From the moment she met Tamara, a 27-year-old trans woman, photographer Danielle Villasana was drawn to her as a subject and as a friend. "Tamara was a person who wanted more for herself," Villasana tells Refinery29. "But [she] was continuously met with closed doors from society." Tamara's experiences as a sex worker living with HIV and tuberculosis mirror those of many other Peruvian trans women. By documenting Tamara's everyday life in Lima, Peru, up until her death at age 30, Villasana hopes to share that story with the world.
Villasana explains that identifying as a trans woman in Peru means dealing with stigma and ostracization in general, but particularly when it comes to finding employment. That's something Tamara tried to do repeatedly, but her efforts to get work outside the sex trade inevitably failed. And life as a sex worker only added to Tamara's daily difficulties, Villasana says: "It often meant late nights, being exposed to violence, disease, and instability, and using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for the harsh living conditions."
Tamara often spoke about the emotional impact of working in the sex industry, but it was the toll that sex work took on her health that eventually contributed to her death. Tamara had been living with an undiagnosed case of HIV for years before starting medication for it in 2015. Around that same time, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, an illness that commonly accompanies HIV in Peru. Villasana explains that healthcare access is a major issue among Peruvian trans women.
How to avoid or get tested for HIV isn't common knowledge — and, beyond that, "many trans women wait until the last minute to seek treatment because they are scared of discrimination," or lack familial and financial support, Villasana says. Even transferring clinics (as Tamara had to do when she moved neighborhoods) can lead to countless logistical issues that bar trans women from getting their medications.
Villasana moved away from Lima in 2016, but kept in touch with Tamara. "Whenever we talked on social media, she told me she was still taking her medication, but I'm guessing she stopped at some point and I didn't know about it," she says.
Tamara passed away on January 11, 2017, due to complications with her illnesses. In the time that Villasana knew her, they had grown very close. "We...even called each other 'hermana,' or sister," she says. "She was very dear to me."
Ahead, view a selection of Villasana's work and learn more about Tamara's life in Villasana's own words.
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"Tamara quit school in the 5th grade because her classmates constantly teased and insulted her. At 16 she began sniffing glue for a couple years to deal with depression and loneliness. At 18, she began [doing sex work]. Though she has looked for other work she says that people think [sex workers] have diseases and are vulgar, so they are turned away. 'I want to have a job with somebody I know, someone who trusts me. Because otherwise, they discriminate you, they look at you up and down when you're looking for work.'"
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"Evila helps Tamara zip up her dress before leaving to work on the streets. Though her mom visits when she can, Tamara often spends her days alone. 'Sometimes I think about leaving prostitution behind. But, because I'm alone, it's really expensive,' said Tamara, who sometimes skip meals in order to pay her [rent]."
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"After resisting sexual relations with a client without a condom, Tamara was injured with a broken glass that he threw at her face. 'You have to be careful with clients because they're not clients, they are bad men that can cheat you, that can take you somewhere. They treat you bad, they beat you, they rob you. I have suffered through that a few times,' said Tamara."