Discussions about gender and sexuality can be fraught and complicated, whether by disagreement, embarrassment or by personal values and ideology. And this conversation is further complicated when refracted through the prism of culture.
We sometimes fail to give proper weight to the importance of cultural difference in defining which identities we consider to be normal, acceptable or even possible to adopt.
That’s what makes Don Kulick’s work so fascinating. Don Kulick is a professor of Anthropology at Uppsala University in Sweden, and has spent years living with and writing about travesti… Brazil’s “third gender,” who are designated male at birth but, through lifestyle choices and bodily modifications, live a feminine gender identity.
Is having a feminine gender identity the same thing as identifying as a woman? Not exactly. According to Don Kulick, travesti “want to be feminine, not female.” Whereas transgender women in U.S. culture identify as women, travesti most often consider themselves and are considered to be a different identity with its own rules about how to live, work and socialize.
Consider traditional roles in romantic relationships. Travestis in the community in which Kulick lived and studied sought partners who identified as, and acted like, heterosexual men, forming what would seem like a traditional masculine and feminine pair.
However, Kulick notes that, almost without exception, travestis insist on providing financially for their partners. This may seem paradoxical to someone who expects traditional, binary gender roles– that is, that the masculine partner provide for the feminine partner. From that point of view, it may also be ironic that most travesti people themselves have these traditional expectations about many aspects of life.
Kulick explains that many travestis in Brazil abhor gay marriage and, given that they see themselves as not categorically female, find biological males who consider themselves female–a categorization that would apply to many trans women in U.S. culture–as mentally disturbed.
Many fully expect their heterosexual partners to ultimately be more attracted to women than to them, and explain this using a familiar phrase: “God made woman for man and man for woman.”
These values may well come from the often conservative values of the societies in which travestis are situated. While travesti is recognized in these places as a distinct identity, different from man and woman, travestis are still a gender/sexual minority (GSM) in these societies.
As a result, many travesti folk are relegated to poverty and sex work to survive. Thus, by providing financially for their heterosexual-identified male partners, they gain the benefit of power and control in a life and world that offers very little of it to them.
“We’re the victims of a lot of prejudices on the street,” one travesti tells Kulick. “We need to have a person who we can always be on top of. Who? Our boyfriends. How? Supporting them, giving them money, so that we can dominate them…”
The attitudes and identities we adopt are always shaped to some extent by the culture or cultures we are a part of. But the fact that “third gender” identities exist all over the world, throughout history and mythology–from the Zapotec Muxe or the Thai Kathoey, the Balkan Sworn virgins and so on–suggests something in human nature that resists the categorization that culture inevitably imposes.