Sexuality issues have gained considerable discursive space in the last two decades in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Yet due to the attention drawn in the early years of the epidemic to homosexuality, this discursive space has largely framed men ‘both homosexual and heterosexual’ as the primary sexual actors, whether as agents in sexual relationships or as transmitters of sexual diseases, and obscured all other sexual agents.
Heterosexual women have been seen as unlikely perpetrators of either sex or disease. Lesbians, including bisexual lesbians, have been left out of the question altogether, as if the HIV/AIDS crisis has nothing to do with them. And transgender and intersex sexuality issues, including those related to the epidemic, have been sidelined by the rigidity of the male/female gender dichotomy that underpins the discussion. Sexuality only enters this framework as a factor of ill health or ‘risk’, which permits little of many peoples’ actual experiences of sexuality, including pleasure, to be recognised.
This paper draws on a two-year research project with transgendered people (travesti or travestis) in Lima that explored issues of identity considered important by many travestis in Latin America and on the socio-economic struggles that most face. It begins with a consideration of some of the conceptual issues that confront travestis, in particular in relation to the polarised gender categories of male/female.
It goes on to place travesti issues in a ‘development’ framework, emphasising the ways in which travestis actively manage and challenge the many aspects of their disadvantage and social exclusion. Rather than a litany of the effects of social stigma, the discussion offers some key points for development in ways that do not threaten travesti identity. It illustrates some positive examples of work with travestis, as potential ways forward.