The riches of the United Arab Emirates hold promise for transgender sex workers, but also danger and unspeakable cruelty. BY SULOME ANDERSON | OCTOBER 19, 2012 Officials at Al Awir prison said they couldn't confirm that she was held there and refused to comment on her accusations, but because Mya is a Canadian citizen, she says she made a complaint to the Canadian Consulate in Dubai while she was imprisoned. Although an official at the consulate couldn't provide details because of Canadian privacy laws, she did confirm that they had a case matching this description during the time period that Mya reports being jailed.
Mya says that after she decided to cooperate with the prison guards, they eventually released and deported her. "They just let me go," she says. "When they decided I had suffered enough, they released me, just like that. No court, no nothing."
Diana, a Filipina transgender woman, says she was also arrested for sex work in Dubai. In a telephone conversation, Diana says she went to Dubai to be with her boyfriend, but after they broke up, she turned to sex work.
"I found it very enticing as a way to generate income, because the men there love transsexuals," she says. "The ratio of money you can make is times 10, if you are able to maintain just one regular client. If you have a working relationship with a guy, you can practically become a millionaire."
After working in Dubai for two years, using a fake visa and female passport she bought on the black market, Diana says she was arrested in a sting operation similar to the one Mya describes.
"There were five Filipina ladyboy escorts, one American and one Malaysian, with me," she says. "We were all captured together. We were invited to go to a hotel by some men who turned out to be undercover police, and when we went, we were all arrested."
When asked about what happened after she was arrested, Diana's voice takes on a slightly frantic edge.
"I said, 'Don't rape me, please,'" she says quickly, in a whisper. "They raped me.… Some things are too bad to remember." Later in the conversation, she goes into more detail.
"The head of the police took me into another room," she says. "That's where it happened. Then all of us were put in a room together and forced to get naked, and they took pictures. There was terrible verbal abuse.… I think that was worse than the rape thing."
According to Diana, she was only detained for three days, while the others she was arrested with were jailed for one to three months.
"In exchange for my freedom, I was asked to give them the names of other ladyboys who were coming over," she says. "I gave them the names. You can't blame me."
LGBT activists from the Middle East and South Asia say what happened to Mya and Diana is a common occurrence.
"The reports that we're getting from transgender women who successfully make it home to the Philippines from the Middle East say that they have been very inhumanely treated when they are apprehended by the police," says Bemz Benedito, a transgender woman and leader of Ladlad Partylist, an LGBT political party in the Philippines.
Why do these transgender women risk their lives to work in the Middle East? The simple answer is money. Mya says she was making thousands of dollars in just a few days of work. But Johnny Tohme, a member of Helem, an LGBT rights organization based in Lebanon, says that it's more complicated than that.
"Getting a good job for transgenders is hard because of discrimination," he says. "Most of them begin to experience the hardest conflict related to their gender and sex during puberty, so pursuing a solid education wouldn't be a priority. Therefore, by the time they become adults, it gets hard for them to pursue a career. Another option presents itself, which is sex work, and what might facilitate that is the fact that sex work in the region pays a lot. There are a lot of clients, so it sounds like the next best option."