Black Feminist Theories in Queer Anthropology: Ethnographies on Travestis and Candomblé Lesbians

The ethnographies of Kulick and Allen on the travestis and Afro-Brazilian lesbian practitioners of the candomblé religion in Salvador are works that have provided some understanding of the fascinating ways in which different ‘sub-cultures’ construct their ideas of gender, sexual expression and sexual desire. They inform the reader about how these individuals create and circumvent cultural structures that affirm, or fail to affirm their identities as black and queer in Brazil. Much of the success of these ethnographies in bringing these niche communities into light can be attributed to black feminist theories.

Kulick writes about travestis in the city of Salvador in the mid-90s. These are homosexual male sex workers who, from a young age, begin to modify their bodies and self-presentation in an increasingly feminine direction through the use of cosmetics, feminine clothing, the consumption of estrogen-based hormones and the injection of industrial silicone into their bodies. It is important not to conflate travestis with the typical understanding of transgender women, as travestis do not consider themselves, nor do they wish to be, women but simply seek to be feminine in appearance and in their romantic relationships. Kulick successfully takes into consideration race, gender, class, sexual orientation and expression, as well as occupation into account in his study of this queer community.

Allen writes about lesbian practitioners of candomblé from the Quêto house, the largest sect of candomblé at the time of her study. Candomblé communities are matriarchal, and many of its rituals allow for gender-bending practices. However, Allen writes that specific cultural ideas of female sexuality as well as mainstream Brazilian society’s cultural norms serve to make invisible these women’s identity as queer. She then calls for more nuanced language on these women’s lives, seeking to engage more influence of black feminist theory in queer anthropology.

The first theory of black feminism that is made use of extensively in these ethnographies is that of intersectionality which, Jennifer Nash states, “adds complexity to existing identity categories.” Kulick and Allen seek to successfully reflect such complexity in their work by taking into consideration race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion and national culture, and show that no queer black experience is like the other.

Both ethnographers encounter the inevitable topic of the erotic, and grapple with the dynamic between the empowerment and disempowerment that can stemmed from it. Using Audre Lorde’s ideas of the erotic, we can see that the eroticism present in these individuals’ lives is often a source of social agency, and that these ethnographers’ consideration of it serves to activate and illuminate parts of their lives. Conversely, mainstream society’s ideas of sexuality and eroticism also serve to push back and continue to marginalize these individuals. Lino E Silva calls this careful examination his own “aesthetic sensibility”, advocating for ethnographers to offer a picture of sexuality that is less clinical and that, instead, renders visible the “pleasurable dimensions in life such as fun, excitement and beauty.”

Another black feminist theory that can be easily seen taking place in these studies is that of Quare studies, as explained by Johnson. This is a form of queer studies that intervenes in queer theory, creating a framework of analysis appropriate in its consideration of class as well as race. Quare studies become essential in the understanding of travestis, as issues of class and these individuals’ relationships with money and material goods inform the way in which they exist and relate to others in their particular contexts. In the case of the lesbians of the Quêto house, Allen writes that financial instability often leads them to navigate a variety of spaces, some of which may accept their identities as queer, black and practitioners of candomblé differently.

Finally, Allen and Kulick successfully portray the differing ways in which travestis and the lesbians of the Quêto house may operate in public versus private settings. This dichotomy speaks to Johnson’s ideas of “theorizing the self” and hook’s idea that there are two modes of black performance: “one ritualistic as a part of culture-binding, and one manipulative out of necessity for survival in an oppressive world”.

These ethnographies point not only to the inter-disciplinarity of black feminist theory, but also to its ability to amplify the scope of other disciplines. It is very encouraging to see that black feminist thought can further inform anthropology, an originally imperialistic and racist discipline.