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Photographer captures intimate moments among a group of trans women in Peru

When photojournalist Danielle Villasana first met Tamara in the spring of 2013, she had no idea where their friendship would lead.

Tamara, a 27-year-old transgender woman, introduced Villasana to one group of transgender women living in downtown Lima, Peru, many of whom live together after having faced housing discrimination elsewhere. “They definitely [have] a safe place, that is, the neighborhood and communal homes they live in,” Villasana wrote in an email to the NewsHour.

Villasana decided to document this space and the community the women have formed in an effort to bring it visibility to the Peruvian public.

Identity in general is very strong. Nobody can deny you it, because itÕs inside of you,Ó said Salazar. According to Salazar, when people deny who they are, many problems such as self-rejection and self-destruction begin. After work Danuska and her friends go out dancing at a club that features a night specifically for people from the LGBTQ community.

After work, Danuska and her friends go out dancing at a club that features a night specifically for people from the LGBTQ community. Photo and caption by Danielle Villasana

Villasana, who graduated the University of Texas at Austin in 2013 with degrees in journalism and Spanish, received The Magnum Foundation’s Inge Morath Award this year, an award for a female photographer under the age of 30 working on long-term documentary projects.

The award gave her a grant for her ongoing project “A Light Inside,” a documentary project Villanasa has worked on for about two years, on Tamara and her surrounding community of other transgender women.

Jordy, left, gives her friend a shoulder to cry on after she found out that her boyfriend was cheating on her with another transwoman. According to anthropologist Ximena Salazar the structures and traditions of gender are very rigid in Peruvian society, thus making it very easy for society to discriminate those who do not fulfill traditional roles. "The family is the first big social space where the female trans is going to have a fight.Ó Because of this constant fight, many leave home and move to Lima where they know there is a network already waiting. [Sex work] is a social world complete with friends and enemies. Their real family rejects them, so their chosen family is also there, said Salazar.

Jordy, left, gives her friend a shoulder to cry on. Photo by Danielle Villasana

“I realized there’s a lack of education [here] about exactly what it means to be transgender,” Villasana said. “Just like with anything, from lack of education comes misunderstanding, stereotyping, discrimination and marginalization.”

Transgender women face discrimination in education, employment and housing in Latin America, according to the 2015 State-Sponsored Homophobia Report, sponsored by the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association. That report also states they “may be the group most exposed to violence.”

Transgender women are extremely marginalized and discriminated against by Peruvian society. Persecution begins early, causing them to abandon their studies and families. With few options or support, many fall into prostitution. As sex workers with no legal protections, they're targets of disease, violence and sexual and substance abuse.

Two transwomen on a street in Lima. Photo by Danielle Villasana

With and without her camera, Villanasa has witnessed violence against the women she profiles from the rest of the community in Lima, sometimes facing verbal attacks and arrests herself.

Though prostitution in Peru is not illegal, many transwomen are oftentimes taken by police on the basis of not being able to show their identification cards. Here, Kiara is taken by the municipal police officers, in a nightly raid. Photo and caption by Danielle Villasana

Municipal police officers arrest Kiara, a transgender woman living in Lima, Peru. Photo by Danielle Villasana

While photographing their stories, Villanasa said she has formed friendships with many of the women, especially with Tamara, the main subject of “A Light Inside.”

“She calls me her sister,” Villasana said. “Sometimes I’ll just go over to have lunch with her or go to a doctor’s appointment together or just spend time.”

Tamara comforts her mother, Evila, right, after fighting. Though many trans women don't have support from family, Tamara has a very close relationship with her mother, who is a lesbian. 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 room.

Tamara comforts her mother, Evila, right, after fighting. Photo by Danielle Villasana

Villanasa, in partnership with UN Aids, came up with an idea to use this project and the grant from Inge Morath Award for a public exhibit planned for December.

“I really want to incorporate community engagement to the project, so that the work is seen by people who actually live in Lima,” she said.

Danuska, left, and Oriana, right, talk with a young girl and her mother, not pictured, on the street while experiencing down time during work.

Danuska, left, and Oriana, right, talk with a young girl and her mother, not pictured, on the street while experiencing down time during work. Photo and caption by Danielle Villasana

Her efforts to facilitate connections have already come to fruition on a personal level. While working on “Piojo’s Story,” a profile of a transgender woman who died of AIDS and tuberculosis after seeking treatment in Peru’s public health system, Villasana was present for her reunion with her long-estranged adoptive parents before her death.

After being suddenly evicted from her room, Tamara moves her belongings into a friend's taxi who will drive her a few blocks away to another home where many trans women live. For many trans women, having to quickly leave where they live is a common occurrence for reasons such as the inability to pay rent, being caught with drugs or alcohol in their rooms or simply because they choose to move instead of paying their incurred debts.

After being suddenly evicted from her room, Tamara moves her belongings into a friend’s taxi who will drive her a few blocks away to another home where many trans women live. Photo and caption by Danielle Villasana

“I think my goal is to try to make even just a little bit of change,” she said.

See more images from “A Light Inside” below.

Camila, left, a transgender woman who works as a hair dresser and sometimes as a sex worker, moved to Peru from Brasil. Photo and caption by Danielle Villasana

Camila, left, a transgender woman who works as a hair dresser and sometimes as a sex worker, moved to Peru from Brazil. Photo and caption by Danielle Villasana

After many hours of drinking, Tamara, right, and her mother Evila, left, argue about her work on the streets.

Tamara, right, and her mother Evila, left, argue about her work on the streets. Photo and caption by Danielle Villasana

Tamara smokes a cigarette while dancing in her room.

Tamara smokes a cigarette while dancing in her room. Photo and caption by Danielle Villasana

Yasuri, 24, right, who sleeps next to her boyfriend, moved to Lima at 17 because of bullying at home and school. Her mother, who she says is homophobic, would often beat her and her brother once cut her hair to the scalp. Though her boyfriend and her have been together for two years, she often says she is going to end it because he gets violent when he drinks or does drugs. Somehow, he always comes back.

Yasuri, 24, right, who sleeps next to her boyfriend, moved to Lima at 17 because of bullying at home and school. Photo and caption by Danielle Villasana

Tamara, who always keeps a collection of saints in the corner of her room with a lit candle, often talks about how she will not live past 30.

Tamara always keeps a collection of saints in the corner of her room with a lit candle. Photo and caption by Danielle Villasana

Along with other members of Peru's only transgender cumbia dance group, Briss, center, waits backstage before performing at a local LGBTQ night club. Though Briss says it's hard to live as a trans person in Peruvian society because of the psychological abuse, she said dancing for the Tranxgresoras strengthens them and helps them to push forward.

Along with other members of Peru’s only transgender cumbia dance group, Briss, center, waits backstage before performing at a local LGBTQ night club. Briss says dancing for the Tranxgresoras strengthens them and helps them to push forward. Photo and caption by Danielle Villasana

You can see more of Villasana’s work on her website.

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