The harsh reality of a trans woman’s struggles through life until death

Tamara, a 27-year-old transgender woman.

Tamara would often tell me that she was not going to live past 30. Why would she, she defiantly asked, when society treats her as less than human?

I first met Tamara on the streets of downtown Lima, Peru, in the summer of 2013. She was 27 and the first trans woman I photographed. I was immediately drawn to her openness, warmth and friendly, inviting attitude.

Tamara had struggled with her identity since elementary school, where she was bullied by her peers, leading her to drop out in the fifth grade. At 16, she began sniffing “terocal,” or glue, to deal with depression. At 18, she began working as a prostitute. “I want to have a job with somebody I know, someone who trusts me. Because otherwise, they discriminate against you, they look at you up and down when you’re looking for work,” she told me.

Tamara’s words sounded like those of other trans women who had searched for employment but were always turned away. For most trans women in Lima, their only option is sex work, which creates hostile, exploitative environments where they’re targets of disease, violence and sexual and substance abuse, with limited opportunities for social security and higher education.

My goal in photographing this community was to focus more on life outside of sex work while still highlighting the life-threatening consequences of that work. During three years of photographing Tamara, I photographed a few episodes of violence, fights, or drugs and alcohol abuse — but the vast majority of what I documented was day-to-day life.

Tamara kept her distance from most people, occasionally forming fleeting friendships with some. But, there was one person with whom she shared an unwavering bond and that was her mother, Evila. When I met her, I was ecstatic not only because she greeted me with open arms, but also because I could see what a pillar of support she was for Tamara. Many trans people in Latin America and around the world are rejected by their parents, so seeing their bond was really unique and special.

When they did argue, it was often about Tamara’s work on the street or her use of drugs and alcohol. Once after Tamara had gone missing for hours, she returned home visibly inebriated and high. As Evila waved her finger, arguing about sex work with Tamara, her tears creating long, black streaks down her face, Tamara wailed out helplessly, “What other choice do I have? What do you expect me to do?”

When I wasn’t on assignment, or photographing other trans women, I was with Tamara and our time together was fairly easygoing. We would cook together, spend holidays together, go out to eat at our favorite roasted chicken place or for ceviche, “cee-wee-chee,” as Tamara would jokingly call it. It wasn’t until the death of Tamara’s neighbor, who was also a trans woman, that her life became more complicated.

Tamara sent me a string of text messages saying there were things she hadn’t told me, things that if she told me, I would judge her or would stop speaking to her. She finally told me she had HIV, stating that “prefiero que el bicho me coma,” or “I prefer that the bug eat me,” rather than continue living.

What followed were a few painful weeks of navigating Peru’s complicated, time-consuming, pull-your-hair-out-frustrating public health-care system. For most trans women it’s incredibly daunting and discriminatory. Many in the health-care sector blame trans women for the existence of HIV/AIDS.

But we couldn’t give up. After two months of checking off the boxes of a tediously long list, Tamara got on HIV medication. I felt like a weight had been lifted from her, that there was a lightness in her step, attitude and outlook on life.

However, a couple of months later Tamara fell ill and her health deteriorated rapidly. When I saw her emaciated frame, her sunken-in face and eyes, I knew immediately she had tuberculosis.

One day as we made the slow crawl toward the neighborhood clinic where she would take her daily round of tuberculosis pills, her thin arms clinging to mine, we found ourselves in the middle of a thick sea of purple: It was the procession of Señor de los Milagros, or, “The Lord of Miracles.” Tamara burst into tears, praying out loud not to die.

Soon after, it seemed her prayers were answered as Tamara improved slowly, filling out her clothes again. Evila and Tamara moved in together, and she stopped drinking and working on the streets. Evila’s income was meager, but they survived and Tamara seemed happy and stable.

I moved away from Peru at the end of 2015 but Tamara and I stayed in touch through social media and during a few visits in 2016. When I saw her in November, I asked as I always did, if she was still taking her tuberculosis medication. With a smile, she told me she had finished treatment. The math didn’t add up and it seemed suspicious but she and Evila both assured me as they nodded their heads “yes.”

Last year, Tamara turned 30 on Dec. 23. After sending her a slew of celebratory stickers on Facebook, she responded by saying she was waiting for me to celebrate when I came back to Lima in January. But less than a month later, Evila messaged me and said Tamara had died. She said she had no money for a funeral.

In less than 24 hours I was on a plane to Lima. I was worried about how Evila was going to find funds for Tamara’s funeral — she made less than $300 a month and had little to no family relatives. I set up a crowdfunding page that reached its goal within a day. The outpouring of support from friends and strangers was incredibly touching and brought Evila to tears. When I arrived, I saw Evila on a busy street in front of the funeral home. We hugged — her sobs piercing through the loud Lima traffic — as she said, “I lost my life companion.”

The autopsy showed that Tamara had died of pneumonia and tuberculosis. Tamara’s voice kept popping into my head, “No voy a vivir más que treinta,” or “I’m not going to live past 30.” When I think about Tamara and everything she went through, I’m reminded of the thousands of trans women in Latin America just like her who meet the same fate.

Thirty percent of transwomen in Lima are infected with HIV. At 80 percent, Latin America leads the world in homicides of transgender people and most don’t live past 35. In my years of seeing the human side of these statistics, I realized that an early death is more common than a long life. Every time I visit, someone else has died.

More on In Sight:

The harsh reality of being transgender in Uganda

What life looks like for women who transitioned over age 60

Seeking home: The lives of gay and transgender asylum seekers of the Middle East

Danielle Villasana is an independent photojournalist whose documentary work focuses on women, identity, human rights and health. She is currently based in Istanbul.