PHOTOS: Danielle Villasana Captures the Struggles and Resilience of Trans Women Living in Peru

Briss, left, looks at Facebook with her friend Erika, right.

In Peru’s machista and staunchly Catholic society, rarely do stereotype-defying stories of trans women surface to mainstream media. Instead, the depictions are familiar and universal in nature, casting trans women as criminals and linking them only to sex work and drug abuse. These media narratives have life-altering consequences for Peruvian trans women, as many suffer from verbal and physical abuse in their homes, harassment in schools, and discrimination from employers and healthcare professionals.

When Texas-born photojournalist Danielle Villasana relocated to Lima in 2013, she had an idea for a photo story that she hoped would challenge these stereotypes while educating Peruvians on the hardships trans Limeñas face due to governmental and societal unwillingness to protect and uphold their rights. This idea materialized when she met Tamara, a 27-year-old trans Limeña who was eager to share her story and to introduce Villasana to her home in downtown Lima. Over the next two and a half years, Villasana would immerse herself in Tamara’s community, taking photographs of Tamara and her friends, and ultimately, developing the photo project titled “A Light Inside.”

After photographing trans women in her home state of Texas and later Argentina, Villasana turned to Peru because of the country’s flagrant neglect and marginalization of transgender women. Though Villasana had witnessed Argentina pass some of the world’s most progressive gender identity laws in 2015, Peru still lagged behind almost every other South American country. Despite enormous efforts from LGBT activist organizations, Peru still does not provide any legislative protections for its transgender citizens from employment discrimination or businesses that refuse services or goods. Additionally, the current penal code fails to identify violence targeting people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity as a hate crime.

“I thought if Argentina is the most progressive in the world, then what is it like in Peru?,” Villasana explained to me.

Available for view on Villasana’s website, “A Light Inside” treads between the light and dark times that make up a community of trans Limeñas. The women, who mostly live together in communal homes, come together because of necessity and in hopes of a chosen family, which many of them are denied in their childhood. Almost half of the photographs in “A Light Inside” take place inside these women’s homes, where they dance and twirl in their rooms, scroll through their Facebook with friends, lie alongside their boyfriends, and play an afternoon game of volleyball. Although Villasana said there are tensions and bickering that exist within the group, these photographs show the intimate moments and bonds between friends and partners and families that together form a community.

These photographs also provide an intimate look into the personality of their rooms and create a far more nuanced depiction of their lives than those seen in Peruvian media. In one image, the Crayon orange wall of a young trans woman’s bedroom is decorated with snap shots of her friends; stuffed animals, including a stuffed cow toy wearing a pink dress and a matching bow, sit atop her bed.

According to Villasana, most trans women prefer to stay close to home and avoid leaving their neighborhoods due to public harassment and violence.

“It’s hard for them,” Villasana said. “If they do go somewhere, they go in a taxi, which is expensive, because they’re afraid of taking public transportation. There’s a lot of fear of leaving their safe place.”

However, their homes are not always free of violence. The same, bright orange room adorned with stuffed animals is, in another photograph, the scene of a violent outbreak between Briss and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, who has broken a mirror and flung furniture around the room.

The violence in trans women’s private lives is only a reflection of the physical and systemic violence faced outside.

“It’s like there’s a wall in front of them everywhere they turn,” Villasana said. “Yet they are still living their lives and in a positive way.” 

Tamara, who became one of Villasana’s closest friends over the course of the project, left her studies in 5th grade because of verbal harassment from her fellow classmates, as noted by one of Villasana’s photo captions. Many trans women already face employment discrimination because of their gender identity, but a lack of education further narrows their options. As is true for many trans women, Tamara turned to sex work at the age of 18 when she was unable to find work elsewhere. Tamara told Villasana that employers find trans women “vulgar” and assume they have diseases.

Although focused on the inner lives of trans women, Villasana did not want to shy away from the sex work, which affects most trans women’s lives. A 2010 study from the Runa Institute of Development and Gender Studies reported that 94 percent of transgender women interviewed in Peru identified as sex workers. Sex work, which Villasana said most trans women prefer not to work in, in turn exposes them to a higher risk of HIV infection, police brutality, and violence from clients.

In an attempt to steer away from the harmful stereotypes of trans women, Villasana never turned her camera toward any of the women with their clients. These moments — although the “sexy part” of the photo story as one photographer put it to her — are not the moments she finds most interesting.

“Those aren’t the moments that tell you about them,” Villasana said.

Instead, her photographs related to sex work show trans women hanging out while they wait for a client to appear or the harassment and violence they face from nightly police raids. In one photograph, Karen, a Colombian sex worker, is seen lying in a hospital bed as her mother cries on her shoulder after a police officer shot her in the stomach.

While “A Light Inside” covers a slew of dangers trans women face like sex work, domestic violence, silicone injections, and police brutality, the effects of HIV in the community is noticeably absent. HIV, which affects almost one in three trans women in Peru, is an epidemic and largely ignored by the healthcare industry, Villasana explained, which is why she devoted a separate photo story named “Piojo’s Story” to the issue. While photographing 30-year-old Piojo as she lie dying of tuberculosis that had advanced due to her weak immune system, Villasana found an appropriate title for her long-term photo story that depicted the multi-faceted lives of this community of trans women that she had grown to known as some of her closest friends.

She saw a burning light inside of Piojo and a “desire to be happy, to survive, to be loved, to be acknowledged”.

“And when I started thinking about it further, I thought “A Light Inside” could be a metaphor for what it feels like to be transgender because they have this identity inside of them that doesn’t reflect on the outside,” Villasana said. “That’s their identity and no one can take it away from them, nobody can put it out.”