The text speaks about young boys in the north of Brazil becoming travestis and highlights different steps on their way. At first, I want to give a short summary of what is a „typical“ way of becoming a travesti.
Kulick begins with the „end“ of their way:
„The injection of industrial silicone into her body is one of the final steps that an individual takes in her transformation into travesti“ (p. 46).
Then, he summarizes the different phases they pass on their way:
„The experiences and the thoughts that lead travestis to take that step (injecting silicone) begin in a childhood recalled as a period of erotic play with other boys and attraction to other males, always culminating in a series of sexual experiences in which the young travesti in anally penetrated by playmates or by older boys or men“ (p.46).
„They will also try to let their hair and nails grow out, they will begin to experiment with lipstick and cosmetics, and they may begin to pluck their eyebrows and shave their legs. This is the stage at which a great many travestis either leave or are expelled from home“ (p.59).
„Travestis now enter the next phase of their transformation. (…) Travestis who have not already begun to do so will now also start to modify their bodies through the ingestion of female hormones. And travestis who had not already begun to surreptitiously prostituting themselves while they were still living at home learn that they can do so and earn money“ (p.60).
„Most have between two and five liters. The majority of travestis who have silicone, however, have it in their buttocks, hips, knees and inner thighs, not in their breasts. This strategic placement of silicone is in direct deference to Brazilian aesthetic ideals“ (p.70)
„(…) Nothing so dominates the language of the body in Brazil (as the bunda)“ (p.71)
Silicone in Brazil
„A travesti names Daniela, who had worked for a time as a prostitute in France, returns from Paris, rich – and bearing with her a number of liters of silicone“ (p.73) – late 70s/early 80s
„Industrial silicone differs from surgical silicone in that it is nonsterile and impure“ (p.74).
Tina‘s Silicone Application
„By the time they end up like Tina, laid out in a bed before a silicone „pumper“, they have lived as travestis for several years and they have saved up the money necessary to permanently acquire the physical features that they define as hallmarks of femininity“ (p.47).
„Two nights later, Tina was sufficiently recovered to be out working the streets again, her new bunda and hips generously displayed in the shortest shorts I think I have ever seen in my life“ (p. 83).
In the way he describes the travestis, some aspect were striking for me. They show that the author has a Western perspective, for example in the way he is shocked by the homoerotic games of children. At least he mentions that from a Western point of view, kids are not considered to have a sexuality at all. But he does not take this insight and further develops it, he just goes on to tell us how suppressed, uneducated and irresponsible these young boys behave (and also the older who should be wise and tell them). In all the description, Kulick is at no point giving more background information on how people live in Northern Brazil. What socio-economic background do they have? What dreams do they have? What class do they come from? And he sometimes seem to forget how old they are. When he explains what kind of strange ideas they have about surgical sex-change, he makes them ridiculous instead of reflecting that probably a 12 year old boy in Europe would not know more about that topic as well. Another example is the description that young boys stay addicted to the people they first have sex with. In my ears that sounds irrational like women who are beaten up by their men but do not leave them. There is no reflection about the fact that from a psychological point of view it is normal that people, especially when they are very young, feel addicted to the people they have sex with the first time in their life. The list could be expanded with a lot of examples, which all share the aspect, that Kulick does not even try to understand their behaviour from their point of view. He does not try to understand what is really going on in their minds. Instead he looks for explanations which are as easy as to state that it is the Brazilian culture in which the buttocks are the most important physical attribute of attractive women which makes travesti to wish so much for Silicone injection.
In the second part of the chapter, he tries to understand why individuals engage in these kinds of bodily practices. In my opinion, things are now even getting worse. Basically he gives us three different points why they do it, but none of them seems to satisfy him. First of all he presumes that travestis could be transsexuals who feel trapped in the wrong body. But obviously they are not. Secondly he gives the easy answer that they might seek to me more feminine because it sells better on the sexual market, but he doesn‘t like this idea very much, because that reduces the travestis to the role of victims (that‘s basically what he does all the time and is going to do with his next argument, but probably it sounds political correct to say this at least once in your article). Last but not least, he asks the travestis themselves why they do it and concludes:
„They also mention a second reason (…): they modify their bodies because they feel themselves to be feminine“ (p. 91).
And they tell him that they feel like women in front of their boyfriends when they are treated well or when they buy nice things like perfume or shoes. Only the luxuriest is good enough.
„But is that an attribute of women? I wondered“ (p. 92).
„Noticeably, absent from travesti talk about feeling like a women is any references at all to reproduction or to any kind of maternal feelings or essences. Virtually the only essences I have heard travestis attribute to women are vanity, jealousy, the propensity to gossip and the proclivity for passionate love“ (p. 93).
Obviously this is not what he understands women to be like. And therefore his last comment which can be read as a conclusion is explicit:
„Femaleness becomes something wholly within the reach of anybody who wants it badly enough“ (p. 95).
Instead of interpreting their statements and thinking about what could be underlying wishes or dreams they hope to be fulfilled, he seems to be satisfied with the easy conclusion that they are simply superficial. He does not see that for them being a woman means being a white, rich woman who can buy whatever she wants, who is wearing nice dresses and high heels, who is treated well. He does not reflect in what regard being a travesti maybe puts them in the position of being with men from upper classes oder what role this plays for their own position.
Presentation by Johanna Stephan