How Pope Francis Opened the Vatican to Transgender Sex Workers

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meeting for Laura, 57, a saucy Paraguayan sex worker who, in her realest moments, described herself as “una travesti,” outdated Spanish slang for “a transgender woman.”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.

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