I was reading news of the world’s imminent doom at an internet cafe in Lapa, near downtown Rio de Janeiro, when a giddy young woman sat down next to me and made eyes. Her name was Drika, and she was not entirely a woman. Twenty minutes later she was leading me up the dark wooden stairwell of a century-old building on Avenida Mem de Sá to meet the self-proclaimed Queen of Lapa, a transsexual prostitute named Luana Muniz who, in her forty-five years in the business, had helped to revolutionize prostitution in Brazil and abroad. Luana would be my key of access into Rio’s world-famous travesti community, for at a whim she had the power to open or close all the doors. Her will was the way, and as I sat on a dilapidated faux leather sofa in her brothel’s lobby waiting for her to meet with me, I pondered how I might win her over.
But my initial exploration into the world of transsexual prostitutes began two weeks earlier. I had been looking for a new subject matter, anything at all, to pull me away from my usual beat, that tragic magnetism of violent crime and policing. My soul had grown dark enough on its own, I thought, and now it was time for something lighter. And then, while on a night stroll through Gloria, just inland from the Guanabara Bay, I found it. They looked like super women, more curvaceous than J-Lo, more primped than Beyoncé. They were photoshopped femininity incarnate, and yet they were not women at all. Then I saw a shiny black SUV pull to the curb and stop. A glorious blonde walked over to the passenger side door and got in. The vehicle sped off into the night, leaving a dozen other mega-women waiting for theirs. This, if not exactly light from heavens, was certainly brighter than more homicides and police brutality.
Hey cutie, said a voluptuous redhead as I approached a small group standing on the street corner. Hey, beautiful, I replied, and then went on to nervously explain what I intended to do. None of the girls in the group were interested in letting me invade their personal or professional lives with my camera and audio recorder, but they kindly led me over to the next block to meet someone who might agree to such a proposal. Her name was Nicole, a strikingly beautiful blonde with a flirty smile and a devilish wink. She stood over six feet tall in her go-go boots, and had to bend down to give me the standard Brazilian cheek kiss. She smelled of Chanel and asked what I wanted. I want to take pictures of your life. Is that okay? Maybe, she smiled, but today I have to work. Monday? Monday, but don’t call me before noon. I need my beauty sleep.
Monday came, and in the afternoon I met Nicole at a bar in Lapa. I ordered an espresso. She ordered pineapple lime juice. I told her she looked lovely in as many ways as I knew how. She said thanks and blushed in as many colors as her make-up permitted. Then I asked her the real questions on my mind. Do you consider yourself a man or a woman? When did you start feminizing your body? How did you get involved in prostitution? What does your family think about your sexuality, your profession? How does society treat you? What do you do in your free time? Where do you see yourself in twenty years? What are your dreams?
Yes, by the nature of my questions, you see, I was starting from scratch. I had yet to dive into the growing literature on transsexual identity and prostitution. Fortunately, Nicole was patient with me. Mostly. Occasionally she would roll her eyes, bored or frustrated by my ignorance, annoyed that I should be treating her like an alien being. I told her that I’m an alien, too. She giggled.
To my surprise, she said she was only twenty years old. She began “transforming” herself three years ago, shortly after she dropped out of high school in Niteroi. There was a lot of bullying back then, of course, but she left school more out of boredom than anything else. Bullies will be bullies, after all, and you just have to learn to live with them. She dealt with it all her life, for even as a small child she felt drawn to the world of little girls, which drew the jeer of her early male companions. Fortunately, her family always loved her just the way she was. Her mother and siblings, at least. She never knew her father, but a lot of people never knew their fathers.
Nicole cried the first time she rented her body out to a strange man. It hurt. The pain awoke a deeper sadness from within. She longed to run back to her mother’s house and wash off the stigma of her new profession. But her previous job at the bakery paid less than minimum wage, and she had thousands of dollars of debt to pay for the installation of her magnificent silicon rack. So she kept at it, and before long she began to enjoy her new career. It was fun to meet and play with new men each night, and at a rate of thirty-five dollars per half hour of work, the money rolled in. Soon she could pay off her boobs and afford all the daily cosmetic adjustments that made her feel truly beautiful. As for the stigma, that was the problem of those who cast judgment, not hers.
Do you want to walk over to my friend’s tattoo studio and take some photos, I asked? Maybe, she smiled.
My camera had an effect on Nicole like a marionette’s strings. Her frown lifted and her body curved wildly with the slightest tilt of my lens. Click-click. Her grace rose to new heights from its momentarily lapse into boredom. Move this way, no, move that way. Extend your bum a bit. Look into the light of the golden sun, you are gorgeous. I directed her motions. She directed my imagination. She was a clay doll coming to life. She was a princess unto herself.
Why don’t we do something different, I said. I mean, usual, correcting myself, remembering that I wanted to portray the day-to-day life of transsexual prostitutes and not simply take pretty pictures. Let’s go to the beach. Do you go to the beach? Of course I go the beach, stupid, don’t you? Well, yes, but… I was making assumptions about the limitations imposed by social stigmas again, forgetting that conformity is but a prison within the mind. But how do you hide your parts? She laughed. That’s a secret, I can’t tell you. Alright then, well, let’s go. Tomorrow at noon, she said. Ipanema. Oh, I delighted myself, the Girl from Ipanema!
In the morning I went to meet Nicole in Gloria, from where we were to take the metro to Ipanema. She brought a friend with her, an eighteen-year-old travesti named Dani from São Paulo. Dani was relatively new to the world of gender transformation and prostitution, and the bitter sting of her baptism into that world had yet to eclipse and give way fully to all the glamour and glee. She had gone with a strange man for the first time only a few months earlier, and the memory of it still burned sour. It’s better not to recall some things, she said, and then assured me that the job had gotten easier with time. Unlike Nicole, however, she didn’t really like being a prostitute. For her it was just about the money, which was far better than what she made as a hair stylist. Still, she hoped to save as much as possible and get out as quickly as possible, so that she could return to São Paulo to be with her family and open up her own beauty salon.
It was a splendidly sunny day at the beach. Nicole needed to buy a bikini, and Dani wanted some new sandals, so we walked around a bit looking for venders before finally finding a spot at Posto 9. As soon as we motioned to sit, a pair of beach tenders rushed like the Queen’s servants to get us incliner chairs. And they peppered Nicole and Dani with compliments on their boobs and butts. Ay, princess, where’d you get that rump! Beleza! Wow, girl, what size are you?! Thank you, the girls giggled in unison.
Nicole and Dani ordered fresh coconuts to sip on. You don’t drink? I asked them. Not really, maybe a cocktail from time to time. What about drugs? No, not really. So you’re not drug addicts? Do we look like drug addicts to you? Well, no, but aren’t a lot of the girls addicts? Some are. Most? No, not most. Oh.
Before long I stopped asking dumb questions, and opted instead to just hang out like regular ol’ friends. And from then on our conversations softened. We spoke about sweet, mundane things. Like diets and gym workouts. Like sex. Like boyfriends and girlfriends. On that note, neither Nicole or Dani had a boyfriend currently, and they both said their past experiences with men were so bad that they had no interest in starting another relationship anytime soon. Dani wouldn’t elaborate, but the shiver and twitch of her body as I asked about it said enough. Nicole complained that her ex-boyfriend was violently jealous, and that she’d rather be alone forever than in bad company. It’s probably hard to date a prostitute, I defended the ol’ chap. He’s a prostitute, too, she said.
In this way the hours passed, in a euphoric haze, as they tend to do on the beach. The shadows of seaside condominiums slowly stretched across the sand until a bite of chill provoked a sleepy exodus of the bronzed masses of beachgoers. To catch the receding remnants of sun, we walked to the water’s edge, and strolled across the wet sands all the way to that great stone outcropping known as the Arpoador.
As we walked, Dani grabbed my hand in hers. I almost pulled away, as if I were afraid of something. Then she wrapped her arm around my waste and rested her head on my shoulders. I gave in and laid my own arm across her shoulders. Awww…you guys are getting your love on, Nicole chuckled. I looked down at Dani. She felt to me just like a woman. The way she looked up at me, like a woman. My assumptions about things unhinged, and for a brief moment I experienced something like romance. Preposterous, I thought.
But the stares and snide comments of onlookers quickly began to eat at me. They were constant. Groups of teenage boys buckled laughing. Middle-aged couples stared aghast, firing judgment like missiles from their eyes. A slovenly man with a beer belly stopped us to ask for Dani’s phone number, and her price, without so much as a hello. I looked at Dani and Nicole for some help, some comprehension. Does this happen all the time? Doesn’t it drive you mad? No, silly, it’s not like they’re throwing stones at us, geez!. True, I suppose. But to me it felt like stones, and I went home that night feeling like I had been beaten to a pulp.
My escapades with Dani and Nicole ended there, because their home lives, which I wanted to document, were controlled by a power greater than themselves. That is, despite the legal prohibition of any form of sexual exploitation in Brazil—like, say, pimping—street-level prostitution rarely works anywhere without some form of coercive hierarchy. Call it a mafia. Call it a labor union. Whatever. In any case, the girls didn’t have the freedom to invite me over, lest I be a paying customer. To get access to the real day-to-day lives of travestis in Rio de Janeiro, then, I would need permission from the boss herself, and that’s what brought me to Luana Muniz, the infamous Queen of Lapa.
I asked my good friend, Cole Howard, a fellow photographer, to come with me to meet the Queen. It would be a nice break from my usual lone wolf method of invading the personal lives of others in foreign lands. After all, happiness, as one tragic lone wolf once wrote in his final days, is only real when shared. Misery, on the other hand…well, there’s no need to get into that.
It was a Saturday night. Drika, the travesti I met at the internet cafe, introduced me and Cole to Luana at the top of the dark stairwell of the old brothel, and then ran off to prepare herself for a night’s work. Hello, Madame Luana, I said, it is such an honor to finally meet you. Welcome to my house, she replied, adjusting a long sparkly scarf around her head. Evelyn! she called out to one of the house girls. Please take these gentlemen to the foyer and offer them some coffee. Please, gentlemen, make yourselves at home, and I will come speak with you as soon as possible. She was in the middle of coordinating a porn video in one of the guest rooms.
Cole and I sat on the torn and faded sofas of the foyer, admiring the room’s bright pink walls and hundreds of framed photographs of yesteryear’s glory. Most of the pictures were of Luana Muniz herself, portraying her ascent to transsexual stardom in Brazil and Europe. Although now in her mid to late fifties and far beyond her physical prime, her star had yet to descend, evinced by portraits of her adventures in fab and magnificence at the massive Gay Pride parades in Copacabana of recent years. She was the contemporary Madame Satã, and she would be the Queen of Lapa until God himself said enough is enough.
After fifteen minutes or so, Luana walked into the room and apologized for making us wait. No problem at all, I assured her. Then she sat down in her dilapidated throne in the middle of room and got down to business. What is it that brings you here, she said. What is your project, explain yourselves. Since I had invited Cole without giving him any preparation for what we were getting ourselves into, I did most of the talking. But I didn’t have to talk much, for Luana is like a Marxist politician, spring boarding off any conversation point into a long and poetic diatribe about the nature of things, the course of history, and her important role in the evolution of humankind. I told her I wanted to know why transsexual culture in Brazil had developed so far beyond what I know of it in my own country, the grand ol’ United States of America. I wanted to know how it happened, what it meant, and what could be learned from the Brazilian experience in terms of pros and cons for sexual identity liberation worldwide. To do this, I needed to interview her girls and take lots of pictures. In the meantime, she told me the story of her life.
Luana prostituted herself for the first time at the age of nine, in the year of love, 1969, to her next door neighbor. By the age of twelve she was working the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and her reputation as a local beauty grew exponentially. At twenty she made her first voyage to Europe, and she and her co-generationals took the continent by surprise. Having capitalized on the discovery of silicon implants in the 1960s, Brazilian travestis enchanted the noblemen of Paris, Madrid, Geneva, and Rome, who drooled over those shapely goddesses newly arrived from some faraway tropical paradise. They were more feminine than the real street femmes of old, more audacious, more exciting.
As Brazil’s economy collapsed in the 1980s, the booming European prostitution market offered an escape from poverty for thousands of young Brazilian transsexuals. Having been among the first generation in Europe, Luana developed the connections necessary to sneak newcomers into the old continent to work the increasingly lucrative prostitution circuits there. She arranged their passage, their housing, and their workload, all for a healthy cut of the profits. Meanwhile, she continued prostituting herself and performing at spectacular drag shows. Her fortune grew. So did her wardrobe. Today she is the proud owner of twelve properties and a collection of fabulous dresses worth more than a hundred thousand dollars.
The profession had its downsides, however. She was arrested multiple times in Europe, and even spent time in jail in Italy under charges of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. She had to contend with the rowdy behavior of many of the young immigrants, too, who in the early years were given to ripping off clients and provoking media scandals. It took a generation or two for the Brazilian prostitutes to learn to adapt to European culture, she says. In Europe, prostitution had long been treated more as a legitimate business, with transactions made cleanly and without deceit, unlike like Brazil, where theft and trickery were survival mechanisms.
Although prostitution is legal in Brazil, deep social stigma had historically pushed the profession underground, where the imperatives of individual survival created a dog-eat-dog environment bereft of long term rationality. Transsexual prostitutes became targets of media sensationalism in the wake of regular scandals and deceit, and were subsequently targeted by law enforcement and public ridicule. Having benefited from a more professionalized mode of conduct in Europe, Luana resolved to organize, socialize, and professionalize prostitution in her home country. She began this venture in Lapa, her old stomping grounds, and in 2003 she founded the Association of Transsexual and Transgender Prostitutes of Rio de Janeiro (ATTPRJ), a formal legal entity registered with the state.
I didn’t look at the by-laws of the ATTPRJ, but its power and functions are relatively clear. Any transsexual prostitute working the streets in or near downtown Rio de Janeiro must be a member, and membership costs 50 Reais per week, or about 25 dollars. The principle benefit of membership is access to clients, but the association—or Luana, specifically—will also intervene selectively in cases of legal or health issues by paying attorney fees, hospital bills, medications, and drug treatment costs, as well as providing food baskets in times of need. The ATTPRJ even has a social worker, a pleasant travesti in her forties named Cris, who provides support services and professional references to young transsexuals making the transition to a career in prostitution, many of whom come from faraway places like Amazonas or Rio Grande do Norte and have no local family or friends. Cris teaches them everything from how to practice safe sex to reporting a crime to the police.
Luana, of course, has been the president of the ATTPRJ since its inception, and will continue to be so until…well, that wasn’t a subject anyone felt comfortable talking about. And she wields an exceptional degree of power, not just over the transsexual prostitutes of Lapa, but also in the community itself. The police and local businessmen all tip their hats to her as she walks by, and she makes it a point to compliment them on their good work. Local residents also bow to her. And when someone disrespects her, they pay dearly. It could be as simple as a nunly scolding or as harsh as a surly pound-down with her notorious wooden club, which she carries in her purse at all times. She recently made international news after beating a man to a pulp with it for harassing her in front of her brothel. She also carries a canister of pepper spray tucked into her cleavage, and if all else fails, she knows a bit of Jiu Jitsu. It is true. She showed me.
Perhaps the most important source of her power and influence, however, is the vast reservoir of delicate secrets of which she alone is the guardian. In this respect, the social stigma around prostitution, and particularly transsexual prostitution, works in her favor, for there are few among the elite men in any country who would like to publicly admit to their naughtier nighttime adventures. Police chiefs, judges, city councilmen, a state governor…most of these men have family lives and political reputations that would be seriously damaged if word got out. And Luana owns that word.
Why should I let you do this project you are proposing? She asked. She assured me that travestis are only interested in money and fame, and I obviously didn’t have any to offer. Of course, Luana will do almost anything for free if it is for a good cause, like organize a drag show to raise funds for an orphanage or a retirement home, but what good cause did I have to offer? It’s for the sake of knowledge, I said. No, that wasn’t enough, so I pushed it further. I want to teach Americans a lesson or two about the complex nature of human sexuality so that, once and for all, we as a people can overcome our simplistic and often harmful assumptions about the purpose and functions of gender and sex (Pheew! That was a long one!) Brazilian culture, I continued, was far more sexually enlightened than its American counterpart, and that’s a worthwhile matter to explore.
In the end Luana agreed to let me and Cole into her world. Okay, she said, you can come back Wednesday evening. I’ll see if I can scrounge up some girls willing to talk to you. But no promises, eh? You be here at 4:00 pm. Roger that.
Wednesday came, and Cole and I prepared our camera kits. This was going to be the night of nights. And it was. It began with another several hours of conversation with Luana, but she also introduced us to several travestis currently living in her brothel for twenty dollars a night. The youngest of them were like young people everywhere, timid and reticent, but cute as buttons. Evelyn sat quietly in her chair, always looking at Luana for approval before answering any of my questions. Aline, one of Luana’s favorites, opened up a bit more, even while swearing she wouldn’t say anything at all. Her dream in life was to be forever young, but since that was unlikely, she hoped to have her own beauty salon some day, as a backup. In the meantime, she was going to continue having fun and making money on the streets of Lapa. Silvão, the only biological female around, looked the most like a man. She was the live-in housekeeper, and it was her birthday today, so we all sang her a happy one while Luana sat on her lap and clapped. But it was Adriana who caught my attention the most. At forty-two, she was certainly past her physical prime in the world of street-level prostitution, but more interestingly, she was crippled. A bad car accident eighteen years earlier left her right leg nearly paralyzed, and only in the last few years she has learned to walk again with a crutch. Soft spoken, reflective, not a trace of bitterness. She was human struggle overcome. She was beautiful.
Numerous other girls passed through the foyer on their way to their rooms to get ready for the night, only to come out again transformed into proud high-heeled sex goddesses. But they all had to follow Luana’s house rules no matter what. Excuse me, one girl said as she shifted by. Excuse me and…Luana stopped her in her tracks, dropping a tension bomb that shut everyone up. Excuse me and good evening, the girl corrected herself. Very well, you can go now. Ahhh…Luana would later sigh, many of these girls never learned how to show respect at home, which means I have to teach them. Respect, naturally, was the number one rule of the house.
A thought suddenly occurred to me. Where were all the female prostitutes? Was there any sense of unity between the travestis and the biologically born femmes who rent out their bodies by the half hour? Luana kindly explained the situation to me. No, she said, the women have their world and we have ours. Some years back there had been a bit of conflict over “misrepresentation”—you know, when females would try to work the same corners as travestis, and create all sorts of confusion among the clients. But that doesn’t happen anymore, because the nature of female prostitution has changed. Women no longer work the streets, and instead have gone over to online networking or closed brothels.
And there was good reason for this change. The big difference between female prostitutes and travesti prostitutes, after all, is not so much the genitalia, rather the simple fact that women typically get married and have children, and travestis do not. This means that women are more prone to prostitute to support a family, while travestis prostitute to support their dreams of extravagance. Furthermore, female prostitutes can hide their nocturnal professions easily, and therefore have more to lose in the case that they are discovered working the streets. Travestis, by contrast, can never hide their professions. They are publicly treated as prostitutes even when they are not, and so working the streets for them does not create any extra risks of being scorned or shamed, as it would for a single mother just trying to pay for her kids’ schooling.
But perhaps the biggest question on my mind was also the most absurd: what is a travesti? Is he a gay man who wishes to be a woman? Is she a straight woman born with a male genitalia and physical composition? My problem, I realized, is that my own deeply engrained notions of human sexuality were limited to a simple binary classification consisting of Man on one extreme and Woman on the other. Everyone had to be either Adam or Eve. Man and Woman could, of course, switch roles in myriad ways, but they still had to be Man or Woman at their core. There was no room for another sex or another gender independent of the old binary.
Luana and her house girls assured me that travestis were something else altogether. They were born male and turned into females, but their essence was really neither. They were, plain and simply, travestis. A third gender, if you will. And since the old binary had to be abandoned to really understand the travesti, it also had to be abandoned to understand the client, or human sexual preference in general. The man who sleeps with a travesti cannot simply be understood as gay, heterosexual, or bisexual, but rather something more along the lines of, say, polyamorous, or just sexual. Furthermore, gender and sexuality should not be understood simply as hardwired biological fact, but as personal identities and interests that evolve over time in relation to environmental or chemical constraints and stimuli. Only in this way, I thought, could we explain why the super-feminized travesti of Brazil is so much more prominent a public figure than her counterpart in more sexually conservative countries like the United States.
But what was it that allowed the Brazilian travesti to evolve to be who she is today, the transsexual Queen of the World? Was it just Brazilian culture, influenced more heavily by tropical norms of sexuality, that opened the road for new identities to develop? Or does the answer lie in institutions, like the formal legality of prostitution? Perhaps it is both. Miscegenation was never culturally or institutionally condemned in Brazil to the extent it was in the United States, and the Catholic Church of Brazil never successfully squashed the more liberal sexual practices of the native and imported slave populations, even though it tried to. Of equal importance, I imagine, the legality of prostitution created market incentives for young transsexuals to go to extremes to transform themselves so that they might compete more effectively among the deeply entrenched traditional prostitution circuits.
Another strange thought occurred to me as I pondered it all. As in all countries, popular standards of feminine beauty have changed substantially over the years, with dramatic changes seen particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century. But curiously, these beauty standards in Brazil have evolved in a very different direction than those elsewhere. While in North America and Europe we have come to lust over the thigh gap and other manifestations of female skeletalism, Brazilians have drooled over thunder thighs and mega-asses. If you are willing to take Playboy Magazine as an effective culturometer, just compare the magazine covers of its American and Brazilian versions. You will see the difference in popular standards of feminine beauty clear as day.
But why would Brazilian standards of beauty go one way while the rest of the Occidental World, which is generally being emulated everywhere, goes another? Could it be related to the evolution of the Brazilian travesti and her impact on national culture? Pumping herself with silicon implants and female growth hormones to compete with her female prostitute counterparts, the travesti went above and beyond. In the words of Luana, she became more woman than a woman, and in this way secured an elite share of both the prostitution market and of popular attention in general. Could it be that, in creating herself as a busty full-figured mega-woman with immense popular success nationally and worldwide, she helped pull standards of feminine beauty away from the disastrous trends of the Global North and towards something much more shapely? If so, did the legality of prostitution save Brazil from the plague of anorexia that has come to haunt our youth here in the United States and elsewhere?
I could find no answer for these questions, and all the better, because it was getting late at the brothel, and it was time to take some pictures. Luana invited me and Cole to take a walk out in the streets to meet her working girls. And there were a lot of them, all done up and ready to paint the town red. Luana was the key, and she opened the door. In her company it was all blessed and giddy reception. She was the boss, and she ruled with iron fist, but also with a delicate and compassionate hand. Her girls may have feared her, but they loved her as well. And in the end, I also felt a deep gratitude and admiration for her, not only for inviting me into her life, but also for role she has played throughout her life in advancing the cause of dignity for those who refuse to conform to an archaic and conservative social order. Kudos to Luana Muniz, the Queen of Lapa.