CROSSDRESSING IN BRAZIL: BEHIND THE GLITTER
by Melanie Yarborough
Carnival in Rio di Janeiro. Men appear in high heels, fishnet stockings, ruffle-and-lace dancehall girl outfits, with lips smeared with bright lipstick and wearing thick layered wigs. An Argentine visitor once called it "a promised land of promiscuity, flirtation, and everyday variants of debauchery". What crossdresser hasn't seen pictures of Carnival and sighed "This is the Promised Land"? But like most images, there is a more complex reality behind the feathers and sequins.
Brazilian crossdressing has its roots in theatre. Over 200 yers ago, women prohibited from acting, as the theatre was seen as an immoral place not fit for ladies. (Machista Portuguese society kept women out of most other professions as well). As a result, men played the roles of young gypsy girls, crinoline princesses, little Bo-Peep shepherdesses, etc. Later, transvestism went from the stage to the street. Many non-actors (straight and gay) began to crossdress for fun or to make a statement. Jorge Amado's classic novel Dona Flor & Her Two Husbands opens with just such a scene.
In the twentieth century, transgender theatre evolved into elaborate stage and television shows. Transvestities Ltd, Les Girls, and Rio Gay are several revues which employ porfessional writers, directors, and technicians. The themes may seem a little frivolous and stereotypical, but they are widely enjoyed by the public. They have made crossdressing an institution and-within limits- acceptable public entertainment. Certainly more so than in the United States.
There are also several famous transgendered actresses in Brazil. Roberta Close once made the cover of Argentine magazines and was hailed as "an example of the beauty and sensuality of Brazilian women". In one advertisement for women's clothing, she appeared in a low-cut dress and advised people (tonguein-cheek) to "not be taken in by appearences". Andrea deMaio is another transgendered entertainer who claims to have received love letters from many men.
Why does Brazil's Carnival have such a strong corssdressing component? Carnival was originally adapted from the European pre-Lent spring festival, but with a Brazilian twist. Carnival became the final explosion of wildness and celebration before the solemn Lenten repentence, the dance before death. Traditional norms were turned inside-out in an "anything goes" atmosphere. People live out their fantasies of seeing how the other half lives. The poor imitate the rich. And men slip into wives' or girlfriend's clothing and become women. Somee men skilfully impersonate famous actresses and singers and there is a prize for best costume.
Yet there is a dark underside to crossdressing in Brazil. The police have often persecuted street crossdressers and transvestite prostitutes. In 1976, during the years of military rule, the Sao Paulo police chief decreed that crossdressers in public were to be arrested on charges of vagrancy or immoral solicititng. Moreover, they were to be photographed in their femme clothing for evidence to be used against them. In 1979, a police commissioner Richetti was quoted as saying that he found crossdressers "more offensive" than homosexuals, as homosexuals were in many cases more discreet and not openly transgendered.
When certain crossdressers got writs of habeus corpus to carry in their purses, some police ripped the writs up in their faces. Facing this intense persecution, many Transgendered Brazilians emigrated to Europe, particulary to Paris and Rome. There they found a somewhat more tolerant atmosphere. Lora, one Brazilian transgenderist, said in 1982, "Here [in France] they call me Madame, while in Brazil we are treated like animals".
The political left has also had qualms with the transgender and gay rights movement. Gay men and crossdressers were involved in the political opposition to military government. While the Left often welcomed them into their ranks, they made it clear that sexual and gender issues were deviationist, distracting attention from proletarian issues. In one extreme case, a gay crossdressing activist named Tais was beaten up by four leftist militants. They accused him of trying to "divide the proletariat" and warned him to stop "this impudence of a homosexual movement".
In the United States, the homosexual, crossdressing and transsexual communities see themselves as distinct. Each has their own issues, resources, and agendas. They often go out of their way to distance themselves from the other two groups. However, in Brazil and the rest of Latin America, there isn't this separation. The public and the government have a limited exposure to new ideas and traditional machismo. A transsexual, a heterosexual crossdresser, and a drag queen all look pretty much the same to them. And the poverty and economic chaos in these countries makes it impossible for each group to be separate. They have to work collectively and pool their resources.
Behind the carnival glitter of Brazilian crossdressing, there are many contradictions. It's okay for a man to be dressed as a woman on the stage, but not in the street. It's okay to do it as a burlesque of women, but not as a lifestyle. In the United States transgender community, we need to be aware of this different reality for our sisters in other countries.
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