Mya makes no bones about what she does for a living. Her website is frank about the services she offers as a transgender sex worker; they range from the "girlfriend experience" to the "VIP treatment" and everything in between.
"We are not criminals," she says adamantly in a Skype interview from San Francisco, where she is currently working. "When people come to see me, I take the appointment seriously. I do my best to make them happy. We're all legal adults; my customers are not bad people. Sometimes they're having trouble with their marriages; sometimes they just want more spice in their lives."
Unfortunately for Mya, prostitution is illegal in the United States -- though not in Canada, where her website is registered. Because she is so easily found online, her name has been changed to protect her identity.
Slim and full-lipped, Mya is Thai-Chinese, though she was raised in Java and speaks English with an Indonesian accent. She says she travels across the globe for her profession, and it was on one of these trips that she decided to go to Dubai, where she knew she could make a lot of money in the transgender sex trade.
"The men there love me," she says. "I don't know why. Religiously speaking, it's forbidden. But culturally, it's among them.… When I walk in the street or in the mall, boys are all over me."
Although there is very little data regarding this phenomenon, activists and lawyers who work with transgender sex workers say that the thriving sex trade in the Middle East, especially in Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, and Bahrain, is attracting hundreds of transgender sex workers, mostly from South Asia and the Pacific Islands. All these Gulf countries abide by strict Islamic law, outlaw homosexuality, and forbid gay foreigners from entering the country.
Transgender individuals in particular have a difficult time traveling and residing in Gulf countries -- if they are caught with documents identifying them as members of the opposite sex, they're immediately detained and deported. If they are arrested for sex work, they could be jailed for even longer periods before they are allowed to leave the country.
This is one of the more extreme challenges faced by the Arab Gulf countries as they struggle to adapt to the changing cultural norms brought on by globalization. With the discovery of oil, these countries have been catapulted to the forefront of the world economy -- but massive wealth has brought huge social changes as well, as foreigners have brought their own cultures with them, sometimes shocking the deeply conservative populations. This is most evident in emirates such as Dubai, where migrants make up 90 percent of the population. These communities have long grappled with the sale of alcohol and foreigners' scanty clothing -- but the presence of transgender sex workers is dealt with not through compromise, but brute repression.
According to activists, while awaiting deportation in Gulf countries, many migrant transgender women are subject to all manner of abuse and degradation, including beatings, public floggings, and sexual violence. There have been instances of transgender migrants murdered in the Middle East, most famously when Sally Camatoy, who was featured in the Israeli indie film Paper Dolls, was found bludgeoned to death in Dubai.
In a January report, Human Rights Watch documented abuses committed against transgender people in Kuwait. In addition to extensive physical abuse, the report stated that every one of the 40 transgender women interviewed "suffered some form of sexual abuse at the hands of police, most of them unreported due to fear of reprisal."
Mya says that on April 28, 2010, the second time she went to Dubai to work, she was caught by undercover police who pretended to be clients. According to Mya, she was released in August, after spending three months in solitary confinement at Al Awir, a men's prison in Dubai.
"They really treated me like a dog or an animal," she says. "There are a lot of big criminals -- drug dealers, things like that. Those big criminals were allowed to pay to come to my cell. The guard would open the gate and let them enter my cell and rape me whenever they wanted."
Her tone is matter-of-fact, as if she were discussing what she had for breakfast.
"The harder I fought, the tougher it was for me," she says. "The first one was the hardest. I fought like crazy. But after the second month, I realized I couldn't do it anymore, so I tried to be nice and cooperative."