Zoe has a risky business model: to finance a sex change, the ladyboy in Qatar creates and sleeps with men.
Sleeping with men as a ladyboy in Doha is dangerous and therefore particularly lucrative. Picture: ap
"I love Qatar," says Zoe. The feeling is mutual, because she earns well as a ladyboy. Zoe is a Filipino, a woman in a man’s body. She owes her breasts to hormone therapy. And she would like to get rid of her penis. Zoe likes to sleep with men. Someday as a "real" woman, too: she is saving up for her sex change. The rich emirate on the Gulf makes it possible: The hairdresser has a well-paid side job. She sells her body to gay locals. Officially, there are none in the desert state. Homosexuality is socially frowned upon and forbidden by law.
Zoe, 27 years old, has a different name. Prostitution, especially among men, is illegal in the emirate. It is considered a "social crime" and is punishable by up to three years in prison. Zoe, with her double life, is threatened with worse: "Anyone who carries out adultery or sodomy as a profession will be punished with up to ten years in prison," according to Article 298 of the penal code. And not only that: the honor of her family is sacred to many suitors. Zoe has to be careful if she doesn’t want to die in a tragic accident.
Zoe takes her mocha, sips her glass, and winks at the waiter. "Shoukran, habibi!" she thanks him. Here, in the small cafe in Doha, she often spends her lunch break. Her hair is short, she wears cloth pants and a shirt with a check pattern. At first glance, nothing distinguishes them from the drivers or waiters from Asia, from the male migrant workers who are lucky enough not to have to slave away on the country’s construction sites. In fact, the only telltale thing that stretches over Zoe’s hormonal chest is her shirt.
Zoe had to cut off her long hair before boarding the plane to Qatar. The silicone in her breasts that Japanese doctors once implanted also had to come out. It was the condition of her Qatari employer. He is the owner of the hair salon just a few meters from the cafe. Dingy entrance with neon sign, one loveless cubicle next to the next, but: lockable from the inside. One of them is Zoe’s little kingdom.
Zoe has not lied to her boss: he knows how she sees herself. However, she is not allowed to show herself like this.
Zoe feels like a woman, even though she was born a man. In her home country, she says, that wasn’t much of a problem. "My father was only upset when I started using lip gloss and putting on skirts." She was four years old then. Quickly, however, family and friends would then have accepted it. That the boy, the only son, is actually a girl, the fourth daughter. As the youngest child, Zoe was born into a poor Filipino family. "In my home village, there are only farmers," she says.
In the hairdressing salon, her slender fingers clasp the scissors, routinely cutting tips and steps and plucking brows. As she does so, she raves about all the money that flows monthly through her Qatari account to one of the 7,107 Philippine islands.
Ladyboys are in high demand
Thanks to her work in the richest country in the world, she is currently not only having her own house built, but also supporting family and friends in the Philippines. She pays the neighbor for seeds and fertilizer. Zoe is allowed to keep 40 percent of her income from the salon, the rest goes to her employer. She earns 10,000 rial a month, which is about 2,000 euros. That’s enough to pay for all sorts of things in the Philippines: The island nation records an average per capita income of 3,400 euros – per year.
But Zoe doesn’t just have customers in the hair salon. Ladyboys are in demand in the emirate’s gay scene, which is impossible to capture in figures. Rich Qataris leave a lot of money with the young woman, who is a man for them after all. If business with prostitution continues to go so well, Zoe will soon be able to have her male body operated on in Thailand to that of a woman. And she’s having fun with it, too, she says. "In the Philippines, I had to pay for every one-night stand. In Qatar, I get paid by the men." The double standard of a homophobic society is her business model.
"You can’t live openly gay here. But the way they talk, the way they move – they can’t change that so easily," Zoe says of her suitors. "It’s the same with me: I’m just a ladyboy, I can’t change who I am either. It’s like the color of your skin, you can’t change it either," she says.
Even at home, gay Qataris are not allowed to be who they are. "They often ask me what it’s like to be openly gay," Zoe says. She was an entertainer in Osaka, Japan. And she’s had many relationships with European and American men she’s visited back home. Her suitors know that. Zoe is happy to enlighten them about it.
"Incredibly high heels"
Every phenomenon of the homosexual scene also exists in Qatar, Zoe is convinced. She herself has about a dozen Qatari ladyboys as boyfriends. They often wear long hair, which they tie up in everyday life. Zoe tells of lavish private parties in Doha’s luxury hotels. At their parties, the local ladyboys wear makeup, delicate jewelry, "incredibly high heels" – and the abaja, the traditional dress of women in the Gulf states. When they leave the party, they get back into their white thawbs, the men’s traditional dress.
Zoe herself prefers "real" men. She is picky about her suitors. She can afford to be because of the constant offers. Basically, she likes the European type best. As customers, however, the Qataris are not to be sneezed at either: "They are very clean, have a sense of family and hospitality," Zoe enthuses. "I love the people here. They give you money and treat you like you’re very special. I’m a sophisticated woman."
Indeed, Zoe is: for a night together, she expects an appropriate ambience. A hotel room that can cost as little as 3,500 rial (700 euros). "If you really like me, it must be worth it to you," she tells the men.
Often, Zoe says, the men already have experience with Qatari prostitutes – yes, they exist in the emirate, too. At around 500 rials a night, they charge much less than Zoe. But she does not want to name her own price. That also depends on how well she likes the man in question, she says.
"My mother asked me if I had to work very hard for my money. When she heard that I also get paid for my pleasure, she laughed out loud." Recalling the conversation, she has to smile. "But she also told me to be careful not to get caught."
In the 1990s, the Philippine government’s Overseas Employment Administration informed that homosexuals were not allowed to work in Qatar. It was a reaction to mass arrests and expulsions of gay Filipinos from the emirate. In 1995, the case of a U.S. citizen who was imprisoned for six months after being subjected to 90 lashes caused a stir.
At that time, the penalties for "sodomy" were even harsher. In many countries, this catchword is used to condemn all forms of sexuality: a pseudo-religious reference to the story of the city of Sodom. It is found in the Old Testament and the Koran. Zoe has read both books. Religious scholars argue over exactly how to interpret the story: is God punishing homosexuality or rape? One crucial difference. "Sodomy" in many Arab countries today is simply defined as anything away from heterosexual vaginal intercourse.
Tests for homosexuality
That the physical love of two men is part of it, at least that’s something people in the Gulf agree on. In 2013, the Gulf states decided to introduce tests for homosexuality to prevent people from entering their countries. It is not yet known in detail what these will look like.
A society in which homosexuality is strictly taboo is much further from recognizing other gender identities besides man and woman. Qataris are also a minority in their own country. Of the approximately two million people living in Qatar today, just 350,000 have native passports. The rest, like Zoe, are primarily migrant workers from Southeast Asia; there is also a smaller layer of skilled personnel from Europe and overseas. There is a frantic attempt to maintain tradition: Everyone is affected by the restrictive laws and social taboos.
The tourists, too. Because if Fifa boss Sepp Blatter has his way, gay soccer fans will have to abstain from sex at the 2022 World Cup in the Emirate. Out of respect for the host country.
The Qatari penal code is headed with the words "In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful." Zoe says she has told many Qataris that she is Ladyboy. "After I told them I was a Christian and not a Muslim, they were usually OK with it." The fact that Zoe is toying with the idea of converting to Islam is unlikely to please them.