Speaking Out

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Fri Oct 16, 2009

Gender Bending in the Caribbean

By Sohaila Abdulali

Nairobi has always known her name is Nairobi, and she has always known that she is a beautiful woman. These facts have nothing to do with her male Christian name, or her penis.

Dumont loves wearing women’s clothes and performing in drag, but not all the time. He enjoys being a man as well.

Nairobi has high cheekbones, glorious hair, and a Virgin Mary pendant around her neck. Dumont has a jaunty little beard, some rather pretty earrings, and a giant pendant with Christ on the cross.

Both are at a health workshop in a pink room in Santo Domingo, learning about health issues related to trans people. Dr. John Waters of COIN (Center of Orientacion and Integrated Investigacion) is explaining the procedure for getting your Adam’s apple cauterized in order to look more female.

Why do 33 million people have AIDS, a completely preventable disease? At AIDS-Free World we firmly believe that part of the reason is the world’s extreme discomfort with anything to do with sex, and anything that challenges our limited notions of what is normal. Here in Santo Domingo in this pink room of trans people learning about their bodies and preparing to go teach others like them  - some sex workers, some not; some HIV-positive, some not – how to live safer, healthier lives, it is impossible not to be moved by the stories.

Nairobi was taunted incessantly at home and school. She left home at 13 and went on to be beaten, threatened at gunpoint, addicted to drugs, and almost destroyed by hepatitis. Now she lives alone and supports herself by selling sex. Why didn’t she just stay home and be a boy? Because, she says, “Come winds, come tides, come earthquakes, I’ll always be a woman.”

Dumont supported himself with sex work and by doing drag shows because nobody could accept his dressing as a man or a woman depending on his mood. Kicked out of school and a job, he considers himself lucky because he now makes a living working for a trans network. He too is alone – his identity is too confusing for any potential partners, he sadly explains.

Nairobi’s first memory of being happy is the day she was dressed in a red skirt and black blouse and ran into a man whom she had loved from afar a long time ago. Unfazed when he realized who she was, he embraced her and said he had dreamed of her.

A few weeks ago in Curacao, AIDS-Free World and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (ILGHRC) co-funded the first-ever regional strategy meeting of Caribbean transgender persons. We think this was long overdue. Like all marginalized populations, trans people have been shut out of prevention and treatment campaigns for too lethally long.

According to a recent UNAIDS report, “Data presented at the 2008 International AIDS Conference in Mexico showed HIV prevalences of over 25% among transgender people in three Latin American countries and prevalences ranging from 10% to 42% in five Asian countries.”

I hear the stories of beatings, loneliness, hatred and vilification. Outside, it’s Caribbean twilight. An almond tree glistens with golden light. Schoolboys in blue and gray uniforms run shouting down the street. Nairobi and Dumont finish their stories, and leave separately. This is life in the shadow light of the trans world – the beauty, the pain.