I survived sex work and HIV to become an activist for trans women

I had not yet learned to live, but already, I faced the possibility of dying. I found out at 14 years old, I would live with HIV for the rest of my life. Standing on the corner, I wore a blue and white polka dot spandex miniskirt and 21-centimeter stiletto heels. My long hair reached my waist and the smell of perfume rose from my skin. I had been doing this work for a year already.

  • 1 year ago
  • February 11, 2023
9 min read
Jackeline Romero entered sex work at the age of 13 and contracted HIV. Today she serves as a leader and activist in the transgender community. Jackeline Romero entered sex work at the age of 13 and contracted HIV. Today she serves as a leader and activist in the transgender community. | Photo courtesy of Jackeline Romero
INterview Subject
Jackeline Romero entered the life of sex work at 13 years old and at 14, learned she contracted HIV. Since then, as an active member of the transgender community in Argentina, she serves as President of Red Diversa Positiva. She leads HIV prevention and fights for human rights for the trans population and promotes the Trans Labor Quota in the city of Rosario. Jackeline has traveled the country, including with the former President, to develop networks that help transgender people facing rights violations. She also serves as the coordinator for the Santa Rosa neighborhood “milk cup,” where she feeds children for free.
Background Information
HIV or the Human Immunodeficiency Virus attacks the body’s immune system and if not treated, in time, can cause AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). HIV is contracted mainly through sexual contact and there is no cure at present. Once contracted, victims suffer for life. In Argentina there are more than 140 thousand people with the virus and 13 percent do not know it, according to an epidemiological report of the Ministry of Health of the Presidency of the Nation in 2022, with a downward trend in the mortality rate. 

The country has in force a law of integral response to HIV and sexually transmitted diseases that prohibits the offer and performance of the diagnostic test for HIV, viral hepatitis, and other STIs in pre-occupational medical examinations, as well as during the course and as part of the employment relationship of individuals. It also clarifies that job offers may not contain restrictions for these reasons. Since 2021, Law No. 27,636 on Access to Formal Employment for Transvestites, Transsexuals, and Transgender persons establishes a minimum quota of one percent of the positions and posts of the National State for this population.

*Trigger Warning: This story contains information and descriptions of sexual abuse and violence. It may be difficult for some readers.

ROSARIO, Argentina ꟷ As I sat there chatting with some young, transgender women, one of them said, “I feel like a woman, but I wonder if my destiny is prostitution.” [According to the United Nations, 90 percent of trans women in Argentina make their living through sex work.]

I looked her in the eye and told her no, with certainty. I could assure her; she had a choice. A time existed when trans women had no choice and us older women have been deeply affected by prostitution, discrimination, HIV, and AIDS. We struggled for years as a hidden part of society.

At 53 years old, I have watched female colleagues leave sex work and take new, dignified jobs since the Trans Labor Quota law in Argentina went into effect. Such a shift seemed unthinkable a few years ago.

Prostitution at 14 years old, an arrest that changed everything

In November 1984 in Argentina, I had not yet learned to live, but already, I faced the possibility of dying. I found out at 14 years old, I would live with HIV for the rest of my life. Standing on the corner, I wore a blue and white polka dot spandex miniskirt and 21-centimeter stiletto heels. My long hair reached my waist and the smell of perfume rose from my skin. I had been doing this work for a year already.

Leaning against the column, I looked divine. We called the men who paid us “giles,” and waited on the corner, but it was 1984 and an economic crisis hit the country. Work proved slow. I went anyway, convinced sex work was the only way I could live as a transgender woman. Being a prostitute almost confirmed to me that I was a woman.

That night, the police circulated the city. They caught me, my friend Paola, and four other transgender prostitutes. Being a minor, they took me with no explanation. They put us all in the car, a green Ford Falcon, and took us to Police Headquarters. That moment holds great significance for me. Today, I work in those very same headquarters.

At the station, they forced me to take an HIV test. At that time, in the 1980s, they saw a transgender person and thought of AIDS. They viewed us as dirty and sick. For the test, they moved me to the hospital. They took my blood and called my mother to come and pick me up. From that very first moment, my mother supported me in everything, including my health and my life decisions.

Doctor delivers a death sentence: you have AIDS and will die

When my mom arrived at the hospital, I told her they tested me for HIV without permission. They told me they did it because they caught me “standing on the corner,” and because I would likely go back there to be with my friends. They treated me poorly in the hospital, doing whatever they wanted before calling my parents.

After the ordeal, we returned home and faced my father. He scolded me and said he would never come looking for me at the police station again. Today, at 85 years old, he is a good person, but he challenges his children. Mom served as the overprotective one. She never let him hit me or become overly angry about my story.

A week after my arrest, the hospital called and I went with my mother to get the results from the doctor. At 14 years old, I listened to him deliver the news. I had AIDS and he claimed, I was going to die. Fear and despair consumed my mother and me. I lived at home with my parents, taken care of, and had no need to go out and prostitute, but I felt like as a transgender person, I had to. I wanted to be like the older kids and we believed prostitution was the destiny of any transgender person at that time. Sadly, today, every one of those people I wanted to be like, died from this.

My mother sprang into action. She made us learn everything we could about the disease and start treatment quickly. We took on the banner of activism – raising awareness and meeting people. I fight today from this foundation, to make sure transgender people have rights and access to public health.

Sexual abuse, arrests, and fighting back

While I began to fight for transgender rights through my teens, I also continued prostitution. At 18 years old, when they took me to the station in Rosario, I paid a price. When transgender women went there, we often faced the commissioner who demanded sex from us in exchange for our release. We traded our freedom for abuse.

We faced it on the streets as well. One night, a police officer came to my corner. He told me I had to perform oral sex on him to avoid going to jail. Because of my previous arrests, I knew the consequences of going back in. I had to do it. I gave him oral sex and it set off a chain reaction. He came to me repeatedly, hundreds of times. He would come directly to my corner and demand I get down on my knees.

The night that stuck with me forever, though, became the moment I gained my strength. I dressed for work in white stretchy jeans and a fishnet top with nothing underneath. The same policeman came back, but this time I refused. He took me to the 17th precinct, where the commissioner came into my cell and demanded I let him rape me. All fear faded from my mind, and I fought back.

Locked inside the cell with him, I balled my fists and hit his head. Then, I grabbed a chair and hit him until he got away from me. He hit back, and insulted me, threatening me with a fabricated court case. A policewoman and two men separated us. It felt so good to defend myself and I gained respect.

Embarking on public service and traveling with the President

Today, working in public service, I know which side I’m on. I hold positions of power in social organizations, and I must be cautious not to cause harm to my community. My decisions carry weight. I make sure they benefit my fellow transgender women.

I met Erika, a trans woman from Ushuaia, at the National Woman’s Meeting in Rosario. Erika sought me out and wanted to join our group of activists and professionals. With our guidance, she became a trade unionist with a national reputation, representing sexually diverse women from her region in Patagonia. Erika said she wanted to be like me, but I urged her to shape her own future; to help the people of her community and be transparent while addressing the population.

Eventually, I traveled across Argentina to meet with Erika again. I found myself amidst the busy streets of Ushuaia where the wind blew and the cold air surrounded me. It marked a beginning. I began connecting with other compañeras like Erika, traveling the country hand-in-hand with former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The administration legitimized my leadership and we generated networks in many cities in Argentina.

As my leadership grew, I gave talks all over, and began another transformation. In my era, trans women did not believe we could earn respect without a perfect, sculpted body. Sex work only furthered that assumption. Now, I could let go of that stereotype. I could support my community through education, but I had to break the paradigm. Today, I look at myself in the mirror and I see the extra pounds. I may be a bigger woman, but I am still trans.

I am here and I am alive. Doctor, you were wrong.

This work brings me in contact with many women and gives me perspective on the issues they face. In a meeting with a group of girls from the transgender collective, a colleague spoke up. She told us one of the girls there did not know how to use a bank card to pay for things or withdraw money. Another girl who worked late into the night in the sex trade struggled to get up early to get her paperwork in. Transgender women reported obstacles in gaining access to their legal rights. Some did know how to use technology or email. Some had no computer or cell phone at all.

In these moments, I became a resource. I could step forward to help and guide them, motivated by my own past and their present circumstances. There was a time we marched and fought battles in our community. We educated ourselves and our families. Yet, even with the passing of the National Law of Response to HIV in 1991 and the Trans Labor Quota law, we still have work to do.

Some trans women get jobs but do not know how to properly distribute their income, or they spend their salaries on drugs and alcohol. So, we educate young women and we re-educate older ones. Through it all, one moment in time stands out. I ran into that same doctor who told me, at 14 years old, I was going to die. I stood inside the Congress and he came to greet me. Years had passed and without hesitation, I spoke to him with conviction. “You are talking to a dead person,” I said. “You told me I was going to die. Here I am. I am still alive and living with HIV. Doctor, you were wrong.” 

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