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Inside the world of a transgender sex worker in Australia.

“The more time I spent with Daniella, the more I realised how hard she worked. She rarely drinks alcohol and drugs are an absolute no-no. She’s business-minded, a skilled negotiator. She’s also her own boss, managing her own schedule.”

Daniella always knew she wanted to be a girl.

Born in the Philippines, the youngest of three children, Daniella’s journey out of poverty as a boy to life as a woman in Australia is nothing short of remarkable.

But getting here and daily survival are two very different things.

“You know, we live in a mean world. Acceptance? Maybe there’s an acceptance. I know we’re being tolerated. And I know I am brave. I have been through so many things in life and this is not the only time that I face a big challenge,” Daniella says.

“But I am scared.”

I ask Daniella what she’s afraid of.

transgender sex workers
“I am scared.” Image via Four Corners.

Softly spoken and strikingly beautiful, Daniella pauses before curling up on the couch opposite me. We’ve been filming together for eight days now. Our conversations are increasingly honest.

“I’m afraid of being judged,” Daniella says finally.

“Judged for being who I am. For being open about what I do.”

We are edging closer and closer to the topic Daniella has agreed to talk about but is also most controlled by: what she does for a living.

I ask her whether it’s hard to find a job in Australia.

“The trans world is only marginalised when it comes to having a job,” she says.

“If you’re a trans out there you see them in parlours, like my friends, like beauticians, it’s only basic jobs. There’s no jobs really. No high end jobs.

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“You’re not going to let yourself loiter in the street. You have to make ends meet.”

To make ends meet, Daniella became a professional escort.

“It’s mostly the work of trans people, of trans girls and why not? There’s no job.”

Daniella is living proof that discrimination against transgender people is inherent in the Australian workplace. She’s one of a many transgender men and women who have turned to escorting to make a living. It’s a choice borne out of necessity. I discover this time and time again while filming for this program. Several women tonight repeat the same message: being transgender is a big hindrance in the Australian workplace.

transgender sex workers
Daniella was born in the Philippines, the only  son and the youngest of three children. Image via Four Corners.

Their personal experiences are backed-up by statistics. The rate of unemployment for transgender men and women is estimated to be double that of the general population.

Violence and hate-fuelled assault is also disproportionately high. In the 2013 Beyond Blue LGBTI People Mental Health and Suicide Briefing Paper, more than 50 per cent of transgender people in Australia reported being verbally abused, socially excluded, attacked or sexually assaulted.

Little population data is available. In fact, transgender people are grossly underestimated and under-included in Australia. The National Health Survey doesn’t collect information about transgender status, and most tellingly, the Australian census doesn’t even account for this community. The census only accounts for and asks about male and female. When contacted by our program for more information, the ABS suggested they ‘might ask more questions’ in the next census in 2016.

The data that does exist confirms transgender people need and deserve more encouragement and support.

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“I have been the breadwinner for my family for 15 years,” Daniella tells me.

“One of the main reasons why we do escorting job is because we help our family back home. Most trans* escorts are from Asia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia. It’s in our culture to help our family. It’s an obligation, a forever obligation to help them. Because there are only few opportunities when it comes to jobs, then the only possible way to get good money is what we’re doing. To do escorting.”

transgender sex workers
Daniella has been her family’s breadwinner for 15 years. Image via Four Corners.

Transgender sex work is a booming business. Online, men and woman are advertising their services across the country. In order to stay ‘fresh’, escorts travel from state to state to entertain clients. The money can be very good. Newcomers stand to make the most. Clients range from athletes to businessmen to young professionals and tradesmen. The vast majority are heterosexual: looking for a woman with ‘extra’.

The risks are high. Privacy is key. Both escort and client agree the most important thing is confidentiality.

The more time I spent with Daniella, the more I realised how hard she worked. She rarely drinks alcohol and drugs are an absolute no-no. She’s business-minded, a skilled negotiator. She’s also her own boss, managing her own schedule.

But the reality remains. Daniella wants a regular life and regular, meaningful relationships.

“I want to feel love. I am very lonely,” she says.

transgender sex workers
Daniella shares photos of her youth. Image via Four Corners.
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“I didn’t enjoy my youth. It was all about struggle, because society expects that if you’re born a man then you should be a man. When I was young I thought I was in a wrong body. But I’ve come to realise I’m not in the wrong body. This is my own body. God gave me this body, whoever creates us, if it’s God or you know, whoever. This is the body that was designed for me and I have come to love it and I have come to appreciate it.

“This is why I am doing this, speaking to you, because I want to help our budding transgender sisters. I want to tell trans kids to make the most of it. Just walk through a path that will make your life easier.”

Right now, there’s a very real and powerful energy to the transgender movement. Look no further than US stars Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, who have put transgender rights firmly on the map.

But stepping out of the shadows and calling for equality and respect requires enormous bravery.

After watching Four Corners tonight and meeting Daniella and several transgender women, all with their own remarkable stories of resilience and hope, I challenge anyone to think anything different.

Over the weekend, in the lead up to the program, Daniella sent me a text. She wrote:

‘It takes a lot of courage doing things for greater advocacy and for greater good. It’s a bumpy road.’

The responsibility now rests with all of us. To make that road a little less bumpy for those who are brave enough to walk it.

Caro Meldrum-Hanna’s report on transgender sex workers, Four Corners: Escorts, airs tonight at 8.30pm on ABC. It is also available to view on ABC iview and abc.net.au/4corners.

This week Mamamia founder Mia Freedman spoke to sex worker, business owner and sex therapist Madison Missina for her podcast series, No Filter. As part of that conversation, Mia and Madison talked about the perception that men and women undertake sex work only because they have no other options. With the in mind, we asked sex worker Madison for her thoughts on the Four Corners’ report:  

Daniella’s story is one of how a transwoman faced with discrimination and limited options has turned to sex work to provide for herself and her family. It is a positive factor that the sex industry openly accepts and celebrates the transgender community and that currently whilst it may be Daniella’s only option, it is great that she at least has an option.

Whilst I’m not transgender, when I first entered the industry at 18, I too had no other options. I’ve always been grateful to the sex industry for being there. But it is a problem when we hear that people have turned to sex work due to a lack of options, especially as in Daniella’s case due to discrimination. But it is a problem with our society not our sex industry.

This is why we need to do more as a society to look at why this imbalance occurs. We need to improve the acceptance of the transgender community and to provide safe guards against transphobia, which unfortunately is a very real and common phenomenon and does impact on their wellbeing and options in life.

Daniella is certainly and very courageous and strong woman and I applaud her for speaking so publically about this and sharing her story.

You can learn more about the realities of sex work in Australia from the Scarlet Alliance. Their website is here.