Rome's transsexual prostitutes

by Mike Dilien

"Sei operata? Sei dotata? Quanto costa?" Four youngsters in a sports car are hassling all prostitutes in front of the abattoir. Valeria, an elegant mulatta, turns her head and scans the square for clients. She will have to make €150 tonight.

The youngsters look like students; the car is obviously daddy’s. Earlier this night, they tried to get lucky with tourist girls. Now they are on a “puttan tour”: Via Salaria, the abattoir, Viale Guglielmo Marconi, EUR... They are Valeria’s age. Later on this night, they will score drugs before going back to hotel Mum and Dad. Valeria had to leave home when she was 15.

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Her father had gone berserk when he discovered that his son Valerio liked dressing up as a girl, to become Valeria. Whereas her classmates were going through puberty, Valeria was thrown straight into adulthood. No holding hands, no romantic strolls, but impersonal paid sex: 30 reais for a blow job, 50 for the full menu.

Unlike her peers, Valeria managed to stay clear of drugs. Violence, however, became part of everyday life. She carried a razorblade to cut her forearms in case the police arrested her – in Brazil, it was safer ending up in hospital than in a police station. In Europe, life would no doubt be better.

Hot air spreads around the abattoir a smell of meat, waste and excrements. On the pavement along the graffiti wall, between shattered glass and used toilet paper, Valeria tries to balance herself in high heels. The students turn around the corner.

Cars are jamming the square. Motorcycles are roaring through. Almost midnight and it is like rush hour.

Yet, Valeria has to make a living. She has to earn the money before dawn. Since her visa expired, every public space has become off-limits by day. Especially in August, when the city is near empty, a tall mulatta stands out even more. “Every morning I pay a private cab to go home,” she says. “Unemployed and retired Italians make fortunes driving us girls.”

Right next to the square a sandwich van radiates like a beacon in the night. A client drops Valeria off. She spots Paula standing at the van. Paula is Argentinean. She and Valeria often chat in between tricks. They communicate in a mix of Spanish, Portuguese and Roman dialect they pick up from clients. Still, Valeria and Paula are not close. In this square nobody is. Here, everybody is either a client or a competitor.

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“Look at them,” Paula kicks off. “Office workers, civil servants, builders: ordinary people longing for adventure. Europeans chasing tropical fantasies.”

“Well Paula, the client I just had treated me really nice. He said I am very feminine. Maybe one day he’ll invite me for dinner.”

“No, mi amor! Stop dreaming. Italians would rather be caught dead than being seen in public with a transsexual.” She turns to the row of cars and yells, “How does it feel, at home shagging the Third World?”

It is 02.00. A police car patrols the square. Instantly, all clients stop examining the girls, accelerate their cars and leave the square hoping the police will not make them pull over. Valeria removes her high heels and runs off barefoot. In 15 months, the police have detained 580 transgendered prostitutes on this square.

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She hides in the high grass on the hills. The neighbourhood committee regularly asks the municipal services to burn it. Crouched between used condoms and rubbish, Valeria considers working in an apartment. She could rent a room in a side street of Via Condotti. The authorities do not control the apartment: the owner is an ex-carabiniere.

The police car is gone. One by one, the girls resume their places. Despite the risk of being sent to Rome’s detention centre – the mayor plans a unit for transsexuals – Valeria likes working the streets. She likes being in the open.

All day she hides in a monolocale that is tucked away in a Pigneto backstreet – Italian women call the police right away when they spot a transsexual in their building. An aged Brazilian transsexual with Italian citizenship owns the studio flat. The previous generation still succeeded in sham marriages. These naturalized transsexuals buy property and set up businesses in Brazil and Italy. They pass customs and do not worry about police controls when driving – they even took their driving licence in Italy.

Meanwhile, the Mario Mieli volunteers are on their weekly tour. The organisation has been helping foreign transsexuals since Rome replaced Paris as the world’s capital of transgender prostitution. While some volunteers distribute condoms, others follow up on girls taking medication – half the girls have hepatitis, more than one in ten has syphilis and two-thirds of the older ones have HIV. The organisation helped Valeria to take a course. Valeria would like to become a hairdresser. But apart from the hair salon a Brazilian transsexual owns near Porta Maggiore, only one other salon in Rome, the one in Via Urbana, employs a transgender hairdresser.

Hence, the beat goes on. “Sei operata? Sei dotata? Quanto costa?” Again and again. How much rudeness can a person take? Valeria is saving up for that last operation; she wants to become a woman. “But how then would I make a living?” she sighs. “I would lose all my clients.”

Around 04.00 loud and rasp voices fill the square. The girls, strung out on alcohol, drugs and hormones, are giving come-ons to the drivers and the passengers. Albanian gangs encircle the square. At this time of the night, many girls carry in their purse a night’s takings. The girls start leaving the abattoir in small groups. Empty spots appear. Valeria wants to leave but she still needs €120 to send a remittance.

Valeria sends money home to help her mother out. Last time she called even her father spoke to her. They had not spoken since she had to leave home. He told her that he was sorry and that she was always welcome. He used the remittances to buy himself a car.

An SUV pulls over beside Valeria. Its stereo is pumping electronic dance music. The two people in the front seat, a middle-aged couple, are visibly under the influence.

“Hey,” the woman shrieks. “Are you trans… gressive?” Her husband bursts out laughing. He clearly enjoys that his wife is doing the talking. At night, these women are more masculine, and these men more feminine than Valeria. By day, of course, they are beyond suspicion. “We’ll pay you a €100.”

“I don’t mind the two of you snorting cocaine,” Valeria says, “but I won’t. I don’t do drugs.”

“I see,” the woman says. She turns a superior smile to Valeria: “€50 then. Take it or leave it.”

Valeria gets in the car.

The SUV vanishes in the night. They have dropped her on a desolate stretch of Via Emilio Longoni, two blocks east of the abattoir. Veteran transsexuals – women actually, since they are operated – are skulking the scarcely lit pavement. Two parked cars have their headlights left on. Valeria distinguishes wooden shacks between the trees and the rubbish. Each time a client comes up, a woman walks him to the shacks.

Valeria rushes up the road to where the lights are. In front of the American Hospital, barely 30m from the shacks, parade Rome’s most stunning transsexuals. Their silhouettes turn the pavement into an open-air catwalk.

Almost dawn. The early train passes the Palmiro Togliatti station. On Via Prenestina, heavy traffic is picking up. The square in front of the abattoir looks desolate. Valeria is still short of €70.

An exclusive BMW cruises the square. At just a few feet from Valeria, it slows to a stop. Valeria sashays to the car. The driver is a distinguished looking 40-something. Valeria spots his wedding ring.

“Hey honey. Got lost?” she says. “Next door, they do meat. Here, we do flesh.”

Davvero? You must be Brazilian.”

“No. Colombian, actually.”

“I see. So you can get the best coke in the world, can’t you?”

“Of course I can.”

Sensing blood, the hunter moves in for the kill: "Let’s walk on the wild side!”

“Do you have €100?”

"Hundred? Vabbè. Tell me,” he pauses, “are you into kinky sex?"

"Yes my dear,” Valeria says, forcing a smile. “Sono come mi vuoi."

A shorter version of this article appeared in the 3 October edition of Wanted in Rome