In Brazil, travestis and their clientele are a more-or-less acknowledged part of the economy of desire.
During carnival in Rio, men en travesti are highly visible, on the street, in the pages of glossy magazines, and on the floats of some minor samba schools. There are even carnival groups that parade entirely in drag. These are mostly amateurs, though, out for the day. They would not want to be called travestis, a word that, in Brazilian Portuguese, normally implies a sex worker. For professional travestis the partial inversion of social order that is one of the features of carnival - and the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure that accompanies it - are a year-round phenomenon. For them it's a business.
And what exactly do their clients want? The travestis, it has been argued, shape themselves deliberately in the image of the sexual fantasies of their patrons, the respectably-dressed middle-aged men peering out of the windows of shiny cars that cruise along the avenue where they are on parade. By this interpretation they are not freaks; they are walking embodiments of the perverse desires of these patrons, soi-disant straight men.
A poor gay boy from the boondocks doesn't have a lot of choices in Brazil; becoming a travesti is one - dangerous but glamorous. One or two travestis have jumped the ghetto, being courted by public figures and feted in the salons of Rio. Most, of course, have the hard lives of prostitutes anywhere. To play the role they must have adapted themselves to painful and sometimes life-threatening surgical procedures, often self-administered.
Hormones and injections of silicone simulate female secondary characteristics. Nips and tucks do the rest. What travestis do not go in for are sex-change operations. Such operations are illegal anyway in Brazil, despite its reputation as the world capital of cosmetic surgery. But this is not why travestis don't go the whole way; it is because, by their account - and there is no other available source of information - their clients are looking for a sexual partner who is neither male nor female, but a paradoxical combination of the two, a sexual chimera, a fantasy of polymorphous perversity, with the look and feel of the feminine and the penetrative capacity of the male.
Travestis - those I've spoken to and those few who have spoken or written on the subject for publication - say that most of their clients want to take the passive role in sex, but with someone who is visibly a women. Travestis are thus, in the blunter language of Boogie Nights, the film about the porn industry in California, chicks with dicks.
The word travesti derives from transvestir, or cross-dress. But travestis do not only cross-dress. Sometimes beginning at ages as young as eight or ten, males who self-identify as travestis begin growing their hair long, plucking their eyebrows, experimenting with cosmetics, and wearing, whenever they can, feminine or androgynous clothing such as tiny shorts exposing the bottom of their buttocks or T-shirts tied in a knot in above their navel. It is not unusual for boys of this age to also begin engaging in sexual relations with their peers and older males, always in the role of the one who is anally penetrated. By the time these boys are in their early teens, many of them have already either left home, or been expelled from their homes, because their sexual and gender transgressions are usually not tolerated, especially by the boys' fathers. Once they leave home, the overwhelming majority of travestis migrate to cities (if they do not already live in one), where they meet and form friendships with other travestis, and where they begin working as prostitutes. In the company of their travesti friends and colleagues, young travestis learn about estrogen-based hormones, which are available for inexpensive over-the-counter purchase at any of the numerous pharmacies that line the streets in Brazilian cities. At this point, young travestis often begin ingesting large quantities of these hormones. By the time they reach their late teens, many travestis have also begun paying their colleagues to inject numerous liters of industrial silicone into their bodies, in order to round out their knees, thighs, and calves, and in order to augment their breasts, hips, and, most importantly (since this is Brazil), their buttocks.
Despite irrevocable physiological modifications such as these, the overwhelming majority of travestis do not self-identify as women. That is, despite the fact that they live their lives in female clothing, call one another 'she', and by female names, and endure tremendous pain 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, they say, homosexuals -- males who feel “like women” and who ardently desire “men” (i.e. masculine, non-homosexual males). Much of a travesti's time, thought and effort is spent fashioning and perfecting herself as an object of desire for those men.
Travestis occupy an unusually visible place in both Brazilian social space and the national cultural imaginary. They exist in all Brazilian cities of any size, and in the large southern cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, they number in the thousands. They are most exuberantly visible during Brazil's famous annual Carnival, but even in more mundane contexts and discourses, travestis figure prominently. A popular Saturday afternoon television show, for example, includes a spot in which female impersonators, some of whom are clearly travestis, get judged by a panel of celebrities on how beautiful they are and on how well they mime the lyrics to songs sung by female vocalists. Another weekly television show regularly featured Valéria, a well known travesti. Tieta, one of the most popular television novelas in recent years, featured a special guest appearance by Rogéria, another famous travesti. Another widely watched novela featured a saucy female lead whose speech was peppered with words from travesti argot, and who sounded, everybody agreed, just like a travesti (Browning 1996). But 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 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 an issue of Playboy magazine that sold out its entire press run of 200,000 copies almost immediately, was continually interviewed and portrayed in virtually every magazine in the country, and had at least three songs written about her by well-known composers. Although her popularity declined when, at the end of the 1980s, she left Brazil to have a sex-change operation and live in Europe, Roberta Close remains extremely well-known. A book about her life appeared last year (Rito1998), and in 1995, she was featured in a nationwide advertisement for Duloren lingerie, in which a photograph of her passport, bearing her male name, was transposed with a photograph of her looking sexy and chic in a black lace undergarment. The caption read “Você não imagina do que uma Duloren é capaz” - “You can't imagine what a Duloren can do”.
As it happens, famous individuals like Roberta Close, Valéria, and Rogéria are not representative of Brazil's travestis. Instead, they are more like exceptions that prove the rule. And the rule is harsh discrimination and vituperative public prejudice. The overwhelming majority of travestis live far from the protective glow of celebrity, and they constitute one of the most marginalized and despised groups in Brazilian society. Most travestis (like most Brazilians) come from working class or poor backgrounds, and many remain poor throughout their lives -- even though many, these days, also travel to Europe and earn enough money working there as prostitutes to return to Brazil and secure their own futures, and those of their mothers. In most Brazilian cities, travestis are harassed so routinely that many of them avoid venturing out onto the street during the day. And at night while at work, they are regularly the victims of violent police brutality and random assassinations by individuals or gangs of men who take it upon themselves to “clean up the streets”, as local governments periodically order their police forces to do -- despite the fact that neither cross-dressing nor prostitution are criminal under the Brazilian legal code.
So the nature of the relationship between the Brazilian populace-at-large and travestis is hot-cold, and love-hate: hot and loving enough to propel a handful of travestis to national celebrity, and also to sustain a thriving market in which tens of thousands of travestis are able to support themselves through prostitution. But cold and hateful enough to ensure that the majority of those travestis live in continual anxiety that their right to occupy urban space will be publicly challenged and perhaps violently denied. Jovana Baby, president of the travesti activist organization Grupo Astral (Associacao de Travestis e Liberados de Rio de Janeiro), provided a pithy summary of popular Brazilian sentiments towards travestis when she remarked in an interview with me that “Brazilians love travestis, as long as they stay on television or on the covers of magazines. A travesti on the street or, God forbid, in the family -- that is another story altogether”.