that give us some insight into the Asian transgender life in America.

  2. ELTON LUGAY wrote:

    Glad you liked it Mat. Thanks again for dropping by and saying hi. Come back soon and invite your friends to subscribe too.

  3. Karari Kue wrote:

    Thank you for a very informative piece that was mostly very culturally competent. However, the headline is a bit problematic. It should read “Transgender Filipinas confront stigma of prostitution”

    • Thanks for highlighting this social issue. I’d also love to hear more from transgender Filipinas who are doing more to help their community as well. In addition, your note at the bottom of the article should read: All subjects are transgender women who were born male. Thank you again.

  4. […] story is Part 1 of a two part series by Elton Lugay written for The FilAm, an online magazine for Filipino Americans in New […]

  5. I am very upset with the blatant misgendering in this article and the related article at GMA News. It doesn’t take that much effort to understand that it is extremely rude to refer to us as “Pinoy” rather than “Pinay”, or “Filipino” rather than “Filipina”. Since I am on the subject, you should probably also be made aware that quite a number of us identify as genderqueer or otherwise incompatible with the binary system of gender, and often use “Pin@y” and “Filipin@” to describe ourselves.

    I would also like to encourage everyone with an interest in the lives of transgender people to read this essay, “Reclaiming the Wronged Body” presented by celebrated trans Pinay activist Sass Rogando Sasot at UP Diliman on 6 October 2010, as well as the other articles on her blog site at transpinayrising, :

  6. Franklyn Nicklaus wrote:

    Very good write-up. I certainly appreciate this site. Keep writing!

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