Forget about Mrs. Doubtfire, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or any of the Monty Python crew. Since ancient times, real men in societies throughout the world have, for various reasons, been dressing as women. Whether for the pageantry, the gender identity, or the social commentary of it, transvestism (wearing the clothes of the opposite sex) and transsexualism (identifying as a gender different from one’s assigned sex at birth) are an inseparable part of human history. And, indeed, transgender people (those who deviate from traditional gender roles) have carved out a lasting place in many of the world’s cultures.
Thailand’s ladyboys and San Francisco’s drag queens may be worlds apart in their cultural heritage, modes of transgender expression, and motivations for doing so, but they do share an impact on observers: they make us question gender boundaries and help us see that sexuality is not black and white.
Travel is often about changing one’s perspective, and what better way to change your perspective when abroad than to observe (and even participate in) the gender-bending happenings in your destination? Below is a brief list of places and people that are not to be missed if you happen to find yourself itching for a change of scenery (or clothes) on your next trip. We’re focusing on men dressing as and playing the role of women in this post; keep an eye out for part two, where we’ll explore the other side of the coin.
Disclaimer: Though we are admittedly lumping together an incredibly wide range of people who identify as male, female, transsexual, transgender, transvestite, asexual, etc., we are in no way implying that these diverse groups share any similarity to each other. It would be impossible to create a list of exclusively transsexual or exclusively female-identifying entertainers and cultural groups because these terms are entirely a personal choice. These words defy definition by their very nature — that’s kind of the point.
1. Pattaya, Thailand
Thailand‘s “ladyboys” (กะเทย; “kathoey”) are perhaps the world’s best-known trans women. Although they reside in cities across the country, the resort city of Pattaya is the place to see them in all their bejeweled, be-boa-ed, sequined, and fabulous glory. Hit one of the nightly cabarets at Tiffany’s Show or Alcazar, for a start. This year’s Miss International Queen contest will also be held in Pattaya on November 19th.
Though kathoey are generally accepted and incorporated into Thai society, claims of full cultural integration may be overblown; your cashier at the market might be a kathoey, but chances are better they’re working at a nightclub or in the sex industry. Says our Phuket Local Expert:
The most visible arena for Thai transvestites is the cabaret. Catering mainly to tourists, but some locals too, these shows are magnificently opulent and grandly theatrical in their music and visuals. The Phuket Simon Cabaret is arguably the island’s most spectacular transvestite performance.
2. Rio de Janeiro
Certainly the best time of year to see Brazil‘s bands of busty babes of all genders is during Carnaval, the country’s time to let loose before the beginning of Lent. The men who use this time — and this time alone — to dress in drag are often middle-class, everyday working stiffs with families during the rest of the year. They don’t necessarily identify with the transgender community as a whole, but rather use Brazil’s season of relaxed social restrictions to put themselves on display for the pure spectacle of it. Men dressed as Carmen Miranda while still sporting a mustache are a common sight, and a frequent target of “bad drag” accusations.
Rio de Janeiro is the hub of Brazil’s Carnaval celebrations, and as such is also the hub for the country’s annual increase in its crossdressing community. Perhaps the most famous group of drag queens for a day is the Banda de Ipanema, a Rio Carnaval institution since 1965, recognized as part of the city’s cultural heritage since 2004. It’s a group displaying the more outrageous and ridiculous aspects of drag: expect 13″ platform shoes, 3′ wigs, and plenty of highly campy, kitschy costumes parading down the streets.
The Banda de Ipanema gathers in Ipanema’s Praça General Osório around 4-5pm and makes its way through the neighborhood of Ipanema on the Saturday two weeks before Carnaval, and then again on Carnaval Saturday and Tuesday. Attendees are welcome to participate, and indeed people come from around the country and the world to do so.
3. Samoa and Polynesia
Called “fa’afafine,” Samoan transvestites and transgender women have been an integral part of their culture for generations. Traditionally, families that didn’t have a daughter would designate one of their sons to help out with what was considered “women’s work” around the house, dressing them and treating them as women, regardless of their own identity. Today, fa’afafine are more likely to be gay or transvestites, and families often respect their identities as such, neither encouraging nor discouraging their choice to live as women.
Like in Thailand, across Polynesia a “third gender” of transgender women have been integrated to varying degress into their respective cultures: called “fakaleiti” in Tonga and “rae rae” or “mahu” in French Polynesia. They are raised as women and hold a reputation for hard work and dedication to family.
If you find yourself in American Samoa, the Miss Island Queen Pageant is the place to catch the region’s top drag queens duke it out for the prestigious Miss Island Queen title. It’s also good for the country’s people: all proceeds from the event are donated to local charities. Probably the most notable past winner is Cindy Filo, who later became transvestite superstar Cindy of Samoa. Watch her belt out some tunes as Tina Turner in clubs across Polynesia and Oceania.
New Zealand, with its large Samoan population, is also home to a notable population of fa’afafine, who put themselves on display across Auckland and Wellington.
4. San Francisco
As an integral part of the LGBT community (an entire 25% of the acronym!), transsexual/transgender people play a large part in the social makeup of San Francisco. Shows at venues like Asia SF, The Stud hosting Trannyshack, and Aunt Charlie’s put San Francisco’s transexual community in the spotlight. The variety of these shows speaks to the diversity of the city’s transsexual and transvestite communities: take in some high fashion at Asia SF, a cabaret of the ridiculous at Hotel Nikko‘s Rrazz Room, or gender-bending stand-up comedy at Club 93.
Feel like catching a transexually charged movie? Then the annual Trannyfest — featuring films and live performances by the trans community — is for you. How about some leather, bondage, and whips with your transvestite chicks? Check out the Folsom Street fair for unadulterated sexual exploration, or its smaller, hotter sister the Up Your Alley Fair on Dore St. for even more outrageous (if that’s even possible) revelry for people of all genders. Remember that at these events gawking is frowned upon and participation encouraged — not for the faint of bum.
Among the din of the city’s transsexual and transvestite voices, one crossdressing choir sticks out: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a local group of men who dress as Catholic nuns. They use Catholic imagery to outrageous and controversial effect while raising money for causes both related and unrelated to the LGBT community. It’s been reported that they’ve raised over $1 million for charity in the roughly 30 years since their foundation.
5. India and Pakistan
Called “hijra” (Hindi: हिजड़ा, Urdu: ہِجڑا, Bengali: হিজড়া, Telugu: హిజ్ర), India and Pakistan’s physiological males who assume a feminine gender identity, women’s clothing, and other feminine gender roles have played a large but often discriminated role in their cultures since ancient times. The term “hijra” may also refer to eunuchs and androgynous people and comes closer to meaning “third gender” or “third sex” than the western words “transsexual” or “transvestite.”
Members of a separate caste in Hindu society, hijras have historically been alternately revered, feared, and discriminated against. Today they are marginalized in Indian society, relegated to begging and sex work for their income. Interestingly, however, they are often welcomed at ceremonies like weddings and childbirths, where they sing and perform sexually suggestive dances that are believed to bring good luck and fertility. Because of their perceived asexual nature, hijras are believed to store sexual energy that they can then impart on others as a blessing or a curse.
If you’re not lucky enough to catch a hijra performance at a wedding, you can also attend the hijras’ eighteen-day religious festival in Tamil Nadu, during April and May at Aravani Temple in the village of Koovagam. Annual beauty pageants are also held throughout the country, the largest of which is the Indian Super Queen contest held in Mumbai. These pageants are said to be helping raise the status of Indian hijras, though most acknowledge there’s still quite a bit of progress that needs to be made.