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

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Jacobo Schifter

ILPES, 1998


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

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

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

To all, thank you very much.

                            Background and Methodology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural or biological factors?

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

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

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

Background on Transvestitism

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

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

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

In America, there is a long tradition of transvestism embodied in the figure of the ‘beardache’[16].  These were men who cross-dressed and were given the role of healer or political leader.  In India, Burma and Pakistan, individuals who cross-dressed were deemed  to comprise a ‘third sex’, with special posts in society being reserved for them.  In I