Local sex worker and social media sensation Valentina (not her real name) is a trans woman who is sexually and romantically attracted to men and women.
Because of her identity and lifestyle, she has been faced with undue hatred and aggression as she struggles to survive the best way she knows how.
“After my mom died, I decide my mind to fully be myself. So I end up pick up a dress and I go out and start to work at the Cathedral.”
She left school early to beg on the streets to help support her mother who was a street vendor.
Valentina said she would often see the girls that conduct sex work near the cathedral and after some time befriended them. At 16 years old, she joined them.
“I start to mix in with them girls and getting to know what is what from what is not what and then I start to be myself so I wasn’t scared anymore cause I was just doing me.”
She notes that it was hard at first, getting into sex work. She says some men will try to “bully” her and be aggressive with her but over time, she adjusted.
“Mostly is weekends I go out. Most of the time is Saturday and Sundays I does go out. So when I go out those nights I does gah like, got to like make a lil dollars that night fuh provide for my child you know.”
Now at 23, she heads to the streets to support her one-year-old son from her past relationship with her ex-girlfriend. She loves her son a lot and visits him often.
However, she cannot have the relationship with him that most typical mothers have with their children as she remains afraid that she may be attacked while she’s out in public with him, so he stays with his other mother.
“It’s very hard to cope. Especially in the society we in now.”
Due to her gender and sexuality, she has had to face unimaginable levels of hatred and discrimination from society.
This climaxed last year when she was shot nine times by a relative of her girlfriend at the time. Despite reporting this to the police and having to be hospitalised, Valentina says the police made no effort to help her find justice and her attacker roams freely.
He is just one of the many people out there who are personally offended by her existing in society as herself.
“When you walk on the streets you know some people will say ‘fire’ but I don’t pay no attention, more you tell me fire the more I walk and throw my body and just operate normal.
“Other people when you reach other place now some would shy you and try fuh... you know. But I don’t try to retaliate now, I does just walk and go me way and just ignore them.”
In 2018, the Caribbean Court of Justice ruled that an 1893 Guyana law that prohibited cross-dressing was unconstitutional. In August 2021, the colonial era restriction on cross dressing was finally removed.
However, women like Valentina are still at risk walking on the streets and have had to learn to survive by enduring verbal abuse and physical attacks, and even harassment from the police as part of everyday life.
Guyana’s Prevention of Discrimination Act of 1997 makes no mention of sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, archaic laws such as Sections 351 to 353 of the Criminal Law (Offences) Act, still decree that sex between men punishable with life imprisonment.
A monumental part of her life journey was being able to connect with other trans women and persons across the spectrum of gender and sexuality through the NGO Guyana Trans United.
“That mek I feel more better. Cause you out here and having people discriminating you remember now you go round people like yourself they would be able to educate you understand, so that you would know more.”
“I didn’t have that guidance when I was young.”
Valentina hopes to someday finish school or find a “regular job” that could provide for her and her family, but it remains a challenge for people like her.
Valentina lets her confidence and femininity shine through by dressing in feminine clothing and, in her spare time, creating short (sometimes viral) comedic videos and dramatisations of popular songs on social media.
“Dressing nice and just dressing like a female has been a joy for me.”
Pride is also a special time of year for Valentina where she gets the chance to not only showcase her personality and who she is with other people within her community, she is celebrated and praised for it.
The Pride Parade, which returns in a few weeks after a two-year hiatus, is one of the few times she can happily go out in the streets decked out in her best outfits and dance and feel free.
For the rest of the year though, her challenges remain the same. With no rights or legislation to protect persons it remains dangerous for persons within the trans community to simply exist in Guyana.
Despite this, Valentina remains cheerful and joyful. When asked how she stays optimistic even when she somedays fears for her life leaving her home, she responded: “Cause that’s just me! Ize just be happy. Ah don’t have no time to study anything you understand me.”