In downtown Manhattan same sex marriages have become beautifully normal. No longer are they celebrated for their rarity, they are simply celebrated as any wedding is: in whatever manner the couple wants.
Go only five or 10 miles away, to the poorer parts of New York City, and things are dramatically different.
In these communities many LGBT people face an abusive environment. Getting married to someone of the same sex is almost unimaginable. Instead, the LGBT community is still fighting a more primary battle – for basic acceptance of their identities, and to convince their families and friends to let them remain a part of their communities.
One of those neighborhoods is Jackson Heights, a mostly Latino working-class community in Queens where I have spent time documenting a portion of the trans community.
At five in the morning I sat in a Jackson Heights corner coffee shop talking to a drunk man who was in the process of paying for sex. His pants pockets were turned out (making little rabbit ears) and empty, and Shakira sat on his lap, counting a stack of ten-dollar bills. She was wearing a red wig, faux-fur jacket, tight leggings, and gaudy high heals. The total money was $200, half of which was the up-front payment for services. The other half was to cover the cab and four hours in a motel room.
When she finished counting, Shakira got up, grabbed her tea, and went to the bathroom. “I need to adjust my dick,” she said.
The drunk man looked at me and said, “She is sexy woman. I love all these women. They are my lovelies.”
Shakira and her friends start work every morning at four o’clock because that’s when the bars close. She told me, “Men are drunk, and they can forget that they are married, they can forget that they think being gay is wrong, they can remember what their bodies really want them to do.”
After Shakira left with her client, Jessica took her seat. “At this time, the men are so drunk they can kiss me and still pretend they are not gay.”
Claudia, dabbing makeup on her face across the table, added, “Hispanic men have to be all macho. Being gay is a no-no. This late, perhaps nobody will know, not their families. Even they can pretend.”
The women who work these streets all come from similar backgrounds. Almost every one of them has fled a strict religious environment that viewed their desires as sins rather than as identity choices. Their stories are often harrowing: abused for being gay or trans, accused of being sinners, forced to leave home to survive.
Ostracized and abused they face staggering odds. One study of Latino transgender people found that they face extreme poverty at a rate double that of the average transgender person, five times the general Latino population and seven times that rate for all of the US.
Facing poverty and with no support network they come to the streets and do the only work they can find.
Valarie, 21, is typical of the women who work in Jackson Heights: they almost all come from very modest backgrounds and from places where being gay, let alone trans, is not only shunned, but considered a mortal sin. Most of them knew they were different early.
“I was born gay, knew it since I popped out of my mother,” Valarie told me. “She is Dominican, my father Italian. Both are very religious and didn’t want to hear anything about my tendencies.”
“At seventeen I came out, told them I was a woman and was going to live my life as one,” she continued. “They threw me out of the house that day. I haven’t talked to my dad since. I am starting to connect back with my mom, but she still looks down on me.”
“My birth name? I can’t even say it without crying. I am not that person anymore and I don’t ever want to think about it.”
“But,” she said, “I have no regrets. None. You can’t regret being honest with yourself and others. I don’t care if people think what I do for work is disgusting. I am finally me, finally at peace with being a woman. That is all I need to be happy.”
Desire, from Jamaica, knew at the age of six that she was a woman given the wrong body. “My dad hated who I was,” she said. “Jamaicans hate fags.” It took her until the age of sixteen – when she went to jail – for her to finally feel comfortable with who she was.
Few of the men paying for sex admit to me – or according to the women, themselves – that they were anything but straight. Like the women who gathered to sell sex, most of them are poor and almost every one of them grew up religious. Were their attractions (or these transactions) discovered by their families or friends, they would almost certainly face the same discrimination and ostracization the women had already experienced.
The far more progressive attitudes of downtown Manhattan mirror much of the current attitudes in the wealthier – and less religious – parts of the US. In those areas, you can almost be convinced that the move towards full equal rights for the LGBT community is inevitable.
Until you go to some poorer neighborhoods. Until you go to religious neighborhoods.
Then you will see that the ugly past isn’t all past. It’s very much alive, very much real, and still very much ugly.
See more in The Guardian