Exploring the lives of transgender women on the street
Published: September 5, 2012
If you drive up Charles Street past North Avenue late at night, you’re likely to glimpse the seamy world of prostitutes and the johns who pick them up. Many of the women standing on the street corners and (in the words of one frustrated resident) “draped over” the cars began life as boys and turned to prostitution around the time they made their transition to womanhood, feeling that, as one of them put it, “it’s the only way [for a transgender woman] to survive.” Eventually, however, the perspective often flips around, and they come to see that getting off the street is the only way to survive.
For this story, four transgender women, each of whom had very different experiences of prostitution and the transition to living as a woman, told us their stories and allowed us to take portraits of them. They try to support each other as part of the Beautiful Me Sorority. Though these stories are in no way representative of the entire transgender community, we feel they offer a glimpse of lives rarely seen in print. We allowed them to use the names they use on the streets or web sites where they ply their trade.
Bambi, a tall 24-year-old transgender woman with light skin, red hair, and a wicked wit, leans back against the wall in what is called graffiti alley, off North Howard Street and North Avenue. Several tour groups of new MICA students walk through, and a young country artist films a video at the other end of the alley, which has become an almost Disney-fied version of Baltimore grit. But Bambi remembers what it used to be like.
“I actually used to date in this alley sometimes,” she says. “It’s off the beaten path, no cops coming back here. I’m not going on my knees or anything, but it’s relatively clean. It feels full-circle. But I know I won’t have to come back here to work anymore.”
When Bambi talks about dating and working, she is talking about the same thing. She worked as a prostitute in the neighborhood for several years. Though many of the tricks blend together, Bambi can still recall her first night on the street. She was young and had recently made the transition from living as a gay man to living as a woman. She had a job and was complaining about money to a friend one day, and the friend told her that she knew how she could make easy money.
“I went out to Calvert and 23rd,” she recalls. “On my first night I hadn’t been there more than 10 minutes and I made $90—for a blowjob. Shit, $90 for five minutes—not even that—worth of work. This is when I was 20 and new to the scene. It is a strange sense of power at first. You don’t think about the danger or how you’re branding yourself socially. I was new to womanhood and it made me think, How pretty I am: There are 30 million girls out here, but he chose me.”
Bambi says that no other industry is as tied to appearance. “We’re not standing out there like this,” she says, miming a blowjob. “They can’t tell how good you do it. It’s all about how you look. Your self-esteem becomes monetary.”
On a good night, Bambi says she would make $400 in a short time, getting what she needed and then going home to avoid the ever-present dangers of incarceration and violence.
Bambi did experience both, however. She was robbed during her first week on the street. “I wasn’t street-smart,” she says. “I grew up with two parents. My mom owns a house in a Jewish neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore. I didn’t know what to look for.”
It was 2008 and a man picked her up. He asked if she wanted to go eat breakfast at an IHOP. It was a foggy night and she couldn’t tell where they were. The man was friendly as they kept talking.
“I was so naive, I just kept thinking, He really, really likes me,” she says, mimicking a ditzy voice. “Finally I noticed we were at Poplar Grove and I knew we were going in the wrong direction, and I started thinking, Is he going to shoot me now?”
They ended up in the woods, where the man put a “long gun” to Bambi’s head.
“He took everything. I was out there in the woods with one pump and a Rite Aid bag, in the fog,” she says. “It was four days before my 21st birthday. I was thankful for the situation because I knew what to look for” from then on.
She was robbed three other times. Once, when a man pulled a knife on her, she escaped. “Two weeks later, the police warned me about him,” she says. “I told them he had just tried to rob me. They said I was lucky because, after I got away, he had graduated to a gun and put a bullet through the next girl.”
The police, however, generally aren’t friendly to Bambi and others like her. “The cops are assholes. Fucking assholes. You meet a nice one every 5,000 years,” she says. “You’d think there would be more black officers in a largely black city. But they import these racist Anglo-Saxon cops from West Virginia who act like we’re not even citizens. ‘You’re not only a derelict negroid,’” she mimics a cop, “ ‘But a derelict negroid with a dick and a dress. What the fuck is wrong with you?’”
Bambi says she was arrested once while waiting for a bus on North Avenue at 7 A.M. “I suck dick for a living, but I wasn’t working then,” she says. “My real crime was being transgender on North Avenue. When they brought me into booking, everything stopped and they looked at me like I was a Martian. The female officer tried to be nice and get me a holding cell by myself, but the males said ‘Oh no, Beyonce don’t need a cell by himself.’ I was like, thanks for the compliment, but you know damn well I do.”
According to Bambi, the johns are almost as bad. “A lot of these guys are sick. The lowest of the low,” she says. “One guy offered me $500 to suck his dog’s dick—he said it was the dog’s birthday and he’d never had his dick sucked. But the worst was this guy who had a master-slave fantasy. He offered $300, and at first I was going to take it because I thought I’ve seen this before. I thought he wanted me to order him around. But he wanted to be a slave master. ‘So you want to have a house nigger?’ Uh-uh. As a black person, I couldn’t do that. My ancestors had to do that shit. But I should have taken his money for reparations.”
Eventually the lifestyle became more difficult to maintain. “I was 20 and I never paid attention at first to the fact that girls who were my age were talking about a trick five or six years earlier,” she says. “Then I was like ‘ohhh,’ as the girls got younger and younger. If you’re 20 and there is a 15-year-old standing there beside you, it don’t matter how pretty you are. They’ll take the 15-year-old. By 25, you’re washed up, and at 30, you’re dead.”
Bambi says she has largely retired from the trade, but admits it’s hard to escape. “It’s like drugs—not only using them but selling them. The cash flow, how quickly you can make money, it’s addictive,” she says. “I’ve clocked a 10-hour day [in retail] and made $80 and that’s taxed, and I know I can go to Charles and 21st and stand there an hour and make $100. You don’t always think about the night you got robbed or raped or arrested. You know you could die, even if you’re not going on the stroll, just being black and transgender in this city, just walking out on the street. But it’s easier to abstain when a girl has just died.”
Though she is a full-time psychology student and works a regular job, opportunities still arise. “I might be walking at the mall and not have any money and some guy walks up and offers you $80 to go into the bathroom with him. What the fuck are you going to do?”
Bria graduated from Morgan State and is in a graduate program at a local university. She plans to go to law school and specialize in civil rights cases. She is a large woman with deep black skin and a glowing smile.
“I transitioned when I was 20,” she says. “I always knew I was trans, but I was scared of what people would think and how I’d make a living. I was always my biggest critic. But I dressed as a girl for Halloween once and never came out of women’s clothes.”
Bria, now 23, was in college then. “I’ve been working since I was 15—I worked at Rite Aid, at a nonprofit working with the trans community,” she says. “But I needed to supplement. It’s expensive being trans. But it’s also just normal expenses. Rent, car—everybody needs money.” So she turned to prostitution.
“Not the streets, the internet,” she says.
Bria talked to older trans women who told her the streets were not what they were 10 years ago—they were more dangerous now. So she went on to Craigslist in the summer of 2010.
“We’d usually meet at a hotel,” she says. She acknowledges that it is still dangerous. “But talking online for a while, you can gauge the risk before being around them and not take the risk if it doesn’t feel right.”
On a good night, she would meet with three or four different men and bring home $500 0r $600.
“Most of the girls, we don’t want to do it, but the way things are built, it is really a game of survival,” she says. “I don’t have my self-esteem attached to it, but a goal.”
And though she still needs money, Bria is now in a committed relationship and no longer works in the trade, focusing instead on her studies.
bright eyed and short, Virgin Hellfire almost looks like she could star as the plucky best friend in a sitcom. Like most transgender people, she had a difficult time growing up, but her coming-out was, in some ways, more difficult than most. She is from Cambridge, Md., a town on the Eastern Shore, which she describes as “a three- or four-mile radius, birds and nature, and no civilization.”
There were only about 100 people in her graduating class, back when she was a he. “I was the only openly gay man in my school,” she says. “The only examples I had seen of trans women were Jerry Springer guests. I didn’t want to be one of those people, so I denied my gender.”
Still, by the time she graduated from school, she had also graduated to wearing makeup and women’s clothes, though she was not yet trying to pass. The day she took her SAT, she left for Atlanta, which she describes as the “epicenter for gay black people.”
As she began to discover her identity in the big city, she also began to discover “a lot of shady business—prostitution and identity theft were the most common.” Virgin says she was trained by her roommate “to do everything she knew how to do, good and bad, and I developed an affinity for fast money.”
Eventually, however, Virgin’s sense of small-town morality took over and she began to dream of “white picket fences.” She moved back to Maryland and began to attend Coppin State while also beginning her transition to womanhood, starting hormone replacement therapy in 2007. As happens to many people going through this difficult transition, she fell into depression and returned to the shore, where, after some adjustment, her mother and grandmother embraced her and began to teach her aspects of being a woman. Her father, a career criminal, was in prison and so she was largely protected from his judgment.
As part of her transition, Virgin tried prostitution. “I went on one date, but I wasn’t comfortable with it. I’m the only girl I know who doesn’t do it,” she says. “So I became a tranny pimp. I majored in computer science and so I used the internet to book dates for all my friends. I’d go on the streets with them and be [a] security guard. When they got in a car, I’d follow to make sure they were safe.”
Virgin Hellfire and her stable worked in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Charlottesville. Most of the johns were looking for trans women and she says her biggest seller could easily make a $1,000 a day. “That would be $250 cash for me. But it didn’t matter, because they also paid my expenses. That was just spending money.”
Eventually that sense of morality and the dreams of the white picket fence won out again. In 2008, she walked away from the life. She works as a hair stylist and studies business marketing at Baltimore City Community College. “I’m in a relationship with a trans man now,” she says, and though they are taking it slow, she thinks it might work out and dreams that they might have children “the natural way.”
When asked if she is planning to get gender reassignment surgery, Virgin shakes her head. “I ain’t nobody’s guinea pig. Those techniques are all experimental now. I like my orgasms too much. Nobody’s going to take my orgasms from me.”
Kasey obviously works in fashion; she has an unfakeable sense of style. But she also works as a caretaker for the elderly and an advocate for transgender issues.
“I worked on the streets one time. And the only time, I got locked up,” she says. She says that she felt it was a lucky occurrence. “That night, it had to happen. It was meant to happen. I was used to working, but it was at a point in my life where I’d just lost my job. I didn’t live actually far so I could just go like I was walking to the store and nobody would know actually what I was doing.”
It was April 2010. She walked to the corner of Maryland Avenue and 24th Street. She stood there for 20 minutes and a car pulled up. “We talked, he tried to make me feel comfortable,” she says. “One of the first things that should have went off is I got in the back seat. I didn’t get in the passenger seat. But I wasn’t used to it, it was something I didn’t do and I didn’t know. And besides I was already scared. I was really scared.”
But Kasey and the man started talking and she began to feel more comfortable.
“He said he went to MICA and I told him what I did and he said ‘Oh, you seem like a really cool person.’ We agreed on a price and then he just made an abrupt turn and said, ‘I hate to break it to you, I’m the police.’”
Kasey says that the officer told her that he felt really bad about it, but he took her to jail and she sat in the parking lot until they rounded up about 10 or 15 other people. She was booked, but she says the officer felt sorry for her and put her back in the paddy wagon and dropped her back off on 25th.
“He dropped me off midway home and it was like, ‘Take your butt in the house and deal with it in some other kind of way.’ Even though times get rough, I might consider it but it’s like, ‘No.’ There’s been too many stories about us found in abandoned buildings. It’s too dangerous. Too risky. I would rather face discrimination going and filling out a job application than standing on the corner.”
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