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

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                                                     5

                                 ‘Priscilla’ and Prevention

Generally speaking, few homosexual populations are more open about their sexual orientation than gay transvestites, who are characterized by extremely high indices of socialization.  As one might imagine, this is because transvestism and effeminacy together serve to make them among the most obviously gay men of all Costa Rica.  As Ana Karanenina recounts, whenever she is not dressed as a woman, she is always being confused for a gay man:

I’m so queer that even when I’m dressed in men’s clothes and acting all macho, I don’t fool anyone.  One day I went out to buy some vegetables and I was putting on this show of being really gruff and aggressive, talking like a man and so on.  But, as I was heading out the door, the clerk said to me, ‘hey baby, don’t you want to see the yucca I’ve got for you?

Kristina has had similar experiences: ‘who am I going fool when I’m wearing pants if I’ve got a pairs of tits as well?’  Others meanwhile have had to contend with problems of a somewhat different sort.  Ana Louisa recalls the day that she dressed as a man to go to her nephew’s first communion.  She was quite happy with herself because she thought she had tricked all those in attendance.  Indeed, so well did she play the part of the macho that she decided to relieve herself in the men’s washroom.  However, as she was standing at a urinal, she heard someone say, ‘what’s the dyke pissing in here for?’

In this way, it is not particularly surprising that transvestites are widely recognized to be gay, whether they are dressed as women or not.  Consider for example the fact that 73% of transvestites’ parents know their child’s sexual orientation, as compared to 24% in the case of gay men.  Moreover, this finding is further borne out when one compares the rates for particular family members: among mothers, the rate is 100% for transvestites and 52% for gay men, while among brothers it is 95% and 44% respectively (See Table 3).

Given the fact that such a large proportion of transvestites’ families are aware that their son is gay, and that the great majority of these are loathe to accept it, large numbers of young transvestites end up living on their own or with friends, with only 14% of transvestites continuing to live with their parents.  Indeed, young transvestites are more likely to be living with their friends (most of whom are also homosexual) than any other sub-population of the gay community (Table 3).

But so few want them

Nevertheless, transvestites are less likely to seek the support of others when they themselves have problems.  When they were asked whether or not they went to other transvestites for help, 45% said that they would not do so, while only 18% indicated that they always sought the help of others.  In the case of gay men, only 10% said that they never went to their friends for support (See Table 4).

Thus, despite the intense socialization evident among transvestites, these findings suggest that they tend to view their colleagues as potential competitors (eg. for clients), and thus not entirely trustworthy.

Moreover, transvestites are also more likely than gays to agree with such statements as ‘promiscuity leads to AIDS’ (41% of transvestites strongly agreed with this position, as compared to only 14% of gays); ‘you can’t trust people who are homosexual’ (64% of transvestites were somewhat in agreement with this statement, against 31% of gay men); ‘AIDS is a form of divine retribution’ (50% were in strong agreement, as compared to only 9% of gays); and ‘there is no such thing as a stable relationship because homosexuals are unfaithful’ (64% of transvestites agreed strongly with this assertion, as contrasted with 23% in the case of gay men).

In similar fashion, when they were asked what they thought of other transvestites, the responses were often highly negative:

Here they’re all bad, people don’t respect each other.  But if someone’s going to yell at me, I’m going to yell right back at them. (Patricia)

There’s lots of scheming and hypocrisy.  If something bad happens to you, they’ll say ‘oh, you poor dear’ to your face, but it’s all a front.  In this environment no one trusts anyone else and although people used to try to screw me around, now I know how it works and so I defend myself. (Marlene)

No one’s worse than the sons of bitches around here.  I hate them all, they’re just a bunch of disgusting pigs. (Marilyn)

Venom

Given the passages quoted above, it should come as no surprise that venomous attacks upon others’ self-esteem are common within the transvestite community.  Just as society teaches its members to hate transvestism, so are transvestites taught to hate one another and themselves.  Lucretia, for one, believes that common ground can never be found because ‘everybody hates each other: either they’re stealing from each other, or they’re talking behind their back, or they’re sleeping around with their boyfriends.  No one is anyone else’s friend.’ Rosa has tried in the past to organize the transvestites for self-help purposes, but, as she put it, ‘ before you knew it the envy was starting up, and then the quarrelling, the venom, the messing up of other people’s plans...’  Adriana, meanwhile, would argue that transvestites have learnt too well the lessons that society has tried to teach them: ‘we’re our own worst enemies.  We show each other less compassion than anyone else.’

Moreover, there is evidence of this venom everywhere.  Pepa is known as ‘the Rottweiler’ because this is what she is said to look like when she dresses in drag.  As for Lola, her nickname is ‘Queen Mother’, given to her because of her age.  Penelope, meanwhile, is called ‘Price-Cutter’ on account of the low rates she charges her clients.  Finally, Nidia is known as Ms. STD, because she suffers from syphilis and gonorrhea.

However, name-calling is not the only tactic used to put down others.  Transvestites have also been known to steal from one another, spread false rumours or inform on others, seduce others’ clients and lovers and even in some cases kill one another.  Pepa, for example, loves to submit anonymous complaints about colleagues to the police.  Mirna remembers telling Sonia that Lulu stole 5,000 colones from her, even though she knew this was not the case.  In another instance, Antonieta recalls breaking one of Rosita’s teeth, ‘because she wouldn’t give back a pair of shoes I had lent her.’  Meanwhile, Miriam once threw acid in Flor’s face because ‘the little shit thought she was so beautiful.’  As for Enriqueta, she says that she never goes to the Biblica area: ‘Since I can pass for a woman, all of those dog-faced transvestites working there hate me.’

Indeed, Tachita describes the transvestite community as one that is full of petty jealousies and intrigue: ‘The only reason we get together is to fight.’  This perspective is confirmed by Corinthia, who reports that relations among transvestites are not good, and that in some cases individuals will even resort to physical violence.  Not without some bitterness, Loria describes the situation thus:

Those who are most attractive or most intelligent are criticized and ostracized because they get the best johns, and sometimes they’ll even be attacked, since the feeling is, if you’re pretty I can cut your face to make you ugly.  Meanwhile, those who are ugly are treated poorly as well.

Internal divisions

Until fairly recently, much of the dissension within the transvestite community could be traced to inter-generational differences, with newly-arrived individuals required to pass a series of tests (and suffer a few blows) before being accepted as full-fledged community members.

On the street, one encounters transvestites of all ages, ranging from 16 or 17 year-old adolescents to 40 year olds who are in the midst of burning out, and they know it.  As Valentina put it, ‘if I was a john there’s no way I’d pick up a 40 year-old transvestite who’s all worn out and decrepit, when there are young, virile ones about.’  At 27, she says that she tries to keep herself looking good, but is concerned by the small size of the Costa Rican market: ‘The population here is small, and so there are 20 transvestites on the street for every five johns.’

In an example of this inter-generational tension, one night a group of transvestites from the Clinica Biblica area descended upon another group of younger transvestites who were congregating in another neighbourhood.  The reason?  The older transvestites accused the younger ones of attracting johns by charging lower prices, and that this was unfair competition.  As they pulled out their knives, one of the older ones snarled, ‘you starving bitches are turning tricks for three hundred pesos.  If you want to stay alive, you better get the fuck out of here.’  Meanwhile, on other occasions, the attacks have been directed towards foreigners.

However, this is not to say that things have not improved in recent years, and today inter-generational conflicts are relatively rare.  In particular, those who have just arrived on the scene tend to be quite cautious in their dealings with others until such time that they are accepted by the group.  According to Tachita, ‘the street is a tough school and when a new one shows up we have teach her how to defend herself.  Many of them are very innocent and they have to learn that life’s not all roses.’

Still, at the same time that age-related conflict diminishes, nationality-based tension increases.  In the words of Azulita, ‘the main problem facing Costa Ricans is competition from other Central Americans and people from the Dominican Republic.  That’s the last thing we need, having a huge bunch of Nicaraguan and Panamanian refugees who come here to steal our money and our johns.  The government should really stop letting these foreign whores into the country.’

Moreover, these feelings are exacerbated by a series of tensions related to turf and geography.  ‘Transvestites working the Biblica district are high-class,’ asserted Leticia, ‘so the last thing we want up here are those slack-jawed whores from the Libano.  They’re so dirty and ugly that any john who sees them would never want to come back here again.’

Finally, there is little solidarity between male transvestites and female sex trade workers, with numerous conflicts arising over the years.  In short, the transvestites insist that the women must stay away from ‘their’ streets: ‘the hookers have got all of San José,’ pointed out Penelope, ‘so there’s no reason why they should want to come here.’  The female sex trade workers, for their part, resent the competition from the men, and all the more so because some of the latter have better bodies than they themselves.

Nevertheless, if many transvestites feel contempt for others within their community, many of them have even less respect for gays and lesbians.  In particular, some will never forgive gay men for their masculine demeanor.  Quite simply, they assume that every gay man has the potential to be a transvestite, but refuses to acknowledge this.

‘Don’t you think it pisses us off when we aren’t let into a gay bar just because the owner is a piece of shit who doesn’t want anyone in there who’s dressed in drag?’, asked Lucy.

Meanwhile, the majority of gay men, despite being attracted to individuals of the same sex, have no desire to become women themselves.  It is for this reason that many of them feel that transvestites have no place in their community.  According to one gay bar owner, ‘I don’t let transvestites in because they’re a terrible bunch, drunk all the time, addicted to coke and, on top of that, crooks and prostitutes.  My clients like the masculine look and not these disgusting things dressed up as women who look like extras from some horror movie.’

The lovers don’t help

Of course, exacerbating the problems outlined above is the negative attitude of the transvestites’ lovers, which may contribute in turn to the difficulty many transvestites experience in sustaining constructive relationships with their colleagues.  Moreover, this in turn is reinforced by transvestites’ tendency only to socialize with other couples.  Finally, it must be noted as well that the transvestites do not generally perceive their lovers to be homosexual, which means that this source of support is not categorized as gay.

As will be emphasized in subsequent chapters, the transvestites’ lovers tend to have certain characteristics in common.  Most have previously been engaged in relationships with other transvestites, leaving a legacy of bitterness and jealousy.  Moreover, it is interesting to note in this regard that the bulk of the lovers’ animosity is not directed towards the johns, but rather against other cacheros and the transvestites themselves.  In this way, a circle of envy is created whereby lovers are jealous of other lovers, while the transvestites are jealous of all those other transvestites whom they fear may try to steal away ‘their’ man.

José, for one, said that he keeps away from other transvestites because ‘there’s always something going on between them.  Most of them live for the chance to tell stories about other people or break up couples who are perfectly happy with each other.  It makes me want to go out there and give them a good thrashing.’

Meanwhile, Louis indicated that he does not generally go to the Biblica because Sylvia, his partner, becomes jealous when other transvestites ‘look’ at him.  In a similar fashion, Cynthia’s lover Delio gets angry whenever he sees her talking with other cacheros, just as she does not like it when she catches him speaking with other transvestites.  As for Moses, he reported that Miriam is jealous of him because ‘I tend to be very friendly with the other transvestites.’

Homophobia and AIDS

As one might imagine, internalized homophobia plays an important role in explaining these feelings of jealousy and insecurity, as well as accounting for the tendency of many within the transvestite community not to take steps to minimize the chance of HIV infection.  In short, individuals who are less accepting of their homosexuality often do not see themselves as part of a high risk population, do not seek the support of others in the gay community, and may very well take ill-advised risks as a way of coping with the sexual identity issues they are facing.

Off to Miami?

‘Don’t push, ladies.  There’s room for everyone on LACSA, Costa Rica’s national airline.  Remember that we love our customers, especially those who are young and beautiful,’ announced a boy dressed as an air-hostess.  ‘Please have your passports and US visa in hand,’ he asked.  The line is long and the girls are impatient.  ‘You’re only taking the one bag?’, asked Sonia of Lulu.  ‘I’m going to be buying all sorts of stuff in Dadeland and I don’t want to bring so many clothes that they confiscate my luggage,’ she answered.  Behind them in the line, Enriqueta and Agatha were engaged in a discussion that is best reproduced in its entirety:

-           Where do you plan on staying in Miami?

-           Definitely the Hilton, since I just hate second rate hotels.  How about yourself?

-           Oh, I’m staying at the Marriott.  I’ve got a suite there.  Are you going to go the beach at all?

-           You know very well that I’m just going to shop.  Anyway, the sun dries out my skin and gives me wrinkles.

-           Really, I think you’re not going to the beach because you don’t want anyone to see the cellulite on your butt.

-           Cellulite, me?  Never!  My ass is as hard as rock.

-           Lunar rock, you mean - full of holes.

-           If my butt’s lunar rock, I would say your’s is probably a black hole.

Of course, the youths who are pretending to be heading off to Miami are not  really boarding a LACSA flight, but rather an old, dilapidated bus known as ‘Priscilla’, a name inspired by a movie about a group of Australian transvestites who decide to travel across their country by bus.  However, despite its run-down appearance, the vehicle serves as a ‘plane’ that takes its ‘passengers’ (a group of transvestites) on a journey through the outskirts of San José.  Meanwhile, the ‘air-hostess’, who also acts as bus driver, works with ILPES.  In this way, ‘Priscilla’ is nothing other than a novel AIDS prevention initiative serving the transvestite community.

‘Girls, please put on your seat-belts because we’re about to take off,’ enjoins the coordinator, ‘and please pay attention to the safety instructions:’

Although we are unlikely to encounter any problems during our flight, we have to have a condom ready at all times.  Since we’re flying with so many erections on board, there may be some turbulence.  We must always be ready with our rubbers in hand.  Many passengers have died in the past because they were caught by an air pocket without their condom on.  Also, please remember that we will be flying over water, so don’t forget to blow up your life-vest.  Just cover the open end with your mouth, and start blowing.  And don’t fake it, ladies, because I know you’re all experts.

‘Why the use of aeronautical jargon in an AIDS prevention initiative?’, I asked Herman Loria, the project’s coordinator.  ‘Because it’s a fun and non-threatening way to bring together a group who work on the street and don’t have any other places to get together.  Also, the transvestites often find it difficult to get motivated about this sort of issue, and the bus gives them a chance to see something different and breathe some fresh air.’  Moreover, as he went on to say,

the project tries to use fantasy in a way that transvestites are already familiar with, presenting a sort of ‘show’ that also communicates a message about prevention.  Not only do we talk about the importance of always using a condom, but we encourage them to seek help for their substance abuse as well.  Finally, we’re also trying to get them to organize a union, as a way of counterbalancing some of the pressure they’re facing from johns and lovers.  Moreover, it would give them a way of reaching some sort of consensus on the rates they charge, and condom use could be made non-negotiable.  Also, we’re trying to promote the creation of micro-enterprises, like putting on drag shows for fancy clubs and what not.  This way they would have some alternatives to the sex trade.

As Loria proceeded to tell me about the project, the transvestites continued to entertain themselves with the airplane motif:  ‘Mayela, would you mind awfully asking the steward for his pen so that I can fill out my landing card?’ asked Julia.  ‘Right now I’ve got in my mouth, in case you haven’t noticed,’ the other one replied.

Thus, ILPES has sought to devise an initiative that builds upon transvestites’ innate sense of humour and sarcasm as ways of disseminating AIDS-related information, while at the same time serving to counteract the rivalries and distrust that have proved so destructive in the past.  Opening up new spaces and possibilities for the transvestites is another objective, and involves attempts to find alternative ways for them to make a living.  However, because of the problems discussed in previous chapters, this has not proved particularly easy or straightforward.

Nevertheless, one may point to particular bases for solidarity within the wider field of homophobia.  One such basis is the police harassment suffered in common by transvestites, sex trade workers, johns, gays, and lesbians. In short, this persecution could very easily serve as a vehicle through which to empower these groups and induce them to undertake concerted action.

Other common ground exists in the advocacy and support organizations that have been established over the years.  ILPES, for example, has organized workshops where the participants learn how their dislike and distrust for one another plays into the hands of their common enemies.  Moreover, recent legal victories against arbitrary arrest and detention have benefited everyone to some degree, to the extent that the police show greater care in their actions against minority groups.

Meanwhile, the creation of anti-transvestite organizations such as the Neighbours’ Association of Clinica Biblica has given the transvestites another reason to organize themselves.  The Neighbours’ Association is the first of its kind in the country, and its explicit aim is to reverse the gains made by transvestites in the courts.  Although the residents’ prime concern at the moment is simply to drive the transvestites out of the Biblica area, one cannot assume that they will stop here.  Even more worrisome is the possibility that other conservative groups will use the anti-transvestite movement as a front as they endeavour to attack the rights of gays in general, as has occurred in recent years in the United States.


TABLE 3

PEOPLE WITH WHOM ONE NORMALLY SHARES ONE’S PLACE OF RESIDENCE (in percent)

Variable

Gay

Transvestite  sex trader workers

(N)

TOTAL

(162)

100

(22)

100

Who do you live with most of the time?

Alone

Parents or family

Wife/female partner

Male partner

Friends

Others

17.3

54.9

11.1

13.6

3.1

31.8

13.6

9.1

45.5

Persons with whom you live occasionally

Alone

Parents or family

Wife/female partner

Male partner

Friends

Don’t live with others

Others

4.9

10.5

8.0

13.6

61.7

1.2

4.5

40.9

54.5

Source:  Jacobo Schifter and Johnny Madrigal, Hombres que Aman Hombres, San José, 1LEP-SIDA, 1992.


TABLE 4

GENERAL SOURCES OF HELP, SUPPORT OR ADVICE

(in percent)

Variable

Gay

Transvestite sex trade workers

(N)

TOTAL

(162)

100

(22)

100

Friends

Always

Very often

Sometimes

Rarely

Never

29.0

20.4

31.5

8.6

10.5

18.2

4.5

22.7

9.4

45.5

Gay organizations

Always

Very often

Sometimes

Rarely

Never

1.9

1.2

5.6

8.0

79.6

4.5

4.5

9.1

81.8

Non-gay organizations

Always

Very often

Sometimes

Rarely

Never

Don’t know/no response

1.2

0.6

4.3

9.3

80.9

3.7

4.5

4.5

90.9

Source:  Jacobo Schifter and Johnny Madrigal, Hombres que Aman Hombres, San José, 1LEP-SIDA, 1992.


                                                     6

                              The Business of Prostitution

In the era when most of San José’s transvestites lived and worked in the area around the Libano cinema, it was clear that the vast majority of them hailed from very modest class backgrounds.  That is to say, their families were generally drawn from the rural or urban poor, and most had suffered extreme economic hardships in the past.  Moreover, within this population, it was highly uncommon to encounter individuals characterized by middle or upper class family backgrounds.

Katrina, for example, lost her mother when she was very young and was raised as a foster child by a wealthy family in Alajuela:

I’m here because my mother died when I was eight and we suffered many hardships as children, me and my brothers.  I went first to live with a family with money in Naranjo, the (...), and then afterwards I got to know the (...) in Sarchi and they raised me until I was 14 ..., I suffered a lot when I was young.  They all abused me.  For a few beans they thought they could use me all day.  So finally I decided that I was better off selling my body for something a little more than a full stomach and a roof over my head.

Meanwhile Gina, also from a very humble background, used to work in a factory but found that the money she made there was not enough to sustain her:

I’m 30 years old, and am from Limon.  Before coming here, I got a job in a factory after my eighteenth birthday.  However, I’ve since got involved in prostitution ... At the factory, they worked us like slaves, I would only get half an hour for lunch and they paid us a shit wage.  And, on top of that, you had to sleep with the foremen.  Several friends of mine, so as not to lose their jobs, had sex with them.  One of them was famous for having raped a dozen of the workers.  When this one found out that I was a transvestite, I was called into his office and ordered to undress so that he could check it out for himself.  I told him to fuck his mother and I quit.

Antonieta was also forced into prostitution for financial reasons.  She already had a job as a hair-dresser (the other profession open to effeminate men in Costa Rica), but this did not provide her with enough money to live on:

I don’t like prostituting myself, but I do it to survive.  However, I do like being a transvestite and I like working ... and most of all I like interacting with people.  What I’d really like to do is become a television news announcer.  I have a lot of respect for the reporters who read the news.  I imagine myself one day sitting beside someone like Amelia Rueda [a prominent radio and television host], giving the weather forecast:  ‘Tomorrow it will be very quiet in the morning, better just stay in bed.  By evening, however, your ass will be feeling hot.  We recommend cooling it down with some hard cock.’  I think I’d be really good, really smooth, but who’d ever hire a poor transvestite for a job like that?

Discrimination at work

One of the key features of transvestism in a country like Costa Rica is that, for individuals who feel the urge to dress in women’s clothing, prostitution is essentially the only avenue open to them.  In other words, they are pushed inexorably towards the sex trade by the lack of viable work alternatives.  For example, if a transvestite could work in a store or office while dressed in drag,  she would be less likely to turn to prostitution.  A case in point is Lulu, who worked for a time as a secretary, having convinced her manager that she was in fact a woman:

I was really happy because this was the first time that I was making an honest living, with a real job.  The boss didn’t know I was a man.  At first I didn’t really know how to use the typewriter, but after a while I picked it up and then my job was to type in application forms and so on.  The trouble started with the clients.  They were always inviting me out to have a drink.  But I would always say ‘no’, just to make sure that no one found out that I was really a man.  But one day a driver from work followed me home, and then the next thing I knew he showed up at my house and said that he knew that I was as transvestite and that he’d like to have a fling with me.  I told him that I was just a secretary and please don’t come to my house any more.  At that point he started to get nasty, but he finally left after I told him to bugger off.  Anyway, the next day I find out that he’s told the boss, who promptly gave me the pink slip.  So that was that, and before you knew it I was back to turning tricks again.

In similar fashion, Pandora also feels that her involvement in the sex trade is largely due to the fact that it has been the only option open to her since she was a child, almost as if dressing in drag and turning tricks went hand in hand.

Finally, one might usefully consider the case of Karina, whose experience is the exception that proves the rule.  In short, she is so effeminate that she can easily pass for a woman, and so she has had no difficulty in finding - and keeping - jobs while dressed in drag.  As such, she has had no need to turn to the sex trade as a means of supporting herself.

The money doesn’t go far

For the most part, the transvestites interviewed are characterized by low levels of education.  Not only have they on average spent a mere 7.4 years in an educational institution, but as many as one third of them (36%) have no schooling at all beyond the primary level.  Moreover, since almost none have learned a trade outside of hairstyling, there is very little potential for them to find meaningful, fulfilling work in their adult lives.

Still, transvestite sex trade workers enjoy wages that, at first blush, would appear to place them in the lower middle class income bracket.  In 1990, 59% reported earning a monthly income of between 15,000 and 35,000 colones, while 27% said that they earned less than 15,000 colones and 14% more than 35,000 colones.

However, the fact that more than a quarter of them are making less than 15,000 colones a month, barely a subsistence wage, is disturbing.  Out of these earnings, not only must they pay for their food, housing and clothes, but in many cases they hand over a portion to their families as well.

What does it mean to belong to such a poor sector of society?  When I asked this question of Karla, she replied, ‘being thirsty, seeing a bottle of ice cold Coke, and not being able to buy it.’  The transvestites of the Libano district had to content themselves with being surrounded by the middle classes, while being unable to attain such status themselves.

As Louisa put it, ‘being poor means being obsessed about money all the time.  It’s like a drug really.  How can I get some?  How am I gonna keep it coming?’  For others, it is like having the wrong passport, being an illegal alien in one’s own country, and thereby becoming, in the words of Cleopatra ‘like Indians in the twentieth century, with people hoping you’re just going to disappear some day.’

Indeed, making matters worse for many of the transvestites is the fact that they have access to the world of wealth and riches through their television set; they can sit in front of it while the host of a cooking show advises them only to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

‘Just imagine how I felt,’ Chepa recounted, ‘when ‘Arlene’ [a cooking programme] started groaning about how expensive shrimp were getting.  This bothered her so much, she said, that she suggested we only use a quarter kilo in the recipe.’  Curious, I asked her how she handled this.  She answered: ‘Well, seeing that I don’t have a fucking dime to buy shrimp with, I decided to cut back instead on the sweet peppers I was using in their place.’

For Ana Yanci, she feels the greatest sense of being poor when she goes to the corner store.  ‘This one time I went to buy some stuff with the money I’d made the night before, and when I got to the counter I realized that I didn’t have quite enough to pay for the beans and butter, so I asked the guy, "could I put this on my tab?"  "Sure, baby," he answered, "just spread your legs so that I can stick my pen up your tab.’

The johns, for their part, tend not to be particularly generous either:

-           Hey there sugar, what would you charge to take me up to the sky?

-           Well, my dear, that depends.  You can get to the sky many ways.  What I have to know is how you want to get there, because this flight doesn’t come cheap.

-           The only way I’ve gone is by bus.  What sort of service are you offering that you’re so expensive?

-           A trip to Miami for two thousand colones.  For this price you’ll go first class, and be well-looked after by your truly.

-           What a swindler!  It’s not as if this is your first trip!  I’m sure your motor’s seen better days.

-           Okay, enough already.  You don’t have the face of a virgin either.  Two thousand colones for the works.  Take it or leave it.

-           No, baby, listen to me.  I’ll give you a thousand but I just want a hand job.  I don’t want a fuck or anything, understand?

-           Yeah, whatever.  This is low season and I’ve got a couple openings in my calendar, so I’ll give you the discount, but only today...

-           Yeah, okay, sounds good.  But what’s this about openings?  The only ones I see are where you’ve got teeth missing.

Getting a raise

However, despite the grim picture painted above, it should be emphasized that some transvestites did experience some improvement in their standard of living in the early 1990s.  The slow shift towards street prostitution, and away from the ‘bunker’ system of the past, afforded transvestites with the opportunity to increase their take-home pay.  Moreover, in the street the latter were better placed to develop relationships with middle and upper class clients, who were themselves able to pay a higher price for sex.

‘I’ll tell you why the rates went up,’ declared Tirana, ‘it’s really very simple.  It’s due to a process of globalization, with transvestites suddenly becoming the in-thing after Hollywood discovers us and starts making movies about our lives.  Then, next thing we know there’s more and more rich johns coming down here, wanting to make it with a transvestite themselves.’

Troyana, for example, only goes out twice every seven days, with Fridays being the best day of the week, and the 15th and 30th (ie. pay days) being the best days of the month.  On these occasions, she generally turns four or five tricks during the course of the night, and she is always direct with her clients:  ‘I ask them if they want to give me a blow job, or do they want me to blow them?  Do they want to fuck me, or am I gonna fuck them?  Or do they want the whole works?’

The rate charged depends upon the type of car the john is driving.  For an expensive model, full intercourse costs between 5,000 and 8,000 colones[39], while oral sex ranges from 1,500 to 2,500 colones.  Meanwhile, for a less expensive make of car, the rate is 3,000 to 4,000 colones for full sex, and 1,000 to 1,500 for a blow job.  Should the client ask for anything extra, he must pay for it.  Typical requests include borrowing the transvestite’s clothes, or having make-up put on.  Sessions can last anywhere from one hour to an hour and a half, with every additional half hour costing 2,500 colones.

Like all the transvestites interviewed, Troyana does not know exactly how much she earns each month, but believes her take-home pay to be between 40,000 and 50,000 colones.

Miriam, meanwhile, is known among her colleagues as one of the few transvestites who actually manages to save a portion of her wages, something seldom encountered in the gay sex trade.

That is to say, among male prostitutes money is won and lost in quick succession, with individuals generally being unaware of their relative earnings over time[40].  Many of course feel that the money they make in the sex trade is ill-gotten, and thus spend it quickly in order to ease their own sense of guilt.  Moreover, as has already been touched upon above, this money is typically spent on luxury items and is rarely invested or saved for future contingencies.

Miriam, from this perspective, is a case apart, having as she does a very keen sense of her savings and earnings.  This, she attributes to the fact that she loves money: ‘If someone told me there was five thousand colones lying at the bottom of a cliff, I’d find a way of going down there and getting it.’  For the most part, she goes out to work every night, turning an average of five tricks each time, though ‘sometimes I’ll go out and won’t make a dime, won’t even be given the time of day.’  Still, she claims to make between 95,000 and 100,000 colones in a poor month, and that her average monthly salary is as much as 150,000 colones, of which she invests roughly half.

Like her colleagues, she spends about an hour with each client, for which she charges 5,000 colones, or 2,500 to 3,000 colones if oral sex is all that is desired.  Special requests, as always, cost extra.

Meanwhile, Colirio also reports seeing an average of five clients per night and, like Troyana, sets her rates according to the type of car the john drives:  ‘Generally, if they pull up in a Mercedes I’ll charge them more.  But if they seem nice, and treat me well, I’ll sometimes go easy and give them a break.’

On average, however, she charges between 6,000 and 7,000 colones for intercourse, and 2,500 and 3,000 for blow jobs.  Also like many of the others, she does not keep records of her earnings:  ‘No, I don’t really keep track, but on a good day I clear about ten thousand colones, and on a really good day maybe twice that.

She is also asked from time to time to participate in sex shows with another transvestite, or with a ‘zorra’ (gay male prostitute who dresses in men’s clothing).  For these, which are usually put on either for a single client or for a couple, she charges between 15,000 and 20,000 colones, with any additional services costing extra.

Moreover, Elena notes as well that she will sometimes get a john who will pay her from 10,000 to 20,000 colones over the course of one night and, though she admits that this is quite rare, there have even been occasions when she has been paid 30,000 or, once, 85,000 colones for a single night’s work.

However, by the same token several interview participants indicated that, in the transvestite community, there is a tendency to exaggerate earnings as a way of enhancing one’s image.  Thus, while media accounts of transvestite prostitution in San José have reported monthly earnings ranging from 350,000 to 400,000 colones, such figures are described as highly overblown by transvestites like Miriam, who is among the city’s highest earners.

Price-cutters

Among the reasons for the wide variation in the rates transvestites charge their clients is the practice of “hacer cuechas” (spitting), or price cutting.  Few are held in higher contempt by their colleagues than those who engage in such rate-cutting.  To cite Elena, ‘in the ten blocks that we work, you’ll see everything: hot bodies, good make-up jobs, exotic looks, expensive wigs, the works.  The transvestite who charges less undermines all this, and makes us lose clients.’

In effect, cuechas involve charging a discounted rate for the same service: 1,500 to 2,000 colones for intercourse (the usual price is 5,000 colones), and 500 colones for oral sex.

Little positive is said about those who give cuechas.  Miriam, for one, describes them in the following terms: ‘They’re dicks without eyes.  I charge my clients five thousand colones while they’re taking them on for five hundred ... they’re just looking for a place to shoot their wad, they’re not selective at all.  I wouldn’t even say that this is competition, it’s merely a question of standing there, offering oneself, and being lucky.’

Elena feels the same way: ‘There’s always someone who’ll undercut you and this is the worst sort of competition.  I had a client once who left me for someone who cut her rates ... it didn’t bother me though, it wasn’t because of me he left.’

Despite ‘cuechas’ the money is better

In Mabé’s opinion, she is earning considerably more from prostitution now than she was in the past.  However, as she put it, ‘the johns pay more but at the same time they want women who are more beautiful.  There’s no way they’d go for the sort of she-monsters who hang out around the Libano cinema.  Now they want transvestites who look like movie stars.’

That there is more money flowing through the transvestite community is obvious.  In place of the cheap clothes, wigs and make-up of the past, the transvestites are wearing outfits imported from the United States, wigs made from real hair, professional make-up and expensive perfume.  Moreover, transvestites like Pili have even been able to afford the luxury of silicone breast implants: ‘These tits cost me a fortune.  I used to inject hormones but finally decided to have surgery instead.’  As for Corella, she has had her hair removed, her nose straightened and her teeth whitened, while Marlene has invested in liposuction in order to improve the look of her waist.

Needless to say, recent changes in transvestites’ physical appearance are closely related to the johns’ growing appetite for glamorous ‘women’.  Like Mabé, Lulu reports that her clients want prostitutes who remind them of movie stars.  ‘However, Costa Rican women are all small with big hips.  Only men who are tall and thin can give them the sort of phenomenal body they’re looking for.’

Thus, when one looks at a transvestite like Sharon, one sees a woman who is very tall, with the sort of body that would be at home on a catwalk.  ‘Look, the bottom line is that there’s no middle class hooker out there who looks as glamorous as me.  Men turn around to look at me, whether they’re into transvestites or not,’ she said with pride.  Angelita, meanwhile, feels that the competence of female sex trade workers is generally ‘very low’.  As she put it, ‘the prostitutes are all old and fat, they’ve got children, and they come cheaply.’

Transvestites have masculine desires

It should be emphasized that it is not merely on account of their physical appearance that the transvestites deem themselves to be superior to the female prostitutes, but also, paradoxically, by virtue of the fact that they are men.  In short, they feel that their male gender gives them particular insight into the bodies and desires of their customers.  Thus, Penelope stressed that she knows what men want and, ‘because I’m a man, I touch men differently.’  That is to say, she believes that female sex trade workers do not know how to engage in oral sex, masturbate or penetrate men in the way that the men themselves would like.  Moreover, they don’t know ‘how a man wants them to talk, to respond, or to act in bed.’ A similar view is expressed by Lola, who argues that ‘a guy doesn’t have to tell me what he’d like me to do.  Since I’ve got a body just like his, I know exactly what to do to drive him wild.’

Of course, it bears emphasis as well that the transvestite is not merely selling the sex act itself, but also something of a ‘show’.  Thus, many will model themselves, put on an act or sing for the client before they engage in physical contact.  Knowledgeable of men’s wishes and desires, they can exploit these as a way of earning thousands of extra colones, while the client has the opportunity of having his most secret fantasy fulfilled.  For instance, Eva charges 10,000 colones to pretend she is a nanny who is about to be raped by her man of the house.  Esther, meanwhile, plays the part of Marilyn Monroe, even going so far as to dress herself up in a manner similar to that of the famous Hollywood icon.  As for Kristina, she puts on a show in which she pretends to be Gloria Estefan, charging her clients 13,000 colones each time.  Finally, Fresa likes to play the role of a nun, and even has a habit and rosary on hand to make her act seem more realistic.

Still, despite this apparent bonanza, few transvestites have managed to improve their position in life as a result.

As we will see in the next chapter, drug addiction robs them of much of their earnings, as do their lovers and the police.  Moreover, by the time they are old enough to appreciate the importance of saving a portion of their earnings, they are usually too old to be deemed attractive by the johns.  Thus, at the end of the day their dreams of fame and riches pass them by, and they are left to die of AIDS in the same neighbourhood they had left ten years previously, holed up in one of the grim ‘bunkers’ around the Libano cinema.


                                                     7

                                                 Drugs

That so many of the transvestites consume drugs should not be particularly surprising.  If we were the ones prostituting ourselves in their place, receiving the taunts, the attacks and the insults that they do on a daily basis, we would surely resort to drug abuse ourselves, as a way of insulating ourselves from the homophobic culture that surrounds us.

-           Why do you use drugs, Pepa?

-           Standing on a corner by myself, waiting to see who’s going to pass by and not knowing who it’s going to be, if I’m going to end up raped, stabbed or dead, makes me feel extremely anxious.  Every time a car goes I don’t know if I’m going to be pelted with shit or invited to go dancing.  It’s like being Cinderella, but in reverse.  I don’t know whether I’ll end up marrying the blue prince or some old fart.  Anyway, it’s because of this that I feel the need to get stoned.  When I’m really ripped, and people start shouting obscenities at me, all I can hear are praises:  ‘shit-faced whore’ becomes ‘beautiful rose’; ‘butt-fucking dog’ becomes ‘what a lovely hat’; ‘demon seed’ becomes ‘sweet pea’ and, in the end, I couldn’t care less what they’re yelling.  Or, if they throw a stone at me, I pick it up and it looks just like a sweet little flower; a bag of piss sprayed on me feels like a blessing with holy water; a rotten egg becomes a bouquet of roses.  If they put me in jail, it’s like I’m vacationing in the Caribbean, or if I’m raped, I tell myself it’s just an aerobics work-out.

-           Do you find the drugs make it easier not to see the homophobia?

-           It’s not that I can’t see it, just that it bothers me less.   Do you really thinks it’s possible not to notice it when they start yelling at you as soon as they see you’re dressed as a woman?  Going out on the street is very difficult.  You’ve got have lots of balls to do it.  In order to live like this, not knowing where the next attack’s coming from, you’ve got get ripped.  If you don’t, you’re going to feel like shit all over.

-           Who’s responsible then for the fact that you use drugs?

-           I’m not going to say that it’s all their fault.  But a large part of it is due to the fact that they’re at us all the time.  They never leave us in peace.  What the fuck have we done to deserve these attacks?  Why is it that there’s no human rights organization out there that’s speaking out against the abuse we receive?

Clearly, Pepa is not alone is her use of drugs:

I spend about 150 colones a day on smokes, 800 to one thousand on alcohol, and about four to eight thousand on coke.  In a month coke will cost me about eight thousand to ten thousand colones.  When I’ve got drugs I share them with my friends from work.  The johns will also offer them to me, over and above the money they’re paying. (Leticia)

I’m into marijuana.  It costs me about 100 to 200 colones a day.  I’ve been smoking it pretty much continuously ever since I first started.  I’ve tried various drugs and have used some on a regular basis, but I really prefer weed.  If I’m going to a party I may spend as much as ten thousand on it. (Susy)

Crack is king

In carrying out interviews with members of the transvestite community, the project ethnographer established that crack has been the drug of choice since roughly the 1980’s.  It is made by mixing cocaine, bicarbonate of soda and water in a spoon, and then heating it over a candle, all the while stirring it continuously with a match.  Once the contents have begun to boil, one takes away the heat source, and continues stirring until such time that the mixture has coalesced into a hard rock, similar in appearance to a molar fragment, albeit one blackened by candle smoke.  However, it should be noted that the purer the cocaine, the whiter the rock will be.  In some cases, rather than using a candle, individuals will heat up the crack mixture by burning cardboard from a pack of cigarettes, thereby emitting less smoke.  If this is to be done, the cardboard is first torn into long strips so that it burns more slowly.  Moreover, once the mixture has hardened, the match that was used to stir it is broken off and disposed of.

While this is going on, the other transvestites present are busy smoking regular cigarettes, from which the ashes are saved and collected on tinfoil from a cigarette pack.  Then, an empty ‘open-easy’ juice bottle (ie. with an opening from which one can drink directly) is taken and one side is caved in so as to leave the other part of it flat.  Into this flat part three holes are drilled, and ash placed at the bottom of each one.  Meanwhile, the rock is broken up and divided among the participants, with one gramme yielding roughly six or seven pieces.  After this has been done, one of the participants will take up the juice bottle, place her lips over its mouth, and then proceed to burn one of the pieces of crack which has been placed on the ash inside the bottle, breathing deeply until the rock has been entirely consumed.  If there is anything left after she has finished, she will pass it to the person sitting next to her, saying ‘it’s a live one, take it.’

The bottles themselves tend to be jealously guarded.  If one manages to obtain one, it is kept well-hidden in a safe place.  However, if one is unlucky enough not to have one, a cup half-filled with water is used instead.  In this case, a piece of aluminum foil is placed on top of it, with ten small holes made on one side, and one larger hole on the other.  The latter is used to breathe in the fumes, while the crack and ashes are placed on the former.  Still, it should be noted that this is not the preferred method of consuming the drug, as part of it is absorbed by the water as it burns.

Basuko

Another popular drug is called basuko, made from a combination of marijuana and cocaine.  In effect, it involves sprinkling cocaine (in powder form) over the marijuana as one rolls it into a joint; it is then smoked as though it were a normal cigarette.

Needless to say, for those frequenting discotheques it is difficult to smoke drugs discreetly.  In the face of this dilemma, and given that marijuana produces such a strong odour when consumed, many will simply remove the tobacco from regular cigarettes, mix cocaine into it, and then re-insert the adulterated tobacco so that they might smoke it later without attracting any attention.  Of course, the majority prefer cocaine in any case, and thus will either smoke it in the manner described above (called a rayita in local parlance), or snort a line in the bathroom when no one is watching.

Conversely, there are many who will simply consume all of the evening’s drugs at once, before going out, so as avoid carrying with them anything that might later be found by the police.

However, when transvestites do carry cocaine on their person (eg. to sell), they will often do so by placing a quarter gramme in a pajilla, a piece of plastic that has been heat-sealed.  This in turn they will put in their mouth, so as to avoid detection should they be searched.

In the Libano district, there were various locales from which drugs were sold, with the drug-dealer generally being the one who buys the pure cocaine in bulk and then mixes it with crushed-up amphetamines and nerve pills.  When the ethnographer visited the area’s brothels and rooming houses in 1990, he had the opportunity to see the drug preparation process unfold on several occasions, from the mixing of the cocaine in a blender to the packaging of individuals ‘hits’ (wrapped in cigarette foil) for retail sale.

Meanwhile, when it comes to smoking marijuana, if one is unable to obtain a ‘boleta’ (rolling paper for cigarettes that is sold in stores in the vicinity of San José’s Central Market), transvestites will often use wrapping paper from bread or toilet paper instead.  Of course, also critical in this regard is the ‘matadora’, a piece of bamboo that has been hollowed and split, and used to smoke the final portion of the joint without burning one’s fingers.

Moreover, when the ethnographer carried out his interviews with drug-consuming transvestites in 1990, none of them held out much hope of overcoming their addiction.  Even if they found themselves without money, they would go out for a walk and within 20 minutes they would have already stolen something of value that could be given to their dealer or ‘doctor’ (so-called because of his ‘prescriptions’) in exchange for drugs.

Unfortunately, the situation in 1997 in the Clinica Biblica area appears to be even worse.  There are very few transvestites working there who are not substance abusers in some form or fashion.  Although the ‘bunkers’ of the Libano district are no longer the centres of supply that they once were, drugs are easily bought elsewhere, whether in individuals’ homes, tenement complexes, or on the street.

Changes in transvestites’ physical appearance are also evident:  not only is basic bodily care being neglected, but crack consumption has also caused many addicts to lose a significant portion of their body mass.  Some, like Peggy, who have always been heavy-set, are now extremely skinny, something which she blames on the ‘bottle’ (ie. crack use).  Moreover, she also suffers from a bad cough, and says that her lungs were deemed to be in poor shape following a recent exam undertaken at INISA[41].  Needless to say, she is not alone in this:  constant coughing and a gaunt, cadaver-like appearance are ubiquitous among crack-consuming members of the transvestite community.  Significantly, a few of those interviewed said that they took crack as a means of making themselves look like fashion models, though of course at the cost of slowly destroying their bodies from the inside out.  Of the 100 transvestites working the Clinica Biblica area on a regular basis, 75 are deemed to be crack abusers.

Sex and drugs

Studies undertaken in other countries have shown that those who engage in substance use during or before sexual relations are more likely to practice unsafe sex.  In the particular case of the transvestite community, 68% indicated that they had consumed alcohol at some point in their lives.

Moreover, when one considers transvestites’ use of other substances, the rates are even higher.  For example, 77% report being smokers of marijuana, with 76% of the latter stating that they use it either somewhat or very often before sex, and 53% indicating that they use it very often.  As for cocaine, 73% of those questioned had tried it.  However, it should be noted that none of the transvestites interviewed reported consuming drugs intra-venously[42].

The transvestites’ consumption of drugs - particularly cocaine, marijuana and crack - is to a significant degree related to the type of work in which they are engaged.  In short, not only is prostitution an activity that requires a great deal of physical exertion, but it also demands of the individual a psychological orientation in which one is able to detach oneself emotionally from the trauma associated with the job.  Moreover, when the latter is combined with near-continuous harassment on the part of the police and general public, drugs serve as a way of anaesthetizing oneself from the pain.

Apparently, both crack and cocaine are used principally to enhance sexual performance or make it possible to engage in sex more frequently.  Marlene highlighted this by indicating that ‘coke helps me make love,’ while marijuana serves only to ‘distract me.’  A similar point of view was expressed by Julie, who believes that cocaine makes her ‘more exciting ... crazier in bed.’  Marijuana, by contrast, does not appeal to her at all.  As for Patricia, she stated that although she is not strongly attracted to any drug in particular, she does like cocaine, which she takes so as ‘not to feel alone.’

I’ve made love when I’m high.  I like to do it while I’m on coke.  It feels great just after I’ve done it; I can make love and nothing  bothers me.  The feeling lasts up to two hours; when I smoke it, I enjoy sex even more.

In the case of Adelita, she feels that, despite the fact that coke can make one ‘crazier’ in bed, it does have a number drawbacks:

Just because you’re a transvestite doesn’t mean you do lots of drugs.  I don’t smoke anything, I’ve tried them but I don’t like them.  The johns do drugs; once I had sex with this guy who had some coke on him and I did some.  When he kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth, it felt really big, and then he started touching me with his penis and it felt huge, and when he put in my rectum it felt really big in there.  I enjoyed it, but I can’t say it really excited me.  I believe drugs make you hornier but they destroy you from the inside, and you lose control in bed.

Along somewhat different lines, Apolonia was quite adamant in stressing that ‘nothing makes sex better than coke.’  Others, meanwhile, felt that marijuana was more stimulating.  Marlene, for one, indicated that she really got into sex after she had smoked it, while Susy said that, because cocaine often prevents her from ejaculating, she prefers marijuana, which ‘gives a better buzz and makes me hornier.’  Still other interview participants indicated that they preferred beer and alcohol.  Finally, a few transvestites, Gina and Karla in particular, said that although they have tried drugs, they almost never consume them.

However, one the most serious problems with substance use in the community is that it causes  individuals to take risks and engage in unsafe sex.  For example, Susy indicated that when she is under the effects of drugs she is less likely to wear a condom:

I’ve been really high and really turned on and then, when it’s time to put a condom on, I’ve just left it aside and carried on without even thinking about it

Still, it should also be noted that others, such as Julie, have stressed that they continue to practise safe sex even when they are high.

Thus, even though our research in 1997 did not focus specifically on the issue of drugs, not only was it clear that there had been no decline in transvestites’ substance use over the course of the past decade, but one might even say that there has been something of an increase.

Moreover, it bears emphasis as well that there has recently been a marked increase in the number transvestite drug abusers enrolling in ILPES’ de-toxication services.  Many come to ask for food or money from staff working with the Institute’s prevention programmes, such as Group 2828 and the Priscilla Project.  Meanwhile, others have gone back to spend their last days in one of the old ‘bunkers’ of the Libano district.  As one might imagine, AIDS has taken a heavy toll within this community, with dozens of men dying from complications associated with the disease over the past decade.


                                                     8

                                   Top-man, Bottom-man

As one might imagine, members of San José’s transvestite community are characterized by an elevated number of sexual contacts, itself a product of the line of work in which they are involved.  When we asked them in 1990 how many sexual partners they had had during the course their lives (See Table 5), the average response was 9,371 and, for the prior five year period only, the response was 4,835.4.  Meanwhile, during the previous 12 months the average number of partners was 830.4, or 15.9 per week.  Finally, for the prior 30 days, respondents indicated that they had had (on average) 44.8 partners, or 11.2 per week.  Significantly, these figures have not changed significantly over the past seven years.

Moreover, although these numbers may appear excessively high at first blush, they were corroborated by transvestites’ responses in the in-depth interview sessions.  That is to say, not only was it common for participants to have up to a dozen sexual encounters over a weekend, but some reported having as many six partners in one night.

If we assume that there are 100 to 150 transvestites working in San José at any given moment in time (this estimate is for the city as a whole, and is derived from the reports of transvestites themselves) and that each has an average of four partners per night, this means that as many as 600 men are using their services every day.

However, because the johns do not always return to the same prostitute, it is difficult to calculate with any certainty the number of visits they are making on a weekly, monthly or annual basis.

In 1990 we also asked transvestites to report on the degree of satisfaction they associated with various sexual practices, assuming all the while that there was no danger of HIV infection.  As Table 6 suggests, the overwhelming majority of respondents (91%) found active anal penetration to be most exciting.  In somewhat fewer cases (68%), passive anal penetration was considered equally exciting.  Thus, contrary to dominant prejudices and stereotypes, this means that transvestites play the role of the ‘man’ more often than they play that of the ‘woman’.  Simply put, they enjoy penetrating their clients.

And what about the johns?  In 1997 we asked Sonia Marta to tell us about her clients and what they like to do.  In her response, she emphasized the degree of variability in their tastes.  Moreover, we also asked her to tape-record a typical sexual encounter (with the consent of the client in question).

According to her, the men who use her services are not homosexual.  Like other transvestites, she describes her clients as ‘macho’ men who are into women rather than men.  As Sonia put it, ‘they’re not fags.  They’re real men, married with children, average guys really.’  Moreover, she stressed that she would never have sex with a homosexual man.

In this way, despite the fact that the majority of the clientele would have absolutely nothing to do with the Costa Rican gay community, they might be classified as bisexual, albeit with certain qualifications.  In general, most of them would not have sexual relations with men who are dressed as men.  They are attracted to the feminine and not to both sexes.

What happens in a sexual encounter

Sonia Marta asked several of her clients whether or not she could tape-record one of their sessions.  Only one consented, and did so solely on the condition that the recording would be erased after it was transcribed.  What follows is a condensed version of the same:

-           What do you charge, baby?

-           Five thousand colones for whatever you want.  But I’ve been asked to tape the session for three thousand colones, so if you’re okay with it, I’ll only charge you two thousand.  It’s a promotional offer.

-           What’s the recording for?  Are you taping right now?

-           [she stops recording and rewinds to the beginning of the tape]

-           It’s for a friend of mine who’s writing a book.  He’ll write down what’s said, and then erase the tape.

-           Okay, it doesn’t bother me.  Anyway, I like the idea of putting on a show.  But nothing about men, and no talk about my car or about me.

-           Sounds good.  Listen, don’t worry, I could’ve put the tape-player in my bag, you see it’s small enough, without you even noticing.  I’m telling you this just so you know there’s nothing going on.

-           What do you like to do?

-           It depends on the client, though I do prefer to be the one doing it really.

-           Good, get in the car.  What’s your name?

-           Sonia Marta.

-           And how long have you been working here?

-           About a year and a half.

-           I’ve never seen you before.

-           It’s probably because I’m not here every night.

-           So, sweetheart, where are we going?

-           I’d prefer a motel.  How about El Paraiso?

-           Sounds good, but I want you to keep your head down when we go in, okay?

-           Yeah, okay.

-           Those tits, are they real?

-           Yeah, I’ve had them for a while.

-           How long have you been a transvestite?

-           I’ve been into dressing up like a woman since I was little, I started when I was about six.

-           And what is it that you like as a woman?

-           I’m into men and I want them to treat me either like a lady or a whore.

-           What do you like in men?  What do you think when you look at me?

-           Well, I like men who are masculine and manly, like yourself.  Has anyone told you that you’re very handsome?

-           Well yes, actually.  I’m usually lucky with the ladies.

-           Are you married?

-           Yeah, for four years.

-           So what is it that you’re looking for in me then?

-           I’m into rough, hard sex.  I like women who are hot, aggressive, savage and adventurous in bed.

-           And how do you know that I’m like that?

-           It’s because you’ve got such hot lips and such a hard, tight butt.  Girls’ asses drive me wild.  Touch my dick, make it hard.

-           What an animal!  Is this all you?  You’re very well endowed.

-           Do you like it?  It’s all for you.  You’re going to eat it all.

-           I’m going to open your zipper and take it out.  Is that okay?

-           Yeah but be careful, we’re close to the police station right now.

-           [one hears the sound of groaning for a few seconds]

-                                   Sweet thing!  If you carry on like that we’re not gonna make it to the hotel.  Better stop for a minute.  Baby, that was really good.           

-           It’s that I really like you.  You’re a very strong, handsome man.  Have you ever been told that you have beautiful eyes?

-           Hm-mmh

-           What do you have in mind for the motel?  What would you like me to do?

-           When we get there, I’d like you to wash first ‘cause I like it when my girls smell good.  Next, I’ll order something to eat and drink and I want you to come out wearing some lingerie.  You don’t have to hide anything baby ‘cause I know what you’ve got between your legs and it doesn’t bother me.

-           That sounds good, and since you already know the truth, I’ll say again how much I like doing it to the johns, especially when they’re manly like you.  Touch my cock, put your hand here.  Do you see I’m also quite well-developed?

-           What a size!  Who would’ve known that you’re so big?

-           That’s why I have so many clients.  They like a well-endowed woman.

-           So do I, baby.  Being in bed with a female who’s so well-equipped drives me crazy.  Look, we’re almost there.  Put your head down so they don’t see you.

-           [one can the sound of the john going to the telephone and ordering liquor, snacks, lubricant and condoms]

-           Go to the bathroom and start washing.  Soap yourself really well.  I’ll wait here for the food and drinks.  Also, I’m going to start taking off my clothes, because I like being comfortable.  Do you know what I mean?

-           Yeah, of course.

-           [One hears music and, in the background, the shower running.  After a few minutes, the doorbell rings; announcing the arrival of the supplies]

-           I’m all clean and washed.  Where are you?  Oh you brute, you’re already undressed!

-           Come over here, darling.  Before we eat, I want you to take this and put it in your mouth.  Yeah, just like that.  What a tongue, babe!  Who taught you to lick like a little dog?  Oh, you’re a stud, you’re a beast...!

-           Should I take off my panties?

-           Take off anything you like, darling, let me look at your cock.  First I’m going to punish you for being a naughty girl.  Then, I want you to put on this lubricant and the condom and stick it in me.  Stop there in front of the mirror so I can see you from behind.

-           Since we’re taping this, I just wanted to tell our audience that he’s going in little by little, very carefully.  It’s not hurting, right?  It’s really tight, just like a virgin.  What are you feeling, sweetheart?

-           I can really feel it, you fiend.  It’s hurting a lot.  Ouch, don’t move like that!

-           Don’t move an inch.  Let me do everything.  Get up from the bed and we’ll go like this, just like two dogs, in front of the mirror.

-           Okay, that’s good.  Now we’re going to change roles and you’ll do it to me.  Put on the condom and some lubricant.  Careful, there’s no hurry, now do it slowly, don’t be rough, do it like I did it to you.

-           Bend over a bit more so that I can do it right, and don’t move.

-           Oh, that feels so good!  Darling, you’re a lady who knows how to do things right!  Move a bit now, but slowly.  I’ve always thought that women know how to fuck since they’re the ones who are usually on the receiving end.  Isn’t that right?  Do it like I did it to you, you know how.  There, that’s the way to do it.  Oh, that’s nice!  Be careful the condom doesn’t come off.

-           [One hears groans and cries of pleasure until both attain orgasm a few minutes later]

Transvestites are not passive partners

Throughout the qualitative interviews, it was shown that transvestites, with few exceptions, practice either active or passive anal intercourse (and sometimes both) with regular clients.  Indeed, one of the reasons why the johns - the majority of whom are married or single men who deem themselves to be exclusively heterosexual -  seek out transvestite lovers in the first place is because they see the latter as women with penises.  This in turn explains why active intercourse on the part of the transvestites is as popular among the clients as it is.  While admittedly there are some transvestites who do not enjoy penetrating other men, these are the minority.  Moreover, given the frequency with which they are asked to engage in such penetration, even those who do not enjoy it do it anyway for the sake of business.

Roxana, for example, stressed that in her profession ‘there are those who like to be active,’ even though she does not.  Julieta shares this opinion, though she admitted that, in her case, what clients like best about her is her penis, and that ‘married clients in particular tell me how much they like it.’  Meanwhile, Gloria indicated that ‘there are some johns who like to make love and others who want me to do it,’ with the latter being principally ‘older or married men.’  Similarly, Karla emphasized that ‘most of the johns who want me to be the active partner are those who are married, divorced or bachelors.’  As for Stephanie, she said that the clients enjoy being penetrated by her, and that ‘they know who they’re dealing with.’  In any case, she prefers to be active rather than passive.  Carla, meanwhile, described it thus: ‘There are men who, the first time you do it with them, you think they’re all man, but then they get into bed and they start acting like a whore.  I tell them to lean forward and I start at it... I prefer the more masculine men, but they’re all the same.’  Antonieta also believes that the majority of her clients would ‘like me to fuck them’  and that it is in any case better to be the active partner than the passive one.  Along similar lines, Marlene indicated that it doesn’t bother her ‘when I go to bed with a masculine man who then asks me to fuck him.’  Pandora also has a number of married clients with children who like it ‘when I make love with them.’  Finally, Julie noted that, among her ten regular clients (most of whom are married), although most had insisted that they play the active role initially, this soon changed:

At first they were looking for somebody who’d be the woman; now I’m the man and they’re playing the part of the woman.  This has changed because they’re feeling more comfortable; you’d think they were masculine men by looking at them, but in bed the become feminine women ... they want me to penetrate them about 80% of the time.  At first I didn’t like it, but I’ve got used to it.

Despite the fact that the transvestites are more likely to use a condom than many other marginalized groups, it is clear that their sexual relations do involve considerable risk.  This is the case both on account of the frequency of penetration (whether active or passive) and by virtue of all those occasions when they fail to use a prophylactic.  In short, even though many have begun to practice safe sex, the continuing prevalence of unsafe practices among some transvestites places the community in a high risk situation.

Significantly, most of the transvestites queried do not feel that the use of a condom diminishes the pleasure associated with sex.  Indeed, rather the reverse:  82% of participants found active anal sex exciting while wearing a condom, as compared to 77% who found it equally exciting while not wearing one.  In this way, it is clear that respondents enjoy sex less when they are not using a condom, a finding that may be explained by individuals’ fears of contracting HIV in the process (Table 6).

Moreover, this discrepancy is even more obvious when one considers the case of passive anal sex.  If a condom is used, as many as 82% of participants find it very exciting, whereas only 59% find it equally so when their partner is not using one.

Love and condoms don’t mix

Still, additional research on condom use among transvestites shows that the latter tend to be more disposed not to use one should their partner express a desire not to[43].

Moreover, when one inquires into the range of factors taken into account by transvestites in their decision whether or not to use a condom at any given moment in time, a large majority of respondents (86%) indicated that the identity of the partner (ie. is it their lover or a stranger?) was one such factor.

Clearly, this is an important finding, underscoring as it does the fact that transvestites are more likely to practice unsafe sex with lovers or habitual partners.  Needless to say, this constitutes a significant risk factor.  As will be shown in subsequent pages, the reason for this behaviour can be traced to the type of personal bonds that are established outside of the sex trade.

Condoms

As our interviews with the transvestites clearly show, the latter have for the most part continued to engage in their preferred sexual practices, including masturbation and active and passive penetration, without any modification other than the incorporation of condoms into their sexual repertoire.  Moreover, the majority indicated that condom use posed no serious obstacle to their enjoyment of sex, a fact that is itself closely related to transvestites’ willingness to make use of it in the first place.  However, there are some exceptions.  Various transvestites reported feeling a profound repulsion towards condoms, with Leticia being but one example:

With condoms, whether you use one, two or three, you tend to get cuts.  For me, condoms are like Chinese water torture, because blowing somebody off with one is like eating a candy with the wrapper still on, or a banana without peeling it.  But the fact is that I’ve got to use one, though I wish there was something else that I could use instead.

Susy expressed a similar point of view:

Some condoms, I find, are too small, and so it doesn’t feel as good.  Also, if I’m going to be giving someone a blow job, I ask them to use a non-lubricated one, because some of them taste really bad.

Still, it is clear from the in-depth interviews that the transvestites understood the value of condom use.  Carla, for example, stressed that she has used them ever since AIDS first appeared, in spite of the fact that ‘clients say they can’t feel anything.  It’s better to use one than die.’

Along similar lines, Gina stated that she used one ‘because I have to,’ and ‘because AIDS is a disease that kills, so I protect myself with a condom.’  Such a perspective was also evident in Karina’s words, who indicated that ‘condoms are useful because they’re the only the way to avoid catching AIDS.’

Still, it is clear that there are several forces which may work to frustrate the good intentions expressed above.  At the most basic level, there is the fact that condoms do occasionally rip.  Indeed, as many as 91% of respondents indicated that, in their experience, condoms tore easily during the course of sex[44].

Needless to say, one explanation for the latter finding is that the transvestites have a relatively large number of sexual encounters, and the likelihood of the condom ripping increases according to the number of times it is used.  Also relevant in this regard is the fact that transvestites are often engaging in anal sex, an activity deemed more likely to produce torn condoms than vaginal intercourse (studies have shown that condoms rip in 2% of cases of vaginal penetration, as compared with 10% of cases of anal penetration).  Moreover, not only is this exacerbated by the tendency among transvestites to use cheap, low-quality condoms which are more susceptible to tearing, but in many cases neither they nor their partner know how to use them correctly.  As Hatcher and Hughes have demonstrated, condoms are most prone to ripping when they are used by individuals who are unaccustomed to using them.[45]

Still, whatever the reason, the fact remains that condom failure places both the transvestite and her partner at risk.  Awareness of this danger is apparent in the in-depth interviews.

For instance, Apolonia stated that ‘I don’t like condoms, they burst and then they’re no protection at all, so I usually use three or four at once.’  A similar point of view was expressed by Julie, who indicated that ‘it upsets me when they break, because that means we’re no longer safe.’  Marlene, meanwhile, paid dearly for condom failure on one occasion when she ‘slept with a guy and the condom ripped, and then few days later I started feeling poor, and in the end it came out that I’d caught gonorrhea.’  As for Patricia, she also indicated that ‘condoms have burst on me more than once.’

Some clients don’t like using a condom in any case

Another obstacle in the way of safe sex is the client himself.  During the course of the qualitative interviews, it was shown that johns often attempt to induce the transvestites not to use a condom, for example by offering them more money.  Consider, for example, the following statement by Carla: ‘Some clients don’t want to use condoms because they don’t like the feel of them, even though it’s the only way of avoiding diseases.  Some will even offer me extra not to use them.’  Gina, meanwhile, admitted that there have been cases when she has not used them in return for higher payment: If they say, “I’ll give you money not to wear one,’ I’ll generally agree, though I first check them to make sure they look clean.’  By contrast, Karina said that even when she is offered more money, she usually insists that one be used anyway: ‘They [the clients] don’t like it, but they put it on.  “No glove, no love,” even though it doesn’t feel the same.’  Similarly, Patricia stated that ‘even if a john told me that he’d pay double not to use a condom, I’d rather not earn anything than earn something just to die quickly.’

Julie, meanwhile, has something of a double standard: if she knows the client and he is willing to pay more, she will agree not to use one; however, if the client is new, she will insist on condoms, regardless of whether he wants to use them or not.  As she put it, ‘there’s guys around who don’t like using them.  If I’ve known them for years, I won’t use one.  But if it’s a new client, he could offer twice as much money not to use one, but I still wouldn’t do it.’  Along similar lines, Marcela also bases her decision on the degree of trust she has in her partner: ‘If I trust the john, and he looks okay when I check him out with the lights on, I’ll do it without a condom.’  Conversely, Leticia indicated that she would agree not to use one in cases where ‘the guy drives me wild.’

As for Karla, she said that she would not use a condom if the client was ‘sweet’, or if he had money and she ‘knows what sort of life he leads.’  Gloria, meanwhile, is willing not to use one if the client pays more, but will only do so for oral sex.  Similarly, Julieta does not insist on their use in cases where the client agrees to pay more, but only if ‘I trust the person and he looks okay.’  Finally, Pandora resolves the question of whether or not she should use a condom by engaging in something of a ruse:

Since a lot of clients don’t like wearing one when they’re making love, I’ll either put it on them while we’re making love without them noticing, or else I trick them by not letting them penetrate me, I simply put it between my legs. They think it’s inside of me, and I start going through the motions, saying how hot it feels and how it’s hurting, just so they think they’re really doing it.

Of course, it need hardly be emphasized that drug consumption is another factor which may cause individuals not to use a condom, with Fabiola providing but one example:

There have been times that I’ve not used a condom because I’m stoned.  There was this one time that I was in a bar, I took a Roche pill, and then we went home.  I don’t remember a thing.  A friend told me later that I’d done it with three men, one after the other, and I was so out of it that either the condom broke or I didn’t use one in the first place.

Still, this is not to say that substance use need necessarily lead to unsafe sex, as Leticia’s partner made clear:

I use a condom, even when I’m stoned.  I always use one.  We have sex once or twice a week.  One time I didn’t wear one and it felt uncomfortable because I generally always do.

Unsafe sex remains a problem

In 1990, the percentage of transvestites who had engaged in unsafe sexual practices over the course of the previous 30 days was high (See Table 7).

At this time, 59% of respondents reported having oral sex, 41% active anal sex and 46% passive anal sex without a condom.  Moreover, if one examines these same figures as they pertain to the previous six months, one finds 50% of transvestites practising active anal penetration, and 59% passive anal penetration without using a condom.

This in turn means that, in 1990, as many as half of those queried had had unsafe sex during the previous six months.  While admittedly we did not undertake a similar study of safe sex practices in 1997, the qualitative interviews carried out with transvestites show that the level of condom use has increased in this community, and that it is almost always used during the course of commercial sex.  However, at the same time, many admitted making ‘exceptions’ when they were very intoxicated or with their lovers.


TABLE 5

AVERAGE NUMBER AND SEX OF PARTNERS, AND DEGREE OF CERTAINTY REGARDING NUMBERS CITED

Variable

Gay

Transvestite sex trade workers

(N)

(162)

(22)

Sexual partners

Over lifetime

Women

Men

497

1.8

495

9,371

0.09

4,835.4

Last five years

Women

Men

0.8

156.7

4,835.4

Last 12 months

Women

Men

0.1

18.4

830.4

Last 30 days

Women

Men

0.01

2.2

44.8

Occasional (non regular)

Women

Men

3.5

3.5

35.2

22.9

Degree of certainty regarding above figures

Last 12 months

Very certain

Certain

Neither certain nor uncertain

Uncertain

Very uncertain

46.3

28.4

21.6

1.2

2.6

4.5

31.8

59.1

4.5

Last 30 days

Very certain

Certain

Neither certain nor uncertain

Uncertain

84.0

13.6

0.6

45.5

40.9

13.6

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


TABLE 6

DEGREE OF EXCITEMENT ASSOCIATED WITH VARIOUS SEXUAL PRACTICES (in percent)

Variable

Gay

Transvestite sex trade workers

(N)

TOTAL

(162)

100

(22)

100

Receiving fellatio from a man, until ejaculation

Very exciting

Somewhat exciting

Neutral

Somewhat unpleasant

Very unpleasant

Unsure

79.6

10.5

4.9

0.6

3.7

0.6

72.7

13.6

4.5

9.1

Removing penis before ejaculation

Very exciting

Somewhat exciting

Neutral

Somewhat unpleasant

Very unpleasant

Unsure

49.4

28.4

9.9

6.2

4.9

1.2

54.5

18.2

4.5

9.1

13.6

Penetrating a man’s anus, until ejaculation

Very exciting

Somewhat exciting

Neutral

Somewhat unpleasant

Very unpleasant

Unsure

74.7

10.5

8.0

1.9

2.5

2.5

90.9

4.5

4.5

While using a condom

Very exciting

Somewhat exciting

Neutral

Somewhat unpleasant

Very unpleasant

41.4

18.5

19.1

9.9

8.0

72.7

4.5

4.5

4.5


TABLE 6

DEGREE OF EXCITEMENT ASSOCIATED WITH VARIOUS SEXUAL PRACTICES

(in percent)

(CONTINUED)

Variable

Gay

Transvestite sex workers

Being penetrated in the anus by a man, until ejaculation

Very exciting

Somewhat exciting

Neutral

Somewhat unpleasant

Very unpleasant

Unsure

56.8

13.0

10.5

8.0

6.8

4.9

68.2

13.6

4.5

4.5

9.1

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


TABLE 7

INVENTORY OF SEXUAL PRACTICES AND AVERAGE NUMBER OF OCCURRENCES IN THE PAST 30 DAYS

(in percent)     

Variable

Gay

Transvestite sex trade workers

(N)

TOTAL

(162)

100

(22)

100

Have you penetrated a woman through the anus

Without ejaculation

Until ejaculation

With condom

Without condom

Removing the penis before ejaculation

4.6

4.6

4.6

Have you penetrated a man?

Without ejaculation

Until ejaculation

With condom

Without condom

Removing the penis before ejaculation

29.0

53.7

49.4

22.8

17.3

72.7

72.7

86.4

40.9

45.4

Have you been penetrated by a man?

Without ejaculation

Until ejaculation

With condom

Without condom

Removing the penis before ejaculation

23.5

42.6

40.7

17.9

16.7

56.4

77.3

95.5

45.5

40.9

Have you penetrated a woman through the vagina?

Without ejaculation

Until ejaculation

With condom

Without condom

Removing the penis before ejaculation

0.6

1.2

0.6

1.2

4.6

4.6

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


TABLE 8

INVENTORY OF SEXUAL PRACTICES DURING THE PAST SIX MONTHS (in percent)     

Variable

Gay

Transvestite sex trade workers

(N)

TOTAL

(162)

100

(22)

100

Have you penetrated a woman through the anus

Without ejaculation

Until ejaculation

With condom

Without condom

Removing the penis before ejaculation

0.6

0.6

1.2

0.6

1.2

9.1

4.5

4.5

Have you penetrated a man?

Without ejaculation

Until ejaculation

With condom

Without condom

Removing the penis before ejaculation

61.1

75.9

73.5

37.0

38.9

86.4

90.9

90.9

50.5

72.7

Have you been penetrated by a man?

Without ejaculation

Until ejaculation

With condom

Without condom

Removing the penis before ejaculation

56.2

65.4

27.9

37.7

37.7

86.4

86.4

95.5

59.1

72.7

Have you penetrated a woman through the vagina?

Without ejaculation

Until ejaculation

With condom

Without condom

Removing the penis before ejaculation

4.3

5.6

4.3

4.9

3.1

4.5


TABLE 8

INVENTORY OF SEXUAL PRACTICES DURING THE PAST SIX MONTHS

(in percent

(CONTINUED)

Variable

Gay

Transvestite sex trade workers

Have you orally stimulated...

A woman?

A man?

1.2

61.1

50.0

Have you been orally stimulated by...

A woman?

A man?

3.7

76.5

4.5

95.5

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

                                                     9

                                    The Lovers of Libano

If one is to explain the upsurge of AIDS diagnoses among transvestites in recent years, one issue that warrants careful attention is the sort of love relationships in which these men have been engaged.  Quite simply, while acknowledging transvestites’ versatility with their clients and their frequent use of condoms, in the past there has been considerable reticence among their lovers (a high proportion of whom were from San José’s Libano district) to adopt safe sex practices themselves, a fact confirmed when we interviewed several such individuals in 1990.  However, as the number of clients hailing from Libano has decreased over the course of the past ten years, it is expected that this will have a positive effect on the incidence of safe sexual practices among transvestites.  Nevertheless, there can little doubt that their particular world-view has had an impact upon the AIDS epidemic in the past, and indeed continues to have one, given that there are still some Libano men among transvestites’ roster of clients.

Who are they?

The gender construction of the men who were the transvestites’ lovers in the 1980s was strongly masculine.  In our interviews with them, it was clear that, despite enjoying an intimate relationship with a transvestite, they identified closely with the ‘macho’ understanding of gender and sexuality.  Moreover, their lifestyle was similar to that of any other Costa Rican heterosexual male: married with children, attracted to stereotypically feminine qualities.  They did not recall any childhood feelings of being either ‘different’ or attracted to their own sex, as typically occurs with men who are gay.  In the interviews, there was no evidence to suggest that they felt any attraction to men other than their transvestite lovers.

For the most part, the clients interviewed were blue-collar workers with very low incomes and little formal education.  Juan Carlos sold Jell-O at a local market and made roughly 400 (US$4) colones a day; he had formerly worked as a mechanic and shoe-maker.  Delio was an unemployed construction worker who had left school after the sixth grade.  Pablo had worked as an accountant in a warehouse, but was currently out of work and had turned to petty theft.  Louis worked as a sales clerk in a hardware shop and earned 3,600 colones (US$36) per week..  David had completed his second year of high school, and was currently employed as a butcher for roughly 5,000 colones (US$50) per week.

At the time of the interviews, several of these men were being supported by their transvestite lovers.  For example, Moses said that he was with Monique ‘for the money’, while Pablo, who was financially dependent upon Paula, said that he felt uncomfortable with this arrangement and that he had also supported her in the past.  Meanwhile, all of Ricardo’s living expenses were paid for out of Felicia’s earnings and, in the case of Delio, he reported receiving some money from Corina because he was out of work.

However, this is not to say that all of the men interviewed were dependent upon their lovers for support.  David, for one, used to give 1,000 colones to his transvestite partner, while Daniel and Miguel, who both lived with Rita, helped her out by handing over a portion of their wages.

The majority of the men interviewed made at least some use of drugs and/or alcohol.  Pablo drank beer, consumed marijuana and cocaine, all the while living off Paula’s earnings.  Delio regularly spent 5,000 colones on beer, cocaine and marijuana, even though he was unemployed.  Juan Carlos drank beer and snorted cocaine, and spent roughly 500 colones a day on marijuana (despite the fact he was only earning 400 colones per day).  Indeed, only Felicia’s partner, Ricardo, and Laura’s boyfriend, José, stated that they did not consume any drugs at all, though José did admit that he engaged in regular bouts of binge drinking.

For some, drifting away from heterosexuality was easy


The life-histories of the men who were the transvestites’ lovers reveal that for the most part they had been unambiguously heterosexual prior to their involvement with a transvestite.  Some, such as José, were married and had children.  Meanwhile, Miguel had had five heterosexual relationships before meeting Rita, while Daniel had also been with women prior to commencing a series of relationships with transvestites two years previously.  David was 29 years old and had been in a transvestite relationship for the past five years; before this, he had only had heterosexual encounters, with two children being their legacy. Finally, Moses, who was currently in a relationship with a transvestite, had had both male transvestite and female lovers in the past.

However, despite prior heterosexual activity, all those interviewed said that they were very satisfied with their transvestite relationships and most, Delio and Louis excepted, no longer engaged in any sexual activity with women at all.  When asked why this was the case, a similar reason was given by all: that greater pleasure was derived from a transvestite relationship, due to the fact that transvestites tended to be warmer, more passionate, sexier and tighter than most women.

In the transvestite’s world, the penis does not make the man

Even though transvestites are men, as are their partners, it should be emphasized that transvestite culture differs markedly from that of the gay community in Costa Rica more generally.  In large measure, this might be understood in terms of the highly particularistic meaning attributed to gender by transvestites and their lovers alike.  In short, ‘femaleness’ is subsumed under ‘femininity’ in order to produce transvestites who are, as far as their clients and lovers are concerned, women, regardless of the fact that they happen to possess a male sexual organ.

Thus, for the male partner of a transvestite, his involvement with the latter is perceived in purely heterosexual terms: he is a man and his partner is a woman.  At a more basic level, this is expressed in the assertion, often heard among the men interviewed, that he was the one who engaged in penetration during anal sex.  Furthermore, this is also heard in many of the men’s comments.  For example, Paula’s partner Pablo stressed that he is the ‘man in the relationship.’  Melvin said that he is so masculine that he does not even want to see the penis of his lover Lina.   In this way, one might argue that unwillingness on the part of these men to acknowledge their lovers’ sexual organ is closely related to their reticence to see themselves either as johns or as homosexual.


However, it should be noted that others stated that even though they were the active partner in anal sex, it did not bother them that their partner was endowed with a penis, with Ricardo even going so far as to say that he liked it because ‘it was different.’  Still, most denied ever having been penetrated themselves: Shasta’s partner Jorge stated that ‘I play the role of the male and she the female’; Moses emphasized that it is he who ‘screws Monique’, as did Juan Carlos.   The only exception in this regard was Daniel, who admitted to having been penetrated by Rita.

Most defined themselves as ‘cachero

Thus, it is clear that most of the interview participants defined their ‘manhood’ in terms that did not differ significantly from heterosexual men more generally. Being a man entailed ‘screwing’ women or other men.  It is for precisely this reason that most of the men interviewed did not feel that they were gay and why they did not participate in any of the latter’s social activities.  While some saw themselves as bisexual, others as either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual, most defined themselves as ‘cachero’.  This is a word that can mean many things.

As is noted above, Pablo saw himself as the man and Paula the woman; by no means did he consider himself a man who liked other men, even though he admitted to being bisexual.  In similar fashion, Jorge defined himself as heterosexual, as did Moses, who used the word ‘buga’ when talking about himself, Costa Rican slang for ‘straight’.  Significantly, Ricardo was the only man interviewed who deemed himself to be homosexual; all the others saw themselves as cachero.  Juan Carlos defined this term as an individual who has sex with homosexuals yet is not one himself.  For Louis, it was a man who sleeps with both men and women; while for David, it was ‘a man who screws queers’.  Finally, Delio and Miguel defined it as one who gives pleasure to others of the same sex, while Melvin suggested that it was a homosexual who acts like other men.

Significantly, it was not only the partners of transvestites who did not consider themselves to be homosexual; the transvestites interviewed did not deem themselves to be gay either.  This view is underscored by the fact that 91% of transvestites (as compared with 13% of gay bar patrons) interviewed were in complete agreement with the statement, ‘it is better that one’s lover be heterosexual’; another, smaller group, were somewhat in agreement with this statement.  This in turn would explain not only why transvestites preferred to become involved with men who saw themselves as heterosexual rather than homosexual, but also why they did not feel they belonged to a group that was at high risk of HIV infection[46].


Partners’ knowledge of AIDS

From the outset, it must be acknowledged that the transvestites’ lovers were aware of the serious consequences associated with contracting AIDS.  Juan Carlos knew that AIDS was a threat ‘because one is so close to the problem.’  Both Jorge and Moses were aware that HIV is transmitted through sexual contact and the exchange of bodily fluids, and that a condom is the only protection.  Interestingly however, while both José and David also indicated that they knew of the dangers associated with HIV infection, they went on to stress that they themselves generally did not use condoms.

This is an important point, because it underlines the fact that although the transvestites’ lovers are to some extent knowledgeable about HIV and AIDS, limited schooling and low income have conspired to deprive them of the tools needed to take preventative action.  As the findings of Costa Rica’s National AIDS Survey[47] suggest, it is precisely those who are poorly educated and low waged who are most adverse to condom use.  Moreover, in the particular case of the transvestites’ lovers, this reticence is aggravated in turn by the effects of drug addiction.

How so?  As has already been suggested above, the majority of partners were regular users of one or more drugs, and these drugs tended to be expensive, costing from 1,000 to 12,000 colones per week.  Given the paucity of their own wages, this in turn served to make them dependent upon their lovers, particularly if they were also attempting to support a second household or had children.  When one combines financial dependence with frequent intoxication, the net effect is of course to place these individuals at high of contracting HIV, since they are not in a position to make an informed choice about safe sex and other high risk activities.


Moreover, in a further irony, they were also indirectly dependent upon their lovers’ johns, since it was the latter’s money that was used to support their drug habit.  Needless to say, for men who subscribed to a ‘macho’ understanding of masculinity, this in turn led to feelings of jealousy and humiliation, feelings that were controlled and/or expressed in one of two ways:

A         Establishing alternative rules regarding jealousy and socialization: rather than jealousy being directed towards the clients, it tended to be focussed towards other cacheros or other transvestites.  This often resulted in the breaking-down of ties of solidarity.

Although the transvestites’ lovers had to accept the fact that their partners were prostituting themselves, they would often experience jealousy.  Pablo for example stated that he ‘feels bad’ when Paula was with another man, even though he knew why she did it.  Paula, on the other hand, would become jealous when Pablo spoke with other women.  In another case, Ricardo admitted that “he is not jealous” of his partner, for, if he were, “she would not sell herself that way”. Moreover, he stated that he was not jealous of her because he knew that with others she did it for money, while with him it was for love.  However, he admitted that Felicia was jealous of other transvestites.  Unlike Pablo and Ricardo, José said that he was bothered by Laura’s relationship with other men, as he felt that “she does it because she wants to.”

Miguel and Daniel, who lived with Rita, were also bothered by their lovers’ work in the sex trade.  In Miguel’s case, he recognized that he felt more jealousy than she did.  As for Daniel, he disapproved of Rita’s profession but felt that ‘there is nothing that we can do about it.”

Likewise, David was also aware that his lover prostituted herself and engaged in petty theft, but said that ‘Christina would not do it if I were there, and I also don’t like it when she talks about what she did on the strip.’  Louis rationalized his partner’s activities in a somewhat different fashion: he simply refused to visit the places where he knew Salomé worked.  Moreover, he also indicated that Salomé had tried to comfort him by saying that ‘it’s the only thing I can do well’ and that ‘it gives us money for our vices.’  Along somewhat similar lines, Delio also acknowledged that he was jealous of Corina, though not on account of her activities in the sex trade, but rather because of her relationships with other cacheros.


This is a significant finding, as it serves to underscore the fact that much of the lovers’ jealousy is directed towards men like themselves (ie. lovers of other transvestites), thereby hindering the development of communication networks or a sense of group solidarity.  In short, the men interviewed saw other cacheros principally as rivals, and thus friendships among them were extremely rare.  Needless to say, this stands in marked contrast to the situation within the gay community, where the cultivation of close social relationships is the norm rather than the exception.

As one might imagine, the relative isolation of transvestites and their lovers from either the gay community or mainstream society has served not only to slow the spread of knowledge about safe sex, but it has also effectively prevented the development of community norms concerning the importance of taking HIV prevention measures seriously.  On account of this, transvestites were left dangerously exposed to the whims and prejudices of their clients and the cacheros, many of whom did not consider themselves to be part of a high-risk group.

B         Establishing alternative rules governing sexual relations with transvestites, in terms either of behaviour (being the ‘active’ partner in anal sex) and practice (for example, engaging in sex without a condom in order to differentiate it from prostitution)

Among the partners interviewed, most preferred not to use a condom, even though they were aware that their lover was engaged in the sex trade.  In short, not only did the men tend to associate condom use with casual sex, but they felt as well that it diminished the level of physical pleasure.  This of course stands in sharp contrast to the transvestites, who for the most part looked favourably upon the use of condoms.  However, the fact that the latter generally deferred to their partner’s wishes ensured that one was seldom used when they slept together.


Should one require confirmation of this finding, one need only turn to the individual responses themselves.  José, for one, said that he did not use a condom because ‘if we’re faithful it does not matter.  It has been three years and we’re still not seropositive.’  Shasta’s partner Jorge expressed a similar view, stating that he did not like how it felt and that it was in any case unnecessary because he was ‘faithful.’  Others, such as Christina’s lover David, refused to wear a condom because AIDS, as far as he was concerned, was ‘like any other venereal disease, like syphilis, gonorrhea or cancer, one can catch it at any moment.  We all have to die sometime; a lot of people who take care of themselves get sick sooner. I just don’t like condoms.’  Interestingly, a number of the men interviewed, including Pablo and Moses, stressed that although they did not use a condom with their partner, they did wear one if they were engaging in sex with someone else.  Indeed, only three partners, specifically Ricardo, Delio and Louis, stated that they always used a condom, though Louis went on to admit that he does upon occasion forget to put one on when he is under the influence of drugs.

In this way, even as one acknowledges the degree to which such factors as socio-economic marginalization and substance abuse are in themselves capable of rendering condom use unlikely, adequate attention must be paid as well to the condom’s symbolic power.  How so?  Quite simply, by associating sex for money with condom use, and sex for love with unsafe sex, an individual who felt powerless to stop his partner from prostituting herself was able to re-gain some sense of control in the relationship.  As is suggested above, this is also seen in the assignment of roles during the sex act itself: by insisting that he be the one who penetrates the other during anal sex, the cachero is once again able to re-assert his own sense of power and self-determination.

However, in this regard it is important to recognize that the love expressed by the partner in his refusal to wear a condom is sincere.  That is to say, despite the pressures associated with financial dependence and substance abuse, both transvestite and lover deemed their relationship to be something very special, underpinned by feelings of love and tenderness.


Once again, this is seen in the men’s comments.  Both Juan Carlos and Delio said that they loved their respective partners, with the latter stating that he wanted to be with Corina because she was ‘such a beautiful person.’  Along similar lines, Melvin indicated that he loved Lina and felt very hurt that his mother had rejected her, while Louis said that Salomé gave him everything he wanted and that he had already introduced her to his brother, who had accepted the relationship.  Meanwhile, David indicated that he loved Christina so much that he had his parents meet her and that, even though they knew she was a man, ‘they never said anything and they don’t put her down, and once I took her to the house and they treated her well.’  Others expressed their feelings in similarly strong terms, with Pablo saying that he had kissed and hugged Paula in public, while Ricardo and Jorge insisted that their partner was preferable to any woman they had been with in the past.

As one might imagine, these statements would serve as well to confirm the fact that cacheros are not afraid to take risks for the sake of their relationship.  For example, some lived openly with their partners, while others were willing to be seen in public together, despite the physical and verbal harassment that this inevitably entails.  Moreover, the majority of the men interviewed admitted that it hurt when others made fun of their transvestite lover, and that this had led to fights on more than one occasion.  Still, it must be acknowledged that there were some who were considerably more reticent in this regard, though even here it was generally because they were afraid of losing their job.

Thus, in the final analysis, love manifested itself for both the transvestite and the cachero in the actions and risks that each was willing to take for the sake of their relationship.  For them, AIDS was simply one of the risks which must be faced, since loving partners should not have to use condoms when engaging in sex.  Needless to say, this in turn explains why so many in the transvestite community have come down with AIDS over the course of the past decade.


                                                    10

                                     The Sky is the Limit

Electra is a Panamanian transvestite who makes heads turn.  Her body is thin yet curvaceous, her face effeminate, her hair long, her voice high-pitched and her manner delicate.  Needless to say, she passes easily for a woman.  ‘When I go to Key Largo [a San José bar known as a hang-out for heterosexual prostitutes serving the city’s expatriate and tourist communities], no one believes I’m a man,’ she said with pride.  Moreover, her clients are as likely to be straight as bisexual: ‘Men pick me up who’d never dream of having an affair with a transvestite.  I love the young American guys, who say it’s like being in bed with a real woman.’

When we asked Electra how she came to be in Costa Rica, she noted that it is easier to make money here if one is ‘svelte and good-looking like I am.’  She is one among dozens of transvestites who have come to work in the isthmus’ new sexual Mecca.  ‘Here, people are more tolerant and respectful than they are in the other countries of the region,’ she says casually.

Panamanian transvestites are famous for being ‘perfect women’, that is to say for having faces and bodies that are so feminine in appearance that they are able to deceive even the most discerning among their clientele.  Needless to say, Costa Rican transvestites consider them to be dangerous competitors.  In Karla’s words, the Panamanians’ arrival ‘has been bad for us, because no one can compete with those bodies.’  Moreover, it should be noted that Panamanians and other foreigners have brought with them something other than mere beauty and sensuality: they have introduced an alternative way of behaving in bed:

As way of illustration, we will cite Electra as she describes her ‘trauma’ when she first slept with a Costa Rican client:

I’m used to johns who are ‘manly men’.  When I first came to San José I didn’t know how things worked here.  Well, I pick up my first client in the Biblica district, a tall, masculine-looking man who’s quite handsome, the sort of guy I like.  We go to a motel and agree on the rate.  He starts kissing me passionately, and next thing I know he’s got his hand on my genitals.  ‘What’s going on,’ I yell, pissed off.  ‘I’m a woman, dammit!’, I tell him furiously.  He didn’t understand that I’m not the sort of transvestite who wants to have my organ touched.  I didn’t come here to sleep with men who are looking for cock.  If that’s what they’re looking for, they should find themselves a fag.  In Costa Rica, men who pick up transvestites want you to fuck them or else they want to blow you off.  In my country, the men are real men.  No real man would do what they’re doing here.

Electra is not the only one who does not understand Costa Rican sexuality; Nicaraguan transvestites share her view.  Esmeralda, for one, believes that the roles are more rigidly defined in her country.  Being the active partner is acceptable; being the passive one is not.  As she put it, ‘in Costa Rica the men who go cruising for transvestites are masculine in appearance, but they love it when you take them from behind.’

Needless to say, this attitude has resulted in considerable conflict.  Foreign transvestites will chide their clients for their ‘passivity’, while seeking out men whom they deem to be more heterosexual in orientation.  Although one may consider this to be a contradiction in terms, in fact it is not.  Electra for one now looks for clients in heterosexual locales, that is to say cabarets, bars and other night-spots frequented by men who are seeking women.  Of course, the incursion of transvestites into these locales has had a number of significant of effects, not least of which is the engendering of a new client-base:


I love going to Key Largo.  I sit at a table with a few friends of mine who are hookers, and wait for someone to invite me for a drink.  Last week a man showed up who was very handsome and nothing less than the owner of a car rental agency.  He started flirting with me and saying all these romantic things.  Before I could do anything, he kissed on the lips.  I really liked him because he was so young.  The truth is I drank a lot that night, and so before I was even aware of it I had already got in his car.  He took me to his apartment in La Sabana and we sat down in the living room to have another drink.  That’s when I told him that I was a transvestite.  At first he was pissed off, and said that he was going to take me back to the bar.  But, when I took off my top and he saw my tits, he took a drink and started kissing me again.  He told me it was the first time he’d ever made love with a transvestite.  I said that I understood that he might be feeling a bit nervous.  Nervous my ass!  We made love four times that night, and yesterday he called to ask me out again.

Although he may not be aware of it, the owner of the car rental agency is helping to give a new twist to the evolution of transvestism in Costa Rica.  If he had not run into Electra in the bar that night, he probably never would have had a sexual liaison with another man, nor would the thought of having one even crossed his mind.

Thus, the fact that most of the johns who seek out transvestites are those who enjoy their versatility in bed has pushed a growing number of transvestites to venture into new pastures to find men who are ‘100% active’, as Esmeralda would say.  Indeed, Esmeralda herself has taken the step of visiting such popular heterosexual night-clubs as ‘Infinito’ and ‘Cocoloco’ in El Pueblo, a popular commercial district in San José.  Men who would have never considered sleeping with a transvestite flirted with her.  A few of them, such as the protagonist of the anecdote related above, go on to have an affair, in the process finding a new way of obtaining sexual fulfilment.  In this way, bars that were exclusively heterosexual cease be so, while the world of transvestism acquires a few new devotees.

The basketball player

Gustavo is both a basketball player and a business man.  He is doing very well financially ever since his company began to flourish and expand into the global market.  His wife and two-year old daughter are his pride and joy.  Every time he wins a game, he dedicates his victory to them: ‘I love my family and I’m really proud of Yorleni, my little girl.  She reminds me of myself, and she looks just like my wife.’

Although Gustavo is widely known for his skill in basketball, there is one secret which none of his fans are privy to: that he is Miranda’s brand-new lover, who is herself one of the most beautiful and sought-after transvestites of the country.