Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes

Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes

by Don Kulick

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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, theySee more details below


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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University of Chicago Press
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Worlds of Desire: The Chicago Series on Sexuality, Gender, and Culture
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Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes

By Don Kulick

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1998 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-46101-4


The Context of Travesti Life

The shortest route to São Francisco Street from the square where the bus lets you off at the end of the line is down a steep, narrow alley through which cars cannot pass because the potholes are too big. The gutters of this alley are filled with orange peels, cigarette butts, tiny plastic cafezinho cups, banana skins, corncobs, popsicle sticks, and empty plastic bags that residents and passersby have tossed away. The corners are piled high with mushy, foul-smelling trash that has been disgorged from the houses in the area. I was never able to discover the name of this street. I looked on maps, it wasn't named; I asked residents, nobody seemed to know. Although people lived on it, the street seemed more of a thoroughfare, a passageway, a gateway to something, than a street in its own right.

On a wall at the very beginning of this apparently nameless gateway, somebody had long ago spray-painted, in spindly black letters, the words "Isso não é verdade"—This is not real. Maybe the author of those words meant them as a protest, or a wry commentary on Brazil—an indigenous, folk echo of Charles de Gaulle's famous comment about Brazil: "This is not a serious country." Maybe "Isso não é verdade" was the chorus of a samba tune that was popular at the time the words were written, and the writer was dancing as he painted them. I don't know. I just know that every time I picked my way down that street and saw "This is not real," I read the words as a kind of road sign—an announcement that one was about to enter another kind of realm, a place where appearances might be deceiving and where what was real and what was not was very much a question of ones desires, frame of mind, and point of view.

At the end of this alley is São Francisco Street. About a kilometer long, São Francisco stretches from a hill topped by a gold-encrusted baroque church bearing the same name as the street down to a heavily trafficked road that connects the "upper" part of Salvador to its "lower" part. The street is located at the edge of the part of the city known as Pelourinho, or the Historic Center. This area was established in the sixteenth century and reached its full social and architectural splendor at the end of the 1700s. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, the balance of money and power in the city had shifted from the old landed gentry (many of whom went bankrupt with the collapse of the Brazilian sugar market in the middle of the century) to a new class of urban bourgeoisie, who began constructing spacious mansions on the periphery of the city. This started a trend, and the wealthy began moving out of Pelourinho to establish themselves in exclusive new neighborhoods south of the city. They sold or leased out their old houses to others, who divided them up into tiny cubicles and squeezed in as many people as they could. The elegance of the city center began to face, and the area entered a long period of neglect and decay. By the 1920s, Pelourinho had become a predominantly poor neighborhood, and by the 1930s it was publicly viewed as a dangerous part of town inhabited largely by prostitutes and criminals. A popular saying of the time was "In Maciel [a particularly disreputable part of Pelourinho], the only ones with money are the thieves" (No Maciel quem tem dinheiro é ladrão). A 1969 population survey concluded that 57.8 percent of the women of Maciel worked as prostitutes (Bacelar 1982:52–69; Oliveira 1994:103–5; Cerqueira 1994: 36; Espinheira 1971).

Since the late 1970s, but especially since the beginning of the 1990s, the city and state governments have been "renovating" Pelourinho, rebuilding its crumbling facades and reconstructing the ruined interiors of the former elite mansions in order to attract tourists and members of the Brazilian middle class. Rumors of the renovation, which had been in the air since the late 1960s, eventually sent property prices in the area skyrocketing by 300 percent. Property owners responded to these inflated prices and the promise of fat indemnification checks for residents either by evicting their tenants and selling their decaying houses or by packing even more tenants into the already crowded houses and taking a cut of the checks they received (and then selling the houses at an enormous profit). The government gave tenants the choice of relocation far outside the city center or indemnification checks, where averaged twenty minimum salaries—the equivalent of almost two years' wages for many people. Most residents opted for the money. In this process of renovating the city center, which continues today, thousands of people were dislocated and forced to move elsewhere. Some of them used their money they had received from the government to buy small houses that they could afford, far outside the center of the city or in the interior of the state. But many more simply spent the money and then moved a few blocks to consolidate themselves in the fringe areas around Pelourinho that were not under renovation (Bacelar 1982; Cerqueira 1994; IPAC 1995; interview with Lúcia Sepúlveda of IPAC [Institute of the Artistic and Cultural Heritage of Bahia], 9 January 1997).

The area around São Francisco Street is one of these areas. It is today like what the worst parts of Pelourinho must have been like in the mid-1960s, inhabited by individuals and families who are extremely poor and/or extremely criminal. The poverty is most evident in the living conditions of the area. The streets are potholed and littered, happy rats the size of Labrador puppies abound, cockroaches are everywhere. The house facades, clearly once magnificent, and painted in cool pastel colors, are all fading and molding and crumbling. Large ferns sprout from cracked walls. Roofs are slowly sliding off their center beams. Inside, the houses have been gutted and divided up into windowless little cubicles, the largest of which are about three by five meters. These are separated from one another by thin plywood walls that reach, if one is very lucky, almost up to the ceiling. There is electricity and running water in all houses, procured by illegally tapping into electric cables and water mains, but both electricity and water fail regularly. And at most, there is one sink, toilet, and showerhead on each floor of the house, shared by everyone who lives on that floor.

Many of the houses have three inhabited floors, and people living on the top two can peer through the cracks in their floor to look down into the rooms of those who live directly beneath them. These cracks in the floor became something of a personal horror for me in my own room on São Francisco Street—the old man living above me was the owner of an incontinent dog, whose urinary problem trickled, shall we say, into my consciousness (and onto my papers and my mattress) at least once a day. And the family living below me would sometimes, without any warning, put down an odd kind of roach repellent in their room that didn't ever seem to actually kill any cockroaches—it merely prodded them into motion, compelling them to heave their fat bodies up through the cracks into my room. On one particularly memorable occasion, my travesti coworker Keila Simpsom and I were forced to end our transcription session and flee the room after we realized that the twentysix four-inch roaches we had squashed in between interlinear glosses were only the vanguard of an invasion that we were powerless to stem.

The criminality of the area around São Francisco Street is evident by the things that the residents do to earn a living. Although a large number of people throughout the area presumably engage in noncriminal means of earning money, such as selling popsides or cigarettes or coffee on the street, giving pedicures, or washing other peoples clothes, it seemed to me that virtually everybody I met or heard spoken about around São Francisco Street supported themselves largely through doing something illegal. The area is known throughout Salvador as a place where drugs exist in abundance, and many of the people I knew sold marijuana, cocaine, Rohypnol, and, beginning in 1996, crack. Every day, at least four or five women or young men would approach travestis sitting on their doorstep, reach into a bag, pull out a skirt, a big cheese, a pair of shoes, a pair of jeans, a bottle of whiskey, some silky lingerie, a wristwatch, a piece of jewelry, a bottle of hair conditioner, or some other item that they had stolen from a store or a person, and ask the travestis if anyone was interested in buying it. Several people in the area specialized in stealing checkbooks and writing bad checks. These men and women would buy groceries worth four hundred reais (about four hundred U.S. dollars), pay with a stolen check, then sell the food to others for half that amount, thereby earning an easy two hundred reais for themselves and saving whoever purchased the food from them an equivalent amount of money. On one corner of the street, there is a never-ending gathering of tough-looking, shirtless young men, always on the lookout for the stray tourist or middle-class Brazilian who might have gotten lost on their way to a chic bar in the spruced-up Historic Center, and always ready to procure drugs for whoever might come by asking for them. The criminality of the area is so high that the residents, I noticed, always turned first to the crime pages of a newspaper, in order to see if anybody they knew was featured there. And the crime rate is so well known that several taxi drivers flatly refused to drive me home at night when I told them where I lived.

In early 1995, there were two houses on São Francisco Street that had only travestis living in them and two other houses, one of which I moved into, that had mostly travestis on one floor but families and others on the remaining floors. All in all, there were about thirty-five travestis living on São Francisco Street at any one time, which made it the highest concentration of travestis in the city.

The house in which I lived was divided up into eleven rooms on the top floor, eleven on the middle floor—where I had my room—and twenty-one truly minuscule cubicles on the basement floor. The top floor was occupied mostly by the landlady's friends and family members; the middle floor contained seven travestis, a man in his thirties who sold coffee and cigarettes on the street, and two old pensioners, both of whom rented a tiny, airless box. The basement floor of the house was derisively called the favela de cocô—the slum of shit—by travestis. The majority of people living here were young couples or single mothers with small children, but a number of travestis also lived on this floor in rooms not much larger than broom closets. At the back of the house was a muddy yard that adjoined the "favela." It contained the only open spigot on that floor, and it was always in use by children bathing, or by women or travestis washing clothes or preparing food. To one side of the yard lay an enormous pile of garbage flung by people from the top two floors and by residents of the favela themselves. This pile not only emitted a continual smell of fermenting rot; it also attracted scores of rats, who poured into the yard as soon as night fell, driving all the residents into their rooms and forcing them to keep their doors closed tight.

Despite the relative squalor of the living conditions, rents in that house and others in the area around São Francisco Street are high. In 1996, the tiny rooms that travestis live in were renting for between thirty-five and fifty-five reais a week, while the minimum monthly salary was only 112 reais, that is, twenty-eight reais a week (the rooms rented by families in the favela de cocô were cheaper, at fifteen to twenty-five reais a week). Since the Historic Center of Salvador became inhabited predominantly by poor people, criminals, and prostitutes, it has been known as an area in which tenants are ruthlessly exploited—paying the highest rents in the city per square meter of space, in houses that have been left to deteriorate and eventually collapse (Bacelar 1982:104; Oliveira 1994:105; Espinheira 1971; FPACBA 1969). Landlords in the area around São Francisco Street keep this exploitative tradition alive by continuing to charge whatever they want for rooms (and travestis are usually charged more than others, because landlords know that they generally earn more than many others). They raise the rent without notice whenever they feel like it, and they make no effort at all to patch leaky roofs or fumigate vermin-infested walls. If tenants complain, they are told to move out. Landlords know that they can continue squeezing travestis and many of the others who live in the area because most of those people stand almost no chance of ever being accepted as tenants in other parts of the city center. In addition, landlords can continue exploiting their tenants because they do not mind the prostitution that travestis practice in their rooms, and they have no objections to the wide range of drug deals and other illegal activities that go on inside other rooms in their houses. On the contrary, a not insignificant number of the landlords are themselves accomplished drug dealers, and they recruit their tenants to sell drugs on the street for them.

I moved into the house on São Francisco Street at the invitation of Keila Simpsom, the travesti who during the course of my fieldwork became my teacher, coworker, and best friend. Keila is a big-boned travesti in her early thirties who made me think of a Maori warrior when I first saw her. She has the large, round, almost Polynesian face and skin color characteristic of people in her native state of Maranhão, in northern Brazil. She was also, at that first meeting, wearing a garment that looked to me like a muumuu; this undoubtedly cemented the South Sea associations in my mind. And although Keila has since cut her black hair short and bleached it blonde, at the time I met her she was letting her hair grow out in a fan that reached outwards and upwards from her head. Her big hair made her look even more expansive than she really is, and my impression of her size was further augmented by her booming, no-nonsense voice that I first heard ordering travestis to line up to receive the condoms that she was about to distribute to them. She intimidated me utterly.

I had been brought to meet Keila by Nilton Dias, a program coordinator at the Grupo Gay da Bahia (GGB), one of Brazil's oldest gay activist groups and the only gay organization in Salvador. For about a year previous to my initial visit to Salvador, in mid-1993, GGB had been distributing free condoms to travestis once a week. This distribution took place in front of the house in which Keila lived because Keila, who had worked briefly with GGB in 1990 and subsequently with another non-governmental organization that distributed free condoms to travestis, had agreed to fill out a questionnaire that the president of GGB, Luiz Mott, had designed to be asked of each travesti who came to receive free condoms.

Travestis and AIDS

The free condoms were, of course, one response to the AIDS epidemic that has decimated Brazils travesti population since the early 1980s. Since the disease was first diagnosed in Brazil in 1982 and 1983, the country has consistently ranked among the leaders in number of cases reported to the World Health Organization. As of December 1996, Brazil had registered 94,997 cases of AIDS since the epidemics outbreak. Even though this number is high, it is universally regarded as severely underrepresentative, and the Brazilian Ministry of Health estimated that a more realistic figure is about 130,000. What is worse, estimates of the number of people currently infected with HIV in Brazil range from 338,000 to one million (Folha de São Paulo, 21 December 1996). Salvador, which as of August 1996 had reported 1,295 cases of AIDS since the epidemic was first diagnosed, ranks ninth among Brazilian cities in number of registered cases (Boletim Epidemiológico, weeks 23–35, 1996). This relatively low number, however, says much more about the local populations access to health care than about the true incidence of AIDS among the city's residents.


Excerpted from Travesti by Don Kulick. Copyright © 1998 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

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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