Travesti (gender identity)

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In some cultures, most particularly in South America, travesti is a gender identity describing people assigned male at birth who take on a feminine gender role and gender expression, especially through the use of feminizing body modifications such as hormone replacement therapy, breast implants, and silicone injections. Travestis are sometimes described as transgender or as male crossdressers, and while they are considered distinct from trans women, their actual identity can be hard to define without over-generalizing.[1]

"Travesti" was initially a pejorative term but has been reclaimed by Argentinian and Peruvian travesti activists.[2]

Travestis emerged as a distinct social group in the 1970s.[3]

Common traits[edit]

Travestis' feminine gender expression typically includes feminine dress, language, and social roles. Travestis may modify their bodies with industrial silicone injections, breast implants, or estrogen- and/or progesterone-based hormone therapy. Liquid silicone became popular among South American travestis in the 1980s.[4]

An old understanding in South America, carried through by the official psychiatry diagnoses formed mostly by the understanding of European and North American professionals and academics, is that there is a dichotomy between travesti and transsexual, in which the former group does not desire surgery to modify one's genitals, whilst the latter one does. Nevertheless, such conception of the differences between travesti and transsexual has become disputed, as this invalidates the identities of many travestis and trans women alike, measuring a "valid identity" by one's degree of dysphoria and body modification, rather than self-identification. This issue is criticized in Brazilian trans circles as transmeritocracia, particularly when affirmed in-group by fellow trans people.

Travestis might identify under any sexual orientation (including lesbian) identity, under the assumption of the "defining feature" of their identity being either their gender designated at birth or their feminine socio-psychological identity. It is increasingly advised for people to treat travestis under the same language they would use to convey the identities women (cis and trans alike) adopt. Non-hetero travestis might identify as either femme (sapatilha, or just femme), butch (machorra/caminhoneira, or just butch), or neither (the translation for those two words in both Spanish and Portuguese are recent reappropriations, still potentially offensive).

Language use and institutional perception[edit]

Travestis can be contrasted with transformistas (drag queens), who dress as women for performance and entertainment. In most cases, travesti themselves would solely be transformistas or crossdressers if they dressed as men.[citation needed]

A travesti might identify as trans, transgender (transgénero, transgênero), transsexual (transexual), woman/female (mujer, mulher), femme, non-binary (no-binaria, não-binária), genderqueer, transfeminine (transfemenina, transfeminina), third gender (tercer género, terceiro-gênero), as all possible identities mentioned, as few, some or many but not all of them, or as solely travesti.

Confusingly, in both Spanish and Portuguese, the translation for travesti's cognates in other European languages tends to also be travesti, blurring definitions of identity and social experience. As such, it might be hard to distinguish the more Iberian, medical establishment- and dictionary-sanctioned, definition of travesti, which is one of gender expression and/or fetishism (transformista for the performance, in all of Latin America, crossdresser as the general interest, more particularly in Brazil), and the more Latin American understanding of travesti, or simultaneously the sociopolitical and non-Western gender identity, more directly tied to other aspects of Latino expressions of being transgender.

This adds to the increasing trans dissatisfaction with the narrative of pathologization of the commonly "true transsexual" associated gender identity disorder/gender dysphoria as a mental illness (versus transvestic fetishism as a paraphilia supposedly requiring no medical intervention through hormone therapy and body modification), and the necessity for such diagnosis to legally modify one's body or legal identity markers, or to be offered medical government sponsorship to do so. It is often said that the Harry Benjamin style standards of ideal sex transition narrative, one that typically includes heterosexuality, strict adhesion to gender roles, the presence of full bodily dysphoria (including genital dysphoria) and also of discomfort with one's designated gender since early childhood, does not fit the reality of the overwhelming majority of trans people. Nevertheless, most Latin American and Caribbean countries (including Brazil, where most travestis live) still officially require genital modification to change one's legal gender markers, when they allow one to do so.

Official government policy in Brazil, for example, has included distinguished areas for travestis in male-only prisons, while trans women and trans men might both be sent to female-only prisons, in a 2014 resolution allowing freedom for gender expression of inmates.[5]

Third gender[edit]

As with other non-Western gender identities, travestis do not easily fit into a Western taxonomy that separates sex and gender. Some writers in the English language have described travestis as transgender or as a third gender. Don Kulick described the gendered world of travestis in urban Brazil as having had two categories: "men" and "not men", with women, homosexuals and travestis belonging to the latter category.[6] In her 1990 book, From Masculine To Feminine And All points In Between, Jennifer Anne Stevens defined travesti as "usually a gay male who lives full time as a woman; a gay transgenderist."[7] The Oxford English Dictionary defines travesti as "a passive male homosexual or transvestite."[8]

Similar identity communities found in other countries include femminiello, kathoey and hijra.

As denial of prelegal womanhood[edit]

The use of this term, however, is also used for transfeminine people with self-identification identities other than travesti (such as literal translations of transsexual woman, transgender woman and trans woman), a politically loaded term, who are still not legally female, especially those who decide some forms of legally requested body modification, or those who for however reason still did not undergo such practices.[citation needed]

This preoccupation with physical changes to genitalia is condemned by some local activists and their allies, but it is still highly prevalent, up to the pervasive use of male pronouns by media of people known to be travestis when most travesti refer to each other using feminine pronouns.[citation needed]

Transgender people of non-binary gender identities that are not feminine with seemingly feminine gender expression or body modifications might also be misgendered (referring to a person in a way ignorant of that person's gender identity) for the same reasons, aside disregard for the concept of a gender other than man or woman and people who feel like belonging in them (gender binarism, also known as exorsexism in some circles). Usually, the concept of gender-neutral language in Spanish and Portuguese is regarded as "improper language" by society at large, given the fact that these languages, like many others in the Indo-European language family, require a person's gender to be known for correct grammar to ensue.

Sex industry[edit]

Travestis often work in prostitution and pornography. One travesti organisation in Argentina reported in 2005 that 79% of the 302 travestis interviewed in Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata work principally as prostitutes.[9]

In Mexico, travesti sex workers are among the groups most affected by HIV.[10]

In other languages[edit]

In French-speaking countries and in European Portuguese, travesti means transvestite, anyone dressing up as the opposite sex. In the Greek language, the same word (τραβεστί) is also used to describe people who identify as a third gender, and who are particularly visible in the sex work industry.[11] 'Travesti' derives from 'trans-vestir', or 'cross-dress'.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ferreira, Amanda Álvares (2018). "Queering the Debate: Analysing Prostitution Through Dissident Sexualities in Brazil" (PDF). Contexto Internacional. 40 (3): 525–547. doi:10.1590/s0102-8529.2018400300006. Retrieved 19 April 2019.
  2. ^ Campuzano, Giuseppe (October 2006). "Reclaiming Travesti Histories" (PDF). IDS Bulletin. 37 (5): 34–39. doi:10.1111/j.1759-5436.2006.tb00299.x. Retrieved 19 April 2019.
  3. ^ Garcia, Marcos. "Issues Concerning the Informality and Outdoor Sex Work Performed by Travestis in Sa ˜ o Paulo, Brazil". Archives of Sexual Behavior. 40 (6): 1211–1221. doi:10.1007/s10508-010-9702-4.
  4. ^ Calkin, Jessamy (5 June 1994). "The silicone sisterhood: Among Brazil's poor, there are three sexes: Men, women and travestis -biological males who have changed themselves by art and science into something very close to females. Many use liquid silicone injections in order to enhance the transformation; but the cost, for some, can be terrible". The Independent. London.
  5. ^ Resolução estabelece tratamento à população LGBT em estabelecimentos prisionais. Agência Brasil, April 17th, 2014.
  6. ^ Kulick, Don (1998). Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)
  7. ^ Stevens, Jennifer Anne (1990). From Masculine To Feminine And All points In Between. Cambridge, MA 02238: Different Path Press. ISBN 978-0-9626262-0-3.
  8. ^ Oxford English Dictionary. Cambridge, MA 02238: Oxford University Press, USA. 1989. ISBN 978-0-19-861186-8.
  9. ^ La gesta del nombre propio, edited by Lohana Berkins and Josefina Fernández for ALITT (Asociación de Lucha por la Identidad Travesti y Transgenero, "Association for the Fight for Travesti and Transgender Identity"), published by Ediciones de Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 2005
  10. ^ Infante, Cesar; Sosa‐Rubi, Sandra G.; Cuadra, Silvia Magali (2009). "Sex work in Mexico: vulnerability of male, travesti, transgender and transsexual sex workers". Culture, Health & Sexuality. 11 (2): 125–137. doi:10.1080/13691050802431314. PMID 19140056.
  11. ^ Λεξικό της κοινής νεοελληνικής


  • Kulick, Don (1998), Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) ISBN 978-0-226-46100-7
  • Prieur, Annick (1998), Mema’s House, Mexico City: On Transvestites, Queens, and Machos (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) ISBN 0-226-68257-9
  • Fernández, Josefina (2004) Cuerpos desobedientes: de género, Buenos Aires, Edhasa, 2004.
  • González Pérez, César O. (2003) dos al desnudo: homosexualidad, identidades y luchas territoriales en Colima, México, Miguel Angel Porrúa, 2003.