On any given night on the shadowy stretch of Post Street near Polk where the lavender Divas sign glows, a parade of Latina ladies beckons to men with cash to burn and an attraction to women who weren't born women. Ana works the corner with her cartoonish Jessica Rabbit curves squeezed into a red minidress, a mere ad for the services she could render in her bedroom blocks away with a crucifix keeping watch over the headboard. Midblock, Jacqueline Swan asks a potential client if she can touch his package, a test to see whether her prospective john is an undercover cop. Her hair pertly pinned up in a bun, Blanca clacks down the sidewalk in her see-through stripper heels to stay one step ahead of a ticket from the patrol cars rolling by.
Then there are the women who prefer to hustle online. Advertising in Craigslist's Erotic Services in the "t4m" section ("t" for "transgender" or "transsexual"; "m" for "men") is Jannet, a "sexy shemale latina" with all the porn-worthy ass a backroom peddler of industrial-grade collagen could inject. Saesha poses nude on a white satin sheet, bragging not only about her 38DD breasts, but also her eight-inch "100% fully functional secret."
When these women arrived in San Francisco, they were in many ways the nocturnal and more vanity-stricken versions of the day laborers on Cesar Chavez — undocumented immigrants looking for a gig from a passing car. Yet these women have or are seeking a legal status most other illegal residents could never get: asylum.
Since prostitution is a criminal misdemeanor — a majority of San Franciscans voted earlier this month to make sure police enforce it as such — transgender hookers aren't the type of ladies you would imagine Uncle Sam would want to be seen in public with, let alone endorse to stay in the country.
Many of these women figured they'd just live here under the radar forever. After all, transgender women from Latin America are no strangers to life on the margins, treated as freaks or outcasts in their predominantly macho countries where they might have been ostracized, beaten, or raped — often by the police themselves. Few imagined that their gender identity, which had caused all their misery back home, could be their best chance for legitimacy here.
"There I felt like an animal, a delinquent, because that's how they make you feel," says Swan, who fled police brutality in Mexico when her mom heard on the news that she could apply for asylum in the U.S. "I would rather die than live that life. It's like living in hell. Here I feel like I'm in my refuge, at home. ... Here I feel like a person."
Trans-Latina migrants are slowly discovering the asylum option in San Francisco and California. A steady stream of transgender applicants has been showing up in what immigration attorneys say are open-minded asylum offices and immigration courts that have become acquainted with gender-identity–based claims.
Exact numbers of how many transgender women have gotten asylum are hard to come by since the government doesn't track the reason for awarding asylum status. Yet such cases almost seem like a sure thing because of the severity of the alleged discrimination. "You almost gotta try to lose it," attorney Robert Jobe says. In fact, none of the 12 immigration attorneys interviewed for this story could remember any trans clients being denied some sort of protection. Even if applicants can't get asylum, they may still be eligible to stay via other international treaties that offer haven from persecution. And, as many trans-Latina prostitutes have learned, even a lengthy rap sheet in this country won't seriously threaten their chances of receiving protected immigration status.
Hedi Framm-Anton, an immigration attorney who specializes in LGBT asylum cases, boasts that all of her approximately 75 trans clients have won some sort of protection. "If you really have a committed client that wants to make that change [to stop hooking], the San Francisco asylum office will overlook it," she says. "I've had no problems, even with women with extensive criminal backgrounds."
Thirty-year-old Brenda Genao, a native of the Dominican Republic, came to San Francisco nine years ago and quickly fell into a raw and rough lifestyle. She worked as a go-go dancer at the now-defunct Club Universe in SOMA and got hooked on crack. To pay for her habit and the rent, she had sex for money. Over the next few years, she was arrested several times for prostitution, convicted of a felony crack possession, and nailed with a stayaway order from Macy's after she stole a $400 dress. After she was arrested in 2002 for check fraud, city authorities turned her over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Genao posted bail, and, afraid she'd be deported, skipped her last court date.
In 2003, though, the law finally caught up with Genao as she walked through the checkpoint at the Tijuana-San Diego border after a failed trip to Mexico for a boob job. Border officers told her that she had been ordered to be deported in absentia at the court hearing she had avoided months earlier, and shuttled her off to the detention center at Otay Mesa, east of San Diego. Faced with returning to the Dominican Republic, where she remembered being sexually abused as a child by a older man in her neighborhood, and gawkers throwing fruit at cross-dressing men in the street, she decided she'd rather kill herself. But a Mexican transgender woman in her cell suggested a less drastic solution. There was an attorney who could help, the cellmate said. Later, when she met with an immigration officer, Genao had a demand: "I want asylum."
Asylum can be granted by asylum officers, immigration judges, or higher appellate courts to those who can show they have faced or have a "well-founded fear" of persecution in their home country because of their race, religion, nationality, politics, or for "membership in a particular social group." That last category was expanded to include gays and lesbians in 1990.