Maicao, Colombia – Gusts of hot desert wind drift through the broken window, shattered by a stone, in the house that Madonna Badillo shares with seven Venezuelan sex workers.
Badillo fixed the window many times before but eventually gave up. Harassers have repeatedly hurled rocks at the home as an act of aggression against her and the transgender people taking refuge here.
Since 2017, an estimated one million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia, leaving behind a crippling economic meltdown, political persecution and extreme medicine and food shortages.
For that reason, Badillo, a 49-year-old trans woman, has opened the doors of her humble home near Colombia’s border with Venezuela.
Her service started two years ago, just as migration from Venezuela started to swell, when she noticed two young trans women, named Champagne and Nicole, marooned in the dusty streets of Maicao.
“No one wanted to rent them a room because there is a lot of discrimination towards our population,” says Badillo at her home. “They were so skinny. Because of the situation [in Venezuela], they go hungry.”
The two-bedroom home has only basic furnishing, a few electric fans, and a muddy backyard reeking of sewage. In the living room stands a life-size figurine of Jesus.
“My house isn’t a palace, but they are able to live freely and I don’t charge them for rent or anything, so they help out buying food and things,” she says.
“Because of what’s happening in Venezuela, and as our neighbour country and members of the LGBT community, I find myself wanting to help them and give them refuge.”
Born to a Venezuelan Wayuu mother and a Colombian Guna father, Badillo says her cross-border indigenous heritage motivates her to continue helping.
A difficult place to be trans
Badillo’s home bears the signs of her own struggle throughout the years. The broken window, a scar of repeated attacks, is only one.
“‘F***ots, get out of here’ – they shout things like that,” she says.
In a stack of newspaper clippings sit several hundred photos and articles of the American pop star Madonna Ciccone, whose moniker Badillo adopted three decades ago when she began her transition to a woman.
Badillo once had a vast collection of Madonna photos, LPs and cassettes, but they were destroyed when torrential rains flooded her home and ravaged Maicao around 30 years ago.
“She has been my alter ego since I was very young, during the 80s. I identify with her. She’s a chameleon,” Badillo says.
“When I present myself to people, I believe they are thinking: ‘Who’s that girl?” she says with a laugh, alluding to her favourite Madonna song.
For Badillo, growing up in Maicao came with a lot of obstacles as an “extremely prejudice and machista place”.
Badillo says she was the first openly trans woman in Maicao, and during the 1980s, she endured discrimination, harassment and violence at the hands of intolerant townspeople.
“There are a lot of people from the LGBT population crossing over who don’t feel secure and they confide in me,” she says. “I tell them to take care of themselves here because there’s a lot of homophobia.”
Wilson Castaneda, director of Caribe Afirmativo, a leading Colombian LGBT rights group working in the Caribbean region, says that despite the challenges Badillo faced, she “created her trans identity with dignity and made a place for herself”.
“It was difficult and she faced a lot of insult and negativity, but she persisted; because she didn’t want to leave her hometown,” Castaneda says.
Colombia Diversa, the country’s largest LGBTQ rights group, says attacks against LGBTQ people, especially trans women, are reaching worrying levels.
The most recent statistics, from the end of 2017, show that over 109 members of the LGBT population in Colombia were murdered that year. Of that total, trans women accounted for 36.
Some of those Badillo takes in are living with HIV/AIDS and facing death because of the lack of antiretroviral medication in Venezuela. The migrants, like hundreds of thousands of the Venezuelans who have fled, often arrive in Colombia with little money and possessions.
Isabella Ferrer is a 19-year-old trans sex worker and beautician who fled the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo. She says she knew many people who were unable to get access to antiretroviral medication.
“She was like this,” Ferrer recalls, holding up her finger to describe how skinny her Venezuelan sex worker colleague had become.
“She died. It was impossible to get the medicine. She was about the same age as Madonna [Badillo],” she explains.
Ferrer, who learned of Badillo from a news segment on television, has lived here for two months. “I saw Madonna on TV. She was being interviewed, so it was a complete coincidence,” Ferrer says.
“After that, I spotted her outside. I saw her during the day walking down a street and I asked her, ‘Are you the Madonna that was on TV?'”
Since then Badillo has shared her home with her – one of roughly 25 Badillo estimates have come and gone over the past two years.
“She’s fabulous. I love her personality. Although, if you get on the wrong side of her, she’ll tell it how it is. She doesn’t mince her words,” Ferrer says while straightening her blonde wig before a night of work.
Badillo herself, who has never been a sex worker but a stylist and beauty product saleswoman, was diagnosed with HIV more than 25 years ago and blames her own promiscuity as a young woman. She has also been battling cancer since two years ago and now lives with a colostomy bag.
“I faced lots of discrimination because there’s a lot of stigma around the illness, even nowadays there are people who don’t understand,” she explains
“I’ve had clients who’ve left me because they think that when I pluck their eyebrows they’re going to catch it, or even just by touching them.”
Although hard data on the issue is scarce, Caribe Afirmativo says many Venezuelan migrants living with the disease have gone without medication and cross over to Colombia. They arrive in areas with poor HIV care, even for Colombians. People have to wait a long time to get assessments for medicine and it often leads to AIDS.
“Last year, in Barranquilla, eight gay Venezuelan men died of AIDS while waiting to be assessed to get their medicine,” Castaneda says.
“One thing that happens is that many Venezuelans who arrive can’t find formal employment and end up in sex work. Some of them use protection, some don’t, and this has caused a rise in the virus and a greater risk to Venezuelan people living in this situation,” he adds.
Another problem stems from the undocumented status of many Venezuelan migrants. Worried of possible deportation at health centres, many do not attend medical checks.
“We can say that the situation of Venezuelans living with HIV in Colombia is a humanitarian crisis and we need to see an immediate response by the government,” Castaneda says.
In recent years, Castaneda and many NGOs have invited Badillo to speak about HIV/AIDS prevention at schools in Maicao and elsewhere in Colombia.
Badillo also takes her migrant guests to a local LGBTQ safe house, Caza de Paz, where they can obtain medical tests free of cost.
“Thank God, I have been able to live with this illness,” Badillo says. “I’ve been on national radio, TV and in newspapers and I go and speak at schools about HIV. I am also very involved with spreading this message within my own community.”
Although she recognises the hardships she’s endured, Badillo insists that trans women ought to be proud and determined in their quest for equity and equality.
“We may be ‘different’ to other people,” she concludes, “but we still have the same rights as anyone else.”