03. 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.



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



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