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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

Sunday, May 5, 2024: How Pope Francis opened the Vatican to transgender sex workers

Sunday, May 5, 2024:

How Pope Francis opened the Vatican to transgender sex workers



VATICAN CITY — Sea gulls soared over St. Peter’s Square as Laura Esquivel, clad in tight leather pants, aimed herself toward the high walls of the Holy See. “It’s not too much? My makeup?” she asked, self-consciously touching a rouged cheek. “I don’t care what people think. But this is the pope.”

 

She hurried into the Vatican’s cavernous Paul VI Audience Hall and was ushered to the front row. Before her, a 23-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Jesus gazed down. Behind her, the faithful flashed curious looks.

 

It was the third papal meeting for Laura, 57, a saucy Paraguayan sex worker who, in her realest moments, described herself as “una travesti,” outdated Spanish slang for “a transgender woman.” She lived by a code: Tough girls don’t cry. But the first time Pope Francis had blessed her, she couldn’t suppress her tears. On their second meeting, they chatted over lunch. He came to know her well enough to ask about her health. On top of her longtime HIV, she’d had a recent cancer diagnosis. During treatment, the church sourced her a comfortable hotel room in the shadow of the Colosseum and provided food, money, medicine and tests.

 

The outreach reflected an unconventional pope in the most radical stage of his papacy. From his early days in 2013, when he famously declared, “Who am I to judge,” Francis has urged the Catholic Church to embrace all comers, including those living in conflict with its teachings. Now, his unprecedented opening to the LGBTQ+ community has reached its zenith — and ballooned into the most explosive issue of his tenure, fueling a bitter clash with senior conservative clerics, who have denounced him in remarkably harsh terms.

 

Pope Francis’s unprecedented opening to the LGBTQ+ community has fueled a bitter clash with senior conservative clerics.

 



In recent months, Francis has given explicit approval for transgender godparents and blessings of same-sex couples. He penned a defense of secular civil unions — once described by his predecessor as “contrary to the common good.” His pronouncements have sometimes seemed contradictory or in tension — authorizing baptisms for transgender people one day, while warning of the moral risks of “sex-change intervention” on another. He has said “being homosexual is not a crime” but hasn’t altered church teaching that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.”

 

Nevertheless, as the 87-year-old pontiff moves to cement his legacy, he has been emphatic about his overarching vision: the open door.

 

Nothing made that point more vividly than his decision over the past two years to welcome nearly 100 transgender women, many of them sex workers, into the sacred spaces of the Vatican.

 

These were imperfect people who had lived through rejection, vice and violence, some losing faith along the way. Like Laura.

 

She’d worked the streets on two continents, starting at age 15. She did time in an Italian jail for cutting another trans woman in a fight. “Soy hecho de hierro,” she’d say. I’m made of iron. She apologized to no one for her life, up to and including the pope.

 

Yet through once unimaginable encounters with the supreme pontiff of 1.4 billion Catholics, and with the support of a local priest and nun, she’d begun to soften. For the first time in years, she’d started to pray. If she beat her cancer, she knew she faced a decision: return to prostitution or, as her supporters hoped, forge a new life.

 

From the front row, on the last papal audience before Easter, she kept her eyes on the pope as he approached in his wheelchair.


“Pope Francis!” she said, reaching for his hand.

“Laura!” beamed the pope.

 

Laura’s connection to Pope Francis was set in motion on a brisk March evening at the start of the pandemic, when a small priest with a high voice pulled his copper-colored Fiat Panda up to her dingy apartment building in Torvaianica.

 

Twenty-four miles south of Rome, near a gay beach and a military barracks, the working-class town was a hub for transgender sex workers, many of them undocumented Latin Americans. Like others, Laura worked a wooded grove. Clients would identify her in their headlights and then accompany her to a shack with a mattress.

 

But Italy’s emergence as a global hot spot for the coronavirus stifled that business. Laura was in a panic. No clients meant no food.

 

It was through other trans women who worked in the woods that she heard about “Don Andrea.”

 

The Rev. Andrea Conocchia, a liberal priest originally from Rome, was doling out food to migrants from the inner courtyard of the boxy Church of the Immaculate Blessed Virgin. Among those who came were cooks, maids and dishwashers who’d lost off-the-books jobs. An Argentine named Paola was the first trans woman to show up.

 

“Padrecito,” she asked with trepidation behind oversize black shades, speaking half-Spanish, half-Italian. “Can you help me like you’re doing with the others?”

 

The next day, Paola returned with a friend. Then again, with more.

 

“Padrecito,” one of them ventured while in the priest’s office another day, “you may or may not have figured this out, but we are sex workers.”

 



He raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t realized — his innocence sometimes verging on comical. But his door, he told them, was open to all.

 

Laura arrived on foot. She had no car, so she walked the mile and a half, armed with a grocery bag and hope. Don Andrea asked for her phone number and encouraged her to go home.

 

A few hours later, at 7 p.m., her cellphone rang. It was Don Andrea. He was outside.

 

“I swear, he brought everything: pasta, rice, sugar, pâté, olives,” she recalled. “Everything in boxes. It was 400, 500 euros’ worth of food. He told me to call him whenever I needed anything.”

 

Writing to Pope Francis was Don Andrea’s suggestion. Some of the food he’d been distributing to the trans women of Torvaianica was from the Vatican’s Office of Papal Charities. They could thank the pope, he told them, and articulate their needs.

 

And so one evening, Marcela Sanchez finished a dinner of gnocchi with chicken, put on pajamas, shut off the lights and began to compose a note to the pope in the glow of her Samsung mobile.

 

Marcela was a sex worker in her late 40s who, like Francis, hailed from Argentina. She opened up to the pope about the police officers back home who’d held her down, beat her and raped her. She wrote of shopping for groceries there by night out of fear of being seen, and bashed, by day.

 

At 1 a.m., she sent the text to Don Andrea, who forwarded it to Francis.

 

The pope wrote back.

 

In a handwritten letter, he addressed her using the feminine in Spanish: “My dear Marcela, thank you very much for your email. … I respect you and accompany you with my compassion and my prayer. Anything I can help you with, please let me know.”


This is an excerpt from the Washington Post story: Read the full article using this link:



By Anthony Faiola and Stefano Pitrelli

May 5, 2024 at 5:00 a.m. EDT


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