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

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                                 ‘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)


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.