As a book lover, I encountered a book titled Travesti by Don Kulick, a professor of Anthropology at NYU. It was about the Brazilian transgendered prostitutes, travestis who modify their body in order to acquire feminine bodily features and call themselves by female names. For that, they spend a lot of money and energy to go through the painful process of injecting hormones (silicon). However, interestingly, they do not see themselves as women and do not change their genitals. perhaps, due to jealousy and insecurity, especially from females, they cultivate a sense of being beyond of just a female and having both male and female attributes. As a protection from their own insecurity, they do not see themselves to be women, And hence, do not consider changing their genitals. However, they seem to claim female subjectivity. Travesti subjectivity thus emerged out of the interplay of sex, gender, and sexuality within their space. Although their social behavior and physical selves exclude them from gendered binary, travestis reinforce gender binary in terms of their needs and desires with respect to their space.
While elaborating the notion of sex and gender and sexuality prevailing in the society (Brazilian), travestis’ idea of sex and gender also support the idea that gender – being male or female is not about physical body and hence, not about biologically generated feelings; it;s about how one feels and thinks besides being male or female.
According to Kulick, travesti plays an active dominant role as a male or say a “breadwinner” in their household throughout their life while their boyfriends being passive as “housewives”. In doing so travestis are changing the prevalent notion of male and female. The boyfriend is feminized in a sense that he is being supported by his travesti girlfriend; he stays home watching a television while his girlfriend goes out to prostitute (the most prevailing job) every night, and that every single thing he uses is on her expenses. Again, supporting the idea that gender is a social construction.
Travestis enact femininity upon and through their body, by giving up the dominant role of masculinity. However, the process is not easy and comprehensible. This may be due to the prevalent gender difference that consists of male as dominant and female as a subject to domination. Within this gender norm, it is desirable and acceptable and hence more convincing for females to act out and behave like men. I think that the situation could be different if they were women acting and thinking like
men. For travestis, being a dominant gender (biologically male) behaving and thinking like women is not acceptable since it is considered as downgrading one’s gender status while for women it would be something heroic (upgrading) to be like men. In that sense, for travestis, it was difficult since childhood to be like girl. They were fearful that people would find out. While curiously following their unconvincing path (unconvincing for society) of female desires and experiencing sex, travesti subjectivity – different and new gender subjectivity excluded from the gender binary of male and female – is created out of their insecure relationship with their unreliable boyfriends . Within their travesti subjectivity, their efforts to manifest themselves within normal boundary of the society reinforce the gender binary in turns. In their relationship to boyfriends they are not being something else other than females. In their profession, they are again playing male or female roles as per the demand of the situation by switching between binary gender roles. Travesti subjectivity comes into play with normative gender binary and that gender binary is reinforced in terms of their needs and desires consistently with their space that they are occupying.
It is not clear enough to really understand a travesti from our societal point of view; that our gender norms and that role of being male and female which travestis explicitly tend to disrupt. May be it’s due to an individual perspective. Or, perhaps one has to be a travesti himself/herself in order to clearly understand and feel what it takes and how it feels to be a travesti.