I knew that Diana, a Tajik transvestite, would be a colorful personality the minute my colleague phoned her for an interview. "If he's an American, tell him to bring me a pair of shoes. And to pay for my taxi," she ordered.
I didn't come bearing footwear. But Diana didn't disappoint. Arriving at our hotel fashionably late, (about an hour after the scheduled time), she proceeded to chide me for pushing past the small talk. "I can see you're in a hurry but I left everything. I came here for you; now you're in a hurry," she said.
Her heavily-rouged cheeks and mushroom cut, jet-black hair were attempts at femininity rather than anything convincingly female. When I asked, through my interpreter, if it would be appropriate for me to ask Diana her age, she shot me a look of faux-offense and then said, "Everybody thinks I'm 25 or 26, but I'm actually 34." She looked 50.
Diana's chattiness and friendly personality belied a more troubled life, however. Immediately, I noticed red scars on her wrist, the remnant of an apparent suicide attempt. When she noticed my stares, she lifted up her sleeve to show an armful of slash marks. In case I wasn't sufficiently moved, she rolled down the collar of her turtleneck to display the relic of an old wound on her jugular vein.
In Tajikistan, issues pertaining to gender identity and sexual minorities are largely taboo, but Diana clearly doesn't hide. "I don't care. I'm open," she replies when I ask if she faces harassment in her daily life for her obvious physical differences (she told me that she has been physically assaulted twice). "I don't make any secret of it." That's for sure, as she proceeded to talk about her sexual past and Tajikistan's prostitution underworld in rather blunt detail ("I am allergic to women," she told me).
Diana, who says that she started having sex at the age of 13, works for the organization Marvorid ("Pearl" in Tajik), which distributes condoms to sex workers and educates them about safe-sex practices. HIV transmission is a serious, if largely ignored, problem in Tajikistan. According to the United Nations Development Program
, "the number of officially registered
HIV cases has skyrocketed, increasing from 119 in 2000 to 1,422 in May 2009" (emphasis original), with a heavy concentration among intravenous drug users (a problem exacerbated in Tajikistan due to the availability of opiates from neighboring Afghanistan), sex workers, and prisoners.
The number of actual persons infected with the virus is probably much higher than the official numbers relate, however, as many people with HIV are not even aware of this fact, and those who do know their status are often uncomfortable sharing that information with the authorities, particularly in a country like Tajikistan where there is so much stigma attached to the condition.
Diana tells me that the situation for sexual minorities in her country has improved over time, but that the small community faces discrimination, societal exclusion, blackmail, and physical abuse. "Let's say a transvestite, homosexual, someone assaults them on the street. If you complain to the police, usually they don't pay attention, as if you are not normal," she told me. "They don't treat you equally."
In recent years, however, she says that the police occasionally will cooperate with some members of the community. "The police have a list of gays to protect them so if someone attacks gays, or kills them, the police will know and contact other people on the list."
That seemed to me like a rather risky move -- usually, it's a rather ominous sign when the police force in an authoritarian country starts drawing up lists. But in a place like Tajikistan, such an option may be the only recourse for a largely invisible community.
It came as a surprise to me when Diana said that her parents had accepted her; for a person who has been dealt a pretty difficult hand in life, that's one glimmer of luck. What was most startling was that, in a country where sexual minorities far less flamboyant must err always on the side of absolute discretion, Diana seemed utterly unconcerned with how her physical appearance and unapologetic approach to life must subject her to ridicule and even violence.
But as confident as she appeared, there was still the air of desperation, the aggressiveness of the merchant perpetually on the make. "Are we eating tonight?" she asked, apparently expecting that a meal, purchased by me, was in the offing. "Does that mean you didn't like my interview?" she asked, impatience in her voice, when I made clear that there wouldn't be.
Outside the hotel, I handed Diana her taxi money as promised and politely said goodbye. She took a quick glance at the offering, and, noticing there was nothing extra, cursed under her breath and stormed off. To Diana, I was just another transaction.
-- James Kirchick