Transgender political activism in Brazil only began in the 1990s, as a result of the AIDS epidemic, in contrast to gay and lesbian mobilization for equal rights which dates back to the 1970s.
Transgender people have been less successful than gay men and lesbians in gaining any form of public acceptance and legal rights.
There are relatively few activist groups in Brazil that encompass the whole range of alternative sexualities and genders. Within these mixed groups, transsexuals tend to distinguish themselves from transvestites, hence the increasing use of the term “GLBTT”–Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transvestite, and Transsexual.
The dire political and social situation of transgender people in Brazil could gradually be alleviated if more transgender people qualified as doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. However, in addition to the discrimination that limits their education, most transvestites seem unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to obtain higher education. They seem to believe that to do so would also mean sacrificing the most important years of their lives as beautiful women.
Unlike female sex workers, who have a range of professional options available to them, transgender sex workers often feel they have no options. Many see prostitution as the price they pay for choosing to transform. Moreover, whereas female sex workers have a wide range of options within the profession–the street, various types of nightclubs and brothels, advertising in newspapers and on the Internet–transvestites generally work the streets and low-end brothels, known as “privés.”
Transvestites’ clients are generally men who appear as being “straight” in society. Many, if not most, are married. Contrary to what one might expect, in the majority of instances, the transvestite sex worker performs the active role in sexual intercourse, the male client assuming the passive, receptive role.
In these instances, the cafetina functions as a parent figure, especially if, as is often the case, the transvestite has effectively been expelled from her family, usually at an early age. In these relationships, the cafetina is referred to as the Madrinha (Godmother) and the transvestite considers herself a filha (daughter).
Crucial to whether her transvestites will be guided towards or away from criminal behavior and drug abuse is the character and outlook of the cafetina.
Transvestites are often sent by cafetinas in the central, north, and northeastern state capitals to their counterparts in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro where they work the streets, take massive doses of hormones, and have their bodies transformed by silicone pumping, breast implants, and other plastic surgery. They are then sent on to other cafetinas based in Europe, principally Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and Portugal.
The entire process of travelling to and working in Europe is organized by the cafetinas. The transvestite typically flies to a country that is not her final destination and then enters the final destination clandestinely. Thereafter, the Brazilian cafetina’s European counterpart arranges for accommodation and work, which, depending on the country or region may be on the street or in a brothel.
If the transvestite is unable to pay for the pumping, plastic surgery, and transport to Europe, she may be financed by the cafetinas. Effective interest rates vary, but they are always excessive.
Once the loans have been paid, the transvestite is free and is not tied to a particular cafetina structure. The transvestite who manages not to become addicted to narcotics or to be infected by HIV and to steer clear of violence stands a reasonable chance of returning to Brazil with enough money to purchase a house and a car. They frequently also send money to the same parents who rejected them.
Silicone pumping, by which buttocks, legs, and sometimes breasts and faces are transformed, is a staple of many transvestites’ lives,
AIDS experts believe that a significant hidden route of transmission of AIDS in Brazil is through transgender prostitution: the transvestite passes HIV to the client and the client in turn passes the virus to his wife or partner. In Brazil most new HIV infections occur in young gay and heterosexual couples.
Transgender prostitutes working the streets are routinely subject to violence from the police, clients, passers-by, and sometimes, from pimps. Such violence includes beatings, intimidation, torture, and shootings.
In some cases the violence is random and indiscriminate. Some groups of men consider it fun to beat up transvestites or conduct drive-by shootings. Similarly, some individual clients indulge in sadistic behaviour.
In Brazil, there are two kinds of pimps: male pimps, known as cafetões; and transvestite pimps, known as cafetinas. Cafetões are generally low-level drug dealers. Cafetinas run boarding houses for transvestites.
Especially in the major cities, all prostitutes who work the streets are required to pay a pimping fee. This is generally a fixed weekly fee that buys the right to work a particular area where the pimp in question has rights. In return for the fee, the pimp confers protection from harassment from other pimps and, in principle, from the police. Female sex workers pay the fee to cafetões. Transvestites pay the fee either to a cafetão or to a cafetina who has street rights.
Many transvestites live in houses run by cafetinas. The cafetina charges a daily fee for board and lodging.
Whereas the relationship between the sex worker and the cafetão is essentially based on fear and intimidation, the relationship between the sex worker and the cafetina is often quite different. In many cases the cafetina provides a significant level of guidance and emotional support, especially when the transvestite has moved from a distant region to the major cities of São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro.
Especially those who engage in sex work. Some transvestites become specialists, known as bombardeiras (pumpers), in pumping industrial silicone into the bodies of other transgender people.
There are a number of adverse effects of silicone pumping, including silicone dropping down into the ankles and feet, the immune system’s rejection of silicone, and the risk of silicone entering the bloodstream or vital organs.
Breast implants and facial surgery are generally performed by licensed (and also possibly unlicensed) plastic surgeons who specialize exclusively in attending transgender people.
The deep structural social problems faced by the poor in Brazil, combined with the isolation and discrimination encountered by transgender people, conspire against their attainment of the most basic human and legal rights.
There are a number of NGOs and federal, state, and municipal government agencies that offer various forms of advice and assistance to transgender people, mostly as part of STD/AIDS prevention and assistance programs
The combined effects of discrimination, humiliation, lack of education, and isolation from mainstream society place enormous emotional strain on Brazil’s transgender people, especially those who earn their living as sex workers.
The pressures to succumb to drug abuse and criminality are enormous, but transgender people are also especially vulnerable to contracting AIDS and to falling into cynicism and despair. Avoiding these pitfalls demands remarkable courage and strength of character.