Yahoo! News Photo Staff

'A Light Inside': A photo book documenting the hardships suffered by transgender women in Latin America

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Text and photography by Danielle Villasana

I first met Tamara on the streets of downtown Lima in 2013. She was 27 and the first trans woman I started photographing. Tamara had struggled with her identity since elementary school, where she was bullied so intensely by her peers that she dropped out of school. At 18, she began working as a prostitute. Tamara often told me she wasn’t going to live past 30. How could she, she defiantly asked, when society treats her as less than human?

Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Tamara’s death, as a result of HIV and tuberculosis, came less than a month after her 30th birthday. Her death at such a young age is sadly common. Most trans women in Latin America die or are murdered before they reach 35. Latin America leads the world in homicides of transgender people: Nearly 80 percent of trans homicides worldwide occur in the region. The prevalence of HIV among trans women is as high as 38 percent—trans women are 50 percent as likely as the general population to acquire HIV. Through years of documenting the hardships trans women face, I’ve realized that an early death is more common than a long life.

The human rights violations perpetrated against trans women throughout Latin America are the result of toxic societal forces. The region’s highly machismo, conservative and transphobic culture ostracizes and stigmatizes them, posing a serious threat to their health, social security, life expectancy and employment prospects. With few options and little support, many practice prostitution. As sex workers with no legal protections, they’re at greater risk of violence and sexual and substance abuse and are less able to protect their health. Since they have no legal protections or recognition, many instances of violence and even murder of trans women remain undocumented.

About the book: Because most governments throughout Latin America and the world have ignored or failed to protect trans women, photographer Danielle Villasana is determined to show how such injustices often have deadly consequences.

In association with FotoEvidence, Villasana has launched a Kickstarter campaign to publish these important stories in a bilingual photo book that will be accessible throughout Peru and reach police forces, medical institutions, and lawmakers — sectors that are often complicit in the abuse against trans women because of institutional prejudice and lack of understanding.

Read more about the campaign and how to help >>>

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Tamara, a 27-year-old transgender woman, quit school in the 5th grade because her classmates constantly teased and insulted her. At 16 she began sniffing glue for a couple of years to deal with depression and loneliness. At 18 she began prostituting. Though she has looked for other work she says that people think they have diseases and are vulgar, so they are turned away. “I want to have a job with somebody I know, someone who trusts me. Because otherwise, they discriminate you, the look at you up and down when you’re looking for work.” (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Though many trans women don’t have support from family, Tamara has a close relationship with her mother, Evila, right, who is a lesbian. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Evila helps Tamara zip up her dress before leaving to work on the streets. Though her mom visits when she can, Tamara often spends her days alone. “Sometimes I think about leaving prostitution behind. But, because I’m alone, it’s really expensive,” said Tamara, who sometimes skip meals in order to pay for her room. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara says it’s not easy being trans because of all the aggression and humiliation they face. Though she has grown to deal with it, she says that even when walking down the street people will insult her. “I have suffered so much; I don’t understand why we have to suffer so much.€ (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Men from a truck look at Tamara as she works on the streets. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

After resisting sexual relations with a client without a condom, Tamara was injured with a broken glass that he threw at her face. “You have to be careful with clients because they’re not clients, they are bad men that can cheat you, that can take you somewhere. They treat you bad, they beat you, they rob you. I have suffered through that a few times,” said Tamara in a previous interview. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

After being suddenly evicted from her room, Tamara moves her belongings into the taxi of a friend, who will drive her a few blocks to another home where many trans women live. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

For many trans women, having to quickly leave where they live is a common occurrence for reasons including the inability to pay rent or being caught with drugs or alcohol in their room — or simply because they choose to move instead of paying their debts. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

A detail of Tamara’s bed in the fourth of five rooms she has lived since 2013. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara enjoys a fun moment of relaxation with companions. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara and Evila joke around. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

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

Tamara drinks with friends on New Year’s Eve in 2014. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara, right, does a line of cocaine with a friend. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara dances to music shortly after doing cocaine with a friend. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

After many hours of drinking, Tamara argues with Evila about her work on the streets. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara smokes marijuana from an apple in her room. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara helps a friend apply her makeup. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara dances in a nightclub that caters to the LGBTQ community in Lima. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Broken beer bottles and their entrails paint the floor of an LGBTQ nightclub. Substance abuse is common among trans women as a way to cope with the harsh work and living environments to which they are exposed. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara waits in a doctor’s office to get treatment for a scab that has appeared on her forehead. That day the doctor told me that this occurs in people who are infected with HIV. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Evila waits with Tamara at the hospital. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

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.<br />According to a study by Peru’s Cayetano University, 30 percent of trans women in Peru are infected with HIV, a reality that is directly linked to €œhigh rates of sex work and drug abuse, which are themselves linked to extreme marginalization and lack of other options for survival. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Shortly after getting on HIV medication, Tamara is diagnosed with tuberculosis. Here, a doctor examines an x-ray of her lungs. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara takes her daily dosage of tuberculosis medication at a nearby clinic. Though TB drugs are free in Peru, patients are not allowed to take their medication at home, so people have to go to the clinic every day, which can be tiresome and taxing for physically weak patients like Tamara. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara, who keeps a collection of saints in the corner of her room with a lighted candle, often talks about how she will not live past 30. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara sits on her bed with Evila after drinking electrolytes to help improve her worsening condition. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Evila comforts Tamara in the hospital where she gets support treatment for her worsening complications with tuberculosis and HIV. Tamara died on Jan. 11, 2017, less than a month after her 30th birthday. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Evila cries in the corner of the funeral home where people prepare Tamara’s body for viewing. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

People praying for Tamara at her wake. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

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

Evila walks with friends who carry Tamara’s coffin toward her burial place. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Evila sleeps in the funeral home on the evening of Tamara’s wake. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Evila cries and talks to Tamara before her coffin is placed in the grave. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)

Tamara comforts her mother, Evila, right, after a fight on Tamara’s birthday in 2014. (Photo: Danielle Villasana)