Bethany Ao finds out that transgender sex workers face a double stigma of being transgender and in the sex industry.
Cape Town - When Leigh Davids was 14, her family evicted her because they couldn’t accept she was transgender. With nowhere to go, Davids wound up on the streets of Cape Town and started sex work. On the same day, she also joined a gang and started using drugs.
Now, 23 years later, Davids works for the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task force (Sweat), fighting to empower fellow transgender sex workers through activism.
Transgender sex workers face a double stigma of being transgender and in the sex industry.
This presents them with a unique set of challenges, such as discrimination from law enforcement officers, increased risk of being a victim of violence and a lack of access to health care.
Sex work in South Africa has been illegal since the Sexual Offences Act was passed in 1957. In 2007, the law prohibited the purchasing of sex work. However, it remains common.
Davids said she believes the first step towards improving life quality for transgender sex workers is to decriminalise sex work.
“Right now we become the perpetrator at the end of the day in a court, being the sex worker,” she said.
Female transgender sex workers meet weekly through SistaazHood, a support group. This is crucial for them to continue sex work in the safest way possible.
More than 30 women attend SistaazHood regularly and the youngest is 16.
Mia said she frequently received tips from other women at the support group about dangerous clients who wished to harm transgender people.
“We teach one another how to stay out of dangerous parts (of the city). One sex worker will inform others, 'Stay away from that area, this person or that car because it’s quite dangerous.’ When you spot that, you don’t fall for the trap,” she said.
While Mia and Davids both said it was often safer to disclose their gender status to their clients, it was not always possible.
“Sometimes you have to make money and you just have to be that woman. Sometimes you have to get into the dance to be okay,” Davids said. “If something happens, I go into fight mode. If I can’t fight my way out, I’m going to get hurt there. That means verbally, emotionally as well as physically.”
Mia added: “Once you meet this client, you look like a female and you present to be a trans woman. In that sense you’re very, very vulnerable. Over the years, being trans, first of all, violence has become a normal thing now in our spaces. We’ve been through it.”
Sweat also provides its users with a 24-hour help line for dangerous situations and arrests. When a sex worker is arrested and calls them, they immediately send a paralegal.
Davids said one key achievement for transgender sex workers was creating the standard operating procedures for the police regarding their arrests. The procedures state that transgender people can demand to be searched by a police officer of the same gender reflected by their IDs, as well as other measures to ensure dignity.
“They are not to remove your breasts. They are not to make fun of you. They are not to throw you in a cell where other men are,” Davids said. “If there is no cell they will have to drive around and search for a cell for you, where you can be with other trans people or alone in that cell.”
Transgender sex workers worked with Gender DynamiX to achieve the implementation of these procedures, but the relationships between the sex workers and transgender people and sex workers in Cape Town were not always so smooth.
“In the sex worker community, it’s like guys on one side, girls on the other and we’re in the middle. We’re not trying to take any jobs. There’s a special market for each one of those in the industry and it’s all about understanding where you fall in place,” Mia said.
Davids added: “Within the transgender community, we were like the black sheep of the family. Over the last two years things have changed because they now understand us and we are advocating in these spaces quite a lot.”
The next step for transgender sex workers is to continue the fight for decriminalisation. In March, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa called for decriminalisation in the National Sex Worker HIV Plan. But change cannot come fast enough, Davids and Mia said.
“The wheel is turning but it’s turning so slowly on us. Sometimes we feel like the wheel is going forward then you find yourself 10 steps back because one thing is being said and another is being done,” Mia said.
“But I believe it will happen sooner rather than later.”