Tiffani and I are standing a few feet from the doorway to Club Upscale, a big, almost block-long taupe-colored building with curved black awnings over blacked-out windows. The streetlight a few yards down from the club door is out and it seems excessively dark on the block. I shiver slightly, but I’m not cold. Tiffani’s smoking a cigarette and talking. I’m leaning against my car. I’m trying to listen, but I’m feeling a little bit nervous and a whole lot white. We’re near the corner of Germantown Avenue and some little side street without a sign, about a block from Broad and Erie in Nicetown. It’s Friday night and no one knows I’m here with Tiffani except Tiffani. Suddenly I feel scared, remembering what happened the night I met her.
People go in and out of the club. The music blasts, then ebbs, but there is always that kind of thumping reverb surrounding us. Occasionally, Tiffani will call out to someone she knows as they head toward the club and they wave and then make some sign in my direction. Who’s that white lady with you? I wave slightly back, then run my hand through my hair when I’m ignored.
Tiffani looks nice. She’s dressed up like any other girl going out to the clubs on the weekend — super-high patterned platform heels, patterned tights, short-shorts. Her hair is a mass of braids swirled together around her head in another intricate pattern. Everything on her is big — big earrings, big bracelets, long, fake eyelashes, long nails in a black-and-white pattern. On her left ring finger the nail has gold instead of white. She tells me one of her friends does nails. She could get a good manicure for me, cheap.
I laugh a little, glance at my unpainted nails. I’m still shivering.
We are waiting for Tiffani’s friend, Mo’Nique, then we’re all going to have a drink at the Eagle Bar at Broad and Erie. Tiffani wants a cheese steak at Max’s, which is as famous as Pat’s or Geno’s except white people don’t come up here, to Nicetown.
Tiffani wants Mo’Nique to tell me her story. Mo’Nique, Tiffani says, is in trouble.
I met Tiffani on a crisp night in early March. I was taking a walk near my house in Lower Germantown, about a mile from where she and I are now. Tiffani was standing at the bus stop in front of the church behind my house. She asked me if I had a cigarette. I told her I don’t smoke. She asked me if I would buy her a cup of coffee. I said I’d give her money for coffee, if that’s what she needed, but I didn’t feel like walking the two blocks to the nearby pizza place to get it.
I pulled some bills out of my skirt pocket and she had suddenly started to cry. Not a few simple tears running down her face, but real sobbing.
Where I live, you don’t strike up conversations with strangers. You answer politely if someone talks to you, and you move on. Quickly, but decisively. Bad things happen in the 39th Police District, which is one of the most dangerous in the city. Bad things have happened to my friends and neighbors. Very bad things have happened to me. Last month, there were three separate shootings within two blocks of my house, including one where police killed the suspect after he shot two men and a pregnant woman and her 2-year-old boy as they sat on their stoop.
Bad things happen here.
That particular night — a lovely night when you could smell spring in the air, perfect for a late-night walk — something very bad had happened to Tiffani.
Tiffani is one of Philadelphia’s many transgender sex workers. Police call them prostitutes, neighbors call them streetwalkers, pros, whores. Tiffani’s worked out of bars and clubs along Germantown Avenue near Wayne Junction and near the Erie subway stop. She’s worked the streets doing what’s called “walking dates” — having sex in an alley or park or abandoned building or in cars. She’s even worked out of her grandmother’s house when her grandmother was at her job.
The night I met her, Tiffani had just had sex with a man in an SUV parked behind The Germantown Cricket Club, a block where sex in cars is not unusual and where used condoms litter the sidewalk, which is across from an elementary school. After Tiffani had given him oral sex, the man had reached under her skirt and said he wanted to touch her.
“He got all upset,” she explained. “He said he wasn’t no gay, he wasn’t into no gays, he wanted his money back, he was gone hurt me bad for lying to him, he was gone mess me up.”
The man had grabbed Tiffani’s purse and taken not just the money he’d given her, but all the money she had, as well as her cigarettes. He’d punched her several times and twisted her arm, shoving her out of the SUV onto the sidewalk. She’d broken a couple of nails and torn her stockings. One of her shoes — a black platform heel with glinting silver accents — was badly scuffed with some of the silver pieces torn off. Up close, I could see her eye makeup was a mess.
I asked her if she wanted me to call the police. I asked her if she wanted me to take her to the hospital. I could see now that there was blood streaked on her hand where the nails had broken all the way up into the nail bed. There was a dark mark where he had twisted her wrist.
“I just want to go home, but I got no money.”
We walked to my car and I drove her to her grandmother’s house, a rundown brick row home near Simon Gratz High School on a street with a pretty 18th-century name, but no pretty houses.
We sat in my car outside the place where she lived with her grandmother, and sometimes her mother when her mother was “off them drugs” and her grandmother — wary, because Tiffani’s mother had stolen from her before — let her stay.
I tried not to look at a dirty stray cat that darted across the quiet street as Tiffani told me that I was the first person to be nice to her “in a really long time, I mean like I don’t remember, that’s how long. You treat me like a friend.”
I gave her my business card and a $10 bill and told her to call me if she needed anything. She wrote her cell-phone number on the back of another one of my cards. Then she leaned over and gave me a quick hug, got out of the car and went into the dark little house. When I saw the downstairs light go on, I drove away.
I’d spent just over two hours talking to Tiffani that night. I didn’t like thinking about what had happened to her. But I couldn’t stop.
There are no statistics on how many transgender street sex workers there are in the U.S. or even in Philadelphia, nor are there statistics on how many teenagers are lured into prostitution each year, although the FBI floats the number of 100,000, with another couple-million adult prostitutes. That number seems low, given the economy and the ease with which “escort” services can be advertised online, and that individuals can advertise free of charge on Craigslist, Facebook and Twitter. A quick search of Twitter under “transgender prostitutes” netted dozens of names and groups and links to websites.
But within the FBI estimates, a percentage of those are transgender, and in Philadelphia, with a large number of street sex workers as well as escorts, and a significant population of homeless youth, the numbers may be in the thousands. Pennsylvania ranks seventh in the top-10 states for most prostitution arrests. There were just under 2,000 of those arrests in Philadelphia last year. Last weekend, six people were arrested in a prostitution sting in the Rhawnhurst section of the city.
Tiffani and her friend Mo’Nique have both been picked up by police, but neither has eve been charged. Tiffani worries that her luck is running out.
“Everybody else I know been arrested a coupla times. So I know I’m just waiting on it.”
Tiffani and Mo’Nique were among a dozen young transgender sex workers I met over several months. Every one had a story of violence to tell.
According to Gender Law Justice at Berkeley in California, transgender women are at increased risk of violence from almost every avenue. They are often victims of domestic violence — first in their families of origin, then in their personal relationships. They are also frequently victims of street violence.
The Women’s Law Project’s information sheet on prostitution is sobering: Prostitutes are commonly victims of crime, but rarely report because they fear arrest themselves. However, 70 percent of all incarcerated women are in jail for prostitution or prostitution-related crimes.
In a paper presented in July, the Women’s Law Project noted that prostituted women were raped on average eight to 10 times a year.
A 2012 study from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that trans women of color like Tiffani are at extreme risk for hate crimes, rape and other violence, including homicide.
LGBTQ people of color represented 53 percent of the total reported survivors and victims of all hate crimes, but they represented a full 73.1 percent of homicide victims. In all reported homicides, the victims were women.
Tiffani dropped out of school when she was 16. Slender and slight, she says she had always felt like a girl. By the time she was 13, she had been trying on her mother’s clothes and stealing clothes from local shops. She had grown her hair out and started wearing eye makeup to school, then more feminine-style clothing and started calling herself Tiffani. She gradually stopped going to school, even though she liked it, because the taunts from other students had become untenable.
“All the time it was ‘he-she’ and guys getting all up on me trying to get me to suck they dick or something else. I just couldn’t take it.”
Tiffani says teachers didn’t do anything to stop the harassment she endured and some even made comments themselves about her gender.
Tiffani doesn’t like hooking — it’s risky and dangerous — but she feels it’s her only option right now. She’s been doing it for three years, since she was 16. She says men like her, and she says it with pride. She says that she dresses nice and that men like her body; she has small, high breasts and a slender waist. She says she pads her ass to make it appear rounder and more feminine.
Tiffani also says she lets men do almost anything they want with her as long as it doesn’t hurt. She says she’s not into pain, but she’s been anally raped at least a dozen times in the past three years.
The risks of violence for transgender women is high even without the added danger posed by sex work. But violence is not the only risk; HIV and other STD infection is also high.
A study from the University of Pennsylvania on HIV infection, published May 30 in the journal “Clinical Infectious Diseases,” found that transgender women were more likely to have the most risky sexual contacts: MSM, or sex with men who do not define as gay or bisexual.
An April 23 report from the Centers for Disease Control showed that transgender women were at the highest risk for HIV infection — 41 percent higher than any other group. The CDC statistics, which were also included in the HUP study, reported newly identified HIV infection rates of 2.9 percent for transgender women, compared to 0.9 percent for non-transgender males and 0.3 percent for females.
The CDC report also noted that 95 percent of the cases of HIV infection among transgender persons were among transgender women. Approximately 90 percent of the people were black or Hispanic and were also more likely to have been infected in their teens or 20s. In addition, among newly diagnosed people, 50 percent of transgender women had documented records of substance abuse, commercial sex work, homelessness, incarceration and/or sexual abuse — nearly twice the incidence as that of non-transgender people.
As we wait for Mo’Nique, I ask Tiffani what she does with the men she “dates.” Everything she tells me is terrible. Men jerking off on her face, men forcing her to give them oral or anal sex without a condom, men asking her to undress completely and then examining her like a “freak” when both her breasts and penis are exposed. Tiffani doesn’t like to look at her body from the waist down; she likes it covered.
“I know I’m all woman. I don’t need people getting in my way with that, you know?”
She looks like she might cry when she says it.
Tiffani has also been beaten many times — from “simple” slaps across her face to punching and kicking. One man choked her until she lost consciousness, another pulled a knife on her and cut her arm. She shows me a small scar. She’d like to stop, but she can’t. She can’t imagine a different way of making money.
A tall, curvy African-American woman suddenly comes up behind us and says, “Hey y’all” in a deep, breathy voice. Mo’Nique has arrived. The three of us walk toward Broad and Erie and Tiffani starts talking about steak sandwiches. Mo’Nique turns to me, puts a hand with elaborately lacquered nails on my arm.
“So, can you help me or what?” she says.
This series will continue in next week’s PGN.