Will they learn to live and let live on the Lido?

No one in Lido di Classe can remember why transsexuals first chose to migrate to their town 20 years ago, but their nocturnal activities are starting to worry the village's increasingly elderly residents. Michael Day reports

In the Stephen King chiller Salem's Lot, the town of the same name sees its population undergo a radical change, as one by one its citizens become vampires. Today in the Italian village of Lido di Classe, another demographic shift, almost as alarming for its elderly and dwindling population, is under way.

The exotic newcomers here also appear at nightfall, though they're not armed with fangs, but high heels and improbable cleavages. In this little town on the Adriatic coast, among the tiny, tree-lined streets and bars and bucket-and-spade shops, the locals could soon be outnumbered by transsexual prostitutes.

There are now thought to be more than 200 "trans", as they're known in Lido di Classe, with many coming from South America and beyond. Most are thought to earn their living the oldest way of all.

According to locals, the first few entered Italy from north of the border 15 to 20 years ago, although no one can remember precisely how or why the first of the newcomers chose this pleasant, but nondescript little town on the Adriatic as their base.

Transsexual friends of theirs were drawn here as result, and gradually the place became a magnet for them – a process that has sped up in the past five years. In contrast, the little village's fixed and ageing winter population is 250 – and falling.

Although not all the transsexuals are prostitutes, Angelo Gorini, the vice-president of the Association of the Friends of Lido di Classe, estimates that at least 48 apartments are rented out to transsexuals who sell sex. He notes that "usually there are at least two per lodging – sometimes up to five; so you can soon work out how many there are".

Even with the streets nearly empty in the scorching mid-summer heat, it doesn't take long to spot a trans. Posing flirtatiously in a nearby doorway, is a striking figure with a low-cut top and peroxide blond hair. Marcella comes straight out for a chat.

When she's aware that she's talking to a reporter she regards me closely for a couple of seconds before offering a demure handshake and declaring that she usually works in big shows. Other trans, though, do "fanno casino" – they cause a bit of a scene, she admits.

She says she's from Switzerland. Quizzed about her Brazilian-sounding accent, and mahogany tan, she says one of her parents is Brazilian.

When asked whether the locals object to having so many trans in the village, she's ready with the answer: "As long as people don't shout about it, Italians don't mind what you do."

Indeed, in Lido di Classe, she says "it's all calm and peaceful and everyone gets on well". It is a view given credence by the arrival of her neighbour, 62-year-old Geno, who gives Marcella a handshake and offers to pose for a photograph with her. She politely but firmly declines the offer, however. "No photos, dear." Onwards, past the store selling beach-balls and sun cream and the "Cactus Sexy Shop", you arrive at the centre of the action on the corner of Via Marco Polo and pine tree-lined Viale Verrazzano. Next to the traditional corner bar with a few, white-haired locals snoozing in the heat, is the trans's favourite hangout Dystak, playing thumping house music at 5.30 in the afternoon.

Parked outside, Mario the taxi driver tells me that the money the bar's patrons bring to the town tends to alleviate the locals' squeamishness, as an epicene youth in tight white jeans and Gucci shades sashays by.

"To be honest, it doesn't bother me at all," he says. "You see them all the time, but mostly in the evening. Often in the balconies with the big breasts. Some of them are really pretty; some of them aren't."

When asked to venture an opinion on who uses their services, Mario proves to be a mine of information, "A lot of married guys, and younger blokes as well," he says. "And some gays, I think. A lot of people go with them because they're very good. They're passionate and they do some things with more ... enthusiasm than wives or girlfriends," he adds before launching into more detail. "I personally wouldn't, because although their breasts look nice, I don't like the surprise that usually comes with it."

Generally, though, there seems to be little discussion about the demand for transsexual prostitutes in Lido di Classe and elsewhere in staunchly Catholic Italy. Marzio Barbagli, a sociologist at Bologna University, who has studied prostitution in Italy, offered the view that, for many of his countrymen who regarded themselves as straight, having sex with a transsexual prostitute didn't in any way change how they viewed their own sexuality.

A stone's throw away, is the little church, Il Cuore Immacolato della Madonna; small but modern – a cone with concrete spider's legs radiating out. Inside a picture of Padre Pio stares placidly at two elderly ladies quietly praying. Its priest, Don Franco Polomba, is not keen to comment on the transsexuals. "I'm not here a lot of the time because I'm also the priest for [nearby] Savio, he says. I'm also very busy. I can't talk now."

Polemic is not in short supply, however. Silvia Lameri, a Republican Party councillor in the governing council of Ravenna, the nearest big town, believes that something has to be done. "At this point it's necessary and urgent to ban the renting out of apartments to male prostitutes," she told La Stampa newspaper.

Opposing her, Antonio Luordo, from the Communist Party, said such an attitude was "discriminatory" and "scandalous". "It seems like we're returning to the past when in northern Italy they hung out signs saying: 'We don't let to southerners'".

Ms Lameri retorted that she only wanted to point out that it wasn't fair to blame the situation on the council. "I want to throw the question back to the local people," she said. "If you don't like it then you shouldn't rent your rooms to them."

Mario and other locals say Councillor Lameri may have hit the nail on the head. The sex trade is so lucrative that some locals are able to charge the newcomers up to €2,000 (£1,761) a month for houses or apartments – a sum unheard of in similar Adriatic seaside towns.

In the past month, an increase in night police patrols has seen the town's action die down a little. But the Lido de Classe community has another strategy for cleaning up their town: a well-intentioned group is launching a training course that will allow the transsexuals to become home-helps or social workers. But Marcella is not convinced. "Dear, that's not going to pay the rent," she says smiling before strolling off to greet another neighbour.

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