Earlier this summer, when the body count of transsexual and transvestite prostitutes was lower, a man who calls himself Maria was shot twice in the ribs while soliciting on Market Street.
Two weeks later, Maria was back at work on the same corner--badly bruised, with one of the bullets still lodged in his chest. But he said that not working was not an option. Sex change operations don't come cheap, he said.
"Not one of those scummy jobs they do in Tijuana," he said as he was being arrested for prostitution within feet of where he had been shot. "I'm goin' to New York City, man. They got fine doctors there."
Maria is not the only transvestite or transsexual prostitute to risk his safety for cash. In the face of increasing violence toward such prostitutes in San Diego, most of the three dozen men who masquerade, some of them quite convincingly, as women-for-sale are continuing to work the streets.
Many of them know that four transvestite and transsexual prostitutes have been murdered in the city this summer. Many of them also know that, by trying to pass as women, they may enrage customers who are surprised to find they have picked up a man.
But fear is a common companion for prostitutes of either sex, they say, and violence is a work-related hazard--in just five years, 42 female hookers have been murdered in San Diego. For most transvestite and transsexual prostitutes, economic necessity means business continues as usual.
"Hey, a girl's gotta survive," says Rachel, a man who has worked in San Diego for about 18 months. Dressed in a loose blouse, tight skirt, makeup and high heels, Rachel said that whether the money is for a sex change operation, a deadbeat boyfriend or just eating and paying the rent, he has to make a living the way he knows how. "I can't borrow or steal . . . so I'm being careful."
A transsexual soliciting on Main Street in Barrio Logan agreed. "Yeah, man, I know about (the killings), but what you gonna do?" he said. "Got to make some money. Got to work. You watch yourself, is all."
On June 12, two of the female-impersonating prostitutes were found shot near the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Three weeks later, another was shot to death along Bancroft Street near El Cajon Boulevard. On Sept. 4, a fourth was run down by a car on University Avenue near a nightclub that features female impersonators.
Transsexuals are men who identify strongly as females, sometimes to the point where they take medical steps toward changing their gender. Transvestites are men who simply dress as women.
Police say the killings are unrelated. According to Lt. Dan Berglund of the San Diego police homicide unit, the only link is that all four men were prostitutes dressed as women. Among the possible motives, he said, are robbery, drug deals gone bad, anti-homosexual violence or homophobia--customers gone berserk after they realize they've been with a man.
Vince Huntington, a psychologist who specializes in sexual counseling, noted that the latter motive is one faced only by transsexual and transvestite prostitutes: the element of surprise. For those customers who are duped, he said, discovering the truth can provoke reactions ranging from revulsion to assault. Most of the prostitutes are able to disguise their gender by offering mostly oral sex; some have other ways of fooling the customer.
"They can go into homophobic panic," Huntington said. "It can be so distasteful they react crazily."
Patricia Wojdowski, a psychotherapist and social worker who has researched transsexual prostitution, agreed. But she said it is unlikely that the recent upsurge in violence against transsexual and transvestite prostitutes will prompt them to warn customers of their gender.
"There's a thrill in convincing men they're attractive females. There's gratification in parading on the streets, saying, 'Look at me,' " said Wojdowski, adding that part of the transsexual's thrill is "getting a man excited, getting paid, beating the system, showing that dumb man he didn't even know the difference, that she's prettier than a real woman."
For many transsexuals, Wojdowski said, prostitution--no matter how dangerous--is a way to affirm their sought-after femininity. "Some turn to prostitution where they act out their belief of being a woman. They have a desire to convince themselves and the world."
Sometimes that desire prompts drastic measures. Maria, for example, has had his testicles removed, has had silicone breast implants and takes female hormones. But even before the drive-by shooting left his chest grotesquely swollen, he still had trouble passing as a woman--his features were coarse, his Adam's apple too pronounced.
On a recent undercover prostitution detail, vice detectives posed as customers, or johns, cruising the Main Street area. More than a dozen transsexuals were arrested and held temporarily in a motel. By the end of the evening, a hard-looking bunch filled the motel room with cheap perfume, body heat and hostility.
But not all of the men looked like imposters. One had high cheekbones, long silky black hair and dark eyes--except for the circumstances, he might have passed for an American Indian beauty. When police made him drop his white slacks in the bathroom to confirm his gender, however, they found what they expected.
"All female--except for the plumbing," said a vice detective.
Huntington, who counsels many of San Diego's cross-dressers, says the transsexual prostitute murders have spooked his clients into taking precautions.
Some are carrying something sharp in their purses or sticking closer to their "girlfriends." Some are trying to scrutinize customers more carefully before getting in a car. And others are trying to resist the lure of money and walk away when they see an odd look in a customer's eye. Better careful, they say, than dead.
But vice Sgt. Mark Foreman says the murders "don't seem to have slowed them down. They gotta do what they gotta do. It's a risk of doing business. You know how it is: Some say it's not going to happen to them."
Back on the street, Rachel is at work. He leans into car windows, squeezes potential customers' knees and laughs when they realize he is a he.
"I go with my instinct. . . . I don't need to carry no weapon. I know how to take care of myself," he says. "Hey, a girl can't be too careful. There are some real freaks out here."