01. Lived Narratives of Villa Biron

In the suburbs of Paris, unbeknownst to most Parisians and almost veiled by an imperceptible narrow street, there is a building that has been for over 40 years a hub for gender non-conforming people from around the world. Nowadays most of its inhabitants come from South America and Southeastern Asia, as well as certain parts of Europe, and arrive in the French capital with the primary goal of joining a more tolerant and economically profitable environment.

Facing several threats to their living conditions, which may stem from their legal status in the country, a certain degree of exclusion from the housing market and a situation of prostitution, they are led to gather in this particular place, either by the action of associations, social assistants or solidarity between the old ones and the newcomers. They bond into a community that shares not only the typical obstacles in the life of newly arrived undocumented refugees, but also a wide array of oppressions and social stigmas tied to their queer status.

Villa Biron and its surroundings have been stigmatized as a place of prostitution, drugs, violence and social stagnation. Through the understanding of the origins and logics of this place, as well as a collection of memories told by its very dwellers, we hope to shed light on the humane narratives that take place between and around those walls, stories of solidarity and resilience, as a way to crystalize a less stigmatized representation of this place and the lives that have passed through it.

By doing so, we also hope to contribute to increase the visibility of such population and raise public awareness about the specific adversities they encounter as a group. Therefore, in the context of this work, we consider it of paramount importance that these individuals be given the freedom to express and frame their bonds with that space according to their own perspectives and priorities.

FONSECA MOURA, Kauê Gabriel; DE FREITAS CORRÊA, Vinicius.

 

02. What and where is Villa Biron?

Villa Biron is a residential building located in the city of Saint-Ouen, a city engulfed by the conurbation of Paris, the French capital. The area itself is a confluence of foreign-born populations who, for one reason or another, moved in the pursuit of bettering their life conditions. Initially it was an industrial area with poorly constructed houses, and it was mostly inhabited by Spanish and Italian immigrants[1], in 2013, over 26% of its population was foreign-born[2]; according to our interviewees who live there, a significant portion of the current population comes from areas in Africa that used to have colonial ties with France.

The building comprises two blocks of thirteen apartments each, all of its tenants are gender non-conforming people, who happened to gather there through their networks and complex histories of people whose lives have been marked by difficulties. It is different from what one’s common sense would define as a “refugee camp”, it does not reflect the idea of a group of precarious and ephemeral tents in a certain location, forced to be there because of war or hunger, as it is commonly mediatized. According to Malkki (1995), those who undergo a kind of forced migration represent just one aspect of the plethora of sociopolitical and cultural practices.[3] Those who live in Villa Biron can be considered refugees by the French authorities due to their health status or persecutions in their countries of departure.

All information gathered by us derives from our fieldwork, conducted on two different dates; we first met Giovanna, who has now been living in France for over 15 years, she first agreed to talk to us to get acquainted with the project we had in mind; subsequently she spoke to those who are, and were, related to the site, as to inquire whether they were willing to tell us a about their life stories and trajectories until their arrival at Villa Biron. We then met Giovanna in Paris and continued in Saint-Ouen on both the 30th of January 2017, and on March the 19th of the same year, we conducted semi-structured interviews with her and other dwellers linked both to her and Villa Biron. We spoke with Vania, Nathaly, Tabata, and Luna, who come from Peru; Our contact also put us in contact with Samantha, who is also from Brazil, but does not live in the camp anymore.

When one legally moves to France both parts sign a contract, being they the proprietary and the one renting the space, they need to have all the paperwork meeting standard requirements so that both parts do not go against the L622-1 of CESEDA[4], which is the French acronym for the Code of Entry and Residency of Foreigners and Asylum Seekers which states that a fine of 30 thousand euros to each and every person who facilitates either the entrance or residency of someone who’s illegally in France.

Normally it means having someone as the guarantor, meaning a person who often should be established in the Euro area and has the means to prove that he or she is supposed to guarantee that the rent is going to be paid in case the tenant fails to meet its legal duty. In the case of Villa Biron, according to our interviewees, the owner overlooks the need for a guarantor and verify who is living in the apartments as long as, at least one of the tenants, has a valid document to allow their residency in France, that and that they pay the initial bonding comprising of one or more months of rent in advance. Having the requirement of guarantor lifted, renting a place becomes easier.

A recurrent point in the story of those who live there was that they normally arrived brought by pimps who put them in overpriced hotels, so that they were living in unsanitary conditions and had to pay copious amounts of money for their housing, not to mention the exploitation and dangers they had to go through in order to make money to survive.

The building is known in the neighborhood because, according to Giovanna, it had been there for decades to house those who needed it, she herself arrived there because she met someone who had been living there and then this person eventually had to leave it, leaving her alone. Eventually one of her Brazilian friends, Samantha, decided to leave her country, and through their connection, she was then able to move in and have a place to stay until her situation became more stable, she eventually moved out, but Giovanna remained there and informed us about cases of people she knew who were murdered at the door, how people in the streets attacked her and her friends in the streets and how hostilities were recurrent inside and outside the building, mainly because of the way they identify themselves in a dissonant way from the majority of society, but also the means they find to provide for themselves in a world where they tend to be frowned upon for being different.

Throughout their trajectories it was important that they found a supportive network to help them to break through from their original points of departure and also one that eventually allowed them to move to another country across the ocean. By the means of their contacts with each other, Giovanna met one of the Peruvian girls, who eventually asked if she could bring another one, then another one, and then a third one, now the four of them share an apartment and its housing costs, from there they face together the precarious state of their present and how it affects the way they will move forward.

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References:

[1] Seine-Saint-Denis Tourisme. Paris Ville Monde : La Cité aux Quartiers Multiculturels. Available at: http://www.tourisme93.com/paris-ville-monde.html

[2] L’Internaute. Population de Saint-Ouen (93400). available at: http://www.linternaute.com/ville/saint-ouen/ville-93070/demographie

[3] Malkki, L. (1995). Refugees and Exile: From “Refugee Studies” to the National Order of Things. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, 495-523. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2155947

[4]Perrigueur, Elisa (2009). Aider les sans-papiers, c’est interdit ?. La Depeche. Available at: http://www.ladepeche.fr/article/2009/04/09/589821-aider-les-sans-papiers-c-est-interdit.html

03. Trajectories: Why? How?

Migration policies to Europe may very according to the country, visas can be troublesome in different degrees according to one’s nationality, in general terms a person can travel to France as a tourist for a limited amount of days, this person will either need a visa granted by a French representation abroad or it can also be waived in some cases. Holders of either Brazilian or Peruvian passports can have free mobility in the Schengen area[1] for 90 days within a period of 180 days. Entering a country as a tourist does not allow a person to work or to have any remunerated activity in it whatsoever, on the other hand it opens the possibility for some to migrate illegally.

Giovanna’s story, similarly to that of many who are in Villa Biron has roots in her days back in the country where she was born. She had to go through transformations to reach a body she deemed adequate for her to withstand the social pressure of the status quo. Because of her transition[2] she had he education hindered by external factors, such as people who did not want to let her go to school because they deemed her unfit to be with the others. The labor market was also ruthless, she had opportunities denied when she started to identify as a woman instead of a man, regardless of her working abilities, she was told that she was drawing too much attention, she said.

Being ostracized out of home became common to her and also to the other Peruvian women we interviewed. Some of them were even exploited by their own families that cut ties with them after they started to change their bodies to adequate their external image to the one they had of themselves. This context led them to the streets where they had to fend for themselves and adapt even more to the logics and perils surrounding a life they had to live in order to survive. This kind of story however, is common to many people who try to undergo a transition, which may make them victims of a Cultural Anesthesia[3] as pointed by Feldman (1994), meaning that people exposed to those narratives tend to become impervious to the horrors and gravity it entails. Both Malkki (1996)[4] and Rajaram (2002)[5] comment on what the aforementioned author calls a Anonymous Corporeality, those who live a story just become less relevant as individuals and have their problems in a relativization of who they are. They are just a representation, an allegory of themselves, as the author point out.

For some, prostitution became the only viable way for them to make a living, in an underworld that is marginalized by society, its system of exploitation that symbolically reflects symbols the patriarchal and capitalistic status quo that embodies what is expected of those who are born with different genitals. After struggling with their social environment they saw in migration a way for them to break through from where they were. To venture in a different country can be a risky, but the prospect of seeking a refuge far from the difficulties they had to endure seems to be a way o fleeing from their persecution.

In order to move they needed enough money to be able to pay for both the housing and plane tickets, which could be a daring quantity of money for those who were already having a hard time to live in their own countries. A few of the Peruvian girls managed to do it through people with whom they would indebt themselves and pay with their work upon arrival. This system is devised in such a way that the person would have a debt much higher than the one that is necessary for them to travel and pay for rent. Not to mention that that to work, they would have to become prostitutes in a place completely unknown to them, without speaking the language and without protection, which means that they would have to fend for themselves, pay for a spot where they could work, pay exorbitant amounts of money for their housing, hence their debt would slowly diminish and they would have no guarantee that they would not be robbed. Living and having a remunerated activity on a tourist visa is illegal by itself, being tourists they had no right to open a bank account, having to store their money however they could. Making it easier for those pimping them to steal from them and making them helpless.

However it is important to know that solidarity plays a role and turns their ephemeral and marginal presence in what is for them, non-places, as a site where they can eventually become able to create a network, and through this network they meet people that can eventually lead them to other places. This is how our interviewees first got in touch with each other, this network and similar trajectories took them to Villa Biron, where, despite the animosity and violence that can be around it, it can still be a space of hope. It becomes a place; Casey (1996) points out to that in a mention of Merleau-Ponty[6], it is said that places are intertwined with those who live in them, also they go from a mere space to be turned into a place only because of the human factor.

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[1] European Comission (2017), Migration and Home Affairs: Visa Policy. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/borders-and-visas/visa-policy_en

[2] Transexual.org. A Primer on Transition: The basics of changing your biological sex. Available at: http://transsexual.org/basicsoftransition.html

[3] Feldman, A. (1994) ‘On Cultural Anesthesia: From Desert Storm to Rodney King’. Americam Ethnologist 21: 404-418.

[4] Malkki, L. (1996). Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization. Cultural Anthropology, 11(3), 377-404. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/656300

[5] Rajaram, P. K. (2002). Humanitarism and Representations of the Refugee. Journal of Refugee Studies. Vol 15. No. 3. Oxford University Press

[6] Casey, Edward S. (1996) How to get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time. Phenomenological Phenomena in. Senses of Place. School of American Research Press.

04. Travestis – Who are they?

It’s important to discuss the gendered issues around the subjects of our work, the “travestis”, the dwellers of Villa Biron. Such people have been framed in different ways, both by associations, scholars and the ordinary people themselves, many times leading to contradictory actions towards them. In this essay, we propose to shortly discuss what bind these people in a group from a more materialist perspective.

One can say that transvestites, or “travestis”, in a Latin American context, simply designates males who embody femininity in different degrees and who are somehow in contact with prostitution. Such conception, however, has been evolving throughout the years and also changes dramatically from different regions and social classes. The line separating homosexuals and transvestites tends to be very subtle. From my own experience as a Brazilian who has been in contact with several of such individuals, it seems that the older the generation is, the more subtle this line is, to the point that so many being homosexual is a synonym of being a transvestite. Don Kulick describes the gendered world of travestis in Brazil as containing two categories: “men” and “not men”, with women, homosexuals and travestis belonging to the latter category[1]. I would argue that these two categories largely applies to a much greater extent of the Brazilian society. Gender non-conforming behavior is commonly associated with a desire of belonging to the opposite sex, and people who present such behavior are treated accordingly, that is, regardless is they actually suffer from sex dysphoria or not. They are then socially treated as people who wish to belong to the opposite sex because of their gender non-conformance, be that in a punishing way, or by pushing them to stick to the gender roles of the opposite sex, and apparently, the most economically vulnerable ones eventually are pushed to undergo more radical body modification procedures to mimic the opposite sex. This is clear in Giovanna words in the interview made with here and published below:

“Eu era uma criança que brincava com brinquedo de criança. (…) Nunca tivemos aquela coisa: brinquedo de menino é de menino, brinquedo de menina é de menina.” – from 00:20 until 00:37

“I used to be a child who would pay with children toys. (…) I’ve never conformed to that thing: boys’ toys are boys’ toys, girls’ toys are girls’ toys.”

“Então a gente sempre encontra alguém que sabe, né, uma amiga. E ela fala assim: você tem que tomar os hormônios femininos pra ficar bonita, tal, pra não nascer pêlo, pra bloquear a testosterona no seu corpo, explicando tudo como tinha que ser, entendeu?” – from 01:10 until 01:24

“So we always end up meeting someone, a friend. And she tells us: you need to take female hormones to get pretty, for hair to stop growing, to block the testosterone in your body; who would explain us how everything had to be, you know?”

These body modifications, most of the times, leads to social exclusion and to a situation of prostitution? A travesty could be defined, them, as gender non-conforming Latin Americans who embodies the feminine gender role, is socially excluded and is forced to sell their bodies in the sex market. Gender roles, here, it’s important to point out, are not understood as innate behavioral patterns, but as an imposed set of practices put in place to coordinate the relations between the sexes in society in a specific way. In the case of femininity, of the female gender roles, we propose to frame it as being simply embodied submission/dependence/vulnerability.

Practices used by travesties to “transition”, as some of them say it, consist in, for instance, eliminating as many secondary male sexual characteristics as possible, such as body hair and a deep voice, starving oneself in order to loose muscle mass and achieve a softer body, letting one’s hair grow long, wearing tight, colorful clothes with skirts, high heeled shoes, make up and eventually taking hormones to increase hair removal, voice feminization, and finally applying different sorts of materials to imitate a female fat distribution pattern. It’s interesting to notice how many of these elements are as artificial to these individuals as they are to women themselves. Many are the women who undergo exactly the same procedures to achieve exactly the same results. And also how many of these symbols come to represent submission/dependence by their clear parallelism with pre-pubescent bodies. Infantile bodies, being children a clear example of dependent being. Long hair, tight clothes, high heeled shoes and low muscle mass may also be understood as a sign of inability to defend oneself, of physical vulnerability.

This reasoning helps us proposing an explanation to why such gender non-conforming individuals are pushed to embody such oppressive gender role and their almost direct relation with prostitution. By understanding gender not as a natural manifestation of our sexed nature, but as an oppressive social construct imposed to every single individual in order to keep a social order that allows female bodies to be controlled, the naturality of heterosexuality (not heterosexual sexual behavior per se) needs to be equally questioned. If women’s images and behavior are so deeply manipulated by the gendered discourse, to the point of it being able to be mimicked by males through exactly the same practices and with most of the times the same results, is it possible to say that male heterosexuality is discursively constructed on the attraction to the female body? By looking closer at the experiences of travesties, it seems that, in fact, male heterosexuality is actually discursively constructed on the attraction to embodied submission (femininity), which has no natural relation with the female sex, and that such “feminine” bodies are meant to be understood as “commodifiable” by men. And this opens the path for a big market to be further expanded.

Travesti’s gender non-conformity is a threat to the traditional conservative gendered culture, that pictures gender as a natural manifestation of both sexes, and which therefore naturalizes the exploitation of women. They are then either forced to conform to the male gender role, or are pushed to embody the female one. Being neither is not an option, as such behavioral patterns are meant to match the human sexual dimorphism (thus only two possibilities). And by embodying the latter, these individuals, that beforehand were a threat to the capitalist patriarchal society, become therefore economically exploitable in an extremely profitable market: that of prostitution/porn industry. Which are, by instance, that only one that remains opened to the vast majority of such individuals in a Latin American context and that ultimately are behind their movement to places like Paris.

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References

[1] Kulick, Don (1998). Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)

 

05. The future of Villa Biron

Despite the fact that Villa Biron has had and sometimes still has a stigma attached to it: because of its location, the status of its dwellers. It offers a space that can be lived and becomes a sign of resistance and resilience in an era that still challenges people if they do not conform to behavioral e aesthetic standards. Giovanna, Samantha, Tabata, Vania, Nathaly and Luna are just a few examples of people who just want to live their lives as everybody else, they should be seen not as gender-non-conforming males, transsexuals, transvestites, prostitutes, women, men, illegal migrants. They are people and thus should not have to endure extra challenges and go through the hardships they have to simply survive.

Fassin (2005)[1] discusses how societies are becoming insensitive to questions pertinent to its inequalities, stories of those who struggle become so common place that the term coined by Herzfeld (1992) could epitomize it, that there currently is a social production of indifference[2].

Refugees, whatever definition one might give them, in the end of the day they are people just like those who were responsible for writing this and you who might be reading this. They had people who brought them into this world, they laughed, they cried, they had to go through the same emotions we all did. They arrived in Saint-Ouen through the intertwinement of networks; some would just see them through a fragment of what happens in their lives: their migration and legal and health status; prostitution; refugees; or simply Latin Americans.

Among themselves as people who live there, they have ties of solidarity and create what some could understand as a family, with less stigmatization about who they are or aim to be if compared to our regular society, but as a supportive space from which they can endeavor into what they hope to achieve in the future. A few of them would like to go back to their countries and have their families around them. Like all people, they aspire to achieve whatever they consider to be happiness.

Policies, politicians and people in power seem to turn a blind eye to those who do not economically correspond to their interests. Graham (2003)[3], as quoted by Fassin, talks about how emotions are eroded when civil servants listen to all those dramatic, yet distant stories from people. That reflects on the way LGBTI people who migrate have to deal with other cultures, they end up unsupported both where they come from and where they migrate too. Their migration is also marked by the absence of opportunities many may have to obtain a different visa or a refugee status. In France people could go to rejoin their families, as skilled workers, as students, or any other category that is officially envisaged.

In the case of Villa Biron, those who lived there came from poor backgrounds and had to struggle with what they had, oblivious to the language barrier they have to face when they move, some of them had to resort to people that may take advantage of them and exploit their precarity. Agamben says that the refugee as a polemic topic would be just a proof of the artificiality of modern sovereignty.[4] As it comes to the future of the place mentioned here, the aspect of transit is a constant in the minds of those who live there, they found a place where they can stay, but that place is far from becoming somewhere they would call a real home. Their home could be in a different city, back home. There is a bittersweet tone in the voice of those who live there. Where they are has been there for decades and will probably remain like that for quite a while. The LGBTI spacialization in that place, meaning the way they take the place to themselves is a symbol of some progress from their former status, is illusory, for they will keep on pursuing their goals and trying to get a better lives. However Villa Biron was there and will probably still be there in case they still have a connection that could bring them back in.

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References

[1]   Fassin, Didier. (2005), Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France. Cultural Anthropology, 20: 362–387. doi:10.1525/can.2005.20.3.362

[2] Herzfeld, Michael (1992) The Social Production of Indifference. Exploring the Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Graham, Mark 2003 Emotional Bureaucracies: Emotions, Civil Servants, and Immigrants in the Swedish Welfare State. Ethos 30(3):199–226.

[4] Agamben, Giorgio 1997 Homo sacer. I. Le pouvoir souverain et la vie nue. Paris: Seuil.