'Stigma follows us': Cape Town's homeless, transgender women fight for recognition

The Sistaaz sit on a couch in conversation in the offices of rights group Gedner Dynamix in Cape Town, South Africa on October 16, 2019. Reuters/Shafiek Tassiem

SistaazHood, a group of transgender, homeless, sex workers in South Africa, has become a growing voice on issues from the legalisation of sex work to better access to healthcare

By Kim Harrisberg

CAPE TOWN - Beneath a bridge in the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock, a strung-together network of blankets serves as a refuge for a group of women fighting stigma on many fronts.

SistaazHood, a group of about 40 transgender women, most of them homeless and sex workers, has become a growing voice on issues such as transgender homeless shelters, the legalisation of sex work and better access to healthcare.

Local rights groups credit the Sistaaz - who were labelled male at birth but identify as female - for challenging the police's relationship with the trans community and motivating a major court ruling on transgender prisoner rights.

"The Sistaaz contributed their experiences to the drafting of the police service's Standard Operating Procedures, outlining concerns about harrassment of transgender people," said Liberty Matthyse, head of transgender rights group Gender DynamiX.

For 45-year-old Netta Marcus, who founded the Siztaaz with five other women in 2010, "stigma follows us wherever we go".

"But we are showing people that we are not a story made up in their minds," she added, adjusting her blue headscarf. "We are here, and people are starting to listen."

South Africa was the first country in the world to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1996 and is still the only African nation to allow same-sex marriage.

Yet, transgender activists say their community has largely been forgotten in the fight for equality.

A core issue for the Sistaaz is safe and affordable housing, which they say goes hand-in-hand with the struggle for their rights as transgender people and as sex workers.

Homeless shelters usually assign them to male dormitories, where "men always want sexual favours", said one group member, who asked to remain anonymous.

Many end up living in makeshift shelters where they are vulnerable to being robbed, attacked or having their homes dismantled by law enforcement, the Sistaaz said.

The lack of housing limits the women's options, making it difficult for those working as sex workers to make a living any other way, explained 32-year-old Lemeez Oliver, another member of the Sistaaz.

"Without proof of residence, we cannot open bank accounts. We cannot get jobs," she said. "It all comes back to housing."

Cape Town's mayoral committee member for community services and health Zahid Badroodien noted in emailed comments that when the city launched a new homeless shelter last year, it allocated a section for transgender people.

VICTORIES

Statistics on South Africa's transgender population are hard to come by.

LGBT+ rights group The Other Foundation estimated in a 2016 report that about 430,000 men and nearly 2.8 million women in the country present themselves in public "in a gender non-conforming way".

The country's constitution protects against any discrimination based on sex, gender and sexual orientation.

But the Geneva-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) says South African transgender people often face obstacles in exercising their equal rights.

For example, ILGA said in a 2017 report that the process someone has to go through to change their gender on official documentation is filled with "arbitrary obstacles".

That could include requiring proof of gender reassignment surgery, which not all transgender people can or choose to go through.

But Marcus noted that in September, a new transgender clinic opened in the Cape Town suburb of Bellville where transgender people can use their preferred names and gender in their medical files. And the transgender rights movement got a further boost that month, when the Equality Court granted a transgender woman held in a male prison outside Cape Town the right to wear makeup, grow long hair and be addressed with female pronouns.

A lady with a crutch walks past a shelter made from blankets under a bridge in Cape Town, South Africa, October 16, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Matthyse of Gender DynamiX said that SistaazHood was integral to the protests outside the court before the ruling.

"They showed that the individual is connected to the collective," she said at her office in Cape Town.

"But we still have a long way to go for creating safe spaces for trans bodies."

That includes transgender-specific shelters where women like the Sistaaz can still practice sex work freely, said Marcus, as well as the decriminalisation of sex work.

Only a few countries - including Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Senegal and Peru - recognize sex work as legal, leaving sex workers elsewhere vulnerable to abuse.

PRIDE

Mia Lukas, a 35-year-old SistaazHood member, takes pride in the fact that "in spite of transphobia", the group's activism is yielding results.

She pointed to the slowly improving relationship between police and the city's transgender community.

For example, the Sistaaz have contributed to the police service's guidelines on how to interact with homeless, transgender people, noted Matthyse. Lukas agreed, saying that "I can see change is happening because law enforcement officers have started addressing us as 'she' instead of 'he'."

"The conversation is changing, even if it doesn't happen overnight. And I love it."

Alderman JP Smith, a member of the mayoral committee for safety and security, said that "generally speaking, the department is duty-bound to enforce the city's by-laws as they apply equally to all residents."

The Sistaaz got a shot of glamour in August 2019, when some of the members appeared in a magazine highlighting their stories and their advocacy.

Called "Sistaaz of the Castle", the magazine was the creation of Dutch photographer Jan Hoek and fashion designer Duran Lantink. The "castle" of the title refers to a 17th-century Dutch colonial fort - The Castle of Good Hope - outside which SistaazHood first started living together as a group.

Celine Dion, a self-named transgender sex worker, looks past the camera while lying near a park in Cape Town, South Africa on October 16, 2019. Reuters/Shafiek Tassiem

There were 1,500 copies of the magazine published, said Hoek, with the proceeds funding the group's work.

In the nearby suburb of Observatory, 36-year-old SistaazHood member Celine Dion rested beneath a tree in a park.

"The magazine showed that we may be homeless, but we are also talented and beautiful," Dion said.

Spurred by a small crowd, she sat up, tilted her head to the sky and started singing French-Canadian star Celine Dion's song "Ashes" - quietly at first, then with increasing volume and confidence.

"And when I pray to God all I ask is, can beauty come out of ashes?" she sang, as more passersby, including a few police officers, gathered around her.

When she finished, they all erupted into applause.

At the end of the day, Marcus returned to her shelter made from pieces of plastic, wood and fabric.

Framed by the the city's iconic Table Mountain, she gazed at the sprawling city and ocean below her.

"I wanted a home with a view," she explained. "When the police tear it down, I just build it up again."

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