There’s no FilAm organization advocating for transgender women

The fear and shame of being outed are preventing transgender women from reaching out to their community.

By Elton Lugay

Part 2

Prostitution brings in easy cash — anywhere from $150 to $300 an hour, according to the transgender women.

There are many ways to reach a potential client but “Craigslist still tops them all,” said dancer Bonita Isla.

As law enforcement continues to monitor personals sites like Craigslist, the women know that subtlety and cryptic codes usually work to establish contact with sex-seeking clients.

“Something like ‘T4M party and play’ or ‘Asian TS seeking,’ would get you away from serious trouble,” revealed Isla. In terms of fees, they use words like “150 roses” to mean $150 for an hour’s work. The haggling could take a couple of hours or a matter of minutes especially for willing parties. Many of the patrons are straight, married men across all ethnicities.

“I would post, then a potential customer sends an email. And if you’re both in agreement, you then give your cell number and home address, that simple,” Isla said.

For Halle Perez, a busboy, the lifestyle comes with a price.

“It’s very expensive to be a tranny. And on top of that it’s exhausting to pretend like one,” she said grousing about the industry’s requirement for them to “look hot” by investing in regular salon visits, celebrity-style clothing, plus the upkeep to surgery.

The unlawful nature of most sex work often results in “extreme isolation,” according to a study by the Sex Workers Project advocacy organization.

“Sex workers live under the daily threat of arrest, deportation, and violence. These dangers are compounded by the stigma, isolation, and invisibility associated with their work,” says the study entitled Behind Closed Doors: An Analysis of Indoor Sex Work in New York City.

RN Maxie Kapulong recalled how she was beaten up by a client, and how for several days she stayed home and avoided her friends to nurse her swollen face.

“I didn’t have the right equipment yet,” she said, referring to her incomplete gender reassignment surgery at the time of the romantic encounter. Why didn’t she come clean with her date? Kapulong just shrugged her shoulders.

You’ll never know who might be standing in your doorway — a cop or a psycho killer — said caregiver Gina Gonzales, recalling her harrowing experience with an NYPD officer. An undercover cop showed up as a client announcing he was about to bust her for her “Illegal services.”

“I thought it was the end of me,” she said. “I was shivering, sweating like a pig.” Instead, the cop let her go and told her to get a massage therapy certificate.

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.”

In the Filipino American community, there is no organization that advocates for transgender women. 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 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.

For Dina Joaquin, prostitution is a means to an end. This former nightclub waitress has been in a loving relationship with an American banker over the last 10 years. Having found the right man, she quit and never looked back.

“Every one of us goes through obstacles, it’s up to us to rise above and move on,” she said.

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


  1. Karari Kue wrote:

    Subjects are NOT males nor have ever been males. They are women, just like any other woman except that they are trans.

    Calling them males is incredibly offensive. It takes away a great deal from your otherwise respectful coverage of trans filipina lives.

  2. ELTON LUGAY wrote:

    Thank you for your comment. I respect your opinion. Since the word ‘transgender’ denotes two gender identities (male and female), it’s important to establish the biological sex of the subjects to avoid confusion, especially that not everyone is familiar with the term. Most people think transgender only refers to women. We use the word ‘Filipino’ in reference to the subjects’ ethnicity not so much of their gender. The story makes that clear. We are all Filipino — men and women.

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