Sex, Gender, and Culture Among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes

By Don Kulick

University of Chicago Press, Paperback, 9780226461007, 277pp.

Publication Date: November 1998

In this dramatic and compelling narrative, anthropologist Don Kulick follows the lives of a group of transgendered prostitutes (called "travestis" in Portuguese) in the Brazilian city Salvador. "Travestis" are males who, often beginning at ages as young as ten, adopt female names, clothing styles, hairstyles, and linguistic pronouns. More dramatically, they ingest massive doses of female hormones and inject up to twenty liters of industrial silicone into their bodies to create breasts, wide hips, and large thighs and buttocks. Despite such irreversible physiological changes, virtually no "travesti" identifies herself as a woman. Moreover, "travestis" regard any male who does so as mentally disturbed.
Kulick analyzes the various ways "travestis" modify their bodies, explores the motivations that lead them to choose this particular gendered identity, and examines the complex relationships that they maintain with one another, their boyfriends, and their families. Kulick also looks at how "travestis" earn their living through prostitution and discusses the reasons prostitution, for most "travestis, " is a positive and affirmative experience.
Arguing that transgenderism never occurs in a "natural" or arbitrary form, Kulick shows how it is created in specific social contexts and assumes specific social forms. Furthermore, Kulick suggests that "travestis" far from deviating from normative gendered expectations may in fact distill and perfect the messages that give meaning to gender throughout Brazilian society and possibly throughout much of Latin America.
Through Kulick's engaging voice and sharp analysis, this elegantly rendered account is not only a landmark study in its discipline but also a fascinating read for anyone interested in sexuality and gender.

About the Author
Don Kulick is Professor of Anthropology at New York University. His published works include Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction (1992), Taboo (1995, with Margaret Willson) and Travesti (1998). He is co-editor of the journals Ethnos and GLQ.