“We just want to be accepted into society for the women that we are.”
This was the message of transgender sex workers who formed part of the Intersexion exhibition showing at the Iziko South African National Gallery until Saturday August 25.
The Intersexion exhibition is a body of photographic images, voice and video installations pertaining to sex workers in South Africa, in particular feminine identified transgender sex workers who identify as female.
Photographer Robert Hamblin has collaborated with sex work activist Leigh Davids to photograph and interview transgender women who sell sex.
To engage with the subject from multiple perspectives, Mr Hamblin put himself into some of the works with Ms Davids.
To mark Women’s Day, a group from Sistaaz Hood, a division of the Sex Workers Education Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) for transgender women and co-creators of the exhibition, had a candid conversation around sex work and trans-advocacy, at the gallery.
Ms Davids, who organised the event, and is a part of Sistaaz Hood, said the exhibition was a result of a friendship between herself and Mr Hamblin, but also to show the plight of transgender women in South Africa.
“Transgender women are the most vulnerable. We get violated for who we are and for our body parts we have. As sex workers we get judged for the work that we do.
“It is also problematic that as black people we weren’t educated around gender.”
She said Sistaaz Hood started when a group of transgender women who ran away from home because they were shunned met at Sweat. “We were put between males and some between females, but they didn’t speak our language, so to say. We needed a space of our own, a space where we could advocate for the rights of the transgender community.”
She said one of the reasons transgender women turn to sex work is because they are uneducated.
“While we are sex workers, we are treated as women, but we still have to hide parts of ourselves. We have to stand a certain way when we are on the streets, but we can still do the ‘dance’.”
She said with the exhibition, they wanted to explore the topic what makes a woman a woman? How did we conclude that a woman needs to be born with a vagina?
“We are women, and we need to be seen as women without looking between our legs.”
Ms Davids said while the conversation around sex work and gender is an ongoing one, the ultimate goal is to decriminalise sex work.
Nigel Patel, a UCT student and queer activist, said the women who form part of the exhibition are those who are often forgotten, left out of pictures and out of conversations, ostracised from female sex workers and left out of male groups. He said he admired the women who fought for a space for transgender women and those who recognised the statement “trans women are women”.
“The artworks speak to the local and political effort that still needs to be made when it comes to transgender sex workers.”
He said one thing that stands out is that the artwork and pictures are housed, and have a roof over their heads, while the women who appear in the pictures are dealing with homelessness because they are shunned.
“One of the things these women are fighting for is a shelter for trans women because they are turned away from women’s shelters and are not shielded from the violence of men.”
He said he is proud of the women who took part in the exhibition.
“I hope a young transgender looks at these pictures and says, ‘I want to be like her’.”
Aquilla Gontsho, a member of Sistaaz Hood and a panel member, said the world is all about gender. “Men can be cruel and do whatever they want as long as they have money, and women are taught that if they are beautiful, everything will be okay.”
She said she was born a boy but everything inside her told her she was a girl. “I grew up in poverty, but I was beautiful, and I thought my beauty would help me through my life, but I became a sex worker at a young age.” She said it was hard to access transitioning medical care.
“The lists are long but eventually I got the body I wanted and needed to make me feel like a woman. I felt beautiful.
“I listened to society and what they say, how a woman should walk or act, but that didn’t keep me safe, that didn’t give me a successful career as a model.
“I am a sex worker, and for this, I am a criminal in this country. I am a black, transgender woman and for this, I have experienced the most violence. We cannot access healthcare because of who we are. I am still poor. We die of Aids at an alarming rate. This needs to stop.”
Gulam Petersen, a transgender sex worker, said the exhibition serves as an eye-opener for the world to see that transgender women can also be accepted into society.
“As a sex worker, it is such an honour for me to be in the National Gallery of South Africa – this is where history is made.”
She said the older generation of transgender women are paving the way for the next generation who are still in the closet, fearing rejection from their family and communities.
“We need people to realise that the LGBTI community is here to stay. It is time for us to stand up for ourselves, especially us as trandgender women.”
Ms Petersen said she has been a sex worker for 27 years. “On a daily basis we face boundaries. We are rejected by our families and by society. We had to find a space of our own where we can be happy. We don’t have rights because we are seen as men. We get thrown in the cells with men and it is very traumatising for us.”
She said with clients, it is also difficult because they see you as a woman when you are picked up but when they discover you are a man, you could get killed.
“We have lost many sisters in that way. Our sisters get beaten, stabbed and thrown off bridges. We are the ones who were lucky to survive and we need to pave the way for the younger generation.
“We just want society to see us as the women we are. We want people to respect us and accept us. We want to benefit from the labour laws as sex workers.”