Latin America is a paradox. On the one hand, it is home to some of the most macho and homophobic cultures on the planet, yet on the other it is home to huge numbers of transsexuals.
The principal colonial power in Latin America was Spain and as in the Philippines, the Pope’s embedded reporters, the Catholic priests, travelled with the conquistadores, noting and enumerating all that they encountered.
After his exploration of the Veracruz region of eastern Mexico, conquistador Hernando Cortes (1485-1547) informed King Carlos V of Spain: “…in each important temple or house of worship, they have a man or two, or more, depending on the idol, who go dressed in women’s attire from the time they are children, and speak like them, and in manner, dress, and everything else they imitate women. With them especially the chiefs and headmen have … intercourse on feast days and holidays, almost like a religious rite and ceremony.” Similar reports of “hermaphrodite” natives among the indigenous tribes of Mexico, South America, Florida and the West Indies evoked great curiosity back in Spain. Eager to investigate, Spanish writer and traveler Francisco Coreal set out for Florida in 1669. Once there, he discovered a class of effeminate boys who lived with the women, made their same handiworks, wore particular feathers and served the native tribesmen in various ways that included (sex). Coreal wrote: “I believe that these hermaphrodites are none other than the effeminate boys, that in a sense truly are hermaphrodites.”
Once again, as we see time and again, homosexuality and transsexualism are seen as related.
In modern times, Latin America’s trans community, usually called ‘travesti’ have become internationally famous for their great beauty.
Supermodel Lea T (b. 1981, alias Leandra Medeiros Cerezo) is a Brazilian transwoman and she is very far from being alone. The travesti culture of Latin America should be seen, like transwomen elsewhere, as having deep cultural roots.
Probably the most thorough and at the same time, readable, work on the modern Brazilian travesti is the eponymous book by Professor Don Kulick. He spent a year living in a ‘travesti house’ in Bahia in northern Brazil and his work should be regarded as required reading.