Annick Prieur - Mema's House, Mexico City: On Transvestites, Queens and Machos

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Transvestite prostitutes in Mexico City

Dec 21, 2001
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:perceptive analysis

Cons:based on perilously short fieldwork, ends with conventional feminist smugness

The Bottom Line: see review


WARNING: Sexually explicit discussion.

Mema is the queen mother of a group of young transvestite male prostitutes in Nezahualcóytol, a city that has been swallowed within the sprawl of the world's largest city, Mexico City. Mema's sponsorship of the jotos (effeminate, not necessarily transvestite homosexuals) she shelters includes HIV-transmission-prevention education.

Prieur met Mema at a 1988 AIDS conference and "wangled an invitation" to visit. She visited a number of times for a total of about seven months of observation and focused interviewing over a span of five years. Acutely aware of the issues in theorizing gender and sexuality in regard to Latino males who have sex with males, Prieur has produced an oustandingly sensitive, sensible, and well-written analysis of the male-sex-worker subculture in the largest city in the Americas (and possibly the world).

It is a subculture rather than a counterculture, because its participants embrace rather than oppose the gender-dichotomized and familistic bases of Latino culture. Jotos "reproduce the regular gendered patterns in their own relationships to men. . . [They] are not feminists."

Those who adopt particularly flamboyant female dress are not seeking to resist, challenge, or transcend binary gender conceptions. Rather, their appearance signals sexual availability. As Gata explained, "Bugas [heterosexual- identified men] like women, so to attract them, to reach my goal more quickly, I had to look like a woman."

If jotas were attempting to pass as women, they would look and act more discreet. Nor are they a seeking to become women: sex reassignment surgery would deprive them of the pleasures of erection and ejaculation which most enjoy sometimes, even if being penetrated is the sexual pleasure they most often seek.

Simulation of female appearance is also tactical in that it provides a cover for conventionally masculine partner to have sex with a male while denying that is what he is doing. The strength of the cultural model of dichotomizing gender is so strong, and the equation of homosexuality and effeminacy so taken-for-granted, that even masculine males who have just been sexually penetrated may deny having sex with males.

Although some writers such as Roger Lancaster, theorize about the meanings of homosexuality without having observed or interviewed Latino males who have sex with males have equated penetrating males with honor, and being penetrated with shame, the jotos Prieur (and others) observed are shameless, while their sexual partners are, if not ashamed, at least abashed. The (northern) conception that males who have sex with males, regardless of the sexual role taken, are "homosexual" is known by some and may account for some of the unease and outright denial Prieur (and others) have elicited from masculine participants (mayates). Activos do not brag about their penetration of (biological) males. Such bragging about male sexual conquests as occurs is done by the jotos . The mayates are reluctant to talk to each other (about anything; particularly about sex), and are far less willing to discuss their sexual histories with alien researchers than are the ever-voluble jotos.

Prieur somewhat overdraws a distinction between northern valuation of genuineness ("nature") and southern valuation of artifice, occasionally forgets that most male-male sex in Mexico does not involve transvestitism, and burns excessive incense at the altar of Bourdieu. These flaws are far outweighed by the vividness of her descriptions, her success in eliciting rich data on gender and sexuality, and the acuity of her analysis, particularly of how jotos differ—and want to differ—from Mexican (biological) females; how machismo, bisexuality, and homophobia fit together; and why one should credit positive desire rather than lack of females as the primary motive for male-male sex.

The book's second (or more) language English is dispiritingly good. There is some occasional Bourdieu jargon, but Prieur writes vividly about the lives of this circle of transgendered males.

(Another version of this review appeared in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute and is being reposted after migrating when updates were suspended in epinions.)


Recommend this product? Yes


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