Participant Observation at Casa Trans

Over the past year I have been keeping track of the work of a group called Casa Trans (Trans House) based in Quito, Ecuador. Casa Trans is both a home for LGBT activists and a political and cultural center where events and meetings are held on a regular basis.  Providing safe and affordable housing to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender activist is an important factor that contributes to the vitality of the organization because many of its members experience housing discrimination. Casa Trans was formed in response to the murder of a transgender activist in 2004.  The members identify themselves as Transfeministas (transfeminists); they embrace the legacy and history of the feminist movement as their own and see themselves as working to expand the scope of feminism.  Casa Trans works on various different projects and campaigns at any given time, but their mainstay is as group in defense of the gender and sexual rights of Ecuadorians.  They are resolutely in support of women’s right to choose in a political climate where abortion is a relentlessly controversial topic and many LGBT organizations have refused to weigh in on the topic.  Casa Trans is the first LGBT organization in Ecuador that has sought out transgender men and made them part of their organizing efforts.  They affirm that some women have penises and some men have vaginas, and thereby refuse a biologist gender binary.  One of the members I interviewed said that she is not interested in being identified solely as woman because the term trans marks her experience of transitioning from one gender to another.  This is a remarkable contrast from more common approaches to transgender identity as a pathological disease, or a case of being trapped in the wrongly gendered body.

Garriga - Ecuador - Todos somos
Sign reads “We are all whores”

Garriga - Ecuador - poster
This is a promotional flier for the March of the Whores held in Quit, Ecuador on March 10, 2012

On March 10 of 2012, the members of Casa Trans organized a Marcha de las Putas (March of the Whores) in which they called for an end to sexism, homophobia, and violence against putas.  They argued that all women who assert their social and sexual autonomy are labeled as whores and therefore they would assume this label as a badge of honor.  They established very wide parameters for who counts as a puta, including women who are victims of domestic violence, women who have an active sex life, women who have had abortions, as well as heterosexual, homosexual and transgender sex-workers.  In so doing they provided simultaneous points of critique against sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, and a clearly articulated politics of solidarity between different activist communities.

Garriga - Ecuador - rally
The march ended with a rally at Plaza Foch

Their coalitional efforts were so successful that the Marcha de las Putas was more widely attended than the gay pride festivities that followed it in the month of June.  Another notable accomplishment of Casa Trans in recent years is their successful campaign to legalize transgender sex work. Before I arrived in Quito I decided that they should be one of the organizations that I highlight in my dissertation work.

Garriga - Ecuador - legal patrol
This is a promotional flier for a documentary film made about the legal patrol.

Another notable accomplishment of Casa Trans in recent years is their successful campaign to legalize transgender sex work and protect sex workers from street violence and police brutality.  Before I arrived in Quito I decided that they should be one of the organizations that I highlight in my dissertation work. .  In order to assure the implementation of this new law and to protect sex workers against street violence or police harassment Casa Trans organizes nightly patrols called Patrulla Legal (Legal Patrol).  These patrols consist of one or two lawyers and at least two members of the Casa Trans.  They work to document altercations with the police, instances of street violence, and any other violation of the rights of sex workers.  They provide on site support, as well as legal support in instances when sex workers want to make a legal claim against an institution or individual.  They are extremely knowledgeable in constitutional rights, especially given that Eli Vasquez, one of the lead organizers and lawyers of Casa Trans, personally drafted many of the new constitutional rights that were granted to LGBT people following the constitutional reform of 2008.

Garriga - Ecuador - cuerpo posterUpon my arrival in Quito on July 4th 2012, I promptly attended a dance performance by the Colectivo Zeta held at Casa Trans.  There I met with Ana Almeida and Eli Vasquez.  We spoke about the many different performance artists who have presented their work at Casa Trans. Ana Almeida commented that in recent months Casa Trans has started to reach out more people from other countries (like Peru, Chile, and Venezuela) in an effort to create a South-to-South cultural exchange.   I asked her if they had hosted any Puerto Rican performance artists and when she said no, I offered my services.

In the summer of 2010 I participated in a ten-week workshop through the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics titled EMERGE NYC.  There I developed a brief performance that critiqued mainstream HIV and STD prevention and sexual education.  For several years before I began my PhD I worked as an HIV prevention and sexual health educator for the Latino Commission on AIDS in New York City.  During that time I learned that STD prevention and sexual health education for women who had sex with women had two outstanding problems.  The first is that sexual health education is often based in making people afraid of STDs by showing them photographs of extreme infections, instead of speaking about STDs as often curable, treatable, and manageable infections that are a part of an active sexual life.   I found this to be the case across a continuum of target communities, from gay men, to straight women, to lesbian and bisexual women.  The second is that the prevention practices recommended to women who have sex with women are mainly based in the use of latex barriers like dental dams and finger condoms.  These are often expensive and difficult to find, thereby making this an unrealistic approach to STD prevention.  In response to these contradictions and problems within the field of STD prevention I developed a performance that embraced female lesbian sexuality through an open and instructive monologue on how to give women sexual pleasure.  I also provided STD prevention advice that is low cost and does not require the use of latex barriers.  I explained all this to the organizers at Casa Trans and they could not be happier to invite me to do that same performance for an audience in Casa Trans.  This was an opportunity not only to engage in participant observation with Casa Trans, but also to make a meaningful contribution to an organization that is on the cutting edge of LGBT activism in Ecuador.

Garriga - Ecuador - Casa Trans meetingAnd so began a series of meetings with the members of Casa Trans.  At least seven members of the house helped me conceptualize the performance for a Quito audience and three of them acted as assistants on the night of the performance. I translated the monologue into Spanish and incorporated Ecuadorian sexual lingo into the script.  The members of the Casa Trans put together a flier for the event, and invited me to be their guest for a weekly radio show on LGBT issues so I could publicize the event.

I was surprised to learn after the radio show aired that it was heard all the way from Chile to Mexico.  The organizers were happy with my ability to talk openly about lesbian sexuality, and assured me it was no small feat that we had such a frank discussion over the radio, though not without some unhappy faces from the station managers.  In some sense the value of the performance here in Quito was less about my novel approach to sexual health education and more based in the articulation of lesbian sexuality.  During our planning meetings the organizers explained to me that lesbian sexuality is shrouded in silence.  As we struggled to find words in Spanish to describe sexual positions that are readily familiar in US culture, a member of the group exclaimed “It’s just that gringos have a word for everything, but we don’t have those words because lesbian sexuality is rarely talked about openly.”  Another member mentioned how the culture of silence is also related to sexual secrecy regarding multiple partners or sexually transmitted infections, and then uttered an Ecuadorian refrain “El que come callado come dos veces” (He who eats quietly eats twice), the group remade this refrain for the title of the performance in order to propose a culture of sexual articulation and pleasure, instead of silence and secrecy, by stating, “La Que Come Bien Come Dos Veces” (She who eats well eats twice).

Garriga - Ecuador - Mujeres

On Wednesday July 18th I performed La Que Come Bien Come Dos Veces at CASA TRANS for an audience of about 40 people, primarily women, young and middle aged, a handful of straight men, some gay male allies and a few transgender men and women.  The house was packed, I joked at the beginning of my performance that I had never seen so many Ecuadorians arrive on time.

Garriga - Ecuador - prep 1Garriga - Ecuador - prep 2
Garriga - Ecuador - prep 3Garriga - Ecuador - prep 4

As audience members entered the house, an assistant instructed audience members to wash their hands and file down their nails, and guided them in hand and tongue exercises in preparation for the performance.

Garriga - Ecuador - performance 1Garriga - Ecuador - performance 2

The other two assistants were on stage providing theatrical responses to my descriptions.  They also held the anatomical models of female genitalia that I used to describe different techniques.  I chose to take on a hyper feminine persona because the members of Casa Trans had mentioned to me that within the lesbian community a certain form of sexism exists whereby feminine lesbians (a.k.a. femmes) are considered promiscuous and looked down upon if they talk openly about sex.

The performance was very well received and I was invited to do a video of the performance so that it could be disseminated more widely on the Internet.  Since the performance I have been invited to numerous meetings at Casa Trans and have done interviews with five of its core members.  I feel that the performance was a great way to gain the trust of the members of this group and look forward to writing a chapter of my dissertation on their work.

Posted by Claudia Sofia Garriga López — PhD Candidate in Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU

One thought on “Participant Observation at Casa Trans

  1. I was glad that the advice helped me tons. At a later time I will read through your entires. It definitely was an awfully useful post which you put up. It’s definitely insightful and some thing I could very well definitely connect with. It was a straightforward read and the details were definitily transparent.

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