Friday, August 13, 2010

“Lo que no sabemos nos dañará, or, What we don’t know will hurt us”

 Eugenia de Altura is a female graduate student conducting research on issues of women and gender in the cities of La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia. Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America with the exception of Haiti, and over 60% of the country’s population is of indigenous descent. Eugenia’s postings explore women’s rights, sexuality, and reproductive health in Bolivia and in Latin America as a whole.
This week, UK-based Independent Television News (ITN) reported on Bolivia’s first-ever hosting of the “Miss Transvestite South America” beauty contest.  The contest included male-to-female trans contestants from Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other South American nations.  Evidently, organizers had a difficult time raising the necessary funds for the event, which nearly prevented it from moving forward, but the contest was saved when the La Paz city government pitched in. This video—despite carelessly confusing the concepts “trans” and “gay”—shows colorful snippets of the contest, and in one scene, breathtaking views of La Paz, Bolivia.
It strikes me as rather odd that I have chosen to write about this event, and the themes it raises, since I know little of the reality of being trans in Latin America.  But also, I suppose that it is that fact—that we do know so little about trans life in the region, that there is so little visibility around it—that prompts me to write.  This piece, therefore, is designed to spark reflection and elicit your thoughts broadly on sexual diversity in Latin America, rather than teach you something new.
Bolivia, like most countries in Latin America, is marked by machista attitudes that threaten the lives and health of women in general, and people who do not conform to traditional gender/sexual roles and identities, in particular.  This machismo is visible and palpable.  I feel it walking down the street.  I witness it in the way young couples argue in La Paz parks, the men threateningly leaning in to the women’s personal space. 

Machismo is also visible, however, in the very way it makes dissent invisible.  In Bolivia—where rates of sexual and domestic violence against women top those of other Latin American countries—I have never seen an openly gay couple walking down the street.  Or in a bar.  Or anywhere else.  I do know of a few bars and cafés in La Paz that specifically cater to gays, and there are certainly some activists working for gay rights in the city, but compared to North America or Europe, gay life remains in the shadows.  Like other kinds of dissenters, gays and lesbians are often considered “funny” or downright “crazy.” As I noted several weeks ago, typical residents of La Paz describe the local feminist group Mujeres Creando as “extreme,” but when pressed to explain this characterization, simply point to the fact that a few of the group’s members are lesbians. 

In terms of trans folks, any awareness of their existence in La Paz is limited to comedic representations of men dressed as women, but never accepted as women.  A popular television character in La Paz consists of a light-skinned man dressed as a cholita, or indigenous woman—adopting and exploiting not only female, but indigenous, identity for laughs.  Female-to-male representations are altogether absent in La Paz, perhaps reflecting the cultural and social distance between women and men in Bolivia (ie., a cisman becoming a woman is a step down on the social scale, and easier to pull off than the reverse).  At one meeting of women activists I attended this year in La Paz, the entire concept of trans identity was discussed as if it consisted exclusively of the MTF experience. 

My last point signals a glaring reality in Bolivia: that even those of us who are progressive, who work for women’s rights, and are concerned with the welfare and equality of all people, know way too little about the reality of gays, lesbians, and trans folks.  This is probably also true of other realities, such as that of people living with disabilities.  I am, for one, ashamed of my ignorance; however, that ignorance also sparks me to action.  Today, more than ever, I welcome your comments & questions.