From Toads to Queens Transvestism in a Latin Setting by Jacobo Schifter - HTML preview

PLEASE NOTE: This is an HTML preview only and some elements such as links or page numbers may be incorrect.
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.



Jacobo Schifter

ILPES, 1998


I would like to express my gratitude to all those people who have assisted in the preparation of this work.  First to the Research Department at ILPES (Latin American Institute for Health Education and Prevention), especially Dino Starcevic, who undertook much of the research and writing for Chapters 2 and 4.  I would also like to thank Mary Gómez and Diana Dávila, who spent long hours proofreading earlier drafts of the manuscript, and Herman Loría, coordinator of the Priscilla Project, an AIDS prevention programme for transvestites, who was of great help to our ethnographers and interviewers.  Moreover, I must also acknowledge the assistance of Héctor Elizondo who, as coordinator of Group 2828, ILPES’ support programme for young transvestites, carried out a number of key interviews as well as making several valuable suggestions that have since been incorporated into the final draft of this report.  Héctor’s knowledge of the day-to-day realities facing transvestites in Costa Rica is unsurpassed; as such he has contributed significantly to the success of this project.

Members of the Board of Directors of the Clinica Biblica’s Neighbours’ Association, along with the Governor of San José, Jorge Vargas, have all been very patient and understanding in their dealings with us, providing help as needed and assisting us in the incorporation of their legitimate concerns into the present work.  Finally, it must be emphasized that this work could never have been completed without the active support of the transvestite community itself.  Not only did they give freely of their time and knowledge, but, more fundamentally, they also opened their hearts and souls to us.  In turn, this book forms part of a larger project whose aim is to improve transvestites’ living conditions, and to provide alternatives and employment opportunities for members of this community.

The contents of this work, including any errors or omissions, are the responsibility of the author alone.

To all, thank you very much.

                            Background and Methodology

In 1989, ILPES, with financial assistance provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), carried out the first study ever undertaken in Central America pertaining to the incidence of HIV and AIDS among men who have sex with other men. Costa Rica was chosen as an appropriate research site, despite its small size, because of its visible and organized gay community, a community that is itself divided into many sub-cultures and sub-populations.  Moreover, gay men were at the front-line of the AIDS epidemic, comprising approximately 75% of all reported AIDS cases. Finally, the country was deemed to be representative of conditions elsewhere in Central America and the Caribbean basin.

The general aim of the research was to undertake a KAP (Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices) survey for this community and identify risk factors leading to HIV infection among homosexual and bisexual men, as a basis upon which to develop appropriate education and prevention programmes.  Adopting a comparative approach, research was undertaken with various sub-populations of homosexual men, including transvestite sex-trade workers and gay bar patrons.  In the present study, we make use of data from this earlier work where appropriate, for example in the preparation of the tables that are found throughout this work.

In broad terms, it is possible to divide the research programme upon which this book is based into two distinct components.  The first was quantitative in orientation, and involved the distribution of a structured questionnaire to a sample drawn from various groups of homosexual men.  Of course, in this context it bears emphasis that, given the impossibility of achieving a truly random sample of the country’s transvestite population, generalizations cannot be made as to the incidence of the phenomena studied.  By contrast, the second component was primarily qualitative in approach, consisting of in situ observation underpinned by in-depth interviews with key informants, the latter lasting from two to three hours.

The field-work for the first part of the study was undertaken over the course of three months, from November 1989 to February 1990, with ten gay men hired to conduct the interviews.  Having made contact with a prospective transvestite participant, interviewers proceeded to fill out each questionnaire in writing.  Participants each received 1,000 colones (approximately US$10 in 1990) in return for their involvement.  Generally speaking, interviews were conducted in that part of San José where the majority of brothels were located (ie. the central core and the city’s south-eastern zone), though in some cases interviews were also carried out in apartments, bars or in the homes of those transvestites who did not live in the brothel area.  Moreover, given that there was some financial compensation available to those who participated in the study, interviewees were generally willing to recommend other prospective participants to our staff.  Through the use of this type of snowball sampling technique, a total of 22 transvestites completed questionnaires, with 20 of them also participating in an in-depth interview of approximately one hour in length.  The latter interviews were conducted during the months of January and February 1990, with each participant being paid 1,000 colones per hour.

Once contact had been made with transvestites who were also sex-trade workers, it became feasible to interview their lovers as well, with 11 such interviews being carried out (again, 1,000 colones were paid to each participant).  All but one of these interviews were tape-recorded, with participants being assured of complete confidentiality and that none of the information gathered would be used against them.  Moreover, in accordance with participants’ own wishes, only their professional names were used in the findings report.

A second study was launched by ILPES in 1997 to evaluate the degree of change over the course of the past seven years, and to adapt education and prevention initiatives accordingly.  Bearing this purpose in mind, a qualitative survey was undertaken with 25 in-depth interviews being conducted with transvestite sex-trade workers, of whom the vast majority were based in San José’s Clinica Biblica neighbourhood.  Interviews lasted anywhere from one hour to 90 minutes, and dealt with significant changes in participants’ lives over the course of the past decade: relationships, money, drugs, jobs, love affairs and problems with the police or the neighbourhood.  This time individuals were paid 5,000 colones per interview (US$20 in 1997), which was roughly equivalent to the hourly rate they charged their clients.  Also, five in-depth interviews were carried out with sex-trade workers’ lovers and, after having obtained the permission of the client in question, one sex session was taped.  Those clients who agreed to participate in an interview were paid 5,000 colones, while 2,000 colones were paid to the individual who agreed be taped during sex.

Moreover, in order to gain a broader understanding of conditions in the Clinica Biblica area, five interviews were conducted with neighbourhood representatives. Each interview lasted approximately one hour, with participants receiving no payment for their involvement.  Furthermore, ten additional interviews were carried out with civil servants, area merchants, drug dealers and representatives of non-governmental organizations.  Finally, interviews were conducted with ILPES staff members who work with transvestites (ie. in such programmes as Group 2828 and ‘Priscilla’ of the April 5th Movement), along with a number of their clients.  Again, no payment was made in return for the participation of the latter groups in the study.  In this regard it should also be noted that an ethnographer was retained for a period of three weeks to visit transvestites’ ‘pick-up’ areas and to report on any changes that may have occurred in recent years, as well as on present-day social conditions.

Given that the sources of information for this study come from two different periods, particular attention was paid to the task of highlighting those areas of greatest contrast.  Data drawn from the 1989 study were used in those areas in which there was little or no noticeable change, such as age of sexual initiation, family relationships, friends and lovers, drug use, number of sexual partners and sexual practices.  By contrast, in those areas in which the greatest differences presented themselves, material from the 1997 qualitative interviews was used; these include location of work, pay rates in the sex trade, types of lovers and sexual partners, relations with the state, and conceptions of fashion and beauty.


When we began working with the transvestite community in 1989, one of our principal aims was to learn more about transvestites’ sexual culture, along with the risk factors associated with the spread of HIV in this population.  Another aim was to gather information about this sexual culture in a specifically Latin American context, as a means of filling what is in effect a highly significant gap in the literature.  Moreover, these two concerns remained at the fore as we embarked upon the second set of interviews in 1997.  This work, therefore, seeks to analyse the sexual culture and risk factors which place transvestites and their customers at risk of contracting HIV.

Apparently, there has been very little change in the risk factors present over the course of the past seven years.  However, by the same token it is clear that very significant changes have occurred in other aspects of participants’ lives.  This in turn led us to formulate a third objective for our study:  the impact of ‘paqueteo[1] upon the etiology of sexual orientation.  We believe that the latter provides valuable information on the plasticity of sexual orientation, along with the influence of cultural factors in its etiology.  As well, it reinforces the view that we should not merely look to a person’s genitals and those of his or her partner in order to determine sexual orientation; any number of cultural, erotic and emotional factors are equally important in this regard.

Of course, the debate on the determinants of sexual orientation is an old one, with the earliest studies being undertaken in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century.  This early work was grounded in an ‘essentialist’ understanding of the origins of homosexuality.  Quite simply, it was believed that homosexuality (and, by extension, heterosexuality) was congenital, inherited and hormonally-based.  Thus, for writers like Hirshfeld, homosexuals were intermediate beings - ‘zwishenstufen’ in German -  byproducts of ‘disorders’ in the level of estrogens and androgens found in their system.  Men who had an over-abundance of female hormones, for example, would develop female souls, while in women the opposite would occur; homosexuality was thus an inversion whereby male bodies were inhabited by female souls, and vice-versa.  In view of the fact that onset of homosexuality came at such an early stage of an individual’s development, it was believed that there was very little that could be done to alter one’s sexual orientation.

However, an opposite position would be taken up by subsequent writers, Sigmund Freud most notable among them[2].  For the father of modern psychology, homosexuality was as much the product of cultural factors as it was of genetic predisposition.  Although Freud believed that the degree of ‘passivity’ or ‘activity’ in a child was hereditary and that this in turn played an important role in determining sexual orientation, he nonetheless devoted considerable attention to non-constituent factors: most significantly, interpersonal relations.  According to the Viennese doctor, all children go through a phase in which they feel love and desire for their parent of the opposite sex.  This phase is usually resolved ‘successfully’ with the acquisition of a heterosexual orientation.  However, cultural factors such as possessiveness on the part of the mother, indifference on the part of the father, jealousy among siblings, guilt feelings and aggression can serve to influence a child’s development and potentially engender ‘deviations’, of which homosexuality is just one.

For Freud, the implantation of sexual orientation takes place at such an early phase of development - between three and five years of age - and in such an unconscious manner that, once established, it is almost impossible to change.  Thus, he did not believe that psychiatry should be employed for this purpose.  However, not all of his followers agreed with him on this point, with some going on to try to ‘cure’ individuals of their so-called ‘deviation’ from heterosexuality.  Ferenczi, for example, believed that a homosexual male was in reality a ‘repressed heterosexual’, someone who is both neurotic and ‘tormented and plagued by obsessions’, and as such in need of psychoanalytic intervention[3].  Along similar lines, Bieber, a New York psychiatrist, claimed that homosexuality was so unnatural that it could only be a learned behaviour.  Moreover, given that it was a learned behaviour, it could also be ‘unlearned’.  In order to do this, he elaborated a series of interventions designed to remedy homosexuality’s ‘causes’, that is to say by combatting the mother’s ‘aggressiveness’ and the father’s ‘passivity’[4].

In turn, the post-war years might be characterized as a period of renaissance for ‘cultural’ explanations of the causes of homosexuality.  However, despite the best efforts of the mainstream psychiatric community, the techniques developed at this time to transform homosexuals into heterosexuals proved incapable of achieving satisfactory results.  Few psychiatrists were able to ‘cure’ their patients, despite the application of any number of courses of treatment (or torture?), from aversion therapy to psychoanalysis, from hormone therapy to lobotomy.  Moreover, not only were they unsuccessful in their attempts to alter sexual orientation, but they also failed to demonstrate, in the numerous laboratory studies undertaken at the time, that homosexuals’ mental health or family histories differed from those of non-homosexuals.  In this way, Evelyn Hooker was unable to establish the fact that specialists would be able to judge the sexual orientation of individuals based upon their medical history folders, despite the fact that the men who participated in the study had been given standard ‘tests’ to determine their sexual orientation[5].  Similarly, Weinberg and Hammersmith found no difference in the family histories of heterosexual and homosexual individuals; both groups had the same proportion of ‘possessive mothers’ and ‘distant fathers’[6].  These failures, combined with the gathering momentum of the gay liberation movement, would lead the psychiatric community in 1971 to abandon the position that homosexuality was a pathology in urgent need of treatment[7].

During the past two decades, however, a number of scientists have again tried to ground homosexuality in biology.  Günter Dörner, for one, claimed that a homosexual orientation is the product of hormonal imbalances during pregnancy[8].  Along somewhat different lines, Professor D.F. Swaab[9] contended that a particular area of the hypothalamus, known as the suprachiasmatic region, is ‘sexually disphormic’, that is to say that it varies according to gender and sexual orientation.  Moreover, in 1991, Simon LeVay[10] discovered yet another nucleus in the hypothalamus (INAH 3) that was thought to be larger in heterosexual men than in either women or homosexual men.  However, at the same time, LeVay stressed that, aside from the INAH 3 nucleus, he could find no evidence to support the contentions of Swaab; as far as he was concerned, the hypothalami of men and women were similar.  Then, in 1992, Laura Allen would discover another area of the brain, called the anterior commissure (a group of fibres attached to the hypothalamus and connected to the temporal lobes), which differs in size according to gender and sexual orientation[11].  Meanwhile, E.O. Wilson sought to infer cultural behaviour patterns from the laws of genetics and the survival of the fittest[12].  In this way, homosexuality was said to be caused by a gene, transmitted from one generation to the next through a process known as ‘superior enhanced heterozygote adaption’.  A similar position underlay the work of Hamer and Copeland, who in 1993 discovered a genetic marker (known as Xq28) on the X chromosome that was found in significant numbers of gay brothers[13].

Needless to say, the scientists whose work is described above all assume that human society is comprised of discrete groups of homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual individuals, whose genes, hypothalami and neuron paths are all readily comparable.  However, if this was not the case, their work would instantly lose much of its meaning and significance.  What then is one to make of their assumptions?

Cultural or biological factors?

As one might imagine, any analysis of the sexual culture of Costa Rica’s transvestite community underscores the plasticity of sexual orientation and, by extension, calls into question the validity of essentialist assumptions.  Most notably, this is seen in the apparent impact of accidental changes in San José’s sexual geography upon the likelihood that heterosexual men and women will engage in sexual relations with transvestites.  Instead of explanations rooted in hormones, genes and hypothalami, one might argue that a simple relocation in the working zone of transvestites holds enormous consequences for the sexual lives of heterosexual men and women.  In short, we will show how physical space, combined with ‘paqueteo’, plays a highly significant role in promoting changes in sexual orientation.

We believe that our research also serves to undermine attempts to categorize people according to their sexual orientation.  As De Cecco[14] makes clear, by no means should such attempts be based upon patterns of physical activity alone, which is of course typical of essentialist writings.  Quite simply, instead of classifying individuals merely on the basis of the genitals of the person with whom they are having sex, one must also take stock of their desires and emotions.  After all, it is quite possible to be heterosexual in one’s sexual practice but homosexual in one’s passions or desires.  However, it is not the aim of our research to create further labels to describe these boundary-crossing individuals, but rather to document their existence and to subvert the simplistic division of people into traditional psychiatric categories.

If one require proof that these categories are incapable of grasping the complexities of human sexual practices, one need only reflect upon their patent inability to help us as we seek to answer questions about the main characters in this book.  How is one to classify a married heterosexual man who likes to dress as a woman while at home?  Or a lesbian who has sexual relations with a transvestite because she likes his masculine eroticism?  Or a heterosexual woman who has sexual relations with a transvestite because she is emotionally attracted to him?  Are we to consider a transvestite to be heterosexual when he penetrates a woman for money?

Background on Transvestitism

Contemporary conceptions of transvestitism originated in the nineteenth century.  However, the phenomenon is as old as civilization itself, with ancient accounts of the practice surviving to the present day, despite the best efforts of Judeo-Christian religions to ‘erase’ from history any evidence of men and women dressing in clothes belonging to the opposite sex.

Thus, Bullough and Bullough[15] provide ample proof to support the claim that transvestitism has been a constant in both the West and East.  Jewish leaders condemned it precisely because of its link with the fertility rites of pagan religions, in which noblemen dressed as women would engage in sex with either men or women in order to guarantee prosperity or a bountiful harvest.  However, in spite of their prohibition, many continued to engage in pagan rituals in the West, including that of cross dressing for ceremonial or ritualist reasons.  Indeed, one might argue that the legacy of these ancient festivities is preserved to the present day in the celebration of Halloween or the Mardi Gras carnival.  As well, rituals continue to be practised, as is the case of Greek funerals and lay festivities, whereby men and women dress themselves in the clothing of the opposite sex.

Moreover, there is also a long tradition of women in the West who cross-dressed in order to escape gender restrictions, with Joan of Arc being perhaps the best known example of a woman executed for dressing as a man.  Along somewhat different lines, many noblemen in European courts would cross-dress as a means of becoming more attractive to their female counterparts.  It is for this reason that transvestism became associated with heterosexual promiscuity.

In America, there is a long tradition of transvestism embodied in the figure of the ‘beardache’[16].  These were men who cross-dressed and were given the role of healer or political leader.  In India, Burma and Pakistan, individuals who cross-dressed were deemed  to comprise a ‘third sex’, with special posts in society being reserved for them.  In India’s Dhed community, men dress as women and as such are temporarily possessed by female gods or demons[17].  Meanwhile, traditional Tahitian culture encompasses the figure of the ‘mahu’, the town homosexual, who was in effect a transsexual who had elected to become an ‘honorary’ woman, garnering respect from the wider community in the process[18].

Historical reasons for cross-dressing

People who cross-dress do so for many different reasons.  In Europe, there are many accounts of ‘libertines’ dressing as women in order to seduce nuns and virgins.  A similar ruse was employed by French aristocrats, with one famous example being the king who would cross-dress in order to pass unnoticed into the maids’ quarters.  For women who cross-dressed, their reasons tended to be rather more political rather than sexual: male attire allowed them to travel, work and live independent lives in an era in which the movement and activities of women were highly circumscribed.  In Medieval Holland for example, many women dressed as men fought in the armed forces[19].  Similarly, there are hundreds of documented cases of women going to battle in the American Civil War[20].  Others lived religious lives as men and were later canonized as female saints.  Some have even suggested that one or two of the Medieval popes may have been women in disguise[21].  Moreover, during the colonial era, many Dutch women were reported to have cross-dressed in order to travel to their country’s overseas territories. Then, once disembarked, they changed attire and married their male immigrant counterparts[22].  Interestingly, a similar phenomenon is reported to have taken place in the Old West of the United States.  Women who wished to break free of ascribed gender roles used male dress in order to live as ‘passing women’ in remote farms or ranches.  Others of course did it for the opposite reason.  In the face of a widespread interdiction in pre-modern Europe against female employment in the theatre or opera, hundreds of men were castrated in order to play the female parts[23].  Moreover, writers such as Ackroyd have noted that the Japanese had a similar tradition as well[24].  Of course, in addition to the reasons outlined above, it is clear that some men cross-dressed because they were what we would now call gay.  For them, cross-dressing was a way to attract men at a time when ‘sodomy’ was severely punished.

Who are today’s transvestites?

We are in what might be described as a middle-class home in the middle of a San José neighbourhood.  It has all the conveniences of modern life: colour TV, washing machine, microwave oven and so on.  ‘This is my hair-dryer’, announces Javier, the home-owner.  I look at it, but it doesn’t really register in my mind, as I’m busy admiring his weight-machines instead.  ‘This is my small gym’, says the owner, when he realizes what I’m doing.  ‘Are you into weight-lifting yourself?.’  I reply that I like to pump iron, that I find it exhilarating, even though I can tell that he is not really interested in my response.  ‘Well, I like to wash my hair everyday and straighten it with this hair-dryer.  I hate my curls.’  Clearly, this body-builder is more interested in his curls than his muscles.

Javier is a big man.  He has well-developed biceps and a muscular body.  His chest is large and firm.  His buns are as hard as steel.  At 32, he is both beautiful and sexy.  His face is masculine: Semitic nose, curly black hair (when not straightened), well-defined cheek bones, large white teeth, Mediterranean mouth and small ears.  In short, he is the typically good-looking Costa Rican male that has made this country justly famous.  As a foreign diplomat once said to me earnestly, ‘Costa Rica is better known for its men than its women, though because of machismo, no one will admit it.’

Javier sits down on his sofa and asks me straight-out: ‘Do you find me attractive?’  ‘Well, yes,’ I reply with some embarrassment.  He looks at me. ‘I find it hard to understand how a man could like another man.  I have nothing against it, it’s just that I can’t understand it.’  ‘Javier,’ I respond, ‘I also find it perplexing that a man like you, married with two children, into sports, can be so fond of the feminine.’  As I say this, I can’t take my eyes off the framed photo, sitting on a table between us, of this hunk along with his wife and two children.  ‘Your wife is very pretty,’ I tell him.  ‘Yes, she’s a very sexy woman,’ he replies with pride.

The body-builder looks at me intently, and I feel he’s sizing me up from head to toe before giving me an answer.  ‘Look Jacobo, I resent having to explain to you something that belongs to me and is mine alone, and that you probably won’t get anyway.  There are certain things in a man’s life that are very private, which no one should ask about, especially a researcher.’  Javier is right.  Why do we think that there is an explanation for every human action?  The interview, like the confession, is designed to induce people to reveal their most intimate secrets.  Who said that we have to talk about ourselves?  Foucault for one abhorred the intrusiveness of priests, teachers, psychiatrists and researchers into individuals’ personal lives, an intrusiveness he identified with the Inquisition and the birth of the prison.  Nevertheless, as one his biographers contends, Foucault himself confessed before his death to having wished, while a school-boy in occupied France, for the extermination of his Jewish class-mates.

Javier does not speak, nor do I try to make him.  To my surprise however, he suddenly takes off his shirt, watching all the while the confused look on my face.  He shows me his biceps which are separated by fine tufts of curly hair, his flat stomach without an ounce of fat on it, his long, tanned arms.  ‘This is a macho torso,’ he tells me, ‘it has taken me years to develop it.’  He smiles and winks at me.  He is not finished yet.  He slowly takes off his jeans, his tight-fitting, beige briefs, his white socks and tennis shoes.  He stands stark naked in front of me and still he continues to stare.

I feel that I am sweating and I don’t know what to say.  What is he trying to show me?  Where is this leading to?  I came here today to find a particular sort of man and perhaps I’ve made a mistake.  ‘Javier, I say softly, ‘what are you trying to tell me?’  I find it difficult to speak when I’m feeling so uncomfortable.  I try not to stare at his long dick and large balls, but how can I avoid looking at them when they’re right there in front of me?  I think about the social taboos which serve to render our bodies off-limits to the stares of others.  Why can’t we take a good look?  Why is this man so intent that I see his genitals and how large they are?  Who cares in any case?

The body-builder raises himself from the sofa, goes into the kitchen, where he appears to be looking for something.  He then disappears into his bedroom, closing the door behind him as he goes in.  ‘What’s he doing in there?’, I ask myself.  Us men have very strange relationships with our bedrooms, particularly when we are by ourselves.  Masculinity is all about posing for others.  When a man is alone in his bedroom, he can become a movie star, a bull-fighter, a model.  I hear Javier shouting at me through the wall: ‘men are very vain animals.  However, the big difference between us and women is that we admire our bodies when we’re alone, when no one can see us.’

The door opens.  What the hell is going on?  Javier is now in drag, wearing a blond wig, a white satin dress and pink bloomers.  ‘Now you can ask me whatever the fuck you want,’ he says in a low voice.  Although I try to look cool, I cannot hide my confusion.  I knew Javier liked to cross-dress because a transvestite had given me his phone number.  I had called him because I was writing an article on heterosexual cross-dressers.  We had made the appointment on a day when his wife and children were away.  Nevertheless, up until this point I was unsure whether or not this guy really was a transvestite.  I took a deep breath, and started the interview.

-           When did you start to cross-dress?

-           I started wearing my sister’s underwear when I was six.  I would lock myself in the bathroom and try them on.  I loved the bright colours, the smell of perfume, the softness of the fabric.  When I became a teenager I began to wear bras and then, when I got married, I started to use lipstick.

-           How do you explain the fact that you like to cross-dress, but are not gay?

-           I have nothing to explain.  I’m simply not queer.

-           But people think that all transvestites are queer.

-           Yes, but I like women.

-           Okay, sure, but aren’t you dressed like that in order to attract men?

-           I might be dressed as a woman, but I don’t do it to turn you on.

-           Then why do you do it?

-           It’s a physical need.  I like to wear women’s clothes, and put on this little show for myself.  I love the feel of satin against my cock, the way a bra envelops my breasts, or the way lipstick looks on my mouth.

-           When you think about having sex with someone, don’t you see a man in front of you?

-           Not at all.  I think about a woman.  I imagine that we’ve met at a party and she does not know that I’m a man.  I imagine that she invites me to stay over at her place, thinking that I’m just a girl-friend.  Once in the bedroom, I turn off the lights and ask if she minds if we sleep together.  She suspects nothing.  She says yes of course, and gets into bed wearing only her underwear.  I ask her if she’s ever been in bed with a woman before.  She says no, but that she doesn’t mind trying it out.  I tell her that I am lesbian and that I would like to kiss her.  Once she’s let herself be kissed, I fondle her and make her feel the way that only a man can make a woman feel.  Finally she realizes that she’s in bed with a man, and lets me penetrate her.

-           But Javier, why the need to cross-dress?

-           Because the clothes turn me on.  It gives me this weird erotic desire.  It lets me think in a different way.  I just love how the clothes feel on me.

-           Does you wife know that you cross-dress?

-           She wouldn’t understand.  She’s very conservative.  She likes the macho image I project and I don’t want to disappoint her.

The majority are heterosexual

Most cross-dressers are in fact heterosexual.  In other words, it is not only gay men who seek to act in ways that society defines as typically ‘female’; such activity transcends sexual orientation.  Recent studies have shown that this is the case historically as well, with homo-, bi-, hetero- and asexual men engaging in the practice at various times and places.  However, the key difference between gay and straight transvestites is that the latter are usually far more reserved.  Moreover, as Feinbloom has shown, the incidence of transvestism among heterosexual men is far more widespread than one is typically led to believe[25].

Thus, as has been made clear, although cross-dressing is associated with all sexual orientations, heterosexual cross-dressers do not share with their gay counterparts any of the same feelings towards men.  Indeed, many straight cross-dressers are as homophobic as any other heterosexual man:

Can somebody sincerely place a married man with three children, who lives on a farm, who voted for Nixon, who fought in World War II, who goes to mass on Sundays, who loves sports cars and who expresses his femininity in the sanctity of his home, in the same category of faggot and child molester?[26]

Moreover, it should be noted that even though heterosexual transvestites have set up larger organizations in the United States than is the case for gay cross-dressers, the mainstream news media, in either the US or Costa Rica, refuses to expose them.  Thus, as Javier puts it, ‘you will never read in conservative Costa Rican papers that one of their most honorable citizens is a transvestite, or that such and such literary critic likes to wear a bra’.

Charles Prince, founder of the Society for Personal Expression in the 1960s, and known today as Virginia Prince, has demonstrated conclusively that transvestism is mainly a heterosexual phenomenon.  His organization now has hundreds of chapters across the United States.  The majority of its members are heterosexual men, like Prince himself, who is described on the dust-jacket of one of his books in the following manner:

. . . raised as a normal kid, he became a university athlete, obtained his PhD in science, married twice, fathered a child and founded and became President for 18 years of his own corporation.  Finally, after his second divorce and the sale of his business, he decided to do permanently what he had been doing occasionally throughout his adult life: dress as a woman[27].

In Costa Rica, the transvestite community is far less visible than is the case in the United States.  For example, it took months to make contact with a man like Javier.  Here, straight cross-dressers do not form umbrella organizations.  They do not have established meeting places, nor do they walk the streets in drag in the way that some gay transvestites do.  In short, they remain as closeted as many married homosexual men.

‘Javier, have you ever met anyone like yourself?’, I once asked him.  ‘No’, he answered, going on to explain that he had never told his secret to any of his friends, and that he only talks about it with homosexual transvestites.  ‘Sometimes I look for a transvestite, and bring him home just to sit down and talk to him.’  However, he went on to assure me that ‘I could never imagine having sex with him.  I don’t like drag queens.’

Looking at this man who is dressed like a woman, I involuntarily think that there must be something wrong with him.  Like most Costa Ricans, I’ve been taught from a very early age to see sexuality in strictly dualistic terms:  there are only two sexes and only two genders.  But Javier has shown me that in truth things are somewhat more complex.  ‘Why do you have to see things only in black and white?’, he asked me.  ‘Who told you that a man who dresses as a woman must automatically cease to be attracted by women?’  Javier is right.  I have never understood why it is that we are so proud of our country’s political pluralism, yet tolerate nothing of the sort in the sexual realm.  If we accept that there are people of the right, left and centre, that there are people who are anarchist or fascist, evangelical or atheist, why can’t we accept the existence of a similar diversity in matters of sexuality?

Contemporary Etiology of Transvestism

According to John Mooney[28], gender emerges through a learning process, with cultural factors having a large impact upon its particular etiology.  Boys and girls ‘learn’ gender through prevailing stereotypes.  In short, each child internalizes the role ascribed to his or her gender within a given cultural context.  However, by the same token Mooney argues that children are also taught how to ‘talk’ in the other gender’s language, garnering in this way a form of sexual bilingualism.  However, notwithstanding the latter, children are made constantly aware of the fact that, if they are to be accepted as ‘normal’ in society, they must refrain from ‘speaking’ the ‘language’ of the other gender.

For some reason, as yet unknown, men like Javier, be they gay or straight, have not learned the lesson that society has tried to impose upon them, and continue to ‘speak’ the feminine language throughout their lives.

Some psychoanalysts believe that the latter is due to an arrested sexual development whereby the child does not resolve successfully his or her sexual identification with the parent of the opposite sex[29].  Stoller, for one, summarizes the various hypotheses used to explain it thus: 1. an unconscious desire on the part of the mother to feminize the child; 2. the father acts either as an accomplice to the mother or else distances himself from the child; 3.  the boy fears castration and compensates for this by fantasizing about becoming a ‘phallic’ woman; 4.  transvestism becomes a way of sexually identifying with the female, without actually becoming female oneself.  Thus, when the child cross-dresses, he keeps his penis which reminds him that he is still a man[30].

However, it should be noted that studies which have attempted to link transvestism, or homosexuality for that matter, with a specific family history have consistently failed to do so in a convincing manner: the families of homosexuals are no different from those of heterosexuals[31].  Furthermore, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that sexual orientation is the product of hormonal imbalances.  No scientist has been able to prove that transvestism is a pathology, or that those who practice it suffer from a ‘mental disorder’.

                         IT DOES NOT HURT ANYONE

Transvestites believe that their desire to cross-dress is natural and that, as such, it does no harm to society at large.  Moreover, they are also aware that this desire manifested itself from a very early age (three to five years is typical), long before they were in a position to make a conscious decision about it.

I have been a transvestite since I was a little boy.  I had this strong sense that I was more girl than boy, that it was already in my system.  Each one of us is like that.  It’s about time that people accept us; I would like to have more freedom and lead a normal life.  If there was a transvestites’ organization in this country, I would join it immediately.  Maria

I wanted to be a girl ever since I was born.  I would hide my sisters’ clothes and dolls in order to play with them later by myself.  I did it because I loved dressing as a girl and I still want to do it. Lidia

As one might imagine, these boys faced tremendous pressure from those who wanted to ‘normalize’ them.  Marcella remembers her step-father burning her underwear and skirts in order to force her to be a ‘man’.  Kristina was subjected to terrible punishment when caught wearing make-up: ‘my aunt would beat the hell out of me every time she found me with lipstick or make-up in my bathroom’.  Ana Karenina was locked in her room for days on end whenever her grandmother caught her in the closet playing with her clothes.  Miriam’s family would strike her when they caught her singing in a female tone of voice.

However, in spite of what was done to dissuade them, these children continued to identify with the female.  Of course, this is not to say that the punishments meted out had no effect; one need only consider all those gay or straight men who today, as adults, continue to practice transvestism in secret.  The transvestites who allow themselves to be seen in public may be more bold or daring in their conviction, but they are by no means the only ones.

For a researcher, the central problem with men like Javier is that they are inaccessible and thus, if one is to gain an understanding of the transvestites’ world, one can only do so through the eyes of those who are homosexual and out of the closet.  Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, more closet cross-dressers like Javier will allow us to interview them, permitting us in the process to compare their experiences with those of transvestites involved in the sex trade.  This in turn would allow us to gain a more balanced vision of cross-dressing culture.  As Javier himself put it, ‘we transvestites form a community.  Some of us like women, some like men, but all of us love to dress as women’.


                                    Expulsion from Eden

Fernando waits until his mother is out visiting a friend.  Once he is sure that she’s gone, he walks into his sister’s room and picks out a dress from her closet.  It is made of white cotton, and covered with a pattern of yellow flowers.  The 12 year old boy proceeds to put on his mother’s wig, along with some lipstick and make-up, and is suddenly transformed into a pretty 15 year old girl, singing and dancing in front of the mirror: ‘I saw a plane, a train and a beautiful ship in the sea...’  In a stroke, Fernando has shed his own persona and become Mona Bell, his favourite Chilean singer.  He does not know why it happens; only that he has been doing it for as long as he can remember and that he has not told anyone his secret: that he feels like a girl and loves to dress as one.

Today, however, was not to be like all the other days.  His mother had forgotten her change purse and Fernando, singing and dancing in his sister’s bedroom, is not aware of her return.  Suddenly, Fernando’s mother is standing before him.  ‘But miss, who are you?’, she asks in astonishment, not realizing at first that it is her son.  For Fernando, time has stopped still.  Mother and son stare at one another across the room, each failing to recognize the other.  Then, as it slowly begins to dawn on her, her astonishment turns to anger.  ‘But it’s you!’, she screams, ‘how can you do this to me?’.  As the mother starts to strike her son across the face, the only words Fernando can think to say are ‘mama, forgive me, forgive me!’

From this day on, things would never be the same.  In the evening, as soon as Fernando’s step-father comes home from work, his mother tells him what had happened.  ‘Imagine how I felt when I saw him dressed like that, singing like a queer in front of the mirror.  I thought I’d raised him to be a man.’  ‘Well, I think you’ve always pampered the boy too much,’ opines the step-father, ‘it’s no wonder he’s turned out to be such a pansy.’  He was in no doubt as to what was needed here, and leaves the room in order to seek Fernando out.  He finds him in his bedroom, sobbing in shame and fear.  There is nowhere for Fernando to hide.  ‘Come here you fucking queer, I’m gonna teach you to be a man.  I’m gonna beat the woman out of your fucking body.  You don’t know how much you’ve hurt your mother, you little faggot!’  The man jumps all over the boy, hitting him in his face, his mouth, his legs, his arms...  Blood oozes from the boy’s wounds.  His lips are all bloody red.  The step-father yells at him again:  ‘You goddamn queer, you’re going to become a man whether you want to or not!’

Three years have gone by.  Fernando has never again dressed like a girl.  He has never had the chance.  Whenever his mother goes out, she locks all the doors.  She spies on his friends, and forbids him from going out in the evening with other boys.  On weekends, she never lets him out of her sight.  As for the step-father, even though he has not raised the topic again, his attitude towards the boy has changed; no longer does he kiss or hug him.  Fernando’s only close relationship is with his sister, though she is too involved with her own problems to be of much help to him.

One day at school Fernando meets a new class-mate.  They become friends and eventually the boy invites him home.  Fernando is attracted to him, as he seems both masculine and daring.  Once at his house, the boy leads him into his bedroom, where he suggests that they play a game of poker.  However, the rules are such that whoever loses must take off an article of clothing, and soon Fernando, who is not a good poker-player, is almost naked.

When he has only his briefs left to lose, his friend takes out a bra and puts it on him, and then proceeds to paint his lips red.  Having done this, he reaches into an open drawer, pulls out a woman’s blouse, and asks Fernando to put it on.  Fernando is in a state of shock; he feels like someone has just discovered his most intimate secret, a secret that should never have been revealed.  But at the same time it feels so right, so good, as though Mona Bell had returned and Fernando was no longer Fernando.  The boy kisses him passionately: ‘You’ll never be Fernando for me again.  From now on I’ll always think of you as my girlfriend.’

The next day Fernando is wracked by an overpowering sense of guilt.  He decides to seek help from the parish priest: ‘Father, I have sinned.’  ‘Tell me everything, Fernando,’ the priest replies, ‘in what way have you sinned?’  Fernando feels that he can trust him - after all, he is a young man - and so tells him what happened:

-           Father, I feel attracted to one of my class-mates.

-           What do you mean by ‘feeling attracted’?  Have you ever had carnal contact with him?

-           Yes, Father.  He’s kissed me on the mouth and we’ve been in bed together.

-           What else have you done?  I need to know everything.

-           We made love, as they say.

-           Did you engage in sexual intercourse?

-           What does ‘intercourse’ mean?

-           Did he fuck you?

-           Yes, Father.  I was very confused.

-           Did you enjoy it?  Did you feel pleasure?

-           A little bit.  It hurt a lot in the beginning.

-           Have you sinned again?

-           Only twice.

-           Do you always play the role of woman with him?

-           How did you know that I dress as a woman?

-           No, I’m asking if he fucked you again.  Do you dress up as a woman?

-           Yes, father.  Is that also a sin?

-           Of course!  Both acts are frowned upon by God.  The Bible forbids homosexuality, which is deemed to be an abominable sin.  The Gospel also condemns men who dress up as women, and those who try to change their sex.  You’re a man and as such you mustn’t let yourself be used as a whore.  Remember Christ told Mary Magdalene that she should cease her sinful acts.  Doing what you’re doing is unacceptable.  In fact, it’s a very serious crime.

-           But what am I to do?  Ever since I was a little boy I’ve dressed up in girls’ clothing.  I feel like I should have been a girl myself.

-           No!  You cannot continue doing this.  Aren’t you a normal man?  Do you have any physical problems, like a hormone imbalance or something?

-           No, I don’t think so.  But I feel like a woman, and this is something I’ve always felt.

-           Let me take a look at you to see if you’re normally developed.  Pull down your pants so that I can see your genitals.  Mmmm, your penis is rather small, no wonder you feel like a girl.  Does it feel nice if I touch you?  Where exactly?  Show me how your friend kissed you.  I will let you see my penis so that you can compare.  Do you see what I mean?  Mine is quite a bit bigger than yours.  Was your friend’s this large?

-           Yes, father.  It was about the size of yours.

-           Well, whenever you feel the urge to dress like a woman or have sex with a man, I want you to come to me and I will let you touch my penis.  This will help to eliminate your desire. By touching mine your’s will also begin to grow.  Don’t worry!  We’re not doing anything bad, I’m merely trying to set you on the right path.  I will now do what your friend did, in order to show you that you do not really like how it feels.  It’s a sort of exorcism to beat the devil out of you.  Remember, you mustn’t talk about this with anyone.  We are in confession and this is strictly between you and I.  Now turn around and I will start.

After this ‘spiritual’ experience, Fernando is more confused than ever.  Years later he will realize that the priest had sexually abused him.  Nevertheless, he feels so guilty that he drops his relationship with his class-mate.  Moreover, he feels as though Mona Bell has died, as there is no longer anywhere safe for him go where he can let himself be transformed into his idol.

Given this, he begins to look for help in other boys who are like him.  One night, one of them invites him to a drag party.  He feels wonderful!  Once again, he can be the person he wants to be.  That night, for the first time, he decides to walk the streets in drag and is picked up by a man near the Clinica Biblica.  This man, a lawyer, turned out to be his first customer, and later helped him move out of his house.  He never returned home again.

Fernando, like other transvestites, is part of a group of boys who realized very early in their lives that they were different from most of their friends and class-mates.  In short, their femininity set them apart from others in their peer-group.

I started dressing up as a girl when I was very small.  The men’s clothes that my father bought me, I threw them in the river.  I was so wild that I would go to school dressed like a girl.  My class-mates would throw stones at me and my teachers would send me home because wearing such clothes was forbidden.  (Marlene)

Once their male class-mates realized that these boys were different, they would start to tease and harass them, strengthening their self-awareness in the process.  It is for this reason that transvestites tend to become aware of their homosexuality much earlier on than is the case among other gay men (the average age for the former being 9.5, as compared with 12 years for the latter) (See Table 1).  Moreover, they tend to undergo sexual initiation at an earlier age as well.

I came out at 17, though men were taking advantage of me since I was a little boy: the baker, the store-owner, the butcher ... they can see that you’re effeminate and so they start giving you candy so that they can fondle you, they give you presents so that they can have you. (Elisa)

Katrina was routinely stalked by men, and almost raped at the age of ten.

One day this man came along and told me that I was a beautiful boy.  He followed me, and then took a gun out and said that he would kill unless I had sex with him.  He took me to a well-known dance club and forced me to go under the stage with him.  He pulled down his pants and put his mouth over mine so that I couldn’t scream.  ‘I’m going to do what I want to you,’ he said.  But a bouncer heard the commotion and rescued me.

Roxana was not so lucky.  Her sexual initiation took place at the age of seven, when three men forced themselves on her: ‘I was raped by three guys from Guadalupe [a district in San José].  I still see them everyday in my neighbourhood.’

Transvestites’ sexual initiation usually takes place with men much older than themselves (average age 22.6), most of whom are also friends or acquaintances (in 68% of the cases).  It should be noted that this tendency to experience sexual initiation with a man much older than oneself is far more marked among transvestites than it is among other gay men.  Katrina’s is a representative case:

My family had a gay friend who came to visit us.  He was 27 years old and very big.  He always had a thing for me.  If my mother went out for a while, he would ask me to sit on his lap and then he would start fondling me.  One day, when the two of us were at home alone, he chased me all over the house, took my clothes off, and then put his penis between my legs.  ‘Stick your butt out,’ he said to me, ‘so that I can come on your little balls.’

However, in this regard it should be noted that, as is the case with other gay men in Costa Rica, although sexual initiation typically occurs with an older man (73% of the cases), it is for the most part (77%) consensual in nature (See Table 2).

Among those surveyed, outright force was used in only 4% of the cases.  Leticia’s experience in this regard is typical:

My first sexual experience was at age 7 when I was raped.  I was sent to get some milk and, when I was crossing the river, some guy raped me.  He forced himself into me.  I remember feeling that I couldn’t tell anyone.  I felt as though I had died.  I still see this man around.  I hate him.  I would never be able to have sex with him.

Sexual contact between effeminate boys and older men is common in Latin America, with Witham and Mathy[32] arguing that it is the product of Latin culture’s tolerance for this type of behaviour.  In sharp contrast with Anglo-Saxon sexual mores, such relations are not perceived to be homosexual in nature.

What might have happened had Fernando’s story turned out differently?  Let us try to imagine a different outcome:

Fernando is singing in his sister’s bedroom and hears a noise in the hallway.  He knows his mother is back, but doesn’t have enough time to change.  ‘Fernando, is that you singing in there?’, his mother asks.  ‘Yes mama, but don’t come into the room.’  Ignoring him, she comes in anyway, and sees him in drag.  ‘But Fernando, don’t you think your sister’s clothes look awful on you?’, she asks him.  ‘I don’t mind it if you want to dress in women’s clothes, but at least try do it with some style.’  Fernando is taken aback.  ‘Aren’t you mad at me?’, he exclaims.  ‘Not at all.  So long as you don’t do it in front of your macho step-father, there’s nothing to worry about.’

Although neither mother nor child can explain exactly what is happening, the line of communication is not broken.  Thus, the door is left open to discuss alternative ways of dealing with something that society disapproves of.  Had Fernando been allowed to dress up occasionally at home, perhaps he would not have ended up as a prostitute on the street.  Or perhaps he would have anyway.  Nevertheless, he would have had the opportunity at least to try to resolve the issues he was facing without being forced out of his home, as happens so often with young transvestites.





Transvestite sex trade workers







Average age at which one felt sexually different



Average age of first orgasm



With whom did one have one’s first orgasm? (in percent)







Wet dream


Other male



Woman (girl)





One’s sexuality was defined through this experience?










Source:  Jacobo Schifter and Johnny Madrigal, Hombres que Aman Hombres, San José, ILEP-SIDA, 1992.





Transvestite sex trade workers







Average age of first sexual relationship with a man



Average age of partner in first sexual relationship



Who was this partner?

(In percent)


Friend, acquaintance

Lover, sexual partner





















Place where first sexual relationship took place (in percent)


Place of residence

Residence of friend



Open air site

Enclosed site



















Identity of initiator (in percent)


















Transvestite sex trade workers

Was the relationship something one had wished for previously? (In percent)




Not sure








Sexual activities undertaken during first sexual relationship (in percent)


Oral sex

Anal sex

Sexual games









Source:  Jacobo Schifter and Johnny Madrigal, Hombres que Aman Hombres, San José, ILEP-SIDA, 1992.


From toads to queens

José is a 27 year old South American man who came to Costa Rica to escape poverty at home.  He is tall, thin, brown-skinned, effeminate and homely.  His eyes are attractive but too large for his face.  His lips are full and his hair curly.  His voice is high, his hands thin and nose slightly turned-up.  As a man he is not especially attractive.  He is not very popular at gay bars and seldom goes to them.  Nevertheless, José is also Pepa, who happens to be one of the most sought-after transvestites in San José.  As a woman, his body is stunning.  His curved hips make him look like Tina Turner.  When he wears tight lycra, one would think he is Grace Jones.  A short wig makes him look like Oprah.  His painted lips remind one of Whitney Houston.  And, when he is wearing mascara, his eyes are those of Sophia Loren.  As a hooker, José gets everyone’s attention.  He also undergoes something of a personality change.  He becomes hot and fiery, capable of picking up any man on the street.  ‘Being transformed into a princess is every transvestite’s dream,’ he asserts.  ‘Being a princess means looking radiant, turning yourself into an attractive woman.’

Creating the Magic

‘Projecting an image’ is a phrase that tells us a lot about the transvestite’s world, and though few would bother to probe its conceptual bases, everyone knows its meaning: in short, that cross-dressing is about ‘fantasy, enchantment and dreams’ and that it involves, in the final analysis, the transformation of the unreal into the real.

Cross-dressers invest most of their money in their bodies, though they themselves do not perceive it as such.  Clothes, make-up, wigs and accessories constitute the bulk of this investment.

The majority of transvestites own three wardrobes: for home; for work (prostitution); and for drag shows, parties or discos.  Work dress tends to be simple and sexy; though it must serve to attract customers, it must not be a hindrance when running away from the police or other predators.  Outfits worn at drag shows and the like tend to be more fancy, inspired by the gowns of Hollywood stars and covered with feathers, bangles and tropical bouquets.  Finally, clothes worn at home are generally utilitarian and androgynous, without any strong statement regarding the wearer’s sexual identity.

Thus when Miriam goes home after work and becomes Hugo, he dresses in clothes that are neither overtly male nor female in appearance: he likes to play with colours, cuts and accessories in ways that cut across dominant patterns of sex-typing.  Duquesa and Alba, on the other hand, tend to dress in men’s clothes, though at the same time keeping their hair long and nails painted red.  Corinthia, meanwhile, always dresses in drag.

Duquesa’s work wardrobe includes several collections, mostly black and white, though all of them, she assured us, ‘bring her luck.’  Her black work outfits are short, tight and ‘not too pretty’, since her aim is to be ‘picked up’, rather than ‘admired.’  ‘These gowns are made especially for me by my seamstress.  There’s also a store I go to where they will make clothes for me at very short notice,’ she said with pride.

However, when it comes to shoes, accessories or nightgowns, these she buys these at regular stores.  For example, most of Duquesa’s shoes were bought either at the San Pedro mall (in San José) or in specialized shoes stores like Lazo or Clasico (which specialize in high heels and leather boots).  However, these she finds are generally too expensive for use on a daily basis:  ‘It’s not worth my while to wear boots that cost me 17 thousand colones [roughly US$70] for a client who’s only paying five thousand [US$20].’

Alba, by contrast, tends to make her clothes, especially those that she wears on the street.  ‘I love to wear minis and dresses that are tight-fitting, because I find I look better in them’, she said, ‘drag queens are tacky, and not even the hookers wear stuff that is so indecent, but the johns love it.’  One evening she went out wearing only a thong, boots and a hat, covering herself with a long coat.  She also has clothes that she only wears around the house, along with special outfits for parties and other special occasions.  The latter are bought in fancy boutiques where she admits to ‘spending a fortune’ on them.

As for Corinthia, avoiding complications is her main priority.  She makes some of her dresses herself; others she buys from a seamstress: ‘It’s not expensive that I want, but rather light, almost miniature.’  ‘People sometimes say that my dresses are so light that they probably don’t even need hangers,’ she said with a smile.  Miriam is just the opposite; she has a special designer who has been making all of her clothes for the past five years.  ‘She did not mind that I turned into a drag queen,’ she said, ‘she has these beautiful magazines where I get ideas for gowns.  I love to copy Calvin Klein and Christian Dior.’  Moreover, her casual outfits are also made for her:  ‘I’m finished with boutiques,’ as she put it.

However, this is not to say that she would never enter an expensive boutique; from time to time she will go in, try on a dress that she likes, and then later take the pattern to her seamstress:

I went to this boutique called Sheloky in San José and tried on this dress that was 80 thousand colones [US$330] before taxes.  I then copied the design from the model in the window display and took it to my seamstress.  From her, I got the dress for only 22 thousand colones, since I cut her husband and children’s hair and she’s very fond of me.

Miriam’s other passion is perfume: ‘They’re my weakness, I just can’t stop myself ... I’d even trade a man for an expensive bottle of perfume.’  She has invested as much as 200,000 colones (US$700) in an expensive name such as Cartier’s  or Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘Black Pearls’.  Moreover, she is proud of the impact her perfume has had on her work.  She often challenges her clients to guess what she is wearing and, as she herself emphasized, ‘I’ve never lost a client because he feels suffocated by cheap perfume.’

Silvester Atelier is the owner of Gipsy International, a store in the Clinica Biblica neighbourhood that caters to transvestites and show-girls through its line of extravagant dresses and vaudeville accessories.  Originally, he had thought that most of his clients would be transvestites, but soon discovered that this was not to be the case: ‘Transvestites generally don’t have the money to buy my gowns.  Sometimes we will sell one or two outfits to a transvestite, or even make one for her, but this is not common.’

Along with clothes and perfume, make-up is another element which is indispensable in the creation of the illusion of femininity among transvestites.  Alba, Corinthia and Duquesa use little, restricting themselves to base, powder, lipstick and nail polish.  Miriam, on the other hand, makes regular use of a wide assortment of skin products, a reflection of her fear of wrinkles and ageing: ‘I invest a lot of money in my skin because I tend not to sleep well and all this sexual activity is very draining.  I live for the moment, and always ejaculate because I love my work, and all the more so if my client is somebody I like.’  She only buys name-brands such as Lancôme, Payot and Estée Lauder, and has upon occasion purchased eyelid repair cream for 32,000 colones, moisturizer for 22,000 colones and, in one case in particular, considered buying (though in the end she did not) a Swiz skin care kit for nearly 400,000 colones (US$1,632).

Most transvestites buy their make-up in boutiques or drug-stores.  ‘I buy in drug-stores without any problems,’ reports Miriam, ‘I have no qualms about going in and asking for make-up.  I’ll even put it on in front of the salesperson.  The ones who do have problems are usually men.  Women tend to be more tolerant.’

Wigs are the final element in the creation of the transvestite’s image, though in recent years there has been a movement away from them, as long hair for men becomes increasingly acceptable in Costa Rican society.  For example, Alba and Duquesa’s medium-long hair could be that of either a man or a woman.  Corinthia, on the other hand, wears her hair extremely long.  ‘Wigs are uncomfortable and hot,’ reports Miriam, ‘though some queens’ hair is so burnt or kinky that they need to wear wigs or zorros, a sort of detachable pony-tail.’

Wigs and zorros are bought at hairdresser salons, some of which cater exclusively to transvestites.  As Duquesa put it, ‘any time you see a pony-tail hanging in a hairdresser’s window you know that they serve transvestites.’  The cost of wigs varies according to the type of hair: if it is synthetic one can expect to pay about 5,000 colones; if it is natural it can cost up to ten times that amount.

Hormones and Padding

Stuffing is another trick used by transvestites.  If a man is thin, without hips and curves, one remedy is to apply padding in the appropriate places.  The latter can be of various materials, including toilet paper, foam and even clothing.  Lucretia, for one, fills her bra with handkerchiefs.  Maria wears ten pairs of panties, one on top of the other, in order to give herself ‘wonderful hips.’  Belly uses foam to increase the size of her bum and to create what she calls ‘delicious legs.’  Of course, these tricks only serve to underscore Laura’s observation that the stunning bodies which some transvestites appear to enjoy are in fact nothing more than an illusion.  As she noted, ‘one night I went to bed with a client who started to complain after realizing that I was flatter than a tortilla.  I told him that most Hollywood stars have silicon implants in their tits.  But the guy responded by saying yeah, but at least those women take their tits to bed with them, while you leave yours on the floor.’

One area that remains virtually unexplored in Costa Rica is transvestites’ use of hormones.  The latter are typically used to ‘feminize’ the body: to develop breasts, change the pitch of one’s voice or increase the amount of fatty tissues around the hips.  In Costa Rica, these drugs can be bought without a prescription in any drug-store, though in some cases doctors or clients will prescribe them.  According to Pablo Soto, a physician working with ILPES, the most commonly-used drugs used in this regard include an injected form of estrogen, birth control pills such as Depo-Provera or simply ‘whatever they think will work.  It’s hard to know what the long-term effects of indiscriminate hormone use are, though whatever is happening to their bodies is hidden from us now.’

However, it is clear that hormone use does generate significant changes in an individual’s appearance.  As Herman Loria, coordinator of a support programme for transvestites at ILPES, stressed, the physical transformation is such that it often poses problems for them when they go out in public: ‘If they go out dressed as a man, their female characteristics leave them open to harassment; if they go out dressed as women, they risk being beat up.’

Seeing with someone else’s eyes

For individuals living on the margins of transgenderism, undertaking such everyday tasks as shopping can be quite challenging, with masculine and feminine principles achieving dominance at particular moments in space and time.  For example, transvestites tend to act and feel feminine when they are shopping for clothes.  However, when they are ready to pay for the outfit they have selected, their poise and voice often change into that of a man.  In other words, the singular act of shopping is suffused by a range of gender stereotypes: deciding is feminine, buying is masculine. In short, transvestites appear to be more aware than most of us of the profoundly gendered nature of our words and speech patterns[33].  ‘Queens put on these mini-acts more than most people,’ explained Katrina, ‘we make a show of each word in terms of its masculinity or femininity.  We are aware that each word is gendered.’  As one might imagine, this performance garners a strong reaction among salespeople, who respond with hostility or amused friendliness, but never indifference.

Alba for one tends to patronize regular stores, where she must sometimes contend with hostility or salespeople’s outright refusal to serve her.   On one occasion, a staff-member told her, ‘lady, we do not cater to women with balls.  If you leave your balls at the door, we’ll be happy to serve you.’  In response, she took some money out of her purse and rubbed it in his face: ‘I am not a thief, goddamn it, but a paying customer.  The only balls that matter are the zeroes in these bills.’  Miriam is no less aggressive: ‘I go into a boutique and try on all the dresses.  I have a right to do so.  The employees sometimes panic and stand there with their mouths hanging open.  But if they’re not happy with me, I’ll throw the dress in their face and leave.  Another trick is to pee in the dress while trying it on.  “I’m sorry,” I tell the lady, “but I’m incontinent today.”‘ Duquesa, meanwhile, prefers to act butch- and man-like when shopping:

I become very masculine when I’m shopping.  I make my eyebrows thicker, I put grease in my hair, take off the nail-polish and walk like a man.  I usually go and buy men’s clothes.  Once in a while though, I’ll see a woman’s dress I like and start to act like a queen so that the saleslady gets the idea and asks if I want to try it on.

Moreover, Duquesa has an even better solution to the problem of homophobic salespeople: ‘I only go where people know me.  These stores are gay-friendly and do their best to please you.  Only once did I get a salesman who refused to show me some women’s clothes.  I reported him to the owner and he was fired.’  Esmeralda reported being sent similarly mixed signals by retail personnel.  On one occasion that she was shopping for women’s shoes in San Pedro Mall, she was told, ‘look honey, try them on if you want to.  We’re open-minded here.’  Nevertheless, she has also been informed by other sales staff at the mall that ‘we don’t sell to queers in this store.’

Beyond Maleness

Of course, creating an image is more than simply wearing women’s clothes.  It has to do with wanting to be someone special.  In this way, José and Pepa are two different people who happen to share the same body, with one being more glamorous, more exciting than the other.  At different times of the day, in different places, José continues to exist.  In his world, he is a soft-spoken professional whom people like but nothing more.  As a woman, Pepa awakens yearning.  Looking beautiful and being courted by men who take her out for dancing, dinners and love-making in expensive hotels are the things she loves best:  ‘It makes me happy when I see the men lusting and salivating over me.’

Some psychiatrists would argue that individuals who aspire to more than one personality are mentally ill.  Hollywood movie producers have reinforced this view by portraying those with multiple personalities in highly distorted terms.  Obvious examples include ‘Silence of the Lambs’, in which a transsexual psychopath fashions a dress out of women’s skin, and ‘Sybil’, a movie in which transvestites are depicted as nothing other than the inevitable by-product of sexual abuse.  However, notwithstanding the dominant view, it is clear that we all have multiple personalities and change our characters many times in a given day.  Consider for instance the person who goes to mass in the morning and applauds the sermon condemning adulterers, yet in the afternoon is party to a clandestine affair of his own.  Or the politician who launches a crusade against corruption while avoiding paying taxes himself.  In both cases, the individual in question may be seen as having two faces, one public, one private.

Of course, many would simply label such behaviour hypocritical, yet one would be better served by seeing the latter as varying manifestations of a condition known as multiple personality disorder.  Who would argue that we are the same person at 10, 20 or 50 years of age?  The changes that take place in a person over his or her life course are no less significant than those which drive someone else to wear boxer shorts one day and bloomers the next.

It is not clear when it began to be taken for granted in the West that one must have a unified personality if one is to be seen as normal.  Freud of course contributed to this state of affairs when he theorized that the path to a ‘normal’ heterosexual existence can only be reached by passing through a number of discrete psychological ‘stages’33.  However, be this as it may, the little work that has been produced on the subject cannot lead anyone to the conclusion that cross-dressing makes one either a healthier or sicker individual34.  In short, transvestites dress as women for numerous reasons, not all linked to the desire to be sexually attractive to men.  For example, homosexual cross-dressers go in drag to gay bars where the men have no interest in them.  Others wear women’s clothes at home, when no one else can see them.  For many, pleasure is derived simply from the acquisition of make-up, wigs, jewellery and accessories.  As Pepa would argue, transvestites aspire to a different state of being.

Feeling like a princess

-           There are people who would say that you’re mentally ill.  How would you respond to that?

-           I really enjoy what I do.  As well, I’m a productive person, and I like my work as a journalist.  I’m not doing anything wrong by cross-dressing.  When people criticize me, most do so less for dressing in drag and more for doing what I want.  Of course, the reality is that we all have deep, hidden desires to do crazy things, but we’re generally too scared to actually go ahead and do them.  Some people would like to make love stark naked on a beach but are too scared to do so.  Others dream about stealing a whole bunch of money but are afraid of being caught.  Thus, when people see a transvestite, they’re angry and jealous that here’s somebody who has the guts to do what he wants and doesn’t care what society thinks.  This is what triggers the anger more than anything.  They feel that we’ve got the balls to do what is forbidden.  This is why they call us sick, perverts, criminals.  What’s wrong with a man wearing women’s clothes?  Who said that pink is feminine and blue is masculine?  That’s all bullshit.  In Scotland, men wear skirts and it’s seen as normal.  Priests go around in these long black dresses and no one says anything.  Why is it that a monsignor can dress in pink and I can’t?

-           But you have to hide from people.  You can’t be Pepa and José at the same time.

-           I can’t be both because of prejudice.  Nonetheless, there are people who know both faces.

-           What do you feel when you are José?

-           I feel like anyone else, whereas with Pepa it’s different.

-           How do you mean?

-           When I’m dressed as a woman I have another personality.  I am happier, sexier, more seductive.  I feel more sure of myself and can attract straight men who are looking for a woman.  It’s a different relationship.  We talk about different things and I even feel my body temperature is different.  However, one doesn’t dress like a woman only to attract a man.  Not at all!  One does it because one wants to experiment with something new, get into one’s feminine side, and be emotional, soft and sexy.  One wants to look pretty.  Of course, straight men also have these tendencies but they’re afraid of letting them out, and so they look for drag queens so that they can vicariously experience what it’s like to be a woman.  With us, they can let themselves explore their feminine side.  They’re so cowardly and frustrated!

-           Do you think transvestism makes people react to you differently?

-           Of course.  In the first place, when I dress like a woman, people respond to me as though I really were one.  Even my friends, who know that I’m a man, when they see me wearing a dress they don’t talk to me like they usually do.  They are softer and more considerate.  They light my cigarette for me or help me down the stairs.  These are learned reactions that we all have when we are with a woman.  My clients are straight men.  They’d never dream of having sex with a man.  But they see me as a woman.  They treat me differently, kinder and more gently than a gay man would.  They whisper romantic stuff into my ear, and they’re more careful when they’re having sex with you.

-           What do you feel when you take off your make-up and wig and become José again?

-           Very sad.  I think I would miss José if I had to give him up, but leaving Pepa is more difficult because she’s more attractive.  I feel empty when I’m not in drag.  My breathing, heart beat, metabolism, really my whole body functions differently.  I’m going to confess something to you.  When I’m in drag, I seldom pee because it’s harder to do it in the street.  So I’ve got used to holding it.  The same thing happens when I fall asleep with my make-up on: I have different dreams, with more intensity, more colour and feelings.  My sense of humour and language are also different.  As a man my humour is sharp and sarcastic.  But when I’m Pepa there are certain words, like ‘fuck’, ‘bitch’ or ‘queer’, that I would never say as a woman.  It’s not conscious really, I just don’t do it.

-           Are there people who know you as both a man and a woman?

-           One is my sister.  She knows that I’m a transvestite and has seen me in drag.  At first, she almost had a heart attack, even though I had prepared her for the occasion.  But little by little she got used to it.  However, I notice that she still reacts differently to me depending on whether I’m in drag or not.  When I’m a woman, she’ll talk to me about emotional stuff, relationships, fashion.  When I’m dressed as a man, we talk about things like money, finances and even soccer.  It’s not on purpose, it just happens that way.  It’s the same with my butcher.  When I go dressed as a woman he’s very sweet and gives me samples.  But as a man, he’s colder and more distant, and never gives me anything.  I’m the same person but he cannot deal with José and Pepa in the same way.

-           What is it that you like most about transvestism?

-           I love to have two faces and be beautiful in one of them.  It would never occur to me to have my penis removed because it’s such a great source of pleasure.  Really, I feel lucky for being able to have sensations that most people, out of fear, would never dare to have.  There is nothing better than being able to make love to a man after he’s done the same thing to you.  This for me is like winning the lottery.  There are thousands of men who would look gorgeous in drag but they’ll never dare to make the leap.  They are going to be toads all their lives when they could have been princesses, excuses-moi, queens.

-           There are people who would say that man and woman are made for each other and their sexual organs are complementary.

-           That’s the worst sort of bullshit.  Men report to me that sex with women is not that good.  In the first place, women have different organs than men.  They last longer, and sometimes never come.  Men have to rub their clitoris to arouse them, sometimes it hurts and sometimes they don’t feel like it.  Men usually aren’t sure if they came or not because they’re experts at faking orgasms.  Female genitals, my clients tell me, are foreign territory and they don’t know how they work.  Men, on the other hand, feel tight when you’re making love to them.  When a woman starts lubricating, she sometimes becomes too loose.  Some men tell me it gets worse after childbirth.  With a transvestite however, you know when he’s coming.  You can also do it at the same time and you know what to touch because his body is the same as yours.  Once you’ve both ejaculated, you can then relax and not have to worry about your partner having multiple orgasms, as is the case with women.  Do you think it’s really better with a woman?

-           What’s the down side of it?

-           Discrimination, mockery, harassment, lack of understanding and, worst of all, the lack of large sizes in women’s shoes.

A few succeed

Of course, some transvestites have realized their dream of becoming truly glamorous.  Alma Stone, for one, met an Italian business man who took her to Rome, where she now works for an exclusive clientele.  With the money she is earning she plans to have a sex change operation in Belgium.  The following is a passage taken from a letter Alma sent to a friend in Costa Rica:

I am really happy in Italy.  Men here are very handsome and there’s little harassment.  It’s totally different from Costa Rica where you’re always being hassled by the police or by people on the street.  Enrico took me to a first-class joint called ‘The Night Out’ which only employs transvestites.  I charge $500 dollars for sex.  Can you imagine how many Costa Rican dicks I would have to suck for that kind of money?  Clients here really do treat you like a queen.  Three weeks ago an entire team of soccer players came to the bar.  They offered to pay $500 to the one who made them hard first.  They all got undressed and their manager was chosen to be the judge.  If you had been here you would have done it for free because they were all really good-looking.  Gina was the one who won the prize since she dances and moves her tongue like a boa constrictor, which drove them crazy.

Doris Faye, another transvestite, now owns an upscale night club in Chicago.  She has also been remarkably successful.

I came to Chicago without any money at all.  I used to clean houses and work as a waitress or a receptionist in cheap hotels.  I was illegal and all the money I saved I sent to my family in Puntarenas.  One day I met this business executive who asked me out.  In my bad English I told him that I was really a man and didn’t want any hassles.  He told me he knew and said that he wanted to get to know me.  We had sex that same night.  Next day, he sends me this beautiful ring.  We dated for a couple weeks before he proposed to me.  We finally got married with this gay pastor and I’ve been with him now for nine years.  Mike gave me this night club to have fun with.  I’ve made money with it and we organize great drag shows.  Our girls live like queens.

In another case, Gloria Day, a boy from San Pedro de Poás in Alajuela, became a famous jazz singer in New Orleans.  His effeminate appearance and delicate features made him look stunning as a woman.  He had been brought to the United States by a sailor whom he had met in San José.  In a similar vein, Augusta now works as a model in Milan and has started to design her own line of clothes.  Although she has no plans to return to Costa Rica, she continues to send money to her family in Cartago so that they might buy their own home.

Thus, as is attested to by the stories outlined above, there are cases in which transvestites’ dreams of riches and fame come true, even if the latter only last as long as they can preserve their youthful appearance.  For most however, deep-seated societal discrimination ensures that they remain more toad than princess, with many retiring after a few years, if they have not already been killed by drugs, AIDS, gay bashers or at their own hands through suicide.


                                        The Neighbours

Over the last ten years, a number of significant changes have taken place within San José’s transvestite community.  In the first instance, there has been something of a geographical shift.  That is to say, in the 1980s most transvestites lived and worked in an area known as ‘El Libano’ (so called because of the presence in the neighbourhood of a well-known movie theatre catering to gay men).  Most were poor, as were their clients, who were either working-class men employed in area stores, canteens and markets, or rural labourers who travelled in and out of San José via the local bus station.  However, since 1990 growing numbers of transvestites moved to a new locale, known as Clinica Biblica, in the city’s south-east.  This area is attractive to transvestites engaged in the sex-trade for several reasons: not only is it quiet and close to downtown, but it is characterized by a more middle-class clientele.

As one might imagine, a number of factors were at work in inducing middle-class men to become involved in such numbers with the transvestites of Clinica Biblica.  Transvestites themselves were at a loss when asked to account for the shift in client profile or why the ‘strip’ had re-located at the time and in the manner that it did.  Most referred to the increasingly tight housing market in Libano, leading many to look towards the city’s southern and south-eastern neighbourhoods, where rented accommodation remained relatively cheap.  Still, this does not explain the popularity of Clinica Biblica, located as it is between the two areas identified above.

What we do know, however, is that the growing numbers of relatively wealthy clients have served to drive up the price paid for sex, while at the same inducing more and more transvestites, many of them young, beautiful and middle-class, to become involved in the sex trade as well.  Of course, this change in San José’s sexual geography has not served the Libano district and the transvestites who continue to live there well.  The bulk of the latter are older and retired from active involvement in the prostitution business, though they continue to suffer from its ill effects, including health problems, widespread substance abuse and, for many, grinding poverty in a run-down boarding house.  As Laura put it, the ‘Libano has become a garbage-dump and cemetery for transvestites.’

The Libano

As has been suggested above, when we first did our first series of interviews in 1990, most of San José’s transvestite community was concentrated in the Libano district, with the majority living in the neighbourhood’s many cheap hotels, boarding houses and brothels; very few lived with their families.

The boarding houses

In the 1980s, one of the most well-known boarding houses for transvestites was the ‘Pension Romantica’, a rambling old mansion with ten bedrooms; when I visited it in 1990, it was still in its prime.  Each room was divided into two sections, and everyone shared the house’s single bathroom and sink for washing clothes.  Moreover, the house was seldom quiet: ‘Mayela Maria,’ screamed one transvestite, ‘where’s padding I lent you?’  ‘I’m still using it,’ the other replied, ‘can I keep it one more day?’  ‘Fucking queen,’ the first one shouted, ‘when are you going to buy some yourself?’

For the most part, the bedroom walls are decorated with posters of naked men and Hollywood actresses, blown-up photos of the room’s occupant in drag (usually in the pose of the starlet whose name she has taken as her own), along with assorted wigs and clothes hanging off of nails driven into the plaster.  As I glanced through an open doorway, a fat man in a wig greeted me.  ‘Hey there, my name’s Elizabeth Taylor,’ he said, holding up a large picture of the actress taken with her ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ co-star Paul Newman   I did not have heart to tell him, but I found he looked more like Don Francisco in drag than the famous actress with violet eyes.  ‘The only thing he’s got in common with Liz Taylor is his big ass,’ interrupted another transvestite from down the hall.  The fat man ignored the insult, and invited me into her room.  I looked around as I went in, and saw four black wigs, all of which were worn out and singed, along with a dog-eared pink satin bedspread covering the bed.  Some cheap nightgowns hanging in the closet were half-hidden by an old sheet covered with red roses.  She took out one of the nightgowns.  ‘Richard Burton gave this to me for our second wedding.  I’ve only worn it once because of its deep sentimental value.’  The nightgown was made of blue velvet, with fake black pearls sewn in around the neck; some of the pearls were missing.  According to Liz, Burton bought it himself for her at Fashion Palace, a clothing store in San José.  However, her friend Penelope offered a different account of its origins.  In her version, the nightie was made from a satin curtain which Liz had stolen from the Libano movie-theatre.

Pension Romantica, like most of the boarding houses inhabited by Libano’s transvestite community, had a steel door to prevent unexpected visits by disgruntled clients or the police.  To be let in, residents were required to identify themselves to those inside; otherwise, the door would not open.  It is for this reason that transvestites’ houses were known as ‘bunkers’.

‘Open the goddamn door you deaf queen,’ I heard one transvestite shout from outside, angry at the slow response to her knocking.  ‘Can you believe it,’ she said as she was let in, ‘I didn’t get a single trick today.  I walked up and down all day and didn’t make a cent.  At this rate I’ll be poorer than a bare-footed nun.’  ‘Well, bare-footed you’ll be if you don’t pay the two thousand colones you owe me,’ replied the gate-keeper.

The hotels

The typical establishment is characterized by a dirty curtain covering the door, through which one passes to a large room with red furniture (red being transvestites’ favourite colour) and pictures of men with over-sized penises on the wall.  Beyond this is the office where the hotel administrator works and sleeps.  In it, one typically finds a mattress on the floor, a desk serving the dual function of clothes-drawer and deposit for articles by pawned by transvestites needing money for drugs (the administrator’s second job is that of drug dealer).

I could hear a conversation going on as I pushed my way past the curtain into the first room, and upon poking my head into the office, saw a skinny transvestite, dressed only in panties, speaking earnestly to the man behind the desk: ‘Look, this watch used to belong to Prince Philip, son of  Juan Carlos of Spain.  I bought it in Barcelona four years ago, and since I’m strapped for cash I have to sell it.’  To my eyes it looked like an ordinary Seiko.  ‘The second hand has disappeared,’ she added, ‘but it still tells the hours.’  Liz, who was by my side, interrupted her: ‘The only thing this watch has in common with royalty is the fact that there’s a queen trying to sell it.  Pepa stole it from a john last night.’

Beyond the office, there was a long hall-way with bedrooms on either side.  Interestingly, none of the rooms had doors; all had been removed and replaced with curtains.  These, it seemed, proved useful at times when discrete entry and exit were required, for example when a transvestite wished to rifle through the valuables of a john who was in the middle of sex with someone else.  Of course, there were those who would deny that any such thing takes place: ‘No!’ exclaimed Penelope to one of her clients, ‘how can you even suggest that somebody stole your chain?  Here you’ll only find honest, hard-working prostitutes, you must have lost it yourself.  We even pay our municipal taxes!’  ‘Listen to me, you fucking whore,’ replied the john, ‘either you give me back my chain or I’ll cut off your little shit-filled tits!’  The transvestite thought about it for a moment, and then handed the chain over. ‘Oh yes, your chain!  Here it is.  I forgot that I found it on the floor a little while ago.’  The man grabbed it and made for the door, telling me as he passed, ‘if you’re going to sleep with one of these faggots, leave everything you own at home.’  After he had left, Penelope told me who he was: ‘That brute owns a stall selling chayote near the Central Market.’

In general, each bedroom contains nothing more than a bed, a couple of chairs, a small table for rolling joints or snorting coke, and a roll of toilet paper.  The walls and sheets are usually dirty.  ‘Here, we’re both clean and ecologically friendly,’ explained Carla.  ‘How’s that?’ I asked.  ‘Because we ask the johns to help us try to conserve water, just like the best hotels, and we only wash the sheets once a month.’  In addition to sex, these rooms are also used for drug consumption by the transvestites and their friends.  Given that it was the hotel manager who sold them the drugs in the first place, there is generally no problem in consuming them on the premises.  Through one doorway that I glanced, I saw three transvestites smoking crack.  ‘Hey, do you want a pipe?’ Rebecca asked me.  “No thanks,’ I answered.

Beyond the bedrooms is a kitchen.  Like the entrance foyer, it is decorated with posters of men and rock stars, and contains a large, round table surrounded by four chairs, an electric stove, various pots and pans and a locked chest of drawers, used to keep pawned articles.  An effeminate, jolly-looking man greeted me. ‘Hi there, my name’s Tina Turner and I’m the one who does the cooking around here.  Right now I’m in the middle of preparing a banana souffle for the queens of this castle,’ she said seriously.  ‘You know that they have very delicate stomachs and that they don’t eat any salt at all because of their high cholesterol.’  I didn’t ask to see the souffle.  The kitchen was dirty and disgusting, and while there I saw a number of cockroaches scurrying across the floor.  The cook tried to reassure me:  ‘If I serve you some food and you feel sick, don’t worry.  Their royal highnesses have already had some and they’re still fine.’  That’s okay,’ I said, ‘I just ate lunch so I’m not too hungry.’

When not being used to prepare culinary delights, the kitchen is also a place where the transvestites come to consume cocaine, an activity that will be explored in greater detail in subsequent chapters.

Like the kitchen, the bathroom looked as though it had never been cleaned, with old toilets and even older plumbing.  Above the stalls (again without doors) were two crumpled signs saying ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’.  However, everyone used ‘Eve’ because ‘Adam’ was backed up and not working.  For those wishing to shower, they had to stand on top of the toilet and use a hose hanging down from the ceiling.  ‘Darling, where can I piss?’ asked a john as he left one of the rooms.  ‘The men’s washroom is being renovated, so you’ll have to do your business in this bottle,’ Julia told him.

The apartment blocks

Meanwhile, other transvestites shared (and indeed in some cases continue to do so) apartments in the area of the Libano with one or more of their colleagues.  In a typical case, Marie Antoinette lived in a complex with approximately 20 units.  Upstairs were three bedrooms (she shares the unit with two others), while on the main floor there was a kitchen, dining room, bathroom and living room.  The apartment was filled with old, worn-out furniture, and the walls were festooned with posters of favourite artists or movie stars.  Johns came to the house as though it were any other brothel.

Upon entering the living room, one’s eyes were immediately drawn to the large rug in the centre of the room, originally red but now a mottled grey.  Several candles, each dedicated to a saint from whom favours were sought, were burning in a corner, while the room’s only table was covered with clippings from fashion magazines, old issues of Extra[34], along with a little bowl filled with potpourri and someone’s leftover breakfast.  The rest of the room was no less messy, with wigs and a large, cracked mirror hanging from nails in the wall, clothes draped over every available chair, several books about witchcraft and the occult lying on the floor, a photo of Marie Antoinette’s lover turned upside down (‘because this was how I felt after he left me,’ as she put it) and finally a few bottles of perfume and aphrodisiac potion sitting on a window sill.  ‘This one never fails,’ she assured me, pointing to one of the bottles.  ‘I sprinkled some of it onto the food of a Member of Parliament I was seeing, and after that he couldn’t get enough of me.  He even sent me to Miami using money for his constituents.  I just love corruption.’

Moreover, from time to time one will come across true luxury items in the apartment, say a Persian carpet or some fine porcelain, only to find them gone by the time of one’s next visit, exchanged for cash at the local pawn-shop.  Generally, these items were all stolen from clients’ homes.  ‘This painting is an original César Valverde[35],’ Sonia Martha informed me, ‘I took it from a john while he was sleeping.’  She then pointed to a statue of David leaning against the wall: ‘Do you know where this one came from?  Anita stole it from a priest!’  ‘She just loves doing penance,’ added Sonia Martha with a smile, ‘ she’s a very Catholic nut-case.’

Of course, life in an apartment block was not without its problems.  When Marie Antoinette first moved into the complex, she was harassed by her neighbours, who would bang on the door, ring the buzzer and then run off, laugh in her face, tell her that she had made a pact with the Devil.  This went on for quite some time, until finally Leticia advised her to buy several bottles of cheap, strong-smelling perfume from the Lucky Palace, a neighbourhood department store, mix them all together, and then go around to each of her neighbours’ apartments at midnight and spray the concoction all over their doors.  Needless to say, the harassment largely ceased after this message was sent.  Indeed, Marie Antoinette even went so far as to say that her relationship with her neighbours has become almost friendly:

People around here treat me well.  When I first came here I didn’t know anyone but now I do.  I’ve been here for two years now, my neighbours at the front are gay and they don’t bother me, I say hi to the old woman over there, but the others I really can’t stand, though everyone accepts us.  ‘What’s up?’ I ask, and if they laugh I say, ‘why is it that you laugh at me and not at your mother’s cunt?’

The migration

However, despite their longstanding presence in the Libano district, over the course of the 1980s many transvestites began the process of moving out of the neighbourhood, and into working-class districts mostly in the southern section of San José.  Leticia remembers things being very difficult at the beginning:

I’m now living in León XIII[36].  I love the life here and everybody knows me, though it was really bad initially: no one could stand me, though now I don’t have any problems with the neighbours.  From the beginning I felt I had two alternatives: either I split or to hell with the consequences and I stay up.

In somewhat similar fashion, Kristina moved into a house close to a church, and was faced with a priest who was extremely unhappy with her presence in the neighbourhood.

People told me that in his sermons the priest was calling me things like ‘sinner’, ‘degenerate’ and ‘fallen woman’.  One day I stopped him in the street and said, “look pops, what’s your problem with transvestites?”  The coward started backing away, saying how he loved us because we were all God’s children.  So I told him, ‘look, you know that I know what you’re up at your pulpit. Why don´t you worry of the children you like to fondle and  leave me alone?’

Others moved into heterosexual brothels in the area.  Patricia was one of the ones who did, even going so far as to share her living quarters with other prostitutes, all of whom were careful not to reveal her true identity to the johns.  ‘But what happens when a client discovers that you’re not really a woman?’ I asked her.  ‘It’s very simple really.  Some are so drunk that they can’t tell the difference between man, woman and beast in any case.  Others get pissed off and leave.  Most however stay put and pretend they didn’t see anything.’

Meanwhile, a few, Lucero among them, went so far as to set up gay brothels, often in the face of extreme hostility on the part of nearby residents:

I can’t say I’m too friendly with the neighbours around here.  There’s a lot of scandal-mongering going on, and the kids call me ‘faggot’, ‘queer’, all sorts of stuff.  I don’t like it, and I try to avoid it as much as possible by keeping a low profile when I’m out in the street.  Although we receive clients here, the truth is that it’s often better to get tricks in the Biblica, since you know men with cars have got money.  Also, the neighbours say how it sets such a bad example to have men coming in here.

In the early 1990s, one of the best-known establishments was that of Ana Karenina.  Located next to a playing-field, it housed no less than six transvestites at any given moment in time, all of whom were engaged in the sex trade on a more or less full-time basis.  On the second floor of a two-storey building, the brothel had five bedrooms, each occupied by a transvestite along with a lover or friend.  On the main floor there was a heterosexual bar, and although there was occasionally friction between bar patrons and the transvestites, this was the exception rather than the rule.  In short, each group had come to accept the other as simply part of the landscape.  As Ana Karenina put it, ‘I won’t deny that it was difficult at the beginning, but now we’ve made our peace.  We don’t set foot in the bar and in return the drunks don’t bother us upstairs.’  However, even though this tacit understanding served for the most part to keep latent tensions in check, there were nonetheless moments when conflict would erupt:

One night someone shouted out that the building was on fire.  I don’t know if it was Angelica smoking at the back, but in any case we all ran out into the street, wearing nothing but bras and panties.  The drunks from the bar started to hassle us and yell stuff like, ‘come over here baby so I can spray you with my hose,’ you get the idea.  So all of a sudden Agatha, who doesn’t take any shit, went up to one of them and pulled down his pants.  ‘This is no hose,’ she shouted, ‘this is a straw.’  After that they stopped screwing with us.

From the suburbs to the street

For the most part, San José’s transvestites have abandoned the Libano cinema and the red light district that surrounds it, choosing instead to find housing in neighbourhoods further away from the centre of the city.  However, this is not to say that everything has changed since the 1980s: most significantly, their families continue to reject them, leaving them with little choice but to leave their own homes and move in with other transvestites.

Moreover, as growing numbers of medium and upper class adolescents are attracted to transvestism, more and more of them may be found prostituting themselves on the streets around the Clinica Biblica.  Marilyn and Monica are typical of this trend: the former is a transvestite who grew up in Rohrmoser, the latter is one whose family lives in Escazú.  Both of these neighbourhoods are among San José’s wealthiest suburbs.  Moreover, both Marilyn and Monica continue to live with their parents, who have no idea that their sons dress up as women and are actively engaged in the sex trade.  In the words of Marilyn,

I’m from a good San José family.  Nevertheless, I love dressing up as a woman and turning tricks on the street.  I keep all of my clothes in one of the ‘bunkers’ close to the Biblica.  That’s where I go to change.  One time I was picked up by no one less than one my dad’s friends from work who’s a doctor just like himself.  He’s known me for years, but it didn’t cross his mind that the voluptuous blonde who just got into his car was his colleague’s little boy.  He still comes over to my parents’ place and he has no idea that I know his little secret.

Of course, by no means should one take the marked increase in the number of transvestites working the streets of San José as indicative of the fact that more are being born.  In short, despite Esmeralda’s observation that each weekend is characterized by the appearance of about five new transvestites in the district around Clinica Biblica, it is not a cloning machine that is producing them.  Rather, the growth of the community is due to a number of factors, including greater middle class acceptance of the phenomenon (both among the johns and the youths themselves) and, as will be shown below, the patent inability of the state to put a stop to the practice, whether it wished to or not.

The ‘paqueteo’ revolution

While it is not particularly surprising that the Libano district would one day lose its status as the locus for San José’s transvestite community, it is not at all clear why a shift in geographical locale would in itself produce such a significant change in the transvestites’ johns and lovers.  In other words, one must ask oneself why the transvestites’ old clients did not continue to seek out their services in the new red light district.  The answer is simple:  because the new johns were wealthier and thus were able to offer the transvestites more money and a better standard of living.  Nevertheless, this in turn begs another question: where did the new clients come from?

In short, it appears that they were drawn from the relatively large number of men who were already coming to the quiet back streets of the Clinica Biblica neighbourhood in order to obtain the sexual services of female prostitutes working here.  At a certain point however, the precise date of which none of the interview participants could remember with any certainty, the transvestites ‘took over’ these streets, along with the johns who cruised them.  In this way, the penetration of transvestites into the area cannot be seen merely as the replacement of one group of sex trade workers by another.  Rather, it encompassed nothing short of a sexual revolution.  In traditional psychiatric terms, men who had formerly been exclusively heterosexual became bisexual overnight, as they stopped picking up women, opting for transvestite men instead.

How is this possible?  Can sexual orientation truly be so elastic that heterosexual men can be ‘converted’ to bisexuality in such a manner?  As one might imagine, the answer is both yes and no.  On the hand, it is clear that the transvestites’ client base had to come from somewhere, and those who had been their johns in the Libano district had neither the money nor the means to travel across town to the new strip.  For the most part, the latter were either day-workers or unemployed.  Meanwhile, as our interviews with the transvestites have shown, not only did the new clients from the Clinica Biblica area tend to be car-owners (a strong indicator of middle or high class status in less developed countries), but they were generally employed in white-collar professions as well.  It is in this sense that the clients were ‘new’; however, this is not to claim that their ‘conversion’ was either immediate or entirely free of tension.

How so?  In short, when we attempt to determine the identity of those who pioneered the migration to the Clinica Biblica area, it soon becomes apparent that they were precisely those who were most adept at paqueteo, the process whereby a transvestite renders herself so feminine in appearance that she is able to ‘pass’ for a woman.  In this way, the Clinica Biblica area was initially appropriated by transvestites who looked as effeminate in appearance as the female prostitutes who were already working there, opening a space into which others, less feminine in appearance, could follow.

Susy, for example, remembers the early years when ‘I would go the Biblica by myself and I’d look like any of the other prostitutes there.’  According to her, at the beginning neither the johns nor the other sex trade workers suspected that she was a man.  Some of the clients would kick her out of their car when they realized the truth.  Nevertheless, little by little ‘the johns started to get into it and after a few months some of the clients started to say that they liked doing it better with me than with the prostitutes.  These guys recommended me to some of their friends, and they also asked if I knew any other transvestites they could meet.’  Susy went on: ‘At first I would only invite other paqueteros, but gradually I started to bring along others who were more masculine looking, until eventually the johns were into transvestites of all types.’

It was the same with Zola.  She never went back to the Libano once she had left, since she was so feminine that no one could tell she was a man simply by looking at her.  However, she confessed that ‘a few years ago it was fairly difficult to get picked up by straight men around here [in the Clinica Biblica], but it’s getting easier all the time.’  Moreover, in her view, ‘transvestites have become a fashionable commodity in the sex trade around here.  Anyway, prostitutes weren’t much competition since they were all pretty haggard and not too hot in bed.’

In this way, one might argue that johns’ sexual preferences and tastes underwent something of an evolutionary change, itself the product of an accident of geography.  If one or two transvestites had not migrated to this area at the time and in the manner that they did, it is quite likely that the johns would have continued to see the same prostitutes they always had.  At the beginning, one presumes that they were angry to find out that it was a man they were with and not a woman.  Nevertheless, they slowly began to enjoy that which the transvestites offered, thereby increasing demand for their services.  Soon, the area was completely taken over by transvestites, while the female sex trade workers were forced to migrate elsewhere.  Still, it must be borne in mind that this was only a partial ‘conversion’ for most of the johns, since in other respects their behaviour remained predominantly heterosexual in orientation.

Needless to say, this phenomenon warrants further investigation.  However, in the context of the present work it was not possible to interview a sufficiently large number of johns in order to develop a clear understanding of their conversion to bisexuality.  Instead, the evidence at our disposal is largely circumstantial, consisting in the first instance of automobile makes and license plate numbers, which we used to identify the clients.  These revealed that most of the latter came from either a middle or upper class background.  In the second instance, we have the testimony of the transvestites themselves, who assured us that most of their clients were married professionals.  Moreover, those who used to work in the Libano district emphasized that these clients were markedly different from those who engaged their services in the old red light district.  Similarly, in our interviews with Clinica Biblica home owners, it was made clear to us that the johns who were now picking up transvestites were the same ones who had previously been seen cruising for female sex trade workers.  Finally, one might argue that there is currently a new wave of displacement gathering force, whose locus are some of the city’s straight bars.  In short, as we will see below, a new generation of paqueteo transvestites, the majority of whom are Panamanian, have started to frequent locales that had previously been exclusively heterosexual.  As our interviews with these individuals demonstrate, their ability to ‘trick’ men into believing that they are in fact women has served to attract an entirely new population of johns to the particular pleasures of the transvestite sex trade, echoing the turn of events in the Clinica Biblica area in the process.


            The Battle for Clinica Biblica

The district

Few buildings in San José’s central core are as imposing as the National Theatre.  Situated in the midst of manicured gardens, marble statuary and a broad, tourist-filled plaza, its poise and elegance stand in mute witness to ‘official’ Costa Rican culture and values.  Heading south from the Theatre, one is soon confronted with yet another icon of official culture: the ‘Colegio Superior de Señoritas’, where the daughters of the country’s ruling elite have been receiving a ‘proper’ education for more than a century.  However, even here the effects of unsustainably rapid urban growth are in evidence: stonework stained black by smoke and exhaust fumes; pavement that is uneven and pitted; and garbage accumulating in the street.

Moreover, if one continues south from the College things get even worse.  The streets become increasingly narrow, the stench of diesel exhaust hangs in the air, dirty water from eaves troughs drips onto the pedestrians below.  Although this has become an area of bustling commercial activity, many of the neighbourhood’s long-time residents refuse to abandon their homes in favour of some distant suburb.  So they cling tenaciously on, ensconced within their modest bungalows, protected from the dangers outside by bars across their windows and steel grating on their doors.

The Clinica Biblica sits in the middle of this neighbourhood.  Built in 1929 by Protestant missionaries, it has become one of the city’s best known - and most expensive - medical centres, with a multi-floor extension of concrete and glass serving as an appropriate testament to its financial success.  Moreover, this is further underscored by the countless pharmacies, walk-in clinics and parking lots that have sprung up in the vicinity of the Biblica.

Until a few decades ago, this was one of San José’s most distinguished neighbourhoods.  Now, when night falls, the area’s most recent arrivals take over its streets.  Dressed in short skirts or hot pants, with low necklines and high heels, between 60 and 100 transvestites may be found working the area between the National Theatre and the Colegio Superior de Señoritas on any given night, mincing and cat-calling as a procession of prospective johns drive slowly by.

The transvestites

Walking along these streets one night when there was a fine rain falling, I was faced with what can only be described as an exercise in contrasts: Miriam’s elaborate blue sequin dress next to Corinthia’s white mini-skirt; Aurora’s coiffed hair, expensive perfume and black scarf alongside Veronica’s nondescript dress and pony-tail.

Generally however, all of the transvestites working the streets of the Clinica Biblica do so in groups of three.  The majority are Costa Rican, though there are some foreigners as well, mostly Panamanians who have come to San José because of the city’s reputation for being somewhat more accepting of transvestism than is the case in their own country.  Corinthia is one such individual.  She arrived in Costa Rica four years ago, and generally finds that the working conditions are much better here; according to her, being a transvestite in Panama requires either that one pretend to be a woman 24 hours a day, or else that one be prepared to face more or less constant harassment.  Miriam, meanwhile, has another explanation for the large number of Panamanian transvestites working in the San José sex trade: quite simply, one has to have white skin and blue eyes to make money in Panama; in Costa Rica by contrast, the johns like the Panamanians’ exotic beauty and quick tongues.

It has been roughly nine years since the transvestites took over the Clinica Biblica, abandoning in the process their former haunts around the Libano cinema.  Moreover, while some continue to live in the old neighbourhood, most of the transvestites now working the strip have their homes elsewhere in the city: Consider for example Pandora, who owns her home in San Pedro (to the east of the downtown core), or Miriam, who rents a flat in the Biblica, but spends her afternoons at her mother’s house in Desamparados (a city at the southern edge of the capital).

Moreover, there have also been changes in the transvestites’ work-place.  While the street continues to play a key role in providing the initial point of contact between john and transvestite, the sex itself takes place either in a car or in a motel room.  Of course, many also continue to receive clients in their own homes.  Still, this is not to say that all is well for the transvestites of the Clinica Biblica: at the minimum, they must contend with a work site that is also a battle-field.

Upon this battle-field, a number of well-defined forces are arrayed against them.  In one corner are those who come to the neighbourhood simply to attack or harass the transvestites working there.  In another are local residents and home-owners who have organized in a bid to rid the neighbourhood of its night-time denizens.  And finally there is the police, upholders of law and order, and the transvestites’ sworn enemy.

The Colorientos

Pepa Carrasco arrives at the strip after nightfall.  She stops on a corner next to a green-grocer.  Wearing a short black skirt with a jacket to match, her hair in a simple blunt cut, she holds an umbrella to shelter herself from the rain.  Her make-up is discrete and understated, her perfume delicate and sexy.  It’s not a good night: there are few cars, and even fewer prospective johns.  Moreover, when a car finally does stop, she quickly realizes that it’s not sex that the three young men inside are after.  ‘Son of a bitch, faggot, whore, fucking queer!’ they shout as they throw rotten eggs at her.  Poor Pepa is forced to beat a hasty retreat, throwing a rock at the car as she flees.  Her clothing, make-up and perfume are all ruined, as are her night’s prospects.

Monique, meanwhile, remembers being stopped by four men who asked her if she wanted a ride.  Once on the outskirts of the city, near the Zurqui tunnel, the men raped her and then threw her onto the road.  ‘Fucking whore, you don’t deserve a penny, ugly faggot that you are,’ they shouted as they pushed her out.  Monique had to hitch a ride on a banana truck in order to get back to San José.

As for Mimi, she was once assaulted by a group of students in the area around the Costa Rica High School.  They shouted obscenities at her as they threw stones, one which broke a tooth.  Then, when she arrived at the Calderón Guardia Hospital, the staff refused to treat her.  ‘Sorry sir, but I’m sure you’ve got AIDS and I don’t want to go anywhere near your blood,’ she was told in the laboratory.

Ana Karenina recalls being splashed with urine after a man on a moped grabbed her purse: ‘Filthy dog, shit face, whore, heretic!  Repent your sins and give yourself to God,’ he yelled as he drove away.  Meanwhile, Esmeralda remembers her early days on the street, when she didn’t yet know that she should be wary of cars with tinted windows or driving at high speeds: ‘They yelled I don’t know what as they drove by and threw a bottle at me.  It hit me on the head and I needed five stitches to close the wound.’

Of course, the greatest irony is that, despite the violence directed towards them, it is the transvestites themselves who are accused of being dangerous criminals who routinely carry rocks and knives. It is the same old story: blame the victim and in so doing avoid addressing the real issues at hand.  In Costa Rica, there is a long tradition of such behaviour: Jews who were accused of being communists; Blacks who were denied entry into many businesses and offices, Indians who were deemed to be second-class citizens, and women who were called ‘hysterical’ for speaking out about male violence.  In all cases, marginalization and persecution are justified though a twisted logic which transforms victims into the authors of their own misfortune.

Now the authorities are accusing a new minority of going about armed with dangerous weapons.  But the question that remains unanswered is who initiated this cycle of violence and who is responsible for perpetuating it?  The answer is simple: those who hate transvestites.  Yet they are not the only ones implicated in this regard; church and state must also shoulder part of the blame, given the extent to which they uphold a homophobic value system that provides the climate necessary for gay bashing to continue unchecked within the population at large.  In this way, a sermon which equates homosexuality with perversion and sinful behaviour is doing little more than fanning the flames of hatred.  ‘Society must be freed of such moral blights as homosexuality, prostitution and transvestism,’ intones one priest being interviewed on television.  Others speak loudly of the ‘corruption, sin and immorality’ of gay men.  Of course, by virtue of these venomous words the Church has no need to dirty its own hands in pursuit of the goal of ridding the Earth of homosexuality; others are induced to do so on its behalf.  Of course, the parallels with the fascist era are obvious: although the Church was not itself responsible for carrying out the Holocaust against the Jews, it provided ample moral cover for those who did.  Within this context, the proviso that ‘we hate the sin but love the sinner’ is, as Pepa puts it, ‘pure bullshit’: ‘The Germans didn’t distinguish between sin and sinner as they hauled the Jews off to the gas chambers.’

Colorientos[37] is the name given to the men who come to the Clinica Biblica area in order to harass or, in some cases, attack any transvestites they may find there.  ‘We call them colorientos because, as they’re driving by yelling “faggot” or some other insult, you can see their faces turning pink,’ explained Herman Loria, the coordinator of ‘Priscilla’, an ILPES programme serving the neighbourhood’s transvestite community.

Generally, the colorientos arrive in the Biblica armed with rocks, plastic bags filled with excrement or urine, and even pellet guns.  The pocked walls of local buildings, along with the scars on the bodies of area transvestites provide ample testimony to the seriousness of the attackers’ intent.  Moreover, many colorientos will pose as johns in order to entice a transvestite to their car and, once she’s close enough, out come the fists with which to beat her.

‘It’s all a game to them.  They see it as a way to let off some steam, assert their manhood and express their homophobic tendencies.  You could almost say it’s a form a catharsis for them,’ suggested Loria.

Moreover, in his opinion, society’s traditional rejection of homosexuality is reinforced when a man is seen dressed up as a woman, and so taunts and insults are resorted to as ways of setting the person on the right path. ‘Perhaps if I insult you enough I’ll be able to teach you that what you’re doing is wrong.  The message is simple: if you change your ways, I’ll stop taunting you,’ he added.

Not surprisingly, the attacks draw their own response on the part of the transvestites, who have taken to keeping rocks at the ready should they have the opportunity to heave one through the windshield of a passing coloriento’s car.

Johns and neighbours

Thus, the Biblica is not a particularly welcoming area for transvestites, who typically work there until the early morning hours.  However, the precise time at which individual transvestites leave varies according to personal preference and the business prospects for the night.  For example, Emperatrix typically goes home between one and two in the morning, while Corinthia and Miriam tend to stay on until two and three respectively.  Finally Pandora, who, after almost two decades of work in the sex trade only goes out on Fridays and Saturdays, generally calls it a night at three o’clock, though she will occasionally stay out until six if conditions appear to warrant it.

Needless to say, the transvestites’ presence in the area around the Clinica Biblica has served to attract hundreds of men who come to the area in search of sex.  The noise generated by their vehicles, combined with the shouts of colorientos and the transvestites’ equally vulgar replies, ensure that their presence does not go unnoticed by those who live there.  Moreover, this noise is aggravated in turn by those who sit in their cars and leave their sound systems blaring, while the transvestites dance to the music on the sidewalk nearby.  Finally, the sex trade itself is not a quiet activity, whether it is taking place on the street, or in the neighbourhood’s back alleys and vacant lots.

The residents, meanwhile, are forced to put up with this hullabaloo on a nightly basis, regardless of the fact that many moved to the area long before it became a commercial zone - in some cases 30 or 40 years ago - and many see it as their only home, a home that has become increasingly unlivable in the wake of the transvestites’ arrival.

‘For the past nine years we’ve had to endure a blight that doesn’t let us live in peace,’ remarked Olga, whose house - which she shares with her elderly parents - is situated two blocks away from the Clinica Biblica:

I once had the misfortune of seeing oral sex in progress, one man masturbating another, while one finds condoms everywhere, urine and excrement on our doorstep.  Then, after a certain hour in the evening, they start drinking liquor, fighting each other, using drugs.  All these things have made our life unbearable.  Their presence here brings with it all sorts of unwelcome visitors, like the kids who come here to throw stones and yell at them, while using the most foul language imaginable.  The circus starts at six p.m., and by ten it’s unbearable.  Pay-days and weekends are the worst.  Right up until Sunday ... it’s all the time really.   Then, if we dare to look out the window, they consider it a mortal sin.  If they see us out on the sidewalk, they yell at us.  If they don’t see us, they yell at us anyway.  We just can’t win.

Of course, it is not merely the behaviour of the transvestites and their clients that bothers the residents; it is also the fact that their presence has pushed property values downwards: ‘No one wants to rent, no one wants to buy our houses,’ complained Priscilla, a local home-owner.

One night at three in the morning I heard the window rattle.  I thought at first it was a burglar trying to break in.  When I pulled back the curtain to take a look, what did I see but somebody pushing his big black penis into a woman out there.  ‘My God,’ I screamed, ‘what is this?’  Then I heard a transvestite yelling back at me, ‘don’t sweat it lady, you know exactly what’s going on.’  I was so angry that I shouted back, ‘why don’t you have some respect for us?  Some of us are older women and we don’t want to have to see this sort of filthy behaviour going on right outside of our own homes.’  But he couldn’t care less. He just shouted, ‘well then, why don’t you tell this guy to have some respect for me and be more careful where he’s sticking his dick.’

In another case, Lupita remembers her eight year old son coming up to her one day and asking her what ‘powder’ meant.  ‘Well my dear, powder is a sort of fine white dust that women use for make up,’ she told him.  ‘So if that’s all it is, why is the transvestite down the street selling it in a little bag for five thousand colones?’  Lupita didn’t quite know what to say, so she just told him that ‘some types of powder are more expensive than others.’

Meanwhile, José, also a member of the residents’ association, recalls several occasions when transvestites would pretend to engage in intercourse on the street outside his home.  ‘Three weeks ago I saw a  transvestite get into a car and start to have sex.  Not only do they not let us sleep in peace, but every time that guy came close to coming, he would hit the car horn.  I couldn’t stand it any more, so I ran outside and yelled, “why the hell are you blowing that car horn at me?  You degenerate!”  And then from out of the car the transvestite yells back at me: ‘Go back to sleep you pervert.  What are you doing spying on me anyway?’  Soledad, another long-time resident of the neighbourhood, had a similar experience.  One night she discovered a transvestite passionately kissing a client right outside her door.  ‘Miss, would you mind awfully kissing somewhere else?’ she asked politely.  ‘Forget it, you old bag!  Can’t you see  how hard it is for this old guy to get it up?  If we move, he’ll lose it,’ was the transvestite’s answer.

The Association

The residents have tried to address these problems through various means, going both to the police and to the courts.  They have also appealed to the office of the governor of San José, who committed himself roughly four years previously to ‘clean up’ the capital, cracking down on brothels, unlicensed drinking establishments and so forth.  He has also gone before the Constitutional Court to obtain special powers to protect the interests of the Biblica residents, as well as approaching the public ombudsman and community organizations that work with transvestites.

Moreover, four years ago the residents decided to form an organization called the ‘Neighbours’ Association of Clinica Biblica’, whose principal purpose was to lobby public bodies such as the National Assembly, requesting for example that the laws governing prostitution be changed so as to increase the penalties for those caught.

However, in the final analysis, the group sees only one solution for the problem at hand: the complete removal of all transvestites from the area around the Clinica Biblica.  Focussing their efforts on this single objective, they have gone on the war path, while a range of outside groups have positioned themselves in either one camp or the other.

For Loria, an expert in the field currently working with ILPES, Costa Rican democracy continues to be characterized by a sizeable gap between rhetoric and reality.  That is to say, one must not forget the fact that transvestites enjoy the same protections under the constitution as anyone else, and thus one cannot simply take away their right to free movement as a matter of course.  Of course, this is not to say that Loria is unaware of the problems facing Clinica Biblica residents, and from this point of view their frustration is understandable, a point which many transvestites would concede as well.

As he put it, ‘one can’t say that it’s not an awkward situation.  The neighbours don’t want them, but the transvestites have every right to be there and in fact are insisting that they don’t want to move anywhere else.’

Three years ago an accord was reached whereby the transvestites agreed to avoid residential streets and work only in the commercial sector, but the near constant arrival of new transvestites on the scene has made incursions into residential areas more or less inevitable.

The governor

Jorge Vargas is currently (1997) the governor of San José and the main force behind the capital’s ‘clean up’ campaign, for which he has received both praise and opprobrium in roughly equal measure.  Subscribing to the motto ‘first in place, first in right’, he argues that the residents’ complaints must be taken seriously because they were already living in the area before the transvestites’ arrival.

Far from taking a moral stance on the issue (ie. in terms of the sexual orientation or activities of the transvestites), Vargas takes refuge in his mandate to justify his actions.  In short, because it is his duty to maintain order in the capital, he claims that he has no choice but to clamp down on those whose nighttime activities disturb the peace of a community that has been in place for years; as he put it, ‘I have to intervene in order to avoid conflict on an even larger scale.’

Moreover, according to Vargas, he has organized meetings which have brought together the parties to the conflict, as well as tabling several possible compromises.  Well aware that he cannot legally force the transvestites to restrict their activities to a particular geographical area, and prevented from creating a ‘tolerance zone’ within the Biblica, Vargas, together with the head of the police force and the public ombudsman, has advocated the re-location of the transvestites to a commercial sector of the city where they could carry out their activities without hindrance.

At one time the area around González Viquez Square was mooted as a possible re-location site, but the proximity of the Costa Rica High School, with its large population of young students and potentially disapproving teachers, quickly served to make this location politically impracticable.  The other option considered in this regard was the park in front of the former Pacific Electric Railway Station, an area relatively close to Clinica Biblica, but almost completely devoid of any private residences.

The public ombudsman

This latter alternative was the one deemed preferable by the public ombudsman who had been called in to mediate in the dispute, and with whom the transvestites had already lodged three complaints in the past.

Adjunct ombudsman Rolando Vega, who has followed the conflict closely, is quite emphatic in his assertion that while the residents should be free to enjoy their rights, they cannot expect to do so at the expense of the rights of others.  In this way, any solution to the conflict must take adequate account of two distinct sets of rights: those of the transvestites to free movement, which could very well be violated should a ‘compromise’ be unilaterally imposed upon them, and those of the residents to live in peace, which, under present circumstances, are being violated on a daily basis.

Thus, according to Vega, ‘the challenge facing us right now is how to arrive at a solution that does not trample on either party’s rights.  The transvestites have to understand that, although they themselves have rights, their presence does generate significant problems for the neighbours.  It is for this reason that I see re-location as the most reasonable way of resolving this issue.’

Needless to say, re-location remains a contentious issue.  For the transvestites, they are far from willing to give up a place of work that sustains them economically and that they have spent years developing.  Still, the authorities insist that transfer of the red light district to a non-residential area is the only workable way of resolving the dispute.

Moreover, there is a widespread sense among the parties involved that the conflict could easily escalate into something considerably more serious.  Certainly, the residents have not lost any of their resolve to rid Clinica Biblica of its transvestite population.  At one time, soon after the founding of the Neighbours’ Association, members initiated a campaign in which they wrote down the license plate numbers of cars coming into the area in search of transvestites.  Once they had identified the cars’ owners, they would call to tell them that they were aware of their activities, and were prepared to identify them publicly.

Now, the residents are beginning to contemplate other, more aggressive tactics.  ‘For my part I wouldn’t resort to violence, but there are many who’ve offered to help us,’ remarked one neighbour.  Moreover, some of the residents have said that a confrontation is inevitable, and that they are thinking about ‘getting a gun and shooting one of these sons of bitches.  People around here are tired of waiting for solutions that never come.  It’s been suggested that we should hire some vigilantes, and we’ve even been offered shock troops, but we don’t want to hurt anyone.  But, if we get desperate enough, we just might turn to the Free Costa Rica Movement[38].’

The police

If there is one point on which both transvestites and residents agree, albeit for different reasons, it is that no one appears to want police intervention in the dispute.

The residents say that they are disappointed with the latter’s seeming inability to stop the transvestites from frequenting the area, which they believe is due to the fact that the police do not take the problem seriously.  Moreover, the neighbours also recognize that many police officers, far from working towards a solution to the problem, are merely interested in attacking the transvestites in order to rob their money or ‘even take advantage of them sexually.’  As for the transvestites themselves, their reason for being distrustful is far more simple: the police persecute transvestites as no one else does.

This latter view appears to be borne out by the fact that, until quite recently, police officers were given free rein to harass transvestites at will, something that local advocacy groups believe was directly related to the governor’s ‘clean up’ campaign, to the extent that front-line officers were being ordered to bring under control the delinquency that was thought to derive from the transvestites’ presence in the area.  Thus, it was common for transvestites to be detained in a police station holding cell for hours on end, without any explanation whatsoever on the part of the authorities.

Moreover, transvestites’ generally low level of education ensured that, even though they theoretically enjoyed the same constitutional rights as any other Costa Rican citizen, the majority had no means of accessing the tools and resources needed to assert these rights.  As Loria put it, in some cases ‘they don’t even think they’re worthy of human rights.’

However, the creation of the Constitutional Court (Sala Cuarta) changed all this.  Since its inception, the transvestites have gone before it three times with complaints, alleging gross violations of their basic human rights.  While their charges were deemed groundless in the two of the cases, the presiding magistrates found in favour of the transvestites in the final one.

In short, this case involved a habeas corpus complaint against members of San José’s third and fifth precincts, lodged by four transvestites who were arbitrarily arrested in May 1997 by officers of the motorcycle unit.  Despite handing over their identification papers (which were in order), the police officers proceeded to arrest them, though not before relieving them of their money.  Moreover, according to the complainants, not only did these officers fail to comply with normal arrest procedures, but the transvestites were subjected to various indignities along the way.

The Constitutional Court

Following their release, the transvestites decided to initiate proceedings against the officers in Costa Rica’s Constitutional Court, alleging violations under the terms of articles 22 and 39 of the Political Constitution, and articles 7 and 8 of the American Human Rights’ Convention, which guarantee the right of free movement to all citizens.

Moreover, in relation to the Political Constitution in particular, it guarantees every Costa Rican freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, along with the right to unrestricted movement and abode anywhere in the country.

In their ruling, the magistrates found in favour of the transvestites, arguing that the police had acted improperly in arresting the complainants without due cause.  In the wake of this decision by Costa Rica’s highest court, police officers were only able to proceed against transvestites in cases where they had reasonable grounds to believe that a crime had been committed (ie. they had received a complaint) and, should an arrest be warranted, it could only be undertaken in relation to the particular crime that the individual in question was suspected of committing.  Moreover, since this ruling police treatment of transvestites has improved considerably, and is now thought to differ little from that which is meted out to other segments of the population.  Still, despite the change, there can be little doubt that the label ‘persecutor’ remains fixed in the minds of many transvestites.

Indeed, there are some who would argue that the relationship between transvestites and police continues to be a thoroughly violent one, with officers showing scant respect for individuals whom they see as undermining traditional values by dressing up as women and prostituting themselves.  In Loria’s estimation, ‘it would seem the police think that they’re doing the transvestites enough of a favour by letting them live, so they certainly shouldn’t expect the right to speak out.’

The transvestites, meanwhile, see policemen as authority figures par excellence, who have always endeavoured to make their lives miserable.  In their minds, the police are typically equated with arrest, humiliation, detention, and loss of money.

In a typical example of this relationship, one need only consider the countless nights in the past when a group of police officers would suddenly appear in the Clinica Biblica district, and order all those transvestites present to leave the area or face arrest.  Any hint of resistance would be met with beatings, baton charges and the paddy wagon.

Once inside the latter - the ‘cajón’ in local parlance - the transvestites would be thrown around its hard interior as the driver deliberately braked and accelerated in quick succession.  Eventually they would arrive at the precinct headquarters where, if they were lucky, a ticket would be filled out.  However, to the extent that arresting officers have become fearful that those detained may later try to launch appeals against them, they often now refrain from registering the arrest in the first place, thereby hoping to pre-empt any such action.

Once in the cell-block, again if they were lucky, they would spend a few hours there before being released.  However, if luck was not on their side, they would be ordered to strip down and parade in front of everyone, under threat of being beaten.  As they did so, they would be taunted and their bodies made fun of, all of which was humiliating in the extreme.  Then, finally, they would be released at dawn, with a night’s work ruined.