The Broader Picture : Our Lady Of Cross-Dressers

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La Victoria is one of the poorest and grimmest inner-city districts of Lima, the capital of Peru. It is one of the city's main centres of drug-dealing, prostitution and Aids. And it is also home to a Catholic image of the Virgin Mary which is the focus of a group known as the Christian Community of Transvestites. The icon, known as Our Lady of the Door, is housed in an office above a car-repair workshop, Lima Diesel; housed in an elaborate shrine decorated with flowers and fairy lights, she shares her home with the business's clerical staff, and also the transvestites, who meet in the office once a week.

Twice a year, on 13 May and 15 December, the people of La Victoria take to the streets in a procession to honour Our Lady of the Door; the transvestites, who regard the Virgin as their own special protector, form a conspicuous group amongst the revellers. The festivities last several weeks, with processions, fireworks, music, feasting and dancing, while the icon is paraded through the streets on a massive wooden altar. The Virgin is not neglected for the rest of the year; her hemlines, wigs and jewellery, adjusted by the transvestites according to seasons and fashion, vary. For the festivals, however, she wears a traditional golden crown and white robe.

The statue of Our Lady of the Door was brought to Lima from a small central-highland town by an elderly transvestite, Mami Rosa (pictured far right); at the end of the Eighties, she appealed to Luciano Bejares, the owner of Lima Diesel, to take over responsibil-ity for the Virgin and her twice-yearly fiestas. Bejares prayed to the statue, though he has never revealed what he prayed for, and his prayers were answered. Today he sponsors the festivals, which cost as much as $10,000 a time - a fortune in the context of the region's grim poverty.

The transvestites' weekly meetings in Bejares' office have been going on for a decade now, encouraged by Father Italo Soccia, an Italian missionary priest who, as well as attending to the transvestites' spiritual needs, has also helped them to address health and social issues connected with their lives (40 per cent are HIV positive and another 70 per cent are infected with syphilis or herpes). Their focus on the Virgin has helped them reconcile their sexuality with their Catholicism. "She is always with us and she belongs as much to us as to anyone else. I know that the Virgin loves me just the way I am," says Lorena, one of the transvestites' leaders. !