Exploring the Travesti Community in Argentina

By Sofia Knutson


In Argentina, the term travesti is used to refer to transgender individuals. This essay will therefore use the term travesti referring to transgender individuals in Argentina. The discourse regarding sex, sex category, and gender is based on the essay “Doing Gender” (West and Zimmerman 1987). In this essay, sex is defined as the socially approved, biological markers of sex which typically refers to genitalia. The sex category is the sex assumed by others based on actions and other socially gendered displays an individual may have. Gender, on the other hand, is based on the individual’s adoption or rejection of actions and displays, defined by society via the sex category, due to the feeling or desire of being more or less masculine and feminine (West and Zimmerman 1987). The analysis of policy, media, and the travesti community is grounded on the essay by West and Zimmerman. However within the analysis I keep in mind that the travestis in Argentina do not necessarily abide by the local social constructions of sex, gender, and sex category; travestis live in a gray area between male and female and between masculine and feminine. While the evidence for this essay unfortunately does not come from direct interaction with travestis in Buenos Aires, all news articles discussed were published in Argentina. Along with having personal experience of living outside of Buenos Aires for three years, my analysis of the travesti community in the Argentine capital strives to be sensitive and particular to Argentine people and culture.

Understanding the Argentine, and specifically the Bonarenses, sociopolitical space for travestis requires the knowledge of the geographical space travestis occupy. At least for a living, the travesti prostitutes do business in the popular park Tres de Febrero. However this has only been the case since 2008 when the Head of Government of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, decreed that travestis perform their business in the park rather than the famous Rosedal, the capital’s rose gardens (Tomino 2008). While moving the travestis out of the Rosedal reveals prejudice, seeing as the Rosedal is not only in the area most embassies are, but is across from the United States’ Ambassador’s residence, the fact that Macri allotted a popular park as the space for the prostitutes’ economic activities sanctioned the travestis a geographical area. Furthermore, the political action allotted a space within the political sphere for travestis to be discussed. Luckily, the room given for political rhetoric revolving the travesti community in Argentina has progressed to be more accepting of the individuals and their rights.

Argentina can be seen as one of the most liberal countries in the world when assessing the rights endorsed by the government and population granted to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities. Since 2010 the city of Buenos Aires has allowed same-sex marriage and, as of May 2012, the city passed the Gender Identity law permitting Argentine citizens to legally change their gender regardless of sex. One of the most exciting components of the law is that there are no requirements for an individual seeking to change their gender legally to make physical changes to their bodies: there is no need for doctors to ensure mental sanity, hormone therapy treatment, or sex reassignment surgery. The Gender Identity law is the only one in the world which allows individuals to assert their gender and sex category based purely on how they feel. The law even permits children, those under the age of eighteen, to legally change their gender given that their legal guardians agree (Argentina 2012).

Yet what happens when an individual does not adhere to the normative gender binary? What do you do if you are living in between the hegemonic distinction of male and female? The Gender Identity law does not approach this problem, but also does not give a definition of gender or different genders. The Gender Identity law does allow travestis to legally adopt the name they go by and gender the individuals feel most comfortable with, but this means travestis must conform to gender normatives instead of having a law conforming to individuals outside of the socially defined norm. The Gender Identity law is a success for the LGBT community, then, and allows space for the travesti community.

A look at newspapers shows interest and understanding of the travesti community, but also reveals how strongly violence is correlated with the travesti community. There is an article which mentions violence surrounding travestis when it covers the rape of a young travesti in Buenos Aires (“Violan a un travesti en los bosques de Palermo” 2006). This article was published before legislation recognizing the rights of travesti individuals, but while referring to travestis with a male article, “un,” the article also defends the rights of the travesti individual to not be raped.

One article from a different national newspaper and that takes place in Buenos Aires narrated the story of Marilyn. The headline reads “Mató a su familia, se hizo travesti en la cárcel y se casó”—which translates to “Killed their family, became a travesti in jail, and got married”—without gender identification which is typically found in the Spanish language. When describing the circumstances as to why Marilyn had killed her mother and brother, the article refers to how the family “comenzaron a hostigarlo” and “lo molestaban”—they harassed and bothered him—using references to his masculinity, at least when describing the time before his ‘conversion.’ However, when the article is describing how excited Marilyn is to plan the wedding, she is referred to using feminine language (“Mató a su familia, se hizo travesti en la cárcel y se casó” 2013). While this article appears to be respecting the fact that Marilyn is a travesti, it also highlights that she murdered her family. This article from Buenos Aires, then, reveals how media portrayals, while still associating the travesti with violence, can also keep in consideration the right of Marilyn to affirm her identity as a travesti.

Existing in the gray area between the gender binary makes life difficult for travestis from an economic standpoint as well as a political one. Prejudice, oppression, and discrimination lead to the inability to attain a job as a travesti. Prostitution and other activities parallel to the formal market, and therefore typically illegal, are the easiest ways for individuals and communities who are marginalized to survive. In 2011, an article was published in the newspaper Clarín describing the Zona Roja or Red Light District of the Tres de Febrero park in Palermo (Coronel 2011). The article described how the travesti prostitute community had come together. While Coronel claims that the marginalization of foriegners was visible due to their location in the back of the park, he also revealed that, regardless of nationality or other conflicts, when a travesti is being accosted the travestis forget their differences and come to the victim’s aid. While both foreign and new travestis must earn their geographical area to do business, “where there is a novice there is another with more experience. Always. The bigger ones protect and show the code of practice” (Coronel 2011). Prostitution, then, while dangerous and likely not the ideal economic activity off which to base one’s survival, is a major way travestis are able to form a community. But the desire for other forms of making a living have led to the creation of social support and networking to gain access to human capital.

Since 2008, when the city of Buenos Aires sanctioned the popular Tres de Febrero Park which, during the day, has runners, cyclists, dog walkers, and families, to be the center of travesti prostitution at night, the geographical space allotted to the travestis also allowed for a space in political discourse. Argentina has since become one of, if not the most, liberal countries with regards to government endorsement of rights for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, and Queer communities. Progressive political and legal advocacy for LGBTQ rights has also translated into the progressive acceptance of the LGBTQ community in media and thus society. While certain sectors of society criticize travestis, even more conservative critics are concerned with the vice of prostitution and the ills the act causes rather than upset with the travesti community. While prostitution has helped create a community for travestis out of the need to protect each other from stigmatization or to show each other the ropes, other economic activities have been sought out.

While the economic sector might need to catch up with legislation and society, Argentina still proves to be a model for countries looking to endorse the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, and Queer communities.