Week 2 review: Kulick Introduction

Kulick’s introduction opens with “Banana”, a travesti living and working in Salvador, Brazil. Kulick describes in detail her demeanor and mannerisms, as well as her rituals before beginning her evening labor as a prostitute in a local pornographic theatre.
Kulick then follows with his description of a Travesti: a man who takes on the appearance of femininity in dress and demeanor. Though Travestis do appear feminine and are referred to with feminine pronouns, transvestis do NOT want to be female.
While visiting in Brazil Kulick saw a very significant need for research that gives correct interpretation into the world of travestis and their lifestyle, unlike what current research at that time had provided. Kulick chose a different way to do his research; he immersed himself in their life. He lived with them, followed them out to work at night, and befriended them. Kulick, himself, identifying as a homosexual male was able to live within the travesti community in a non threatening manner, allowing him to gain their trust and friendship. By doing this over several months, Kulick was able to study all aspects of their lives, both personal and professional. By doing all of this his study was able to correct many misguided assumptions about the travesti lifestyle.
While reading Kulick’s Introduction in his book Travesti: sex, gender and culture among Brazilian transgender prostitutes,  I found myself enveloped in the warmth in his description of not only the travestis relationships among each other, but with him as well. He was able to do what no researcher before him had done. He lived among these people for twelve months without appearing in a threatening manner or by any sort of competitive nature that a female researcher may possibly display. It was obvious that he was not there to judge or grossly misinterpret their lives. When he first arrived in Brazil he did not even speak Portuguese, so he audio taped many conversations of the travesties. Through these conversations he learned the language. It was as if he was born out of this culture, instead of invading it to understand it. I thought this aspect of his study was quite humbling and made him very unassuming.
Kulick explains how Brazil defines themselves as having open-mindedness that welcomes gender inversion, but that is an exaggeration at the very least. Brazilian prides themselves on Carneval, a festival that where gender inversion is heavily displayed. During Carneval, many men participate in dressing in a feminine manner and the event is tightly connected with a travesti lifestyle. However, a travesti lifestyle is not celebrated at any rate in day-to-day life. It is thought that travestis can become financially comfortable, even famous, as Roberta Close was (Roberta Close was a travesti that appeared on a novela and was described by both men and women as the “Most beautiful Woman in Brazil”), but this is extremely rare. The reality of most travestis is a life of poverty, rarely leaving their living quarters during the day, and selling their bodies at night. They are objectified, and thought to be dangerous people.  They are often involved with drug abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and crime. Kulick goes on to explain that instead of describing gender inversion, transvestis help “clarify and distill” (p.10) the male and female representations and practices.This shows that in any culture, there are many misinterpretations about those who are not within the social norms of society.
 I value this article very much. I appreciate his approach and fondness of those he was studying. I particularly liked that he mentions in his introduction that when he “wanted to get away from work he would find himself keeping the travestis company on the streets.” It shows a true bond with the travestis, a relationship very different from that of the traditional “researcher” and “subject”.

One response to “Week 2 review: Kulick Introduction

  1. Lindsey, I think that your response to Kulick’s book is how many Euro-American readers have responded to it: liking the warmth and detail of his description, and taking Kulick’s claims that he lived among the travesti in that Brazilian city and had more access to them than other researchers. On the other hand, within Brazil some researchers have questioned whether Kulick’s research is entirely valid. One article in particular says Don Kulick ought to have learnt Portuguese before he did his ethnographic research — if he was just beginning to learn a language and didn’t already a grasp of it, could he have understood the broader context of Brazilian society in which travesti live? Other writers have questioned the generalizations Kulick makes: indeed, some travesti DO have gender reassignment surgery, and not all travesti refuse what he refers to as the “passive” role during sex. I guess the lesson is that even with publications that we find very convincing, it’s good to keep in mind that convincing and detailed doesn’t always equal truth.

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