GroundUp (Cape Town)

South Africa: The Life of a Transgender Sex Worker

At over six-foot tall (with heels) and a body to rival any Hollywood starlet, Leigh cuts an impressive figure. Her jet-black hair and thick eyeliner give her an almost brooding and feline quality. She looks directly at you with a friendly smile and moves with finesse.

To most people, Leigh would seem to be ordinary woman. She is actually a transgender female, meaning she is biologically a man but identifies as a woman. She is also a sex worker and works as a female.

Leigh's story - as a coloured-Muslim-transgender-woman working in the sex industry - is profound, somewhat surreal and a lesson in humanity.

She was born in 1979 in a small and religious coloured community in Steenberg, Western Cape. She grew up in her grandparents' house. Her grandfather was one of the local Imams (a Muslim priest), which, owing to his status in the community, made it difficult for her to live openly as a young woman.

Her grandmother mostly understood. However, her grandfather struggled. He would often ask, "Can't you walk like a man? Can't you take a hammer and nail for once?"

Leigh ran away from home to Cape Town at 14 with just a bag of clothes and two pink five rand notes.

Another transgender female friend, who she met on her one-way train trip to Cape Town, introduced her to the sex industry.

Leigh has worked as a sex worker for the past 22 years. She says that when she arrived in Cape Town, she was faced with three choices to survive: sleep on the streets, steal or become a sex worker. Sex work, according to Leigh, has given her the financial freedom to be herself.

However, this is a freedom that can only be lived through deception. "Society, religion and family," she says constrain her. As a result, she says, "Sometimes we (transgendered people) have to do devilish things in order to be ourselves ... this is where it gets weird".

Leigh's clients are exclusively men. Some of them know that she's biologically a man (and are okay with this) and some of them do not.

"The way to get a straight man to believe that you are actually a woman," says Leigh, "is to undergo 'the transformation'. Your entire being changes, including posture, eye contact, walk and voice."

"Don't throw your body around [like a man]", she says. "Everything has to work perfectly". Life and livelihood depend on it.

Once she gets into a client's car, her act is put to the test. One wrong move could lead to a very dangerous situation. Once she has been picked up, she tries to get her client to "cum quickly, so that he won't want sex". If he does want sex, then "you will need to do everything to get his attention away from the parts that he thinks are your breasts and vagina, so he will continue to believe that you're a woman".

She demonstrated a number of techniques for achieving this, which she says she has used many times before. According to Leigh, "You pull out every stalling tactic you can think of to avoid doing 'the business'". This includes dimming the lights, wearing up to six layers of clothing, keeping on top of the client, and anything else that allows Leigh to control the encounter. If the client wants full sex, then she will have anal sex with them, with the client still believing that she is a woman.

What happens when the client finds out, also know as 'the discovery'? "Think fast, speak fast and move fast, and only in that order". She recounted a number of personal (and other people's stories) of how some clients become extremely violent when they find out that she is biologically a man. In some instances, clients have pulled guns on her.

Leigh says that life as a transgender female sex worker is traumatic, harsh and difficult for most people to understand. "But people must see how we have to live in order to be ourselves," she says.

Leigh says that she goes to mosque once in awhile. When she does, she goes as "God made her" (as a man).

She believes God accepts her. Otherwise how would she have survived such difficult life experiences, she asks.

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