In Brazil, the lifestyle of a male prostitute is not always ideal. It’s not ideal for a certain group of individuals who call themselves Travestis. These individuals left their homes at a very young age and moved into tiny rooms in buildings with many others like them all because of their identity. Don Kulick traveled to Salvador, Brazil and lived with Travestis to observe how their life constructs their perception on personal gender expression and sex. Through gender expression and the attention to detail of their relationships with heterosexual men to Don Kulik of Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes Travestis, they validate their relationship between sex and gender.
When trying to understand the identity of a Travesti, one must know the difference between sex, sexuality and gender. Sex is what we were assigned at birth based on your genitalia: biology. For example, a penis is assigned male while a vagina is assigned female. Sexuality, is who you are attracted to sexually and romantically. Lastly, gender, the tricky one, is one’s internal sense of being; how one feels if they are male or female. This can be shown through outward appearances known as gender expression. Now, Travesties identify as a homosexual (sexuality) male (sex) and their gender is the part that is hard to define. As male prostitutes, they choose to use female pronouns, (she/her) have female names, and present with female attributes like wearing makeup and having long hair. Another part of the Travesti culture is injecting silicone into their bodies to get larger breasts or butts. Kulick asked, “Why do the individuals who engage in these kinds of bodily practices do so?” (Kulick 84). All of them had the same consensus, they can modify their bodies to their choosing, but they choose and will keep their penis. They modify their body to have more feminine attributes but not to be a woman. So, their gender identity is not considered transgendered despite the title of the book because of the lack of desire to change their sex, “A travesti is not a woman and can never be they tell one another, because God created them male” (Kulick 84). Travestis also think that if anyone in the community comes out and says that they are women and want to rid of their penis are “mentally disturbed” (Kulick 84).
Next, when speaking of Travestis, the two sexual orientations that arise is heterosexuality: the attraction towards the opposite sex and homosexuality: the attractions towards the same sex. Kulick describes “This early homosexual desire is bound up with the performance or effeminate roles and it is the combination of these two factors…that seems to guide travestis towards their first sexual encounters, where they invariably assume the sexual role of the one who is penetrated.” (Kulick 52). They go on and describe themselves as “viados” and continue to explore their sexual interests and desires. They went out and seeked males who were older and willing to penetrate them not for desire but to validate their gender: “But what is most significant is that all these memories of becoming feminine are bound up with-indeed, they are narratively preceded by- erotic interest in other males.” (Kulick, 48).
As they got older, the interest only grew stronger and allowed them to obtain boyfriends. So, with their identity as males but with the desire to feel more feminine, they want to find that “perfect” man to satisfy that need. “Travestis are drawn to men who are classically masculine in their appearance.” (Kulick, 120). These boyfriends are always between the ages of 18-30, heterosexual, tan, muscular, and more than always poor. Banana, a travesti said that she was attracted to males with “big muscles” and handsome qualities. The travesties and boyfriends almost always are living together and almost never monogamous with one boyfriend. With the travesties making money from prostitution, to grab the attention of a male they will buy them lavish gifts and once they are in a relationship, the gifts continue to come. The question to ask is, why do they buy them these gifts? When finding a potential boyfriend, the travesti will immediately will not become enamored with him since they do not desire males like them. That’s where the gifts come in, travesties seek validation from these men who are not sexually and or romantically attracted to the same sex, the gifts keep the interest alive and well with these men and keep them wanting to stay in the relationship. “So instead of attempting to seduce home through sex appeal, a travesti will travel a much more direct road her man’s heart…that road is one paved with money and material goods.” (Kulick 109).
Heterosexual men are always the point of desire because they do not want to “give the ass,” meaning, they only have the desire to penetrate their travesti girlfriend, not to be penetrated “…being a man, in the gender system that the travesties invoke is that a male classified as a man will not be interested in another male’s penis.” (Kulick 24). If the boyfriends show interest in a travesties penis, they could become undesirable and the travesti would in fact move on and find another boyfriend. Boyfriends, at home, know not to touch travestis penis because that will, in the travestis mind, will make them viados. Reason being for this is because the boyfriends are just there for show and to validate the gender of the travesti. From the travesties point of view, they seek these boyfriends to make them feel like a woman, “a male is male because he desires a woman; a travesti can ‘feel like a woman’ to the extent that she desires a man and is desired in return by him.” (Kulick 126). Even though they know, and identity as a male, travesties desire to feel the feminine side of being a woman. The “appropriate desires” as Kulick states comes from the practices and wants of the travesti. She wants to be penetrated by the male and never have to penetrate the boyfriend; it ruins the facade of her wants- which is for the boyfriend to look and act like a male.
The one thing that is missing from the relationship is sexual attraction, or sexual desire. Since they uphold the sexual activity of a male, the travesties almost always go out and seek a boyzhino. A boyzhino is a male aged 13-17 who is homosexual and has the desire to “give ass” either way. Travestis go out and find these young males to satisfy their sexual satisfaction. They also find sexual pleasure with their clients when they work the streets at night for money. Keila states, “ ‘A travesti doesn’t get attached to anyone for sex, because a travesti, doesn’t need a boyfriend to cum.’” (Kulick 132).
When looking at all the information presented by Kulick, the main idea that keeps showing up is the concept of reassurance and validation. Meaning, the concept of dating heterosexual man to make them feel like women. They inject their bodies with silicone to attract the random male on the street to make money. The travestis relationship between sex and gender are on opposite sides of the spectrum. The relationship between their sexuality and sex are more connected: they want a penis so therefore have sexual attraction towards males. Now, sex and gender are not connected but, they can cohabitate with one another. A travesti with female pronouns and names but with no desire to be female is not, and will never be, considered a woman.
Kulick ethnography, shows that western cultures idea of sex, sexuality, and gender to not fit travestis idea of it. Kulick named the book with a gender identity-transgender that most of them denied. But, he did do a good job in getting so many details that are great and really showcase their life. Travestis, who are fluid in their gender, have their whole life and choices revolved around that sector. If a travesti doesn’t have a boyfriend, they could lose sight of who w they are. If a boyfriend even takes a glance at their penis, they will drop them and find someone who will act like a man.
Kulick, through his ethnography, payed close attention to the travestis and how they go about daily tasks to showcase their gender expression. Between having sexual desire fulfilled with prostitution or boyzhinos or injecting their bodies with silicone to make it rounder like a women’s is what travestis life consists of. The boyfriends give them reassurance (if they act like a correct man) by keeping it simple with the sexual act and treating them like a typical woman. Or, their attraction towards the same sex stemming from an early age then causing them to realize they are travestis and move out from home and find others like them. Prostitution fulfills their sexuality and sexual desire just like boyzhinos who also identify as a homosexual. Kulick describes the relationship between sex and gender through two different, constant ideas. Gender expression: wearing makeup, having long hair, and having female names and pronouns while still identifying as a male. Very detailed accounts of their boyfriends also validates their gender with a heterosexual man desiring female qualities these women have. Since the travestis believe solely that they are men because of their penis, the sex part of the identity is constant. Their gender is fluid and is shown and acted upon sexual acts and choices they make to present their bodies to the public. Their sex and gender are validated through gender expression and the close attention to detail they have with heterosexual relationships with their boyfriends.