Travesti: Sex, Gender and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes, by Don Kulick. University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-46099-1 (paper).

First published in Triple Echo, volume 1 number 3, 1999.

travestis3It’s a strange and interesting world. That was the recurring thought going through my head as I made my way through Travesti, Don Kulick’s book on the transgendered prostitutes of Brazil.

Kulick, an anthropologist at Stockholm University, provides an excellent example of how culture influences our perception of gender and how, by extension, our own North
American culture shapes the way we see ourselves.

From our perspective, anyone who adopted a feminine name and clothing, transformed his body into a feminine shape by ingesting female hormones and by taking the apparently desperate action of injecting industrial silicone would appear to want to be a woman pretty badly. Kulick claims, however, that far from identifying as women, travestis (the word is derived from the verb transvestir, or crossdress) think themselves male. Furthermore, they think any male who would claim the subjectivity of a woman is mentally ill.

Although this is the sort of argument that I would ordinarily greet with some skepticism, I admit he makes a compelling case. While the travestis’ belief that transsexuals are psychologically unbalanced is clearly on shaky ground (something to do with semen being unable to leave the body after surgery and somehow lodging itself in the brain), their male identities are a clear construct of the gender system under which they live.

Although they think themselves male, they nevertheless do not think themselves men:

Manhood is the result of particular interests and particular acts. And one of the defining attributes of being an homem, being a man, in the gender system that the travestis invoke is that a male classified as a man will not be interested in another male’s penis. A man, in this interpretive framework, will happily penetrate another male’s anus. But he will not touch or express any desire for a penis. For him to do so would be tantamount to relinquishing his status as a man.

Although the Euro-American notion that both same sex partners are homosexual also exists in Brazil, the concept that it is only the male being penetrated who is the viado, the homosexual, also has some currency. The underlying assumption in the latter is that all sexual desire is a form of heterosexuality. The travesti being penetrated is “like a woman” and for this reason shares the same gender as a woman. Gender, consequently, is seen more in terms of sexuality than it is in anatomical sex. (Indeed, sex between two
macho men or two women is seen as an aberration.)

This cosmology, combined with the reality of the travestis lives, creates a fascinating subculture. On occasion the travestis will express an envy of women, but their gender system makes it impossible for them to think of themselves as being women. Any travesti with such notions is soon brought down to earth by her fellow travestis with the sarcastic comment that she’s “feeling like a woman”. And yes, they mostly refer to themselves as “she”.

Kulick claims that the sole reason they inject themselves with silicone is to attract men, but this surely is one instance where his bias as a gay male is clouding his judgement. He provides ample evidence that the travestis appreciate their feminine bodies and I am not convinced that it’s done merely to aid them in their profession, which is of course prostitution. When they are not prostitutes, travestis must still live with their bodies and it’s not likely they would alter them if they didn’t like the way they looked afterwards.

This silicone application is mind boggling in itself. Travestis usually have between two and five liters in their bodies, most of it in the hips and bum. This creates the desired teardrop bunda (buttocks) which, unlike the North American and European fixation on breasts, is the essence of female allure in Brazil. The injected silicone will bind with tissue in the body, although the travesti must take precautions immediately after its application not to have it run down her body into her legs. In the 80s when Brazilian police made a sport of tormenting travestis, they would kick and beat the travestis in the buttocks, thigh and breasts knowing the silicone would splatter in all directions and would deform the travestis for life.

Remember, this is industrial not surgical silicone. Travestis have been injecting it only since the early 80s and once injected it is a permanent feature of their bodies. The effect on their health is not yet documented, but one presumes, given the controversial nature of surgical silicone, that it cannot be good. Kulick mentions one travesti called Simone Concreto, so named because the numerous liters of silicone in her body had turned it hard as concrete.

As far as academic books go, this is a real page turner. It is endlessly fascinating to see how travestis form their lives around their view of gender and how they resolve the contradictions that such a view imposes on them. And overlaying the gender system of the travestis is the contradictory attitudes of Brazilians to transgendered people, some of whom figure prominently in television and in magazines.

Regrettably, the fact that a handful of travestis manage to achieve wealth, admiration, and an almost iconic cultural status means very little in practice for the vast majority of travestis. Those travestis, the ones that most Brazilians only glimpse occasionally standing along highways or on dimly lit street corners at night, or on the crime pages of their local newspaper, are one of the most marginalized, feared, and despised groups in Brazilian society.

I like to think that one measure of a good book is how much I learned from it. I learned a lot from this one.