, Brazil, Apr 8 – Karen Emiliano was a boy called Jonas when she gave up studying 23 years ago, bullied for saying she felt she was a girl.
At the age of 13, she left home and headed for Sao Paulo, where she became a prostitute.
Now, though, she is going back to school as part of a Brazilian program to help 100 transsexuals and transvestites living in the country’s business capital to return to education, aided by monthly grants of 827 reais ($265), just above the minimum wage.
They will study six hours a day for two years — some at the primary and others at secondary level — under a municipal program dubbed Transcidadania (trans-citizenship).
The Sao Paulo prefecture is investing three million reais ($960,000) in the scheme to bolster the employment prospects of the group in a country which sees more killings of transsexuals than in any other country, according to NGO Transgender Europe.
The group says 602 were murdered between 2008 and 2014.
Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad says the pioneering program is designed to “rescue” participants from social oblivion.
– Making ends meet –
Valeryah Rodriguez’s heavily made-up eyes flash as she shares a joke in history class with friend Lecca, who is looking to reconnect with her student self of 30 years ago as their teacher leads them through the basics at an adult learning center.
Five trannssexuals are in a class which also includes eight other students, most of them with learning difficulties.
Sat at the next desk, Karen explains she still has difficulty making ends meet and sometimes has to return to prostitution to meet the 500 reais monthly cost of the room she rents in the city.
Candidates seeking a place on the Transcidadania program need to live in Sao Paulo and not have held down a job for more than three months in the past three years.
There is a 100-strong waiting list.
In order to receive their grants the students must not skip more than three classes.
“We’ve hardly had any class skipping. There has been the odd problem of someone turning up worse for wear through drink,” says coordinator Symmy Larrat, a transvestite.
“We’ve not managed to cure her but have managed to get her to turn up to classes sober,” says Larrat.
– Mind over body –
After English class, Michelly Romera slips a brown hat over her blonde locks and heads out.
Aged 32 with just a bare minimum of make-up Michelly explains she worked on the streets for 16 years — including one spent in Italy.
“The grant is not a lot — but helps a lot. Since I started the classes, I’ve not been back out on the street,” smiles Michelly, who wants to study psychology.
Back inside the classroom, Cristiane Mourao, 39, says she hopes to become a nurse.
Her schooling ended at 15 amid violent bullying and Cristiane says she has also cheated death on several occasions, such as when a client threatened her with a gun to avoid paying.
She quit the street thereafter.
But Cristiane says she feels fortunate in that her family understood her from the outset.
“I’ve been the same all my life. I have changed physically but I was born with the mind of a woman. The real woman is in the mind, not the body,” she asserts.
Valeryah says she feels her family would have found it easier to accept had she been gay rather than opt for gender re-assignment.
“But going back to school has given me my life back. It makes me really happy to think I am going to be part of society again.”