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The Story of Claudette, Geneva's Intersex Prostitute

Claudette is 76, a keen cyclist, sex workers rights activist and my friend.

by Malika Gaudin Delrieu
03 December 2014, 10:25am

This story was originally published on ​VICE France

When I lived in Switzerland, I volunteered for a local association called Aspasie, who campaign for the rights of prostitutes. This is how I met Claudette – a member of the association and a prostitute.

We first met in November 2011 in a café in Geneva and immediately got on well. Claudette was the one who suggested I photograph her story; I had thought about it, but didn't dare ask until we got to know each other better. Over the next weeks, I met her friends, her wife, her family and finally, she allowed me to take some photos of her in her house.

Claudette is 76 and hermaphroditic: That means, she was born with underdetermined genitals. Nowadays, many children born this way are operated at birth and generally, the doctors tend to go for girls – it's easier to dig a hole than to create a stick – without knowing what gender hormones will lead the person to in their teenage years. In 1937, Claudette's parents were particularly ahead of their time and let Claudette choose her identity. Still, they declared her a boy because – especially at that time – being male was an undeniable advantage. 

However, Claudette always felt like a girl and has lived her life alternating between sexes. She doesn't really talk about it though; She's often avoided the problem by wearing unisex sport clothes. 

Claudette became a prostitute when she was 16 years old. Her family lived in Morocco at the time, which is where she fell in love with a neighbour – Carmen. Carmen showed Claudette the joys of sex but also of men, and when she realised how much Claudette loved both, she suggested that Claudette joined the brothel she worked for in Tangier. 

At the time of the Morocco Independence uprisings in the mid 1950s, Claudette's parents decided to go back to Switzerland while she was still at university. To help her out, Carmen gave Claudette all the money she earned at the brothel. It was thanks to that money that Claudette was later able to continue her architectural studies in Switzerland.

Being a prostitute is not the only profession Claudette has gone for in her life. She always returned to this job when she needed money, but mostly when she needed to feel like a woman. Besides that, she did all kinds of jobs: welder, staff manager, architect, sales associate in an American company, ​sophrologist and the list goes on.

Later, she became a father so for a while she had to act as a man. In her private life, she never hid her shapes but she didn't want her children to have any problems at school so she was careful in public. Now that her children are old enough, she's stopped worrying about what people say; she is a prominent activist for sex workers rights. Her wife, André, has always known about her dual nature and her job and supported all her choices.

Today, Claudette lives in Haute-Savoie, a French region that's one hour away from Geneva. She divides her time between her family, her job and activism and cycling. She used to keep a studio where she received clients but in latter years she's mostly been going to people's houses. Sometimes, she also hangs around Boulevard Helvétique in Geneva – an area that's traditionally known as a prostitute hangout. 

To take this series of photographs, I had to earn Claudette's trust little by little. I wanted to show that prostitution is a complex job that can't always be narrowed down to exploitation. Claudette has been manipulated by journalists quite a few times in the past: They focused on only one aspect of her life, reducing her to her gender or her job. I managed to convince her (and hopefully to prove to her) that I wasn't going to do the same.

I did want to take naked photos of Claudette but I didn't want her to show her complete anatomy. I explained that to her and together, we came up with the idea of using a towel. I also met one of her clients, who is also one of her closest friends. I explained to him that I was keen on taking non-explicit photos, as well as my reasons for that. He agreed to let me photograph him.

It is very touching to listen to Claudette talk about her clients. I remember one story about a client, who ejaculated as soon as she placed her hand on his thigh. He was so embarrassed that he wanted to leave right away but Claudette convinced him to stay – he had already paid and she did not want to take him for a ride. They talked together and he finally admitted to her that premature ejaculation was a major obstacle in his relationships with women. She gave him some practical advice, which he followed right there and then, A few months later, she received an enormous bouquet of flowers accompanied with a card from that same guy – he thanked and told her that he was living happily with a woman.

I still stay in touch with Claudette. The last time I saw her was two months ago at my wedding. She came with her wife and proposed a toast. She met my family and friends. She knows my husband well, as well as his dad – they both love cycling as much as she does.

Claudette is currently experiencing some serious health problems. Doctors found that she suffers from throat cancer but thanks to an operation that seems to have worked well, she's on the road to recovery. Her ambition is to beat the world record for cycling on track in the 80-84 age category, within the next three years. 

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