BY JOSHUA REASON
FOR DAY OF THE DEAD LAST YEAR, toward the end of my Fulbright research in Salvador da Bahia, I attended “Elas Não Morreram” (They Did Not Die), a drag show commemorating the five-year anniversary of Coletivo das Liliths, an LGBTQI1 theater collective I had become acquainted with over the past year. The celebration was held in a bar and cultural space on Rua Carlos Gomes, a historically LGBTT2 street in the center of Salvador that, due to ongoing gentrification, has attracted a contingent of conservative residents seeking to displace the dissident bodies that have created home there. In light of the persistent acts of anti-LGBTT terror perpetrated by these residents, “Elas Não Morreram” served as both a celebration and a corrective, asserting that despite all that has happened to us, both inside and outside of that space, we have not perished, and will not perish.
Following an opening by the Indigenous artist collective Aldeia came a performance by Kaysha Kutnner, a Black drag queen and comedian. Her set consisted of several lip syncs interspersed with monologues poking fun at people in the crowd and Brazilian life in general. One of my favorite parts of the performance was her response to Jair Bolsonaro’s policy regarding the right to bear arms. Kaysha expressed her enthusiastic support for his decree, claiming that we would finally have the means to protect ourselves from anti-LGBTT violence. She proceeded to simulate how this newfound expression of LGBTT rights would play out, miming the removal of firearms from her wig, leg, and various orifices of her body to protect herself from the machistas (whom she evoked throughout her monologue). While we were all aware that Bolsonaro’s policy was not meant to protect us, her defiant performance of the LGBTT possibilities of the policy had everyone in the space crying with laughter. Kaysha followed up her monologue perfectly by lip syncing Linn da Quebrada’s “Bixa Preta,” a song that advocates self-defense and demands respect for Black LGBTT folk from the favela, particularly Black femmes, trans, and travesti3 individuals.
Toward the end of her performance, Kaysha posed a serious yet necessary intervention in the space: she forced us to take a moment to recognize that we would not be there if it were not for the “bichas afeminadas, sapatonas, trans, e travestis”4 who are so unapologetically themselves and who, despite violence from both inside and outside of the LGBTT community, continue to carve out space for us to be ourselves. As she continued her intervention, she noticed me sitting in the front, and pointed out that these populations of the LGBTT community make it possible for me to have my eyebrow piercing. And Kaysha was absolutely right! We were in that bar, literally maintained by the financial and affective labor of a butch lesbian and her femme wife, but also sustained by the cultural production of Black and Indigenous LGBTT performance collectives and individuals such as herself, precisely because they committed themselves to being so relentlessly and resiliently themselves. By singling me out for my eyebrow piercing, Kaysha also reminded us that this affective and cultural labor is not limited to the space of the bar, but is present in our aesthetic choices and expressions of sexual liberation and unbound gender presentation in our daily lives. This intervention has since become the foundation on which I am writing my thesis, which explores how Black LGBTT geographies are shaped by their cultural, affective, and sexual contributions to the urban landscape, a structuring of space which I refer to as geographies of desire.
This essay is a call to rethink how travesti, as a gender identity and embodied experience, is used to speak to and of trans bodies in Salvador, often obscuring other trans identities in the process (i.e., transgênero and transsexual). This is not to say that the term travesti has outlived its usefulness, but rather that non-normative gender identifications are deployed haphazardly, both in scholarship and everyday life, in ways that further pathologize trans bodies and normalize new codifications of gender difference. Travesti, like many other nonbinary terms for gender identity, has multiple meanings that are highly dependent on the person you speak to. While many Brazilians and Brazilianist scholars have come to understand travestis as “not-quite-women” who participate in sex work, this definition does not encapsulate the fluidity and variability of travesti experiences. For example, all except for one of the people I interviewed during my fieldwork who identified as travestis also identified as trans women. In these cases, travesti was evoked as an economic, political, and temporal marker that referred to their current or former participation in sex work, as well as their illegibility as women. This reflects a larger politics of gender authenticity in Salvador; if you cannot pass for cisgender5 or are not operado/a,6 people will call you a travesti (or lesbian, in the case of trans men). Holding multiple gender identifications (travesti and trans women) displaces several myths that haunt trans Bahians: (1) that travesti and trans woman are antithetical, mutually exclusive identifications; (2) that travesti is less authentic/human/beautiful than trans woman; and (3) that the transition from travesti to trans woman is marked by hormonal therapy, plastic surgery, and the removal of one’s penis.
In Black LGBTT activist spaces, the trans community has worked to dismantle the idea that some trans identities are more authentic or human than others. Organizations like TransBatuKada, De Transs Pra Frente, and Casarão da Diversidade bring together transgêneros, transsexuais, and travestis, along with other parts of the LGBTT spectrum, to assert the mutual humanity of all members of the trans community. For example, on Brazilian Independence Day, Casarão da Diversidade, a government-funded organization that provides workshops and health services to the LGBTT community, held a march to honor travestis and putas.7 A true embodiment of the trans-feminist saying “support your sisters, not just your cis-ters,” the march brought together people who, regardless of their identification(s), saw their humanity as tied to that of cis-women sex workers and travestis. The fact that this march took place on Brazilian Independence Day and occupied the Largo Terreiro de Jesus, a square in the historic center of Pelourinho, is also significant. Due to the physical violence enacted on both Black and trans bodies during the reign of the Portuguese empire, and, more recently, sanitization projects of the 1980s following Pelourinho’s designation as a UNESCO world heritage site, the march was as much about valorizing sex work and dissident bodies as it was about citizenship, anti-imperialism, and decoloniality. This march is but one example of how the obsession with categorizing trans bodies in both research and daily life detracts from the breadth and complexity of trans political activism.
In order for trans research in Brazil to become trans-centered, to not reproduce the insistence on naming and categorizing trans bodies based on their cis-legibility, we must commit ourselves to research practices that honor the diversity of trans experiences. First, and most simply, we must refer to people not only using the pronouns and identifications they prefer, but with a deep understanding of what those terms mean both to that person and within Brazilian society writ large. The ramifications of the myths I outlined above, specifically their use as justifications for transphobic violence, are too great to be taken lightly. Second, trans-centered research must be about more than humanizing trans people. While it is important to counteract the idea that trans people are inherently ugly, monstrous, or deceptive, an insistence on humanization bolsters the divisions between trans and travesti. To suggest that certain trans gender identities are more legitimate or beautiful than others is to say that certain trans bodies are okay to brutalize because they are inauthentic, disgusting, and/or potentially violent. In essence, trans research that is driven by a need to humanize subconsciously fuels the all-consuming fire that is transphobic violence. It is what allows people, both inside and outside the LGBTT community, to say that travestis give trans people a bad name, even though it is precisely their positioning as lesser-than that allows for cis-passing trans folk to be more (though by no means “completely”) accepted in Brazilian society. As many scholars of Black Queer Studies and Black Feminist Studies have noted, the acceptance of some dissident bodies often comes at the price of others, particularly those who are low-income, Black/Indigenous, disabled, or femme.
Finally, trans-centered research must consider the possibility of trans lives speaking beyond the constitution of gender and sexuality. What would it mean to theorize anti-imperialism, decoloniality, prison reform, anti-capitalism, and other topics of contemporary importance from the perspective(s) of trans Brazilians? What possibilities open up when we consider trans livelihoods as not locally or temporally fixed, but influenced by and in conversation with global structures of power since the age of Empire? In my thesis project, I argue that the ways in which Black LGBTT bodies are read and differentiated in public space has everything to do with whether or not they look, act, or exist in desired ways, and that recognizing this particularity is essential to modifying the social, economic, and political landscape of Salvador to be more accepting of Black LGBTT Bahians.
Much like the march organized by Casarão da Diversidade, Black LGBTT activist and artistic collectives in Salvador are already doing the necessary scholarly and cultural work to talk back to the harmful logics that continue to pathologize trans bodies in Brazil. However, as someone who is not Brazilian or trans, but of the African diaspora and in community with many Black trans folk, I am increasingly concerned by how non-Brazilian and non-Bahian researchers hold onto the notion of Bahia as a place of inherent sexual and gender deviance. While I would love to believe in Salvador as a queer- and trans-friendly city, and am invested in the project of truly making it so, this notion is inextricably linked to the ongoing, at times nonconsensual, consumption of Black LGBTT bodies via sex tourism and daily encounters that reaffirm their violability and assumed sexual availability. This essay is a call for us, regardless of our personal identifications or research areas, to see the consequences of characterizing Bahia as a place of indulgence in Black culture, sexual liberation, and freedom of gender expression without attending to the lives that make it so. Advocating for a trans-centered approach to research in Brazil is my way of gesturing toward a future in which Salvador can truly become a space of liberatory potential for Black LGBTT Bahians. I hope that this moment, made possible by the affective, intellectual, cultural, and sexual labor of Black LGBTT Bahians, will lead to a series of future moments in which we all continue to reflect upon and act to honor the dissident bodies that have made it possible to be who we are today.
Joshua Reason is a master’s student at LLILAS and portfolio student in the Women’s and Gender Studies LGBTQ Studies program. Their research explores the effects of urban planning and institutional memory on Black LGBTT geographies in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. In dialogue with Black (queer) scholars throughout the African Diaspora in the Americas, Joshua shows the resonance of Black LGBTT pain and joy across space, time, and culture.
- In the most recent promotional materials for the collective, they have opted to use LGBTQI to describe the members of the collective. That said, I will be using LGBTT throughout the rest of the essay.
- LGBTT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and travesti.
- Travesti is a term used in Brazil and other Latin American countries for people who were assigned male at birth, but identify with a feminine gender identity. Not all travestis consider themselves women, but most refer to themselves and other travestis in the feminine.
- Translation: femmes, butches, trans, and travestis.
- A person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.
- A trans person who has not had surgical alterations to their breasts or private parts (e.g., sex reassignment surgery or a mastectomy).
- Putas, or whores, is a derogatory term for cis-women sex workers that has been reclaimed by that community.