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Profession: Ambiguity

Study reveals complexity of the identity of low-income transvestites

BARRY MICHAEL WOLFEThreatened with destruction by a silver zeppelin, the town, on its knees, was saved by the transvestite Geni. In return, the “proper” citizens of the town rewarded her with more of the same: “Throw stones at Geni/ She was made to be struck / She was made to be spat at / Damnable Geni”, wrote composer Chico Buarque in his Ópera do malandro. Recently, the press printed headlines about actors from the TV Globo network who had allegedly gone to a motel with two transvestites and, when they realized the mistake, they threatened to kill the transvestites. “Made to be beaten”, other transvestites get much more than mere threats. “Considered ‘abject’ and ‘monstrous’ figures, they are not empowered by the established systems of knowledge and power, which stimulates the desire to eliminate them; this results in the frequent murders of transvestites, the consequence of the so-called ‘transphobia’. Because they do not fit into the classifications of gender and sexuality established by our society, they challenge us, they de-construct us and provoke the desire of death, much like the monstrous figures described by Foucault”, explains psychologist Marcos Garcia, author of the doctorate thesis Dragões: gênero, corpo, trabalho e violência na formação da identidade entre travestis de baixa renda (Dragons: gender, body, work and violence in the shaping of the identity of low-income transvestites) presented this year to the doctorate program committee of the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Psychology.

Garcia spent four years attending weekly meetings of transvestites, held at a public institution. He was looking for a common factor  that would identify them. Instead of a simple duality of genders, he came across a complex “patchwork quilt”, in permanent construction, which brings together, in a single person, a number of different and contradictory figures, partially incorporated by the transvestite, which shape his/her identity: the “submissive woman”, the “prostitute”, the “super-seductress”, all of which are related to females, and the “fairy”, the “con man”, and the “bandit”, related to males. “They are transvestites because they take on all these persona. The synthesis of contradictory elements in a single person can be compared metaphorically to the mythical figure of the dragon, the same word transvestites use to describe low-income transvestites or transvestites whose appearance is more masculine (in contrast to the “goddesses”, such as Roberta Close etc.)”, the author points out. “The common characteristic attributed to the dragon is a mixture of the features of different animals and the dragon is viewed as a representative of the “good” or of the “evil”
powers, another analogy of the transvestites, who are viewed as persons to be eliminated while at the same time attracting the erotic desires of many, even sometimes of those who want to hurt them.” “Like the mythological being”, he adds, “they ‘contradict’ the laws of nature and of society, combining the impossible with the forbidden, that which is not against the law, only insofar as no such provision is established. The transvestite is unthinkable, an outlaw, stimulating not the imposition of the law, but elimination.”

Garcia believes that the violence directed at them is partially determined by the fact that they do not occupy a place defined in the identity “catalogues” acknowledged in Brazilian society. “They are persecuted not because they occupy a female position, but because of their pretension to be transvestites and because they escape from any social classification.” In Brazil, until the sixties, the word “transvestite” was only used to describe cross-dressers, whether in carnival parodies or in shows, without the connotation of prostitution. “In those times, it was almost impossible to be a transvestite in Brazil. They had no means of walking on the streets, because society would not accept this”, says anthropologist Hélio Silva, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and author of Travestis: entre o espelho e a rua (published by Rocco), a classic study, which was recently re-printed. In one decade, the “cross-dressers”, as they were called, transformed themselves in the seventies, says Garcia, into the current transvestites, a word which from the seventies onwards was used to describe someone who prostituted herself, not only wearing by female clothes, but also by having long hair, painted nails and a “modified body”, through hormones or silicone, in the search of an image similar to the female image.

The anthropologist’s research study unveiled some stories in common among them; most of them came from low-income families and were discriminated against and attacked early on, because of their “effeminate” ways. The solution was the standard one – run away to the big city to look for better living conditions and social acceptance – the outcome of which was prostitution, an alternative to the lack of space in the work market and the impossibility of counting on  help from the family. In fact, this rupture is responsible for the transvestites’ social isolation, which strengthens the new identity, as close contact with other homosexuals is the alternative social network to exclusion from the family. These ties of friendship and protection, says the researcher, even led to the creation of a specific jargon spoken by transvestites. This jargon is permeated by words stemming from African dialects, and are a manifestation “of belonging to a select group and a protection from those who are outside the frontiers defined by these forms of worship.” This specific kind of language, Garcia points out, is explained by “the historical association between Afro-Brazilian cults and homosexuality.”

The most noteworthy “patch” in the “identity” of the transvestites’ patchwork quilt is their emotional and sexual relationship with their companions, their “husbands”. “They embodied the submissive female, taking on a passive attitude in relation to these men, who very often exploited them economically. The transvestites often associate femininity with suffering.” They accepted their “no-good” husbands; however, in their relationship with clients, they were the “no-goods”, maintaining the clients in a complementary position (the “suckers” ),and rebelling against those clients who wanted to put them in a submissive position. According to the anthropologist, they feel contempt towards clients who want to take on passive positions during the “dates”, as, although the “dates” guaranteed the transvestites´ financial needs, they did not satisfy their desire to be treated like “women”. The passive role however, could often be a source of satisfaction, as the transvestite was acknowledged, “flirted with”, thus developing her self-esteem and making money.

But happiness is never complete. “Transvestites do not value  the proceeds from prostitution, viewing the money as being “dirty”. The same description is applied to bearers of HIV (referred to as “aunts”, and viewed as an undesired form of “masculinization”, which increases the suffering of those who are HIV-positive), whose blood is also “dirty”. The two cases shows the contempt they feel for the activities they engage in, viewed as being “moral filth”; this involves everything in an environment of shame and guilt”, says the researcher. Poverty unveiled in them another “patch”, the “bandit”. By robbing and threatening their clients to get money from them, they turned the clients into objects of financial exploitation. This is mad worse by the transvestites’ involvement in drug dealing or drug consumption, especially crack, which brings them closer to the “world of crime”.

But what about the clients? Unfortunately, says Garcia, there is virtually no research on the other end of the relationship, because of the obvious fear of the clients to present themselves as such. “But some researchers relate the search for transvestites as a search for an ideal form of stereotyped femininity, associated with the seduction that “real” women are not willing to indulge in because of women’s emancipation, which leads them to refuse to be considered “an object”. This “ideal woman” would be more easily invented by a man, because the man is thoroughly familiar with masculine desires”. Although the psychologist emphasizes the danger of generalizing this argument, he explains another “patch”: the “femme fatale”, the ideal persona of many transvestites. “Their attitude towards their bodies includes a perception of the ambiguous nature of their bodies, which suggests that they do not perceive it as simply a female or a male body. Hence the concern in relation to body transformation, by means of definitive methods, such as hormone therapy or the use of silicone (often applied inadequately and dangerously by “bombers”, colleagues that inject industrial silicone).” The search for a seductive, voluptuous body goes back to the figure of the seductive woman, based on movie stereotypes. This is also evidenced by the choice of pseudonyms, which are often in the form of “foreign-sounding” names (or directly inspired by celebrities’ names), a way of emphasizing the transvestites’ desire to resemble movie stars.

In Garcia’s opinion, all this complexity must be taken into account when attempting to define an identity for transvestites. “Perhaps the patches of material are not the only bits that fill up the ‘quilt’ and each patch can be of a different size. This implies the recognition of an identity subject to evident tensions between the masculine and the feminine, between masculinity and femininity.” As for example, the contradiction between the submission of the – rascal’s woman –  and the desire to dominate  the “femme fatale”, or the discrepancy between being desired and being used, in the case of the “prostitute”. In terms of masculinity, there is the tension between the persona of the “rascal” and the “bandit”  regarding practices they accept in relation to their clients, and the discrepancy of a virile “bandit” compared to a gay one, this  being seen as “passive and cowardly”. “Being a transvestite means experiencing these contradictions every day, in the body, in  self-representation, in  permanent and temporary relationships, and being punished for this every day”. After all, it’s easy to throw stones and spit at Geni.