Travesti by Don Kulick (1998)


8/10 would have my understanding of gender uprooted again

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I don’t believe I’ve ever read a full ethnography before. This particular ethnography is not about an exotic, far away land, nor of any place that could be called a country. Instead, it focuses on a very small population of travestis in the city of Salvador, Brazil.

Who are travestis?
I think Wikipedia did a pretty good job of summarizing this:

“In some cultures, most particularly in South America, a travesti is a person who has been assigned male at birth and who has a feminine, transfeminine or “femme” gender identity.”

As the ethnographer, Don Kulick, explains in his introduction, travestis have been a very confusing group ever since they first surfaced in popular Brazilian culture. They are biologically male and insist that they are male — in fact, they are quite transphobic themselves. Yet they do everything in their power to become feminine: hormone injections, silicone injections, the adoption of female gender pronouns and names. Some believe that travestis represent the open-mindedness of Brazil, while others believe that travestis belong to a third gender category that is neither male nor female. Kulick’s argument, however, is that travestis do not demonstrate fluid gender identities in Brazil: instead, they represent how rigid gender in Brazil truly is.

I’ll summarize the rest of his argument in a later paragraph.

After all, this is a book review, not an essay.


How is the book?
I only have two major things to say on the content of the book. First of all, the travesti prostitutes of Salvador go through incredible hardship and descrimination. I hated reading what they had to go through. Let me put that into perspective for a moment: I’ve read and watched Unbroken, and I was not horrified by what happened in the POW camps. But I am horrified by what happened to the travestis documented in this book.

The second comment is a lot happier: this book’s argument is structured amazingly. There are so many aspects in the life of a travesti that need explaining, I’m amazed by how well Kulick organized his book. I never felt lost or like I’d forgotten something important from earlier in the book. I always felt like Kulick was bringing me closer to his conclusion, and not a single paragraph in the book was confusing. I can’t imagine having to organize a 200-page ethnography detailing a subject that’s confounded anthropologists for years and still make it an easy read for an undergraduate. I am just amazed by how well this book flows.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the book. I even felt addicted to it at times (it unfortunately pulled me away from reading Worm for about a week). Most importantly, the book really gave me insight into what it means to have a gender and a sexuality. I highly recommend it…assuming you can tolerate a few things:

The Language
I am not super versed in the accurate terms used to describe LGBTQ individuals, but one of my classmates informs me that the book is chock full of outdated and inaccurate language. For instance, the title: how often have you heard the word “transgendered”? The answer is that you haven’t, you’ve heard “transgender,” without the d. For more on the significant difference between those, here’s a Huffington post article. This book was written over twenty years ago. Don Kulick is a rather famous anthropologist, and I’m sure he was simply using the most up-to-date language available to him at the time. I don’t think it reflects poorly on his character or his view of the travestis he lived with for nine months. And if you’re uneducated in gender and sexuality terms like me, this likely won’t bother you or hinder your view of the book at all.

You will, however, probably be horrified by what they have to go through, so ye be warned.

Argument Summary
There may be counter-arguments out there, but Kulick makes a pretty convincing point. I’ll try my best to summarize it here. The travestis of Salvador are biologically male prostitutes who become as feminine as humanly possible. Only they do not believe that they are women, and they themselves believe that men who think they are women are insane. They despise lesbians and look down upon transvestite men. The more you learn about their lives, the more paradoxical they seem. This has led many anthropologists to suggest that travestis do not belong to a male-female binary, but some sort of three-gendered system. This is not Don Kulick’s argument. Kulick believes (and argues very convincingly) that travestis still subscribe to a gender binary, only their binary is different. We normally take for granted the idea that cultural concepts of gender are rooted in whether a person is biologically male or female: people can be transgender, but that only means they belong to the other side of the binary than society would normally expect.

But our culture assumes one thing: traditionally gender is rooted in biological sex; feminine gender is assigned to females, and masculine gender is assigned to males. But does it have to be that way? No, it doesn’t. The reason I believe Kulick on this is because we’ve read several other articles in my anthropology class on gender which dashes this idea of gender being rooted in sex. It’s only rooted in sex for us. In other cultures, gender can be rooted in age or social status. For the travesti, gender is rooted in sex. Not biological sex, but sex sex. Fortification sex. The travesti, according to Kulick, still have a masculine-feminine binary, but the masculine part only refers to males who penetrate during sex. The feminine gender, however, refers to all individuals who are penetrated during sex. To travestis, this means all women and gay men. Being masculine is essentially a privileged status for which you need two things: a penis and a liking for sticking it in holes. Once a man is penetrated, he gets lumped into the same category as women and gay men.

So the travestis still view themselves as biologically male, it’s just that males can also belong to the feminine gender, even in the traditional view. This may sound like a very fluid system of gender, but it isn’t. The travestis of Salvador are very rigid in their views of gender. If you are feminine, you must do all things feminine and strive to be as feminine as possible. Because of this, they look down on other gay men (travestis personally classify themselves as homosexual) who do not take hormones, and they look down on homosexual women. They do not believe that transgenderism is natural, and their speech is filled with expressions of how one can only be the gender that “God intended.” If anything, Kulick argues, travestis solidify all gender norms and stereotypes that Brazilian society has to offer.

It’s a really fun read. Not only is Kulick a great writer, but from the very beginning he allows you to feel solidarity with a heavily-oppressed group of people. Kulick makes a point that many anthropologists regard travestis as being confused or diluted, whereas he approaches their view of the world under the assumption that what they believe makes sense. This is key in anthropology: whether or not you agree with the viewpoints or cultural practices involved, you must always understand the others’ viewpoint. Only after understand the alternatives can you really know that you believe in your own. I hardly knew anything about gender before taking this class, and now I feel like I understand our system of gender and its implications better than most Americans do.

So why does this book only get 4 stars?!? Well, Travesti has given me great insight into my own culture’s gender assumptions, and it’s been interesting enough for me to pace around my room pretending to explain it to people.

But this is the first ethnography I’ve read, and it seems to me that every good ethnography will do that to you. That’s not the whole reason I’m not giving the book 5 stars. The main reason is that, while interesting and life-changing, the book just doesn’t have that “I want to dedicate my life to this” feeling that most 5-star books do. There’s no emotional excitement to it, leaving it out of the running for a 5.

It has two intellectual pluses: one for good organization and one for making me challenge my cultural notions of gender. So it gets a high 4.

One thought on “Travesti by Don Kulick (1998)

  1. You could certainly see your enthusiasm in the work you write. The sector hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. Always go after your heart.

    Liked by 1 person


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