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It’s a Woman’s World

An incarcerated transgender Hispanic faces a daunting future.


Damaso Davila-Escobedo currently calls home a single cell in the maximum-security wing of the Salt Lake County Metro Jail. The undocumented Mexican national is scheduled to be released in mid-April after serving six months for a probation violation. Housed in the male section of the jail, Davila-Escobedo is, she says in Spanish, “a male with female body parts,” notably breasts she started developing when she was a teenager through injecting cooking oil into her chest and taking hormones.

She fled Mexico because of ridicule and violence, only to encounter, she says, similar treatment in the Salt Lake County Metro Jail. She says she was transferred from minimum to maximum security after she filed a complaint that on Dec. 7, 2010, guards harassed her, forcing her to strip, along with another male inmate, and making comments such as one asking “if it has hair on its nuts?” or “whose turn [among the inmates] to sleep with it tonight?”

Salt Lake County Jail public information officer Lt. Mike DeNiro says in an e-mail that “we manage transgender prisoners on a case-by-case policy.” Davila-Escobedo’s grievance “was handled in accordance with policy.”

Before her most recent arrest, she lived with two transgender male-to-female hairstylists-cum-sex workers, her home a room with a makeshift curtain, a bed and a box for the hairstyling tools she needs for her salon work. Her warm, easygoing personality, underscored by her natural, body-shaking laugh that sends her dreadlocks flying, arguably provides her best anchor in a rootless life undone by drug abuse. “Our life is prey for many things,” she says.

Davila-Escobedo grew up in Aguas Calientes, Mexico, one of 15 sons of farm workers, albeit the only one who was gay. When she came out of the closet in her mid-teens, “her father didn’t accept her, so she left,” says Project Reality’s HIV specialist Juan Lopez, who’s known her for 10 years. At age 18, she moved to the border town of Piedras Negras and found work with drag acts in the local bar scene. But she struggled with landlords who rented her a roofless one-room shack to live in, often fleeing from drug gangs who, she says, stabbed her three times while constantly treating her as an object of violent ridicule. “In Mexico, it’s like you are in a zoo,” she says.

In 1997, she decided to cross the border illegally from Mexico into the United States after the remains of one of her transgender male-to-female friends who had been missing for three years were discovered in a water-filled drum.

When she arrived in Salt Lake City in 1999, she “was very pretty,” Lopez recalls, and quickly found a place in the fledgling local gay Hispanic bar scene. Here she continued to inject cooking oil in her thighs and her lips, but the results could often be unpredictable. In a 2010 interview, she recalled an abscess so painful she was unable to sleep. She opened it with a needle, “and blood, oil, pus and water all came out.”

Her desire, she writes in a letter from jail, “is to become completely a woman,” yet in several interviews she also expresses the wish to remain “different” and keep her male parts, rather than “become like one of thousands of women.” That’s because having a penis, Lopez says, makes her attractive to some men at the straight Hispanic bars she frequents.

According to a court docket, she was deported in April 2009 after serving 30 days on a joyriding charge. She struggled to survive at the Mexican border without money, exchanging sex for shelter. Drug-gang employees offered to take her back to Salt Lake City, she says, if she would carry drugs in her artificially created breasts. Fearful the drugs would kill her, she instead found the money after three months to pay for a coyote to guide her across the border.

After she returned illegally to Salt Lake City, Lopez hoped she would focus on her salon work and save money for her operation to complete her transformation. But, instead, she used meth. Lopez would see her on the street in the months before her most recent arrest, her hair wild, her makeup a mess, “looking crazy.”

With a release date set for April, and facing deportation once her time is served, she has filed papers with the local immigration court, seeking asylum, based on her fears of violence against transgender people by drug gangs. Gang members, she says, kill “normal people” with families, putting no value on their lives. “People like us, our value is even less.”