Leigh Davids was born on 25 March 1979 in Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa. She was a transgender woman, and a prominent activist, who focused on the rights of black transgender sex workers. She was a sex worker for 26 years and was still active in the industry at the time of her death.
Davids worked for various organisations, including SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce), Gender Dynamix, and the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition (SRJC). In addition, Davids was a founding member of SistaazHood, a Trans Women Sex Worker Support Group, which is the largest transgender women’s support group in Africa. Davids also received the award for Movement Building in South Africa from the transfeminist organisation, Social Health Empowerment (SHE).
At the age of 14, Davids was forced to leave home because of the abuse and discrimination she experienced from her family, who refused to accept her gender identity. She took drugs and engaged in sex work to help cope with poverty, homelessness and the discrimination she faced. She spoke about how coming from a Muslim family, with her father being an imam (a Muslim cleric), made things more challenging for her growing up.
Although Davids was always clear that sex work was a matter of survival for her, as a way to make money, she also expressed that she would never give it up, because of how it helped her affirm her identity as a woman. She worked tirelessly through her activism to push for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. Sex workers have been routinely abused, harassed and detained by police officers in South Africa, and these were things that Davids, experienced many times.
She was known for her many disruptions of symposiums, conferences and other sector meetings all over the world, to champion transgender women and their rights where they were being ignored or misrepresented. This was something that was difficult to do in spaces which were often occupied by academics and politicians. She would always speak plainly and passionately to the crowds, about how these spaces were failing poor, black, transgender people.
Davids only found the word, “transgender”, to describe her identity around 2010, when she was in her early 30s when she encountered the terminology. Upon reflection, she said that when she was five, she realised she wanted to be a girl. She would go on to help educate people about the differences between sexuality, being someone’s sexual preference toward other people, and gender identity, being the internal sense gender that you express to the world. She worked to show how gender is not simply related to one’s biological sex but to do with one’s internal sense of identity.
In 2018 Leigh was part of an art exhibition by artist and photographer Robert Hamblin, interseXion, which was shown at Iziko National Art Gallery in Cape Town. The exhibition was developed over a period of five years and sought to uplift and promote the voices of transgender sex workers of colour in Cape Town, with Hamblin specifically focusing on Davids as a subject. This was not Davids only collaboration within the art world. She also took part in the Zietz Mocaa Curatorial Lab LGBTQI+ Forum and Press Workshop which sought, according to the press release, “to promote intercultural understanding of a community who have been excluded from society’s predominantly hetero-normative culture and discourse. The exhibition promotes education through the arts and develops critical thinking about gender and sexuality.”
Davids tested positive for HIV in May 2009. Before that, she used to get tested every six months. She was on antiretroviral treatment that she received from the Ivan Toms Clinic in Woodstock, a public clinic run by Health4Men. This health facility specialises in providing friendly care to sex-workers and gay men, although they also offer their services to anyone who might need them. However, she often struggled to afford adequate healthcare, especially toward the end of her life. She passed away in the female ward at the Brooklyn Chest Hospital in Ysterplaat, Cape Town, due to health complications on 27 February 2019.
She passed away two weeks before her 40th birthday, which unfortunately highlighted a statement she made at the interseXion exhibition opening in 2018, “International studies show transgender women have an average life expectancy of about 30 to 32 years. We have no studies in South Africa but since 2011 we have photographed 30 black transwomen sex workers for this project. Five of us have died not reaching the age of 40”.
Katy Scott and GroundUp Staff. (2014).“Getting health care to sex workers in Cape Town”, 20 October 2014, https://www.groundup.org.za/article/getting-health-care-sex-workers-cap… [Accessed on 24 February 2020]
Bethany Ao, “Battling a double dose of discrimination”, 21 May 2016, https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/western-cape/battling-a-double-…, [Accessed on 24 February 2020]
Luke Folb, “Experiences of transgender sex workers recorded in Iziko Gallery exhibition”, 15 April 2018, https://www.iol.co.za/weekend-argus/experiences-of-transgender-sex-work…, [Accessed on 24 February 2020]
Mbali Phala, “What it’s like to be a transwoman fighting for sex workers’ rights at #AIDS2016”, July 20, 2016, https://www.thedailyvox.co.za/like-transwoman-fighting-sex-workers-righ…, [Accessed on 24 February 2020]
Iziko South African National Gallery Staff, “Remembering Leigh Davids”, https://www.iziko.org.za/news/remembering-leigh-davids, [Accessed on 24 February 2020]
Shanthini Naidoo, “Leigh’s Story”, https://shanthini.atavist.com/leighs-story, [Accessed on 24 February 2020]
Zeitz MOCAA Curatorial Lab LGBTQI+ Forum and Press Workshop Press Release, 7 November 2017, https://zeitzmocaa.museum/zeitz-mocaa-curatorial-lab-lgbtqi-forum-and-p…, [Accessed on 24 February 2020]
Kellyn Botha, “Remembering Leigh Davids, a flame in the darkness”, 5 March 2019, https://www.mambaonline.com/2019/03/05/remembering-leigh-davids-a-flame…, [Accessed on 24 February 2020]