Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes / Edition 2

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In this dramatic and compelling narrative, anthropologist Don Kulick follows the lives of a group of transgendered prostitutes (called travestis in Portuguese) in the Brazilian city Salvador. Travestis are males who, often beginning at ages as young as ten, adopt female names, clothing styles, hairstyles, and linguistic pronouns. More dramatically, they ingest massive doses of female hormones and inject up to twenty liters of industrial silicone into their bodies to create breasts, wide hips, and large thighs and buttocks. Despite such irreversible physiological changes, virtually no travesti identifies herself as a woman. Moreover, travestis regard any male who does so as mentally disturbed.

Kulick analyzes the various ways travestis modify their bodies, explores the motivations that lead them to choose this particular gendered identity, and examines the complex relationships that they maintain with one another, their boyfriends, and their families. Kulick also looks at how travestis earn their living through prostitution and discusses the reasons prostitution, for most travestis, is a positive and affirmative experience.

Arguing that transgenderism never occurs in a "natural" or arbitrary form, Kulick shows how it is created in specific social contexts and assumes specific social forms. Furthermore, Kulick suggests that travestis—far from deviating from normative gendered expectations—may in fact distill and perfect the messages that give meaning to gender throughout Brazilian society and possibly throughout much of Latin America.

Through Kulick's engaging voice and sharp analysis, this elegantly rendered account is not only a landmark study in its discipline but also a fascinating read for anyone interested in sexuality and gender.

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What People Are Saying

Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Don Kulick corrects the commonly accepted view that Brazilian transvestism is primarily about gender and gender reversal. By the end of this book, one is quite convinced that the travesti option is about sexuality, an intensely dramatized notion of heightened masculine desire. Travesti will be compelling reading for anyone interested in Brazil, sexuality, and the body.
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Product Details

Table of Contents

Note on the Transcriptions
1: The Context of Travesti Life
2: Becoming a Travesti
3: A Man in the House
4: The Pleasure of Prostitution
5: Travesti Gendered Subjectivity
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2004

    O bicho pegou!

    I found this book to be very well written and, in several instances, it made me long to return to my anthropological studies at NYU. Had I only been a curious reader, I probably would have found this book brilliant, but my reading was shaded by the fact that I personally know many travestis in Salvador (Peruco, Xuxuca, Kit Mahoney, Angelica) and therefore found the exclusion of several things to be particularly odd. The importance of having a basic understanding of the language and culture of a country in order to do fieldwork and understand anything in that country cannot be overstated, and the fact that Professor Kulick went into the ¿field¿ totally green must have put him at a significant disadvantage. This disadvantage would explain his cultural missteps and failure to see his ¿subjects¿ within the larger Brazilian context. The lack of contextualization is akin to discussing America¿s obesity problem without discussing the automobile, the microwave, women in the workforce, lack of school physical education programs, etc. A population teeming with 300-lb. people seems very strange indeed when not seen in context. Though far more thorough than most researchers, it¿s incomprehensible to me that he barely discusses race/ color and class at all. It¿s important to note that nearly all travestis are negra (black) and mulata/ morena (brown) and come from the lowest social classes, and everyone knows that, in Brazil, the primary contribution that negras and morenas are thought to offer society is their sexual services (mulata é pra transar, branca é pra casar). It¿s also strange that there is hardly any discussion of religion and, being a gringo and all, Professor Kulick seems to look down on Candomblé and tries to defend his new travesti friends by asserting that they are not ¿devotees¿ of the religion. All of the travestis that I know practice Candomblé, but would never admit it to a prejudiced gringo who doesn¿t seem to understand the religion anyway. In fact, by ignoring Candomblé, Professor Kulick missed a crucial element in understanding the place of the travesti in society. It is in the terreiro that Brazilians become accustomed to seeing men dressed as women and learn to respect their special status. This book, though thoughtfully put together, lacks an understanding of Brazilian norms which would have made the work more complete. The knowledge that, for instance, Brazilians are used to mixture (e.g. being culturally/ racially mixed, practicing Candomblé and Catholicism simultaneously) means that travestis are one of many hybrid classes in a highly hybridized nation. Further, knowing what I know about baiano travestis, I am certain that they would not have allowed Professor Kulick to hang out with them if they didn¿t consider him to be one of them. It¿s clear to me in his writing that he greatly enjoyed spending time with the bichada and was se-sentindo just as much as they were.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2000

    Vivid and challenging

    Although this book was excellent in portraying this facet of Brazilian culture from a sympathetic anthropologist's perspective, it was almost too vivid. The details of the stories gave too much information, enough to make the reader feel uncomfortable and appalled. Although it tried to invoke a sense of sympathy for these people, I feel it only served to show me how disillusioned this group of people seems and how rough of a life they lead, with no apparent benefits or enjoyments.

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