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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.
Year:
1998
Edition:
1
Publisher:
University Of Chicago Press
Language:
english
Pages:
283
ISBN 10:
0226460991
ISBN 13:
9780226460994
Series:
Worlds of Desire: The Chicago Series on Sexuality, Gender, and Culture
File:
PDF, 11.12 MB
Download (pdf, 11.12 MB)

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Travesti

Worlds of Desire
The Chicago Series on Sexuality, Gender, and Culture
A Series Edited by Gilbert Herdt

Travesti
Sex, Gender, and
Culture among
Brazilian
Transgendered
Prostitutes

Don Kulick

The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London

Don Kulick is associate professor of anthropology at Stockholm
University. His publications in English include Taboo-. Sex, Identity
and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork (1995), co-edited
with Margaret Willson, and Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction:
Socialization, Self and Syncretism in a Papua New Guinea Village (1992).
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637
The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London
© 1998 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 1998
Printed in the United States of America
07 06 05 04 03 02 01 00
54 3 2
ISBN (cloth): 0-226-46099-1
ISBN (paper) : 0-226-46100-9
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Kulick, Don.
Travesti : sex, gender, and culture among Brazilian
transgendered prostitutes / Don Kulick.
p.
cm. — (Worlds of desire)
Includes bibliographical references (p. 00) and index.
ISBN 0-226-46099-1. — ISBN 0-226-46100-9 (pbk.)
1. Transvestites—Brazil—Salvador. 2. Male prostitutes—
Brazil—Salvador. 3. Transvestism—Case studies. I. Title.
II. Series.
HQ77.2.B7K85 1998
306.77—dc21
98-15319
CIP
© The paper used in this publication meets the minimum
requirements of the American National Standard for Information
Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials,
ANSI Z39.48-1992.

Este livro e para voce Keila,
com agradecimento, com carinho,
e acima de tudo,
com admirac,ao.

Contents

Acknowledgments

ix

Note on the Transcriptions

xii

Introduction

1

ONE

T h e C o n t e x t of Travesti Life

19

TWO

Becoming a Travesti

44

A Man

in t h e H o u s e

96

T h e Pleasure of Prostitution

134

Travesti G e n d e r e d Subjectivity

191

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

Notes

239

References

257

Index

265

Acknowledgments

Research support for the fieldwork on which t; his book is based was gen­
erously provided by the Swedish Council for Research in the Humani­
ties and Social Sciences (HSFR) and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for
Anthropological Research.
I am extremely grateful to the following people, who have done me
the tremendous favor of taking the time to read through an earlier
version of the entire manuscript of this book: Ines Alfano, Anne Allison,
Roger Andersen, Barbara Browning, Marcelo Fiorini, Sarah Franklin,
Marjorie Harness Goodwin, Peter Gow, Cecilia McCallum, Stephen O.
Murray, Christine Nuttall, Joceval Santana, Bambi Schieffelin, Michael
Silverstein, Christina Toren, and Margaret Willson. The many com­
ments, corrections, criticisms, and suggestions I received from these
readers have been invaluable.
I acknowledge with great thanks the massive support and encourage­
ment that Doug Mitchell at the University of Chicago Press has given
me, from the moment he received the original manuscript. I also thank
Matt Howard at the Press for support and help, and Nancy Trotic for su­
perb copyediting.
My boyfriend, Jonas Schild Tillberg, rarely reads anything that I
write, but he deserves mention anyway, because he is men coraqao, with­
out whom none of this would be much fun. Discussions and corres­
pondence with Annick Prieur about her work among transgendered
individuals in Mexico City continue to inspire me and help me refine my
own arguments. Two other people in Scandinavia also need to be ac­
knowledged: Kent Hallberg and Anita Johansson from the Swedish As­
sociation for Sex Education (RFSU). Kent and Anita not only provided
me, free of charge, with approximately ten thousand condoms that I dis­
tributed to travestis throughout the time I was in Salvador—they also
took care to see to it that the majority of those condoms were the ones
I told them travestis loved; black condoms, and fruit-flavored ones.
In Brazil, I owe a large debt of thanks to Luiz Mott, who took the time
to orient me in Salvador's ambiente homossexual and who kindly allowed me
access to the overstuffed boxes of newspaper clippings that the Grupo
Gay da Bahia (GGB) has been amassing since the early 1980s. Nilton
Dias was the GGB coordinator who worked most closely with travestis
ix

X

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

when I first arrived in Salvador, and he was the one who provided the
crucial introduction to Keila Simpsom and several of the other travestis
who came to be my closest associates. That Keila and the others re­
sponded so graciously to me and my research is a direct reflection of the
high esteem in which they hold Nilton. All of the other coordinators at
the GGB, especially Marcelo Cerqueira, Jane Pantel, and Zora Yonara,
have also always been friendly and helpful.
Joceval Santana provided me with extensive support and practical
help when I first arrived in Salvador and needed all the help 1 could get
simply to find my way around the city. I also thank Joceval for helping
me to understand a great deal about the homosexual scene in Salvador,
and in Brazil more generally. Throughout my stay in Salvador, the hos­
pitality and generosity of Cecilia McCallum and her husband, Edilson
Teixeira, were considerable. Their home always provided me with a wel­
coming environment whenever I felt that I needed a short break from
fieldwork. In addition, the "academic" lunches that Cecilia and I had at
least once a month in air-conditioned restaurants afforded me steady ac­
cess to Cecilia's extensive anthropological knowledge about Brazil and
Salvador, and an enjoyable refreshment of anthropological discourse
and gossip.
Ines Alfano has also provided important input into this study. Ines
performed the enormously laborious work of transcribing the majority
of the interviews that I conducted with travestis. Extended conversations
with her about the transcriptions have given me insights about gender
and about the wider resonances of travesti actions and thoughts that I
otherwise might have missed. Talks with Ines's sister, psychologist Marta
Alfano, have also helped to deepen and nuance my understanding of
travesti lives.
Yet another person who deserves special mention is Margaret Willson. Margaret and I have a history of research and friendship that began
in Papua New Guinea over a decade ago, and that continues to be an im­
portant source of inspiration and strength. A tourist visit to Margaret's
anthropological fieldsite was the impetus to my own work in Salvador.
Our respective periods of fieldwork in the city overlapped only a few
times, but whenever Margaret was in Salvador, her presence generated,
as always, a kind of haven into which I could retreat in order to relax,
drink too much, and think aloud about the kinds of things I found my­
self learning about travesti lives. Because Margaret is an anthropologist
who knows Salvador well, she, like Cecilia McCallum, has been espe­
cially important when I have wanted to determine whether a particular
idea sounded reasonable or whether it indicated that I had missed the
point and simply misunderstood everything.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

xi

The people without whom this study could never have been com­
pleted are, of course, the travestis with whom I lived and worked in
Salvador. I thank all travestis who permitted me to formally interview
them: Adriana, Angelica, Babalu, Banana, Carlinhos, afinada Cintia, Elis­
abeth, Lia Hollywood, a finada Luciana, Mabel, Magdala, Martinha,
Pastinha, and afinada Tina. I also thank Edilson, who was the only trav­
esti boyfriend 1 came to know well, and who allowed me to interview
him under difficult personal circumstances. In addition, I wish to single
out Adriana, Banana, Chica, afinada Cintia, Pastinha, Roberta, Rosana, a
finada Tina, and Val as providing me not only with information, gossip,
and insights, but also with true affection and friendship.
Finally, I thank the single most important person behind this book,
the one without whom it truly could never have been written—namely,
my travesti coworker, teacher, and friend Keila Simpsom. In none of the
places 1 have lived have I ever met a person who could analyze the con­
texts and conditions of her own life with the precision that Keila does
and still stay sane. Keila took me under her ample wing, taught me Por­
tuguese, integrated me into travesti networks, and helped me to see and
understand the dimensions of travesti life that I develop in this book. It
is impossible for me to adequately express my gratitude to her. W h a t I
offer Keila is this book, in the hope that she will enjoy seeing in its pages
fragments of the story of her own life, and of the lives of her friends and
colleagues in Salvador. I also hope that Keila will see in this work the
firm imprint of her own insights, and that she will perceive that despite
the fact that I may have been a slow and often exasperatingly thick stu­
dent, I did, in the end, come to understand a thing or two.

Note on the

Transcriptions

The following conventions are used in the transcripts presented through­
out this book:
[
overlapping (i.e., simultaneous) talk
/
interruption (between speakers this indicates that the speaker is
interrupted by the following speaker,- within utterances it indi­
cates self-interruption)
indicates either a short pause (when occurring within utter­
ances) or a lengthened sound (when occurring at the end of
turns)
[ ]
authors explanatory comments, contextual notes, and nonverbal
actions
( ) material that was not audible on the tape

material that has been omitted from the transcript.

Introduction

As I walked past Banana's room on my way from the communal toilet at
the back end of the house, I paused for a moment because it seemed to
me that there was an unusual amount of smoke coming from her room. I
poked my head in the open door to see what the smoke was, and the first
thing I saw was Banana—a transgendered prostitute, or travesti, in her
mid-thirties—standing naked in front of a little mirror dangling from a
nail on the wall. Banana had just come back from her late-afternoon
shower, and she was rubbing Neutrox conditioning fluid into her stillwet hair. "Venha, Don," she called to me when she saw me look in.
"Venha sentar aqui." She motioned to the thin mattress on the floor
against one of the walls.
Happy to have an excuse not to go back into the room 1 had just come
from, where I had been sitting for over an hour with other travestis
watching an insufferably boring novela (soap opera) on television, I en­
tered Bananas tiny room and headed for the mattress. As I passed behind
Banana, I realized that the smoke I had wondered about was wafting up
from two small cones of incense sitting on the only shelf in the room.
"Chama fregues" (Summon customers), Banana informed me without my
asking, was the name of the incense. It smelled nice.
My presence in Banana's room immediately prompted the mandatory
gesture of hospitality given by any travesti to a guest—she reached to
turn on her little six-inch black-and-white television. My protest that I
really didn't want to watch television elicited a predictable snort of dis­
belief from Banana, and with a flick of her wrist, the room was filled with
the melodramatic shouts and cries and swollen crescendos of the same
tawdry novela that I thought I had just managed to escape. Defeated, I sat
down on the mattress, rested my back against the wall, and did my best
to ignore the television. Instead, I watched Banana get ready. It was only
four o'clock in the afternoon, but Banana was preparing for her evening
of work.
T h e preparations were meticulous. Most attention was paid to the
hair, which reached down to below her shoulders and which she had re­
cently dyed black, having tired of her natural mouse-brown color. T h e
black dye made her hair seem thicker, and it drew attention away from
her somewhat receding hairline. It was definitely an improvement. But
1

2

INTRODUCTION

there was still something unsatisfactory about it, Banana seemed to feel.
No matter how she parted it and swung it, the hair never seemed to quite
satisfy her. She swung it to the right, still wet and dripping with condi­
tioning fluid, only to return to the mirror two minutes later to part it on
the left and swing it over in that direction. No, that wouldn't do, either.
Over to the right again. Then to the left. I quickly lost track of how
many times the hair was reparted, reswung, rearranged.
Eventually, as one of the protagonists of the novela was pressed behind
a potted palm overhearing some traumatizing piece of news about her
husband, Bananas hair was done, or at least acceptable for the moment,
and she lit another cigarette. Still gazing intently into her mirror, she
picked up a tweezers and rapidly plucked out a few stray hairs on her up­
per lip and chin. Satisfied, she now applied a light foundation to her face.
She then started searching the room for a razor blade, which she needed
to sharpen her eyebrow pencil. The places she looked for the razor blade
made me wish I hadn't entered her room barefoot, and when she started
searching in and underneath the pillow on her mattress, I quickly can­
celed the thoughts I had been having of perhaps using the pillow to
cushion my back against the wall.
After a brief moment of despair, during which Banana voiced her sus­
picion that another travesti must have stolen her razor blade from her
room ("Ta vendo como sao as bichas daqui?" You see how these bichas
are here?), she found the blade under an onion on the shelf, next to her
deodorant.
Eyebrow pencil sharpened, Banana proceeded to draw on her thick,
trademark Peking Opera-style eyebrows, which disappeared out into
the hair at the sides of her head, and which were emphasized by the red
eye shadow that she applied underneath. No other travesti I knew in Sal­
vador made herself up quite so idiosyncratically, and when I once asked
Banana why she did so, she replied that it chama atmqao, it attracted at­
tention. Much of Banana's prostitution these days was conducted inside
a nearby pornographic cinema, and she explained that the dramatic
makeup helped to single her out from all the other travestis who roamed
the aisles of the cinema asking men if they wanted to "cum" [gozar].
Face on, hair still dripping and rearranged yet again, Banana lit an­
other cigarette, took a swig of the coffee she was drinking out of an old
plastic margarine container, and went over to the far corner of her room
in search of a pair of panties. She started digging through the mound of
crumpled clothes thrown in a pile on a chair, and then she began laugh­
ing and throwing them up over her shoulder into the air. "Panties,
panties, Ave Maria, not one clean pair of panties, I can't believe it," she
hooted. The "Roupinol" (i.e., Rohypnol—a barbiturate that when taken

INTRODUCTION

3

together with alcohol or coffee can become a stimulant) tablet she told
me she had taken earlier was clearly kicking in.
Banana finally extracted a pair of lacy black panties from somewhere
in the pile of clothes, and she put them on in the characteristic travesti
manner of stepping into them and pulling them up to the knees, then
squatting with legs apart to hold the panties up. In this position, Banana
reached one hand around her back and up between her legs and caught
hold of her penis and scrotum. Drawing them backwards, she pressed
them flat and held them down against her perineum as she stood upright
and pulled up the panties with her other hand. Tugging at her panties
from the front and her penis from behind, she shifted her weight back
and forth from leg to leg until the panties were on and her penis was
firmly and comfortably in place against her perineum. The procedure
was complete when Banana smoothed down the panties with both
hands, making sure that they presented a tight, flat front. Looking up, Ba­
nana noticed that 1 was peering past the television to watch her. She pat­
ted the front of her panties once more. "Minha buceta," my cunt, she
smiled.
Buceta in place, Banana now walked over to her own version of the
small altar that many travestis maintain in their room. In most cases, the
altar contains a small statue or painting of a Catholic religious figure,
such as Jesus or the Virgin Mary, and/or a similar figure of a candomble
saint, such as lemanja, goddess of the oceans, or Iansa, the deity of winds
and tempests. In addition to these images, on the altar will be a lit
candle and perhaps a glass of water, a small plate of food, and/or a leaf
of a plant—all this to bring luck, money, and customers and to keep
away the O l h o Grosso (the Evil Eye—literally, the Coarse Eye, or the
Big Eye). Unlike most other travestis, however, Banana feels herself to be
waging a continual battle against the Eye, and she is convinced that
other travestis are always trying to drive her to ruin with the help of
macumba (black magic) and general bad vibes. Hence, much of Banana's
time (and a not inconsiderable amount of her money) is spent on
countermeasures designed to deflect the Eye and keep its power from
impairing her ability to work and attract clients. Chief among these
countermeasures is the enlistment of the aid of a wide array of saints and
candomble deities. So whereas most travesti altars are sparse, Banana's is
crowded: ceramic figurines of Sao Jorge killing his dragon, Sao Jose lean­
ing on his shepherds staff, Nossa Senhora de Fatima holding a large
wooden crucifix, the sea goddess lemanja (two of them), the Virgin of
Conceiqao looking piously up to heaven, the child saints Cosme and
Damiao—all these jostle for space on the little altar, together with burn­
ing votive candles, herbs, small plates of food, and offerings of deodor-

4

INTRODUCTION

Banana and her altar

ants and soaps and shampoo (these are for lemanja, who is, Banana tells
me, a mulher muito vaidosa—a very vain woman). When it comes to pro­
tection against the Big Eye, Banana makes sure that all her bases are
covered.
From somewhere near the front of this altar, Banana reached up and
took down a wad of newspaper filled with what looked like a pale green
powder. She returned to the mirror, dipped her finger into the powder,
and gazed into the mirror as she crossed herself on her chest, forehead,
and back. She sprinkled some of the powder on her head as well. I asked
Banana what the powder was for, and she replied, as I expected she
would, with her habitual gesture of pulling down the lower lid of one eye
and gazing at me meaningfully for a second: the O l h o Grosso.
Thus protected, Banana walked over to her little shelf and took a small
squeeze bottle of deodorant, which, working upwards, she sprayed out
onto her crotch, anus, stomach, chest, underarms, neck, back, and hair.
She then placed her hands above the smoke coming from one of the

INTRODUCTION

5

incense triangles and gathered some of it into her hands. This she di­
rected towards her crotch, stomach, and face. She also lifted up the tiny,
somewhat soiled black and green Lycra dress she was planning on wear­
ing and let the smoke from the incense enter that as well. This evening,
Banana was clearly taking no chances that customers would pass her by.
Lighting another cigarette and taking another gulp of coffee ("to
strengthen the effect of the Roupinol," she told me as an aside), Banana
now squeezed into her dress. It seemed to me that the effect of the
"Roupinol" must already have been pretty strong, because despite a
couple of tries, Banana kept getting tangled up in the complex braids of
shoulder straps that she had to sort out in order to be able to wear the
dress. Finally, after two more attempts, with a cigarette and coffee break
in between, the dress was on, and it was smoothed out around her hips
and pulled up to near her crotch to her satisfaction. N o w all that re­
mained was moisturizing creme on arms and legs, dabs of perfume on
crotch, nipples, neck, and hair and under nostrils ("I want people to smell
me coming and going," she once told me), and another rearrangement of
hair. At last, after an extended final posing session in front of the mirror,
during which front, back, face, and hair were scrutinized and finally ap­
proved, shoes were found somewhere in the pile of clothes, a small pair
of sharp nail scissors was slid, with a wink to me, into the front of her
panties, and a tiny blue change purse was inserted into the front of
her dress.
Banana was ready to go.

s§ @ ®
Banana is one of the nearly two hundred travestis who live and work in
Salvador, Brazil's third-largest city with a population of over two million
people. Like Banana, the overwhelming majority of these travestis live in
extremely humble conditions, in tiny three-by-four-meter rooms, and
they support themselves primarily by prostituting themselves on the
streets of the city. T h e word travesti derives from the verb transvestir, or
cross-dress. Travestis, however, do not only cross-dress. W h a t is most
characteristic about travestis in Salvador, and throughout Brazil, is that
they adopt female names, clothing styles, hairstyles, cosmetic practices,
and linguistic pronouns, and they ingest large amounts of female hor­
mones and pay other travestis to inject up to twenty liters of industrial
silicone directly into their bodies in order to acquire feminine bodily
features such as breasts, wide hips, large thighs, and, most importantly,
expansive buttocks. Despite all these changes, however, many of which
are irreversible, travestis do not self-identify as women. That is, despite
the fact that they live their lives in female clothing, call one another by

6

INTRODUCTION

female names, and endure tremendous pain in order to acquire female
bodily forms, travestis do not wish to remove their penis, and they do
not consider themselves to be women. They are not transsexuals. They
are instead, they say, homosexuals—males who ardently desire men, and
who fashion and perfect themselves as an object of desire for those men.
This specific combination of female physical attributes and male
homosexual subjectivity makes travestis almost unique in the world. Al­
though there are many other cultures in which individuals cross, in var­
ious ways and through various means, gender lines, travestis seem to be
among the few who irrevocably alter their body to approximate that of
the opposite sex without claiming the subjectivity of that sex.1 Far from
laying claim to a female subjectivity, travestis in Salvador are virtually
unanimous in their incomprehension of any male who does so: there is a
consensus among travestis that any biological male who claims to be a
woman is psychologically unbalanced and in need of help.
Travestis appear to exist throughout Latin America, but in no other
country are they as numerous and well known as in Brazil, where they
occupy a strikingly visible place in both social space and the cultural
imaginary. All Brazilian cities of any size contain travestis, and in the
large cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, travestis number in the thou­
sands. Travestis are most exuberantly visible during Brazil's famous an­
nual Carnival, and any depiction or analysis of Carnival will inevitably
include at least a passing reference to them, because their gender inver­
sions are often invoked as embodiments of the Carnival spirit.
But even in more mundane contexts and discourses, travestis figure
prominently. A popular Saturday afternoon television show, for ex­
ample, includes a spot in which female impersonators, some of whom are
clearly travestis, get judged on how beautiful they are and on how well
they mime the lyrics to songs sung by female vocalists. Another weekly
television show regularly features Valeria, a well-known travesti. Tieta,
one of the most popular television novelas in recent years, featured a spe­
cial guest appearance by Rogeria, another famous travesti. And most
telling of all of the special place reserved for travestis in the Brazilian
popular imagination is the fact that the individual widely acclaimed to be
the most beautiful woman in Brazil in the mid-1980s was—a travesti.
That travesti, Roberta Close, became a household name throughout the
country. She regularly appeared on national television, starred in a play
in Rio, posed nude (with strategically crossed legs) in Playboy magazine,
was continually interviewed and portrayed in virtually every magazine
in the country, and had at least three songs written about her by wellknown composers. Although her popularity declined when, at the end
of the 1980s, she left Brazil to have a sex-change operation and live in

INTRODUCTION

7

Europe, Roberta Close remains extremely well known. As recently as
1995, she appeared in a nationwide advertisement for Duloren lingerie,
in which a photograph of her passport, bearing her male name, was jux­
taposed with a photograph of her looking sexy and chic in a black lace
undergarment. T h e caption read, "Voce nao imagina do que uma Du­
loren e capaz"—you can't imagine what a Duloren can do. 2
Because travestis like Roberta Close figure so prominently in the
Brazilian cultural imaginary, there are scores of comments and essays
about them. Indeed, travestis are frequently invoked by social commen­
tators as symbols of Brazil itself: "These days in Brazil, everything seems
like something that it isn't. Everything is relative. Even [the definition of]
a woman," noted the former congresswoman Sandra Cavalcanti, in ref­
erence to Roberta Close. The poet Affonso Romano de Sant'Anna also
sees Brazil when he gazes at travestis: "Biologically, travestis are men,psychologically, they are women," he says (inaccurately). "This is just
like the regime under which we live: apparently it is an irreversible de­
mocracy, but, suddenly, it's like a regretful dictatorship (urn arbitrio arrependido). In Congress, representatives can vote exactly as they please . . . as
long as it's what the government wants." Some people, like the journalist
Tarso de Castro, see Brazil's fascination with travestis as indicative of a
national "crisis of virility." Others, such as the film director Walter Hugo
Khoury, think that the fact that a travesti like Roberta Close could be
publicly acclaimed as "the new passion of the Brazilian man" (a nova
paixdo do brasileiro) indicates that "Brazilians are an open-minded people,
without prejudices." 3
Comments such as these have everything to do with the idea of tra­
vestis and nothing at all to do with the real lives of actual travestis. Re­
grettably, the fact that a handful of travestis manage to achieve wealth,
admiration, and, in the case of Roberta Close, 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. In most cities, including
Salvador, travestis are so discriminated against that many of them avoid
venturing out onto the street during the day. They are regularly the vic­
tims of violent police brutality and random assassinations. Most of them
come from very poor backgrounds and many remain poor throughout
their lives, living a hand-to-mouth existence and dying before the age of
fifty from violence, drug abuse, health problems caused by the silicone
they inject into their bodies, or, increasingly, AIDS.
This book is about those travestis. It is an account of their day-to-day

8

INTRODUCTION

lives—of how they live, how they talk, how they act, and how they
think about their lives. It is far from the first or only account of travestis.
O n the contrary, the Brazilian fascination with travestis ensures that
stories and articles about them appear regularly on television and in
newspapers and magazines throughout the country. 4 With very few ex­
ceptions, however, all of that material is utter rubbish. At best, journalis­
tic reports about travestis are superficial and inaccurate,- at worst, they
are sensationalistic lies.
Fortunately, in addition to journalistic reports, there are also two
ethnographic studies of travestis written by Brazilian academics (Silva
1993 and Oliveira 1994). 5 These monographs have been groundbreak­
ing in Brazil for their attempts to understand, rather than simply sensa­
tionalize or condemn, travesti lives. T h e authors of both works came to
know a number of travestis over an extended period, and their compas­
sionate writing constitutes a major break with the kinds of treatment that
travestis generally receive from the mass media. Despite their impor­
tance, however, these works suffer from the fact that neither researcher
actually lived with travestis,- their contact with travestis was for the most
part restricted to visiting them on the streets at night and once in a while
in their rooms. This means that both Silva and Oliveira mainly heard
about and witnessed the gaudy side of travesti existence—the prostitu­
tion, the body modifications, the self-mutilation that travestis occasion­
ally practice when they are apprehended by police. And both books
focus primarily on these more spectacular practices. In doing so, they
(certainly unwittingly) contribute to the idea, continually reinforced by
journalistic accounts, that travestis are somehow very different from
most people—they are exotic, strange, bizarre, and scary. At worst they
are to be feared, at best they are to be pitied. Neuza Maria de Oliveira,
for example, begins her monograph on travestis with a text that is not so
much a dedication as it is a message of condolence: "I dedicate this study
to the 'monas' [the travestis] of the Yellow House [a house where many
of her informants lived], who, for diverse reasons, transform their bod­
ies into an 'ambulatory metamorphosis' in search of the idealic image of
a woman who doesn't exist. To this day they are paying for that."
Throughout this book, I too will have a lot to say about the lurid di­
mensions of travesti lives that so disturbed Oliveira. 1 devote a great deal
of space to hormone ingestion, silicone injections, early sexual experi­
ences, prostitution, robberies committed by travestis, and the kinds of
discourse that are used to explain and justify all those practices. But what
1 hope to do here that has not been done before is to contextualize those
spectacular practices in much more mundane ones. By focusing on the
day-to-day lives of travestis, by looking closely at how travestis think

INTRODUCTION

9

about their lives, and by attempting to explain the underlying logic that
travestis draw on in order to make sense of their lives, I hope to show
how the prostitution and the body modifications and the rest of it are not
in fact the sad delusions of confused individuals. O n the contrary, my ar­
gument is that these practices are all eminently reasonable (or, at least,
eminently comprehensible) in the context of the social and cultural
world in which travestis grow up and live their lives.
Whenever travestis make an appearance in analyses of Brazilian soci­
ety, they often feature, as I have already mentioned, in the context of in­
version—travestis, it is said, invert the roles of male and female through
their practices of grafting female attributes onto a male physiognomy.
This gendered inversion is usually tied to other instances of inversion,
such as men dressing up in female clothes during Carnival, the male ho­
mosexual component in the Afro-Brazilian religion candomble, and the
androgynous personae of several of Brazil's most famous singers and
songwriters. The conclusion is often that Brazilian society continually
undermines and transcends its dour Roman Catholic patriarchal inheri­
tance with displays and tolerance of behavior and persons that directly
challenge that inheritance (Da Matta 1997b, 1991b, 1984,- Kottak 1990,Parker 1991).
While there is certainly something to be said for this conclusion, and
while it is clear that travestis could productively be analyzed as instances
of a larger phenomenon of inversion, the argument that I will pursue in
this book is a different one. In my view, a focus on inversion is a ruse—
it is part of an elaborate myth that Brazilians enjoy telling one another
about themselves, in an attempt to convince themselves and others
that they are more liberated, tolerant, and hip than they really are. It is
a smokescreen that effectively diverts our attention away from the ways
in which travestis are concentrations of general ideas, representations, and
practices of male and female. Thus, rather than simply inverting them,
turning them upside down in classic Carnivalesque fashion, the argu­
ment here is that travestis elaborate the particular configurations of sex­
uality, gender, and sex that undergird and give meaning to Brazilian
notions of "man" and "woman." They crystallize them. They perfect
them, to use a word that travestis themselves use when talking about
their bodily practices.
To say that travestis perfect the gendered messages that exist in
Brazilian society is very different from saying that they invert them. The
notion of inversion has a long and sordid history in psychological
thought, and it is still used to classify someone as disturbed and in
need of medical intervention. Furthermore, used as a way to describe
and analyze a social phenomenon, inversion need not be particularly

10

INTRODUCTION

threatening, particularly in a culture that prides itself on its ability to ludically invert its own stereotypes and moral preoccupations. This nonthreatening nature of the idea of inversion in Brazil is one of the reasons
I suspect that the notion has such currency in Brazilian understandings
of travestis. The problem, however, is that travestis are threatening. The
Brazilian mass media uniformly portray them as dangerous marginais—
"marginals," criminals. Throughout my stay in Brazil, I was repeatedly
warned by people I met not to associate with travestis, not to trust them,
not to let them near my belongings, not to believe anything they told
me, and generally to stay away from them (how I was to conduct a study
of them if I followed this advice was never really resolved by any of these
well-wishers). Seeing travestis simply as "inverts" fails to adequately con­
vey and account for the deep sense of fear and disgust that they evoke in
many Brazilians. It also fails to explain the electric sense of allurement
that they generate wherever they appear.
Throughout this book, 1 will be less interested in how travestis invert
ideas, representations, and practices of male and female and more con­
cerned with how they clarify and distill them—how they draw them to
a logical conclusion, how they purify them to the extent that it becomes
possible to see in them central elements in cultural configurations of sex­
uality, sex, and gender. In pursuing this kind of argument, I am drawing
on two interrelated types of scholarly work. The first is the work of
ethnomethodologically grounded scholars who have argued that transgenderism constitutes a privileged vantage point from which it is pos­
sible to observe how sex and gender are conceived and enacted in
everyday life. Prefiguring contemporary theoretical concerns by at least
a decade, ethnomethodologists have always insisted that sex and gender
are not ontological states. They are, instead, "contingent, practical ac­
complishment's]" (Garfinkel 1967:181,- see also Kessler and McKenna
1985:163). And because transgendered individuals "have to work at
establishing their credentials as men or women in a relatively selfconscious way, whereas the rest of us are under the illusion that we are
just doing what comes naturally, they bring to the surface many of the
tacit understandings that guide the creation and maintenance of gender
differences in ongoing social life" (Shapiro 1991:252-53). This view has
an important corollary, one that is argued by both ethnomethodologists
and some feminists (e.g., Raymond 1979)—namely, that transgenderism
does not occur in a "natural" or arbitrary form. Instead, it arises in specific
social contexts and assumes specific social forms—forms that reflect the
structures that structure them.
The second, related body of work that informs the arguments I de­
velop here is recent feminist and historical writing that argues that the

INTRODUCTION

11

concept of biological sex is itself a gendered notion, dependent on cul­
turally generated notions of difference for its meaning and its ability
to seem "natural" (Butler 1990, 1993, Hausman 1995; Laqueur 1990,- de
Lauretis 1987). T h e insight that anything we say about sex must always
already be implicated in and interpreted through understandings of gen­
der has pushed theoretical discussions decisively away from the idea that
gender is the cultural reading of biological sex. In doing so, it has high­
lighted the possibility of analyzing gender as sets of understandings and
categorizations that need not be restricted to the biologically based cat­
egories of "man" and "woman." The relevance of this theoretical move for
an analysis of travestis is that it encourages us to explore travestis' gen­
dered practices without assuming that we already know anything about
what "men" and "women" are (or whether those categories even exist as
such) and without assuming, hence, that we already know what the in­
tended referent or goal or end point of the travesti project is. Focusing
on gender as understandings, processes, subjectivities, and practices that
are not necessarily generated from or tied to reproductive organs com­
pels us away from any view of travesti practices that sees them simply as
inversion, or as deviance, or as the futile (and tragic, misguided, offen­
sive, or whatever) efforts of men to be women. If we suspend all assump­
tions that gender is grounded in biological sex and focus intently on the
lives, loves, and work of travestis—on the multiple ways in which tra­
vestis fashion themselves as gendered persons—it becomes possible to
ask the question that this book poses, namely: what do travesti practices
tell us about the ways in which gender is imagined and configured in
Brazilian society?

Conducting Fieldwork among Travestis
T h e arguments developed in this book are based on twelve months of
fieldwork in Salvador among the travestis about whom I write. For eight
of those twelve months, I lived with travestis, renting a small room in a
house where thirteen travestis lived, on a street in central Salvador on
which about thirty-five travestis lived. 6 I associated with travestis pretty
much continually during those eight months, eating breakfasts of sweet­
ened coffee and buttered rolls with them when they woke up about mid­
day, chatting with them as they sat on doorsteps plucking whiskers from
their chins in the late afternoon sun, crowding onto mattresses with
them as they lay pressed together smoking cigar-sized joints and watch­
ing late-night action movies on television. Every night, from about 8 P.M.
until 1 or 2 A.M., I walked the streets where they worked, visiting them
at their various points of prostitution. Even when I stopped living with

\1

INTRODUCTION

the travestis to rent an apartment and sit writing the first draft of this
book, I visited them frequently, often spending at least five or six hours
a day in their company. What had started out as fieldwork had gradually
developed into friendship. Although at first I had felt compelled to spend
all my time with travestis because I was studying them, the relationships
that I developed with several travestis in the house in which I lived be­
came so close that by the time I left Salvador in early 1997, I found my­
self visiting travestis when I wanted to relax and/on/et work.
I first became aware of the existence of travestis during a three-week
holiday trip to Salvador in mid-1993, where I flew to visit my colleague
Margaret Willson. She had discovered the city several years previously
and was already conducting anthropological fieldwork there. At the time
I visited Margaret, I was more interested in Salvador's beaches than in the
city's ethnographic offerings. But one evening when I was riding back to
Margaret's apartment on a bus from the center of the city, I noticed a
number of scantily dressed figures clustered around several street cor­
ners, talking and laughing and clearly looking out for customers to pick
them up for sex. Although all those figures were dressed in female cloth­
ing, many of them seemed to lack breasts, and their voices, when they
shouted things like bicha (pronounced BEE-sha) and viado (both words
mean "effeminate homosexual," or simply "fag") at one another, were
definitely not women's.7 Although I had no plans to do fieldwork in
Brazil, the minimally clad figures on the corners intrigued me. I con­
tacted the local gay activist organization, the Grupo Gay da Bahia, and
spoke with its president, the anthropologist Luiz Mott. He passed on to
me a master's thesis on travestis (as I now learned they were called) by
Maria Neuza de Oliveira, a sociologist who had conducted fieldwork
among travestis in the early 1980s. Based on that thesis and on the con­
versations I had with Professor Mott and others about travestis, I began
to understand that travestis did not conform to standard northern EuroAmerican sexual typologies—travestis were neither transvestites nor
transsexuals. So what were they? I wondered. How did they see them­
selves? No one seemed to really know. In the end, I decided I would re­
turn to Salvador and try to find out.
Fieldwork among the travestis was not easy. The travestis with whom
I worked live in one of the poorest and most dangerous parts of town.
What is worse, Salvador is a city where the majority of the population is
dark-skinned, and where a blond head like my own is still unusual
enough to elicit double takes from passers-by. This meant that I could
never hope to blend in and become an inconspicuous presence. Like
most travestis, though for rather different reasons, I always stood out.

INTRODUCTION

13

This conspicuousness was a continual source of anxiety for me, espe­
cially when 1 was walking alone to and from the various points of travesti
prostitution late at night. T h e streets along with travestis work in the
center of the city are rapidly abandoned after sunset, and several of them
become lined with homeless people who bed down on cardboard boxes
for the night. Gangs of street children roam the area, sniffing glue and
looking for people to rob. Although I only had one thoroughly unpleas­
ant encounter during the entire time I was there (early on in my stay, a
ten-year-old child wearing an oversized T-shirt emblazoned with the
normally benign but in that context leeringly ominous words So Jesus
Salva [Only Jesus Saves] threatened to shoot me if I didn't give him some
money), I walked the streets of Salvador at night in a never-ending state
of tense alertness, relaxing only when 1 was actually in the company of
travestis—whom 1 knew street children and anyone else looking to rob
someone would never dare confront, especially not when they stood
chatting together in groups.
Even more distressing and bothersome than my foreignness, however,
was the fact that my Portuguese, at the beginning of my fieldwork, was
far from accomplished. Because 1 was able to return to Salvador quite
quickly after 1 had made a decision to make the city a site for fieldwork,
I had not had time to learn much of the language, and I began fieldwork
among travestis knowing almost nothing. Although I had been in a sim­
ilar situation several years previously, when I conducted fieldwork in
Papua New Guinea (Kulick 1992), 1 had forgotten the enormous stress
that linguistic incompetence generates. My inability to express myself or
understand much of what anybody was saying was a source of torturous
frustration, and I spent the first few months of my stay agonizing daily
(not to say hourly) over how much more quickly and efficiently a fluent
Portuguese speaker would be able to do the study I had set out to do.
In the end, though, after a great deal of thought about my foreignness
and my initial linguistic incompetence, I came to the conclusion that
both those handicaps proved to be advantages that greatly facilitated the
kind of contact with travestis that I eventually developed. Because I was
a light-haired foreigner from Sweden, a country whose exact location on
the globe was a mystery to most people, 1 had a certain cachet of exoticness that appealed to many travestis. Several travestis enjoyed occasion­
ally taking me to the bakery or the supermarket with them, so they could
link their arm in mine and allow passersby to think that I was their
gringo—their wealthy, non-Brazilian boyfriend.
But more significant than my status as a blond bauble, 1 think, was the
fact that as a foreigner, travestis found it difficult to insert me into their

14

INTRODUCTION

existing understandings of how people think about them. Travestis know
very well that all Brazilians are weaned on derogatory stereotypes about
travestis, and they know that even gay men throughout the country
tend to dislike and deprecate them. Because they experience discrimina­
tion and harassment on an almost daily basis, travestis assume that any
stranger they encounter will have prejudices against them, even if that
stranger is civil to them. The case of a foreigner, however, is different. A
firmly established truth that circulates among travestis is that Europeans
are more liberal and cultivated than Brazilians, and travestis who have
been to Italy are all agreed that Italian men treat travestis with much
more respect and kindness than any Brazilian man ever would. This all
means that a person from Europe, like myself, is not assumed to bear the
same kind of instinctive prejudices that travestis expect from Brazilians.
And truly, I had no prejudices against travestis. Since I knew next to
nothing about travestis when I began getting to know them, I was
frankly ignorant of most of the stereotypes. I entered their rooms and
greeted them on the streets at night feeling neither fearful, disdainful, or
revolted, which is, I now know, how many Brazilians feel towards them.
From the very first, I liked travestis. Even though I missed a lot of it in
the beginning, I enjoyed their raunchy humor, and I admired the fact
that they could take so much abuse from policemen and passersby in cars
and on foot, and still remain defiant and concerned that their lipstick not
be smudged. Although some of the violent acts they committed to rob
clients disturbed me, I saw those acts contextualized in a society that it­
self is brutally violent to its lower classes, and I never allowed myself the
smug first-world, finger-wagging conceit of condemning or challenging
a travesti who laughingly recounted how she had robbed a terrified maricona (soft faggot) earlier that evening.
My genuine affection towards the travestis with whom I worked was
compounded, in a complementary way, by the fact that I was able to say
or understand very little for the first two months of my stay among them.
Although my smiling, nodding, uncomprehending presence on their
doorstep and in their rooms was undoubtedly stressful for them during
the first month or so (it was certainly stressful for me), my initial lin­
guistic incompetence made it possible for me to pass through an ex­
tended period of relatively wordless incorporation into their day-to-day
lives. Travestis who attempted to focus on or entertain me when I was in
their company realized quickly that I had no idea what they were saying,
and so, bored, they turned their attention to one another. By the time I
was able to understand and contribute to conversations and gossip, I was
already firmly established as a fixed, agreeable, noncondemnatory, and
nonthreatening presence in their lives.

INTRODUCTION

15

Beyond my foreignness and my initial linguistic inability, there is
one further feature of my personal biography that 1 believe greatly facil­
itated the kinds of relationships that I eventually developed with the tra­
vestis. That is the fact that I am gay. Before I began my fieldwork in
Salvador, I spoke to the only two people 1 knew of who had conducted
ethnographic work among transgendered individuals in Latin Amer­
ica—Annick Prieur, a Norwegian sociologist who had written her doc­
toral thesis on young transgendered prostitutes in Mexico City (later
published as Prieur 1994a), and Neuza Maria de Oliveira, the Brazilian
sociologist whose masters thesis on travestis in Salvador was what first
alerted me to the peculiarities of travesti gendered identities. To my
great distress, both these women expressed doubts that 1, as a man,
would ever be able to gain access to and acceptance by travestis. "Tra­
vestis won't relate well to a man," 1 remember Neuza de Oliveira telling
me. "They like to talk about things like lipstick and hair and men." 8 But,
1 protested meekly, so do I.
As it turned out, the issue of my sexual orientation was one of the
first questions that came up in my conversations with travestis. After
names were exchanged, either I or the person who had introduced me
was asked if I was a viado—a fag. Upon receiving an affirmative answer,
travestis often nodded and relaxed noticeably. My status as a selfacknowledged viado implied to the travestis that I was, in effect, one of
the girls, and that I probably was not interested in them as sexual part­
ners. My behavior quickly confirmed that I was not, and after such pre­
liminaries were out of the way, travestis realized that they could continue
conversing about the topics—boyfriends, clients, big penises, hormones,
and silicone—that most occupy their time, without having to worry that
1 might find such topics uninteresting or offensive.
I speculate that my status as a foreign, noncondemnatory, clearly
identified gay researcher allowed me to become integrated in the lives of
travestis in a way that permitted me access to dimensions of their lives
that have not been described in previous works. Anyone familiar with
the two Brazilian studies of travestis will note strong differences between
the ethnographic data analyzed in this book and the data presented in
those works. 9 T h e Brazilian monographs have virtually nothing to say
about several of the topics, such as travestis' relationships with their
boyfriends, that I have found absolutely crucial for an understanding of
travestis—both as individuals and as a sociocultural phenomenon. 1 in­
terpret the absence of this kind of material in the Brazilian studies as due
partly to the kind of contact these two scholars had with travestis (I have
already noted that neither lived with them on a day-to-day basis, as I did)
and partly to their own identities: Neuza de Oliveira, of course, is a

16

INTRODUCTION

woman, and Helio Silva reports (1993:150-54) that he presented him­
self to travestis as a potential client—a role that clearly must have had
profound consequences for the types of relationships he developed with
individual travestis. While my point is not to spitefully turn the tables on
the women who warned me that travestis would never accept me, and
propose that in fact only gay men can really do fieldwork among tra­
vestis (that would be meaningless, considering the value of the studies
published by Prieur, Oliveira, and Silva), I do suggest that as an openly
gay man, someone perceived to be a viado like them, I was positioned by
travestis in a way that may have facilitated access to discussions and
confidences that might not have been granted as easily to women (and
certainly not to potential clients).
One final dimension of my fieldwork among travestis deserves men­
tion here. From the very first days of my residence among travestis, I
tape-recorded their speech extensively, using a pocket-sized Sony TCS580V stereo cassette recorder. By the end of my stay, I had recorded and
transcribed over fifty hours of speech, including twenty hours of spon­
taneous interactions and sixteen interviews lasting between ninety min­
utes and eleven hours (fifteen of those interviews are with travestis
between the ages of eleven and fifty-eight,- one is with the marido, or
boyfriend, of a travesti). I justified my recording to the travestis by ex­
plaining, honestly, that I needed to tape-record and transcribe their con­
versations if I was ever going to understand a word they were saying.
They graciously accepted this, and they quickly grew used to the sight
of me sitting in the doorway of the house or lying on someone's mattress
clutching my little tape recorder. Most of the time, I recorded openly in
this way, and the travestis all knew exactly what I was doing. When I
walked the streets at night, however, I was forced to conceal my tape
recorder either in the pocket of my shirt or in the waistband of my
shorts, so as to minimize the risk of theft. Although travestis sometimes
spotted the red light on the tape recorder and asked me if I was taping,
the fact that I was recording an interaction often went unremarked. I did
not generally announce that I was recording on the street at night, be­
cause I knew that to arrive in the midst of a group of laughing and jok­
ing travestis and announce "OK, everybody, I'm tape-recording" would
have ruinously altered the dynamics of the interaction. I realize that the
ethics of tape-recording in this manner are questionable. My own con­
clusion is that the practice is not unduly unethical, partly because my
identity as a researcher who was gathering material for a book about
travestis was well known to all travestis, and everybody knew that I
recorded compulsively,- partly because I have changed the name, or

INTRODUCTION

17

Transcribing tapes with Keila Simpsom

obtained permission to use the name, of any travesti whom I quote dis­
cussing illegal or incriminating activities,- and partly because I believe
that the material I collected in this manner is no more inherently intru­
sive (and it certainly constitutes significantly more reliable data) than the
more usual ethnographic practice of attempting to reconstruct conver­
sations from memory. 1 0
As will quickly become clear in the text that follows, the interviews 1
conducted and the recordings I made of spontaneously occurring con­
versations between travestis constitute the backbone of this study. In
structuring my analysis of travesti bodily practices, affective relations,
and subjectivity around conversational examples of what travestis say
to one another and to me, I am building on the fundamental ethnomethodological insight that unless we can show how agents invoke and
orient towards a co-constructed reality, we can never be certain that the
patterns, identities, and structures we analyze are anything other than
our own outsider models. The ethnographic puzzle, as I see it, is to at­
tend to contextually situated interactions and attempt to make explicit
the unexpressed logic that undergirds those interactions—the logic that
makes it possible for people to act in certain taken-for-granted ways and

18

INTRODUCTION

say things to others and expect understanding. My goal in this book is
to attempt this kind of analysis for travestis, by focusing on their bodily
and social practices and on the words they use to talk about their lives.
Rather than speak for travestis, I try here, as far as is possible, to let tra­
vestis speak for themselves. So while the interpretations in this book are
all mine, many of the words, in what follows, belong to them.

One

The Context of
Travesti Life

The shortest route to Sao 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 thor­
oughfare, 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 nao e verdade"—This is not real. Maybe the author of those
words meant them as a protest, or a wry commentary on Brazil—an in­
digenous, folk echo of Charles de Gaulle's famous comment about Brazil:
"This is not a serious country." Maybe "Isso nao e verdade" was the
chorus of a samba tune that was popular at the time the words were writ­
ten, 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 one's desires, frame of mind, and point of view.
At the end of this alley is Sao Francisco Street. About a kilometer
long, Sao 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"
19

"This is not real

THE C O N T E X T OF TRAVESTI LIFE

21

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 six­
teenth century and reached its full social and architectural splendor at
the end of the 1700s. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, how­
ever, 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 mov­
ing out of Pelourinho to establish themselves in exclusive new neigh­
borhoods 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. T h e 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 cjuem tern dinheiro eladrao). 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, re­
building 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 sky­
rocketing 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). T h e government gave tenants the choice of relocation far outside
the city center or indemnification checks, where averaged twenty mini­
mum salaries—the equivalent of almost two years' wages for many
people. Most residents opted for the money. In this process of renovat­
ing the city center, which continues today, thousands of people were dis­
located 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

11

CHAPTER ONE

blocks to consolidate themselves in the fringe areas around Pelourinho
that were not under renovation (Bacelar 1982,- Cerqueira 1994,- IPAC
1995,- interview with Lucia Sepulveda of IPAC [Institute of the Artistic
and Cultural Heritage of Bahia], 9 January 1997).
The area around Sao Francisco Street is one of these areas. It is today
like what the worst parts of Pelourinho must have been like in the mid1960s, 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 col­
ors, 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
Sao 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 mo­
tion, 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 ses­
sion and flee the room after we realized that the twenty-six 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 Sao Francisco Street is evident by
the things that the residents do to earn a living. Although a large num­
ber of people throughout the area presumably engage in noncriminal
means of earning money, such as selling popsicles or cigarettes or coffee
on the street, giving pedicures, or washing other people's clothes, it

THE C O N T E X T OF TRAVESTI LIFE

23

seemed to me that virtually everybody 1 met or heard spoken about
around Sao Francisco Street supported themselves largely through doing
something illegal. T h e 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 sit­
ting 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 spe­
cialized in stealing checkbooks and writing bad checks. These men and
women would buy groceries worth four hundred reais (about four hun­
dred 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 them­
selves and saving whoever purchased the food from them an equivalent
amount of money. O n 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 Sao Francisco Street that had
only travestis living in them and two other houses, one of which 1 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
Sao Francisco Street at any one time, which made it the highest con­
centration of travestis in the city.
T h e house in which I lived was divided up into eleven rooms on the
top floor, eleven on the middle floor—where I had my r o o m — a n d
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. T h e basement floor of the house was de­
risively called the javela de coed—the slum of shit—by travestis. T h e ma­
jority 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

24

CHAPTER ONE

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 Sao 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 coco 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 Sao 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 no­
tice 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 ex­
ploiting their tenants because they do not mind the prostitution that tra­
vestis 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 Sao Francisco Street at the invitation of
Keila Simpsom, the travesti who during the course of my fieldwork be­
came 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

THE

CONTEXT

O F T R AV E S T I LIFE

15

Pastinha in the room in which she lives and works. The room is only slightly larger
than the mattress on which she is sitting.

characteristic of people in her native state of Maranhao, 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 associ­
ations 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, nononsense 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 coordi­
nator 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 pre­
vious to my initial visit to Salvador, in mid-1993, GGB had been dis­
tributing free condoms to travestis once a week. This distribution took

26

CHAPTER ONE

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. 1

Travestis and AIDS
T h e free condoms were, of course, one response to the AIDS epidemic
that has decimated Brazil's 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. W h a t is worse, estimates of the
number of people currently infected with HIV in Brazil range from
338,000 to one million (Folha de Sao Paulo, 21 December 1996). Salvador,
which as of August 1996 had reported 1,295 cases of AIDS since the epi­
demic was first diagnosed, ranks ninth among Brazilian cities in number
of registered cases (Boletim Epidemioldgico, weeks 2 3 - 3 5 , 1996). This rela­
tively 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.
As prostitutes who often assume the insertee role in sex with their
clients, travestis are particularly hard hit by AIDS. 2 It is impossible even
to guess, however, at how many have died of it. Statistics on AIDS in
Brazil do not report on travestis—they are subsumed under the cate­
gories "men" and "homosexual transmission." And asking travestis to es­
timate the number of their friends and colleagues who have died of the
disease is pointless. Whenever journalists approach them on the street at
night and ask them about AIDS (this is one of the few topics journalists
are interested in knowing anything about from travestis), individual tra­
vestis will rapidly come up with a number, usually a large one. But in con­
versations with one another, those same travestis will later be quick to
point out that travestis die of many things, and AIDS—which is most
commonly only referred to euphemistically as a menina, "the girl," or a tia,
"the aunt"—is only one of them. And besides, they ask, how does any­
one know that a particular travestis death was caused by AIDS? T h e

THE C O N T E X T OF TRAVESTI LIFE

27

overwhelming majority of travestis, like the majority of Brazil's popula­
tion, have no access to adequate health care, and travestis—again, like
most other Brazilians—spend their lives self-diagnosing their infirmities
and curing them by using pharmaceutical products recommended by
friends or by pharmacists, who dispense a wide array of powerful drugs
over the counter with no medical prescriptions. In a context like this,
AIDS is more a matter of opinion than of medical test results. (This same
line of reasoning is used by travestis whenever people suggest to them
that injecting silicone into their bodies might result in health problems.
Travestis know that many people consider silicone injections to be dan­
gerous. But they dismiss those concerns and ask rhetorically how anyone
can be absolutely certain that the death of a particular travesti was
caused by silicone.)
Some travestis have had HIV tests, and some have tested positive. But
there is a widespread belief that HIV tests are unreliable, and that one
may test positive one time and negative the next. So one never really
knows if one is HIV positive or not. Also, there is a firm idea in the mi­
lieu in which travestis live that HIV infects people in varying quantities,
and that if one acquires only "a little" of it (um pouco do virus), one's health
will not be significantly compromised. And in addition to these difficul­
ties that, according to travestis, prevent anyone from ever knowing if an
individual really has AIDS or has died of AIDS-related causes, there is
also the fact that being HIV positive or having AIDS carries a strong
stigma among travestis. A common, and strong, term of abuse among
travestis (and among Brazilians generally) is aidetka, which means "AIDS
carrier." This word is hurled as a kind of accusation in arguments, and a
travesti will frequently use it in talking about some other travesti whom
she for some reason intensely dislikes (usually because she has lost a boy­
friend to the object of vituperation).
T h e fact that it is still considered disgraceful and embarrassing to be
infected with HIV means that travestis' diagnoses of AIDS in others must
be heard more as a statement about their feelings towards those others
than as an accurate representation of medical fact. Travestis will be quick
to claim that those they dislike have AIDS, but at the same time they will
be extremely hesitant to attribute the actual sicknesses and deaths of tra­
vestis they like to the disease. During the time I spent in Salvador, at
least nine travestis I knew died of what seemed to my untrained eye to
be health failures related to AIDS. In almost all of these cases, travestis
who were close to the deceased consistently denied that the cause of
death had anything to do with AIDS. Instead, they invoked everything
from tuberculosis to unspecified lung problems (problemas pulmondrios) to

28

CHAPTER ONE

Lining up for condoms on Sao Francisco Street

an equally nebulous "stomach infection" (infec$ao no estomacjo) to a "swollen
heart" (cora$ao inchado) to a "lack of will to go on living" (ela nao tinha vontade de viver mais).
In the foreseeable future, travestis will probably continue to be ex­
tremely hard hit by AIDS. All of them know by now that condoms are
essential in preventing the transmission of HIV. All travestis also seem to
use condoms much of the time while working, and they usually insist
that their clients also use them (some travestis will not even perform
fellatio on a client if he is not wearing a condom, and a few travestis say
that they routinely put two, or in some cases even three, condoms on
clients before allowing penetration). Condoms sometimes burst, how­
ever, or remain inside the travestis rectum when the clients penis is with­
drawn, thereby facilitating transmission of the virus. But perhaps more
serious than these occasional accidents is the fact that most travestis do
not always insist on condoms. There still seem to be many clients who
are willing to pay a travesti more if he does not have to wear a condom
while penetrating her, and if the price is right and the travesti needs
the money desperately enough, she may comply. Some travestis also

THE C O N T E X T OF TRAVESTI LIFE

29

routinely permit coitus interruptus without a condom. And if the person
with whom the travesti is having sex is what travestis call a vtcio—that is,
if he is an attractive male with whom she is having sex for free—then
condoms will often not enter the picture at all.
T h e most significant vector of HIV transmission among travestis is
probably neither their clients nor their vicios, however, but their boy­
friends. I have only ever heard one travesti claim to always use condoms
during sex with her boyfriend (not coincidentally, that travesti is Keila,
who, through her work with GGB and various nongovernmental or­
ganization, is the travesti in Salvador who is most engaged in HIVprevention efforts). All other travestis openly dismiss the thought of ever
asking their boyfriend to put on a condom, even though the boyfriends
are often highly promiscuous, even though they regularly penetrate
their travesti girlfriends, and even though many travestis change boy­
friends very frequently. For better and for worse, travestis have come to
equate condoms with work. And this means that whenever they feel they
are not working, condoms can be dispensed with. 3

Travestis and Violence
If it is difficult to know when the death of a travesti is caused by AIDS, it
is not hard to know when her death is caused by violence. Brazil is a vio­
lent society. Not only is it a society saturated in what the anthropologist
Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1992) has called "the violence of everyday
life"—the routinized suffering and humiliation that a large majority of
Brazil's population must endure at the hands of a social and political sys­
tem that is corrupt, corrosive, and harshly class and race biased—it is
also a society in which more than seven thousand street children were
murdered by exterminators between 1987 and 1991 (Jornal do Brasil, 6 De­
cember 1991, cited in Simpson 1993:132) and in which stray bullets
fired by police and drug syndicates kill dozens of innocent bystanders a
year (Istoe, 13 November 1 9 9 6 : 4 0 - 4 1 ) . 4 In Salvador, hardly a day goes
by without one or even two armed bank robberies, or without a car or
city bus running over someone trying to cross the road and then speed­
ing off without stopping. Each month the city sees at least two brutal
lynchings of people who have committed, or are suspected of having
committed, a crime. A nationwide study published in late 1996 con­
cluded that 70 percent of all deaths among males between the ages of 15
and 29 are caused by violence (reported in A Tarde, 24 October 1996).
Violence is an integral dimension of life in most places and for most
people throughout Brazil.
But almost nowhere is this violence more ubiquitous than in the day-

30

CHAPTER ONE

to-day existence of travestis.5 Violence is an ever-present backdrop
against which all travestis live their lives. Even though they all habitually
dress in female clothing and wear female hairstyles, cosmetics, and ac­
cessories, the majority of travestis do not easily pass as women, espe­
cially when they are seen in the harsh light of day. Instead, they seem to
give an incongruent impression that compels people seeing them on the
street to stare or comment. A travesti walking down a city street during
the day will thus tend to attract attention. This attention is not only con­
demnatory—on the contrary, whenever I went out in the company of
any travesti during the day, I was always struck by how she attracted a
steady stream of openly lustful looks from men of all ages, even though
she did nothing more seductive than buy some rolls at the bakery or
pause at a shop window to look at some sandals. But even as some males
are openly desirous of travestis who pass them on the street, others are
openly hostile, and a travesti must be prepared to confront abusive re­
marks from men and women or physical violence from males. Travestis
find themselves obliged to continually reassert their rights to occupy
urban space, and they live their lives aware that they may, at any moment,
suddenly become the target of verbal harassment and/or physical vio­
lence from anyone who feels provoked by their presence in that space.
The danger is greatest at night. In order to attract clients, travestis
stand on street corners and along highways, thereby exposing them­
selves to public scrutiny in ways they are otherwise usually careful to
avoid. This exposure makes them vulnerable to harassment by police­
men and passersby in cars and buses. Much of this harassment takes the
form of verbal abuse, but gangs of young men sometimes severely bash
travestis, and people speeding by in cars often throw objects such as
rocks and bottles at them. Sometimes they even shoot them. Usually the
perpetrators of these crimes are never apprehended, and even if they are,
the sentences they receive are light. In one infamous case, a military po­
liceman in Rio de Janeiro was convicted by a court of military justice of
having killed a travesti, shooting her once in the face and twice in the
back. This same policeman was also under investigation for the deaths of
five other travestis, who in addition to all being shot in the face were
found with their genitals cut off. When the policeman's case was ap­
pealed and retried in the High Court of Military Justice, however, his
sentence was reduced from twelve years to six, because, the decision
read, "the activity in which the victim was engaged was a high-risk ac­
tivity, extremely dangerous,- thus the fact that he was taken by surprise
cannot be used in his favor [ndo Ihe socorrendo assim, ojator surpresa)" (Folha
de Sao Paulo, 9 October 1994). Travestis working as street prostitutes, in

THE C O N T E X T OF TRAVESTI LIFE

31

other words, are asking for it, and no one should expect courts to unduly
penalize a man just because he shoots travestis in the face.
As this case indicates, policemen are a major source of violence
against travestis—in Salvador, without a doubt the most common
source. There are three types of police in Brazil: federal police (polkia federal), civil police (policia civil), and, presumably a remnant of the country's
long history of authoritarian rule, military police (policia militar). These
different types of police are further divided into special branches, such
as the highway police (policia rodovidria), operating as a branch of the fed­
eral police,- the feared Batalhao do Choque (Combat Battalion) of the
military police,- and the Delegacia de Jogos e Costumes (DJC), a kind of
vice squad within the civil police that was disbanded, travestis told me,
by President Fernando Collor de Mello in the early 1990s ("the only
good thing he ever did," quipped the travesti who first told me this, re­
calling that Collor de Mello was impeached in 1992 on charges of mas­
sive corruption and extortion). 6
Both the civil and military police patrol the streets in Salvador and all
other large cities. Military police are the more numerous. They are also
more visible, because they are uniformed, whereas civil police are not.
Both types of policemen have the same powers to make arrests, and both
are equally likely to harass travestis. However, travestis in Salvador are
unanimous in claiming that it is the military police who are most violent
and most likely to abuse them, coerce them into performing sex against
their will, rob them, assault them, and even murder them.
Until the beginning of the 1990s, travestis went to work each night
not knowing whether they would return home at the end of the evening.
They could virtually count on being arrested by either military police or
the DJC vice squad. In both cases there was nothing legal about the ar­
rests—prostitution is not criminal under the Brazilian legal code, and
the travestis were almost never charged with any crime (on the few oc­
casions when they were charged, the crime was vadiagem, vagrancy). Tra­
vestis arrested by the civil police were taken to jail, where they would
have to spend at least one night, and sometimes as many as three, before
they were released. If they were picked up by the military police, how­
ever—and especially if they were picked up by a paddy wagon of the
Combat Battalion—^travestis were routinely tortured. They were packed
into the truck and repeatedly kicked and punched by the six to eight po­
licemen who rode with them, not to jail but to the Praia do Flamenco, an
(at that time) all but deserted beach about a forty-five-minute drive out­
side of Salvador. Throughout this trip, policemen played a number of
sadistic games with travestis. A favorite was to force them to sit kissing

32

CHAPTER ONE

one another on the mouth for the entire journey. Another amusement
was to command a travesti to put her hand, palm up, on the head of the
travesti sitting beside her. A policeman then brought down his billy club
with full force onto the travestis hand. If she panicked when she felt the
club falling and withdrew her hand, the blow landed on the head of her
neighbor. Upon arriving at the beach, the policemen got out and formed
two lines facing each other at the back of the paddy wagon. They then
made the travestis descend one by one. As each travesti stepped down,
she was forced to walk in between the policemen, who kicked her with
their boots and beat her with their billy clubs. Beatings like this can have
extremely serious consequences for travestis, because blows to the parts
of their bodies in which they have silicone often cause the silicone to
shift position. Hence, hips may slide down a travestis thigh, breasts may
descent into her stomach, and buttocks may splatter in all directions. Po­
licemen knew this—because travestis, terrified of becoming deformed
for life, told them—but they took no notice. O n the contrary, the knowl­
edge that they may have been destroying a travestis life only seemed to
increase the pleasure that many of them derived from the beating.
In the grand finale of these brutal horrors, the travestis were stripped
and ordered to fight with one another. The spectacle of a group of naked
travestis slapping one another was illuminated by the headlights of the
paddy wagon and ogled by the policemen, who laughed at and mocked
the travestis.
After the policemen had finally driven off, the travestis were left to try
to find whatever remained of their clothes in the pitch blackness of the
beach, and to try to get a lift back into town. Unless one or more of the
travestis had managed to quickly stuff her nights earnings up into her
rectum before she fell prey to the police, they couldn't take a taxi. All
they could do was hitchhike back into the city.
For reasons that no one is quite certain of, the situation in Salvador
for travestis has improved dramatically in the past five years. T h e disso­
lution of the vice squad has clearly helped. But even the Combat Battal­
ion no longer rounds up travestis and abandons them naked and battered
on the Praia do Flamenco. However, even though the organized police
violence against travestis has all but ceased, hardly a day goes by that
some individual policeman does not take it upon himself to harass tra­
vestis. I myself have listened as military policemen glided by in their
dark cars and barked ominous threats to travestis working along the edge
of the highway, and I have fled in panic with other travestis when a pair
of military police approached a group chatting on a street corner and
without warning butted a billy club into the stomach of the travesti
standing nearest to them.

THE C O N T E X T OF TRAVESTI LIFE

33

Travestis continue to be relatively powerless in the face of such police
brutality. In the past, their most effective response to it was to slice open
the veins of their inner arm and spray the policemen with blood. Tra­
vestis made sure to always have a razor blade somewhere on their person ; sometimes they slid a small blade behind their upper lip or inside
their cheek. If they were taken to jail and had no blade handy, they would
attempt to use whatever they could find. A travesti once told me the
story of how another travesti broke off the plastic top of her nail-polish
bottle and sliced upon her arm with that, fleeing the police station as the
policemen recoiled at the sight of her spattered with blood. This prac­
tice of self-mutilation (known among travestis simply as se cortar—to cut
oneself) originated before the AIDS epidemic (Oliveira 1994: 148-49,Mott and Assungao 1987). However, once it became clear that HIV was
transmitted through blood, cutting oneself became all the more effective
as a way of escaping from police or getting oneself released from jail.
With the relative easing of police repression, the incidence of selfmutilation has decreased dramatically in Salvador. Whereas travestis in
their mid-thirties and upwards almost all have deep and numerous scars
on at lest one of their inner arms, most younger travestis have never cut
themselves. Their most common response to police brutality is to try to
run away. Sometimes they will also threaten to go to a newspaper and
publicly denounce a policeman who harasses or robs them or demands
sex, but this threat rarely helps. Most often it simply elicits a threat in re­
t u r n — d o it, the policeman responds, and the next time I see you on the
street I'll kill you.
Violence against travestis remains so widespread and common
throughout the country that it receives occasional attention in the
Brazilian press—usually when a travesti corpse is discovered or when
there is a wave of murders, such as when the Folha de Sao Paulo ran a se­
ries of reports after sixteen travestis in Sao Paulo were shot in the head
during the first three months of 1993.
More common in Brazilian newspapers, though, are reports about
crimes committed by travestis. These reports uniformly portray travestis
as vicious, armed, drug-addicted, AIDS-spreading criminals who lure in­
nocent men into dangerous situations and then assault them, often dis­
turbing the public peace and causing pandemonium in the process. A
newspaper article that appeared on 17 August 1995 in A Tarde, the largest
daily newspaper in Salvador, is a kind of concentration of those themes.
T h e only detail lacking in this article that frequently appears alongside
texts about travestis is a line drawing depicting ridiculously masculinelooking males pulling at one another's wigs or brandishing menacing
knives at frightened clients.

34

CHAPTER ONE

"Travesti Attacks Young Man with Razor in Pituba"
During more than 15 minutes of total pandemonium, motorists stopped
their cars to observe the actions of the bloody battle provoked by the travesti known as "Karine," who frequents the Our Lady of the Light Square,
in Pituba, to attract customers. The victim, who attempted to flee from
well-aimed blows of a razor, was Roberto Carlos de Conceicjio Santos,
26 years old, from Sao Gongalo dos Campos.
The event occurred at about 10 p.m. on Tuesday. The Our Lady of the
Light Square was bustling with the presence of numerous travestis and
prostitutes, who every night until daybreak afflict this dignified area of the
Pituba neighborhood, not even respecting the presence of the soldiers
stationed at the Military Police post there. "Karine," a lanky mulatta, 1.80
meters tall, in high heels, probably drugged, was inviting men to take part
in amorous encounters. As incredible as it may seem, despite the threat of
AIDS and a series of other dangerous diseases, men continue to frequent
this locale to seek out travestis.
Chase

"Karine's" insistence finally attracted Roberto Carlos, who had already
been in the area for more than an hour watching the travestis[!]. The two
approach one another, according to a witness, and hold a quick dialogue.
After this, the two disappear for several minutes, and, when there were
fewer people about, "Karine" reappears, running after Roberto Carlos,
armed with a razor. The young man attempts to flee, but receives a deep
blow to his right shoulder, even cutting his shirt. Blood begins flowing
quickly, and people begin to scream, attracting the attention of passersby and motorists.
Having already removed her high heels, "Karine" continues chasing
Roberto Carlos and strikes him again, this time in the back. The young
man throws himself into the middle of the road, with his shirt soaked with
blood, and "Karine" keeps up her chase. A third deep cut is made on the
right arm of Roberto, who is unable to continue fleeing.
Several days after this article appeared, I met Karine on the street at
night and recorded an interview with her about the incident. H e r ver­
sion of the events differs dramatically from the newspaper's. "Look," she
told me and several other travestis who had gathered to listen, "it's like
this. I was there on my corner working, right? And he came up and asked
for five reais [about five dollars]. I said I don't have five reais. And he said
'you don't, huh' and went away." T h e man, whom Karine knew to be a
petty criminal who had previously robbed other travestis and female
prostitutes working in the area, returned later, accompanied by another
man and brandishing a club to which steel nails had been attached.
H e again demanded money, at which point Karine, feeling threatened,
removed a small knife from her purse ("we have to defend ourselves,

THE C O N T E X T OF TRAVESTI LIFE

35

right?") and stabbed him. She was appalled at the report in A Tarde. "They
lied," she explained. "It wasn't a razor. And he wasn't a client. H e wasn't
somebody who came to me wanting to pay for sex. H e was a street crimi­
nal (urn marginal de rua)." Karine was apprehended by the police after this
incident, but they released her after she paid them a small bribe (urn
acuezinbo).
Since 1 did not witness the incident described by Karine and A Tarde,
1 can only speculate as to which of these two highly divergent accounts
might be closer to "the truth." Based on everything 1 know about travestis, however, 1 find it extremely unlikely that a travesti would chase a
client down the street and out into traffic just to stab him. As I document
in chapter 4, travestis do indeed rob their clients very frequently. But
they are not interested in injuring clients, they just want to rob them,and they have a number of well-developed ways of doing that—none of
which involve running after them down city streets and stabbing them.
I also know that it is not at all uncommon for men to try to demand
money from travestis and female prostitutes in the area in which Karine
was working. In addition to all this, A Tarde is infamous in Salvador for its
regular, virulent attacks on homosexuals. 7 T h e newspaper's profoundly
homophobic attitude is evidenced fairly clearly by the tone in which the
article about Karine is written. So my own educated guess, based on all
this, is that Karine's version of the incident is the much more believable
one, and that the piece in A Tarde is one of the many instances of jour­
nalistic reports about travestis where interest in promoting and reinforc­
ing derogatory stereotypes overrides any concern to provide accurate
information.
The article about Karine appeared in the crime pages of A Tarde. Such
pages constitute a special section of every Brazilian newspaper. Gener­
ally speaking, whenever travestis who are not famous like Roberta Close
appear in the news, they do so on these pages, where they are featured
either as dangerous criminals or as corpses (often photographed in lurid
close-up). An interesting linguistic difference in these two journalistic
depictions of travestis is that whenever travestis are accused of commit­
ting violence, their agency is always clearly spelled out in headlines.
So, for example, a headline will read, "Travesti attacks young man with
razor in Pituba" (Travesti ataca rapaz a navalhadas na Pituba) or "Reporter
robbed by travesti" (Reporter foi furtado por urn travesti) or "Murdered
with a knife in a car by a travesti" (Assassinado a jaca no automovel pelo
travesti).
In stark contrast, headlines in reports of violence against travestis are
very frequently without agents. Typical examples are "August begins
with the taste of blood: First victim is travesti" (Agosto comeca com gosto de

36

CHAPTER ONE

sancjue-. Primeira vitima e travesti) and "Three are killed at Ponta Negra" (Tris
sao mortos em Ponta Negra). Headlines reporting crimes against travestis
also tend to attribute their deaths to instruments such as a knife, a gun,
or a b l o w — n o t a person. So instead of saying something like "Man
shoots travesti," a headline will read, "Floripedes, the travesti, murdered
with blow" (Floripedes, o travesti, assassinado a murro), "Death in Pigalle:
Brazilian murdered with shots from a hunting rifle" (Morte em Pigalle-.
Brasileiro assassinado com tiros de Juzil de caca); or "15 travestis die shot
through the head in Sao Paulo" (Em Sao Paulo 4 5 travestis morrem com tiros na
cabeca). Thus, in the case of reports about violence committed by tra­
vestis, agency and responsibility are understood and foregrounded. Re­
ports about violence inflicted on travestis, in contrast, often elide the
agency of those responsible for the violence, or displace it into the
weapon, so that the perpetrators of the crimes remain in the background
(cf. Henley, Miller, and Beazely 1995).

Travestis in Salvador
At any one time, there will be between about 100 and 250 travestis liv­
ing and working in Salvador. This variation is seasonal. Travestis are
highly mobile individuals, and most travestis in their early twenties will
have already worked at least for a while in three or four different, often
geographically distant, Brazilian cities. Salvador is particularly popular
among travestis during the summer months beginning in December.
Throughout those months, the city is host to a large number of popular
festivals that culminate in February in the famous Carnival, which vaults
the city into a full seven days of nonstop partying. Travestis from all over
the northeast of the country flock to Salvador during this period to cash
in on the fact that so much partying puts many men in festive moods and
predisposes them to spend their money on prostitutes.
Contrary to popular belief and scholarly accounts, however, which
hold that travestis absolutely live for Carnival, because it is the only time
of the year when they can display themselves publicly to popular acclaim
(Da Matta 1984, 1991a,- Kottak 1990:174,- Parker 1991:146,- Trevisan
1986), most travestis in Salvador do not actively participate in Carnival.
Some of them do take the opportunity to dress up in homemade mini­
malist fantasias (costumes) that consist of glitter and a few feathers, and
stand showing themselves off and keeping an eye peeled for potential
clients on the steps of the city square (Prac,a Castro Alves) that is by tacit
agreement a predominantly gay space during Carnival. Some travestis
also visit one or two of the gay "balls" that occur throughout the week
at discotheques and clubs. And a few even participate in a gay beauty

THE C O N T E X T OF TRAVESTI LIFE

37

contest that is usually held on the Monday afternoon of Carnival, on the
same steps on which travestis most commonly congregate. But travestis
do their best to avoid mingling with the throngs of people who follow
behind, or crowd along the sides of the streets to see, the trio eletricos—
the bands that are the main attraction of Carnival, and that parade along
the city's main streets perched atop loudspeakers stacked up on eighteenwheel trucks. Indeed, many travestis avoid going out onto the streets
during Carnival altogether, because they know that, surrounded on all
sides by crowds of people, they are extremely vulnerable to harassment
and violence.
O n e of the myths Brazilians like to tell themselves about Carnival—
one that frequently gets repeated and perpetuated in popular and schol­
arly analyses of the festival—is that it represents a world upside-down,
in which anything goes, in which confusion and ambiguity are cele­
brated and in which deviance becomes normal (Parker 1991,- Da Matta
1984, 1991a, 1997b,- S o n i a ' 1 9 8 9 : 2 4 7 - 4 8 ) . While this characterization
may capture the experience of some of the participants in Carnival—par­
ticularly middle-class heterosexual males—scholars like Nancy ScheperHughes and Daniel Linger ha