January 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 1

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Sociologist Explores Trans (In)visibilities in Bogotá, Colombia

Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, American University

bogota

Photo from third annual “Bogotrans”
fashion show within the International Week
of Fashion in Colombia

In 2007, I was invited to a national conference on trans[gender] issues in Colombia. Since then, I have been paying attention to the experiences of trans groups in the Colombian context. As a Fulbright scholar, I conducted research in Colombia on displacement and LGBT communities, and I came to notice local efforts and movements to make visible trans-populations. (Displacement in this sense refers to the millions that forcefully migrate within Colombia, given the influence of the paramilitary and other counter government movements in places outside Bogotá.) While in Colombia, I sought to explore the comfortable neo-liberal strategy of what I might call “citizenship leveling” through the token creation of visibility that, while enacting the starting points of larger projects of gender identity equity, are also reproducing normative views that do little to change the structural conditions of risk and everyday insecurity faced by trans-populations.

There are several key elements that make Colombia’s case one of mixed opportunities and challenges. Colombia’s 1991 constitution was one of the first to recognize the rights of intersex children for self determination, disrupting common genitalia mutilation practices when a baby’s sex was deemed to be ‘indeterminate’. Colombia has several organizations—in Bogotá and Cali in particular—that provide organizing spaces for transwomen. Bogotá is also home to a relatively large contingent of transmen, whose work has blended with local, “new masculinity” groups organized by non-trans men.

In February 2011, Bogotá held its third annual “Bogotrans” fashion show within the International Week of Fashion, where, in preparation and for months previous to the event, transwomen were trained in make up, catwalk, and fashion and style, culminating in over a dozen transwomen—including unemployed, working-class, and academic transwomen—sharing the spotlight. Since this is the only country in the world with an international week of fashion that includes a trans component, media coverage has been significant, with several countries in Latin America and Puerto Rico reporting on the event.

What intrigues me as a sociologist focused on sex, gender, and sexuality disruptions, is the way in which the State functions to support the creation of such spaces. Far from delving into a commentary on policy, I aim to point to the mechanisms that—in Colombia and I assume many other countries in the world—simultaneously (im)pose a regulating system through the act of space making and visibility.

The directionality of efforts to provide visibility to trans-populations between the United States and other countries is often depicted as one directional, with the U.S. often taking the lead; in fact, efforts like these show that so-called “developing” countries operate within a framework that posit a more fruitful space for diversifying the imagery produced for trans-bodies. In a country that espouses the phrase “subject of rights” to make reference to the equalizing possibilities of many marginalized groups, this is no small accomplishment. This effort expanded the way transwomen are looked at, made them highly visible, and it offered a fusion of the range of femininities trans-women depict. At the same time, the coverage possibly sustained an old notion of a spectacle, a monster-like fascination with the trans subject as other, as Susan Stryker famously noted1. The sponsorship by the Districts’ Economic Development Office is no small detail; media reports emphasized the thousands of dollars transwomen in other countries spend on their clothing when transitioning. Thus, productivity and consumerism fuse in the spectrum of visibility. We can make lots of money – even from a transwoman. Citizenship and belonging are redefined as traits marked by what you can possess.

Some of the transwomen themselves stated after the show, that their intent was to demystify the figure of the transwoman prostitute. While transwomen face the risk of rape, physical abuse, and death, in some ways, the runway serves as another forum for demonstrating their potential—in the realm of the bodily and the sexual—just like the prostitution venue2. Transwomen often receive positive gender feedback that affirms their female identities in and through their exposure to prostitution. Yet, my concern is that the opening of these small spaces outside prostitution venues does not transform the notion of risk, and lack of safety, to their bodies, their well-being, their health, their access to resources. Indeed, the crimes, violations, and inequity are easily swept under the rug with these hyper-visible attempts at “citizenship leveling.” The danger here is to think that giving such spaces changes structural conditions and their lived experiences3. To the contrary, it blurs our view about the continuing practice of simultaneously foregrounding one aspect of a group’s experience, while disregarding the rest. Or worse, it makes us feel better about ourselves, for offering a limited space to folks who are many degrees far removed from any notion of citizenship—the biggest trap for ignoring inequality and discrimination.

The Colombian case—in as brief of a presentation as the one I’ve offered here—helps consider the relationship of the State to a repositioning of the way politics operate. Far from invisible, the violence and potential risk are present in the elements missed by selective visibility. A top-down regulation of gender and sexuality takes place in the spaces provided to transwomen (the runway represents traditional conceptions of femininity; the strip or a corner materializes sexual fantasies). Even when these imposed elements are there, transwomen also reconfigure those regulations for themselves. What is missed from this whole picture is how gender is regulated. “Wild” forms of gender expression that do not fit on the runway are excessive and feared, and thus, controlled, and assigned on the streets (where facing violence can ”straighten” them). Gender continues to be marked as usual, since it is what is consumed in the mainstream.

As Marcia Ochoa has noted in her work with transwomen in Caracas, Venezuela, the regulation and re-signification of gender happens on the strip and in the runway; if transwomen so capably have transformed the street sex work from a violent one to a “runway” and a place of pleasure4, we have a long way to realizing the potential of opening up social spaces of employment, education, housing, culture, the arts, and policymaking (not to mention sensitive, accessible, and comprehensive healthcare), so that real access to full citizenship can even be considered a possibility. Turning our sight away from the injustices and violence against transwomen on the street or in any other setting by assuming that a token act is enough sustains the workings of the State. Space making acts need to become concrete and made systematically, so that the social imaginary of trans-populations can be overwhelmed with varied messages—and, hopefully, eventually changed.

This article was excerpted from the March 2011 newsletter of ASA’s Section on Sex and Gender.

References

  1. Stryker, Susan. 1994. “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage,” GLQ, 1: 237-54.
  2. It may also be an extension of the performance space assigned to transwomen, as eloquently expressed by Vivian Namaste, in Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People. The University of Chicago Press (2000).
  3. See Vidal-Ortiz, Salvador. 2009. “The figure of the transwoman of color through the lens of ‘doing gender’,” Gender & Society, 23, 1: 99-103.
  4. Ochoa, Marcia. 2011. “Pasarelas y ‘perolones:’ Mediaciones transformistas en la Avenida Libertador de Caracas.” ICONOS, 39 (Revista de Ciencias Sociales, FLACSO Ecuador), 15, 1: 123-142.

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