Gulam Peterson sighs and takes a long drag from his cigarette: ‘Transgender sex workers have a tough time. They often get beaten up and raped by so-called clients insisting on a full house. Going to the police is not even an option. Going to a clinic or a hospital even more so,’ says the tall, lanky man, dressed today in khaki slacks and a body-hugging denim jacket.
His straightened, jaw-length hair is combed back and tucked behind his ears. Peterson continuously steers the interview away from his own life, preferring to focus on the work he does at the Sex Worker Education & Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) in Cape Town.
‘I don’t care about going to a clinic or day hospital, but many of the transgender sex workers are very scared, so I go with them and support them and the relief when they are done is my reward,’ he smiles, flashing a gap where two front teeth used to be.
‘It all goes smoothly until you get to the point where the examination has to take place. Then it becomes complicated and you have to start dealing with questions whether you are a man or woman. Quite often by the time you leave the weigh-in room, the news has spread and everyone in the waiting room is staring. They seem scared of you.’
In a long-term relationship now, Peterson or ‘Phoebe’ as he was know in his sex worker days, laughs: ‘This doesn’t mean I don’t do naughty-naughty every now and then.’
A peer educator for the 25 transgender sex workers who attend a weekly support group meeting at the Sweat offices, Peterson said it was critical to give this community a safer place to work where they are able to access healthcare services, including safer sex education.
‘I visit them all as often as I can in the clubs and on the streets and try to give them nice tips on how to practice safer sex,’ he smiles.
Peterson explains that he tries to create an environment where sex workers feel safe to talk about all their challenges. ‘I tell them that I am not interested in hearing what they are doing, it’s more a friendly conversation,’ he says.
Peterson is clear that the specialised health service offered for transgender patients at the Health4Men Ivan Toms clinic in Woodstock was a saving grace. ‘I know that they would not go to the clinic if they were not able to go to Woodstock,’ he says.
Statistics point to high rates of HIV infection among transgender sex workers.
Stories of being abused, raped, beaten up flow freely as the interview progresses, with Peterson recalling various incidents since he started sex work at the age of 19, more than 20 years ago.
Was he considering gender re-assignment or a sex change? ‘You know, I love Lady Gaga. Her song, ‘I was born this way’. It speaks to me. So no, this is the card life has dealt me and I am okay with it. I am not up to the long process of hormone treatment, having breasts done and so on. The breasts and beard is easy, it’s all the other stuff I am not up for.’
He shrugs: ‘Sometimes I miss the comfort of a family and sometimes not. But when I am out there in my kort skirtjie or bell bottoms or tight pants, then I am me and that’s okay with me.’