Twenty-three-year-old Somany is a transgender entertainment worker who has HIV. Social stigma from the community and ostracism from her family leave Somany with a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. Speaking candidly to a SMARTgirl support group, she related how every day feels like a struggle for dignity and survival.
“I got up at 7 a.m., feeling really tired. I could barely walk, but I used all my strength to take a bath. I went down to the market for breakfast — fish porridge for [US] 50 cents — and bought two kilos [just over 4 pounds] of milled rice for my next few meals. Back at home, I washed my clothes and my landlord’s clothes, and I cooked lunch for us both. After lunch, I cleaned up and tried taking a nap, but it was too hot in my house. So I went to the pagoda to try getting some sleep there. That’s where I met the FHI 360-SMARTgirl team, and they took me to have a check-up at the health clinic.
“You see, I’ve been aware that I’ve been ill since 2005 — my first lover transmitted an infection to me —but I was only diagnosed with HIV in 2008. I never told my family. I was too scared and, besides, they didn’t care about me. I left home around six years ago, and they haven’t contacted me since. Sometimes I visit them, though I make sure I’m dressed as a man when I do.
“Anyway, I got home from the clinic visit at 5:30 p.m. and started getting ready for work. I’m in a transgender performance team that puts on an open-air show every night. This brings in a little more money to help me get by.
“I don’t like performing in the open-air shows. I’m sick, but I have to put on a smile and perform no matter how I feel. Then again, it’s better than selling sex in the garden. I do prefer the performance work. One of our female audience members recently told me she brings her daughter so they can enjoy watching the show together.
“After the show at 9:30, I took my antiretroviral (ARV) drugs and medicine to prevent opportunistic infections. Then I headed to the garden near Wat Phnom where I usually go to sell sex. I only had one client that night. Although I wanted to supplement the US$5 I got from him, the police came and started arresting sex workers at the garden, so I went home and slept. It was 1:30 a.m. I have been arrested three times, and I’m afraid of being arrested again.
“Normally, my clients are quite rude. A few months ago, I went back to the home of a male client in Prey Veng province and was staying with him for a while. Before long, he started insulting me and it got so bad that I decided I had to leave. Because I had no money, I couldn’t afford the taxi fare back to Phnom Penh, so I walked the 200 km [120 miles]. It’s no better here. People call me khatery, which is an offensive word referring to transgenders. They threaten to fight me if I walk down their street and hurl all kinds of other insults at me.”
Somany’s pain shows on her face and in her body, but she’s learning to take better care of herself. “Before I joined the FHI 360 program, I knew very little about HIV. I spent money carelessly, and I never thought about my future. But now I am more cautious. I take my medicine regularly and try to take care of my health. One day, I would really like to get a proper job and to own a house.”
1 In this series, real names of program participants are not used.