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From Toads to Queens. Transvestism in a Latin American setting by Jacobo Schifter - HTML preview

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I would like to express my gratitude to all those people who have assisted in the preparation of this work. First to the Research Department at ILPES (Latin American Institute for Health Education and Prevention), especially Dino Starcevic, who undertook much of the research and writing for Chapters 2 and 4. I would also like to thank Mary Gómez and Diana Dávila, who spent long hours proofreading earlier drafts of the manuscript, and Herman Loría, coordinator of the Priscilla Project, an AIDS

prevention programme for transvestites, who was of great help to our ethnographers and interviewers. Moreover, I must also acknowledge the assistance of Héctor Elizondo who, as coordinator of Group 2828, ILPES‟ support programme for young transvestites, carried out a number of key interviews as well as making several valuable suggestions that have since been incorporated into the final draft of this report. Héctor‟s knowledge of the day-to-day realities facing transvestites in Costa Rica is unsurpassed; as such he has contributed significantly to the success of this project.

Members of the Board of Directors of the Clinica Biblica‟s Neighbours‟ Association, along with the Governor of San José, Jorge Vargas, have all been very patient and understanding in their dealings with us, providing help as needed and assisting us in the incorporation of their legitimate concerns into the present work.

Finally, it must be emphasized that this work could never have been completed without the active support of the transvestite community itself. Not only did they give freely of their time and knowledge, but, more fundamentally, they also opened their hearts and souls to us. In turn, this book forms part of a larger project whose aim is to improve transvestites‟ living conditions, and to provide alternatives and employment opportunities for members of this community.

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

To all, thank you very much.


Background and Methodology

In 1989, ILPES, with financial assistance provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), carried out the first study ever undertaken in Central America pertaining to the incidence of HIV

and AIDS among men who have sex with other men. Costa Rica was chosen as an appropriate research site, despite its small size, because of its visible and organized gay community, a community that is itself divided into many sub-cultures and sub-populations.

Moreover, gay men were at the front-line of the AIDS epidemic, comprising approximately 75% of all reported AIDS cases.

Finally, the country was deemed to be representative of conditions elsewhere in Central America and the Caribbean basin.

The general aim of the research was to undertake a KAP

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

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

The field-work for the first part of the study was undertaken over the course of three months, from November 1989 to February 1990, with ten gay men hired to conduct the interviews. Having made contact with a prospective transvestite participant, interviewers proceeded to fill out each questionnaire in writing.

Participants each received 1,000 colones (approximately US$10 in 1990) in return for their involvement. Generally speaking, 3

interviews were conducted in that part of San José where the majority of brothels were located ( ie. the central core and the city‟s south-eastern zone), though in some cases interviews were also carried out in apartments, bars or in the homes of those transvestites who did not live in the brothel area. Moreover, given that there was some financial compensation available to those who participated in the study, interviewees were generally willing to recommend other prospective participants to our staff. Through the use of this type of snowball sampling technique, a total of 22

transvestites completed questionnaires, with 20 of them also participating in an in-depth interview of approximately one hour in length. The latter interviews were conducted during the months of January and February 1990, with each participant being paid 1,000

colones per hour.

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

own wishes, only their professional names were used in the findings report.

A second study was launched by ILPES in 1997 to evaluate the degree of change over the course of the past seven years, and to adapt education and prevention initiatives accordingly. Bearing this purpose in mind, a qualitative survey was undertaken with 25

in-depth interviews being conducted with transvestite sex-trade workers, of whom the vast majority were based in San José‟s Clinica Biblica neighbourhood. Interviews lasted anywhere from one hour to 90 minutes, and dealt with significant changes in participants‟ lives over the course of the past decade: relationships, money, drugs, jobs, love affairs and problems with the police or the neighbourhood. This time individuals were paid 5,000 colones per interview (US$20 in 1997), which was roughly equivalent to the hourly rate they charged their clients. Also, five in-depth interviews were carried out with sex-trade workers‟ lovers and, after having obtained the permission of the client in question, one sex session was taped. Those clients who agreed to participate in an interview were paid 5,000 colones, while 2,000 colones were paid to the individual who agreed be taped during sex.

Moreover, in order to gain a broader understanding of conditions in the Clinica Biblica area, five interviews were conducted with 4






approximately one hour, with participants receiving no payment for their involvement. Furthermore, ten additional interviews were carried out with civil servants, area merchants, drug dealers and representatives of non-governmental organizations. Finally, interviews were conducted with ILPES staff members who work with transvestites ( ie. in such programmes as Group 2828 and

„Priscilla‟ of the April 5th Movement), along with a number of their clients. Again, no payment was made in return for the participation of the latter groups in the study. In this regard it should also be noted that an ethnographer was retained for a period of three weeks to visit transvestites‟ „pick-up‟ areas and to report on any changes that may have occurred in recent years, as well as on present-day social conditions.

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