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
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
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
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
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
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”.