My eyes swept up the curvy body taking in the knee-high platform leather boots, the elegant dress hugging the figure, a beautifully painted face and the long black hair tucked in beneath a velvet hat. On seeing me, Dana’s pert rosy lips broke into a smile.
Manouevering in his giant footwear, Dana made his way past the crowd of curious onlookers. He bent down and kissed me gracefully on the cheek.
On our previous encounter, Dana had looked quite different – a quiet gently-spoken Bolivian man of my age dressed in jeans and T-shirt who had introduced himself as David. There had been no exchange of kisses, just a firm shake of the hand. He had talked in a workshop on free trade about how economic and social policies affected not just his life, but his body. He said Bolivia needed a transformation at every level – not just economic and political, but changes in culture, attitudes, opening up identities.
A few days later, he invited me to see him and some of his friends on the Prado (Bolivia’s main high street). "We are going to "transform." " I liked the drama in which he announced it. He explained he had had a stressful week, and that dressing and making himself up was a great way to unwind. He told me why he liked transforming into Dana: "Dana Galan is a great seducer. She doesn’t have fear, is not afraid to transgress, she is open and free. With her, my body reflects my liberty."
Bolivia from the outside is hardly known for its transvestites or its transformistas. I have yet to seem them mentioned in any guidebooks, and they are not frequently interviewed for newspapers on the political situation in Bolivia. But as Bolivia goes through a very significant time in its history – with huge debates and division about the kind of politics and society it should have, I feel maybe the voices of Dana and the other transformistas have something important to say to all Bolivians. After all, doesn’t transformation start with ourselves…? And what is more our "self" than our body?
For David, it was the exploration of his own sexuality that led to his journey towards transformed bodies and questioning identities.
"I felt very different from an early age," he explained. " I was very afeminate, and my brothers used to resent this and beat me up. They would try and get me to prove my masculinity by annoying girls." But at 13, whilst living in Brazil, David had his first gay relationship. "It was so rich that I decided that was what I wanted."
His family however were horrified and decided to send him back home to Bolivia where "these things don’t happen." Because of the hurt his mother expressed, he tried to to have relationships with girls, but in 1994 at the age of 22 he met Jorge in a gay discotheque. He decided he was not going to hide his feelings anymore, and started a relationship that has continued to this day.
Being honest about his own feelings was the first stage in a journey for David. Working for an HIV charity, he started being more public about his sexuality. In the La Paz gay scene, he met Diana Sofi Galan, who was the first Bolivian to appear in drag. Inspired by the carnival drag queens of Brazil, he and several friends started dressing up, transforming themselves, with ever more elaborate costumes. However the real turning point was when he was invited along with a few friends to appear at a public festival on sexuality in 2000.
"It was my first time out in public transformed. When I got onto the stage at Plaza Avaroa my heart was beating fast, my legs were shaking with fear and emotion, a contradictory feeling. But with this first experience, I began a new stage of questioning."
For David, the body is where our politics starts. "It’s in the body that we make political discourse visible. Our body is engraved by history, a history of domination, a space of submission, an area of exclusion and negation. Through patriarchy and machismo, we have created a rigidity between masculine and femine. This has created situations of inequality."
But as a result, the body is also the first place of resistance: "Our gender is the space where we mix beauty, madness, transgression and fascination. It’s the first space to subvert these hierarchies. The experience of transforming has become a theoretical game where we challenge traditional roles of "masculine and feminine" which are usually limited to extensions of our biological sex."
David linked up with several friends (Paris, K’os, Eda, Leonela, Diana) to form the "Familia Galan" who increasingly started to do public transformations often outside prominent public spaces, Government buildings, churches, central squares. The family now numbers 60 people and includes gay and hetrosexual people. They dress up extravagantly and beautifully, not necessarily as women, in order to provoke responses and questions. The overwhelming response they receive from the public is one of curiousity not animosity.
"Now I believe transforming myself for private gay clubs is a waste of time. What really interests me is to provoke questioning outside. Our fight doesn’t just cross our bed or stay within inside walls. It’s about questioning a predominant model."
Some of their provocations have been focused on building consciousness and support for creating rights to sexual diversity. A new Sexual Rights Law which was passed by Congress earlier this year was blocked by President Mesa under strong opposition by the Church.
They also participate in many of the wider political struggles here, a fight David calls a fight against fundamentalisms: "By limiting society to a space where everything can be bought, the body (which can’t be bought) will inevitably become a space of resistance. A resistance against many types of fundamentalisms – church, military, economic, imperialist."
Unfortunately that hasn’t meant that they have been universally accepted by different social movements. Prejudice against gay people in society at large remains high. A public survey this year, showed that whilst 50% of men and 64% of women thought gay people were worthy of respect and dignity, 33% of men and 23% of women thought they were abnormal, degenerate or ill.
But for David the issue within social movements is more a fear of touching certain areas and issues: "Too often movements restrict themselves to an economic enclave. Cultural and social conditions are put to the margins. Of course we use our bodies in resistance, in marches, in painting slogans on our faces, through masks and symbols. But we don’t reflect or talk about it."
"We need to look at culture from a perspective of diversity. Sexuality crosses everything. Laws aren’t just in writing. Revolution needs to be cutural, starting from our bodies, reappropriating these areas, making visible our ideas, our agendas etc.."
At a time, when there is almost universal need for a transformation in Bolivia, what is the message then of those who transform themselves on a regular basis?
David firstly argues that we need to deconstruct the identities we have:
"Subordination has created static systems and stereotypes which assign identities to individuals based on certain characteristics, particularly physical which they share with others. But this is more based on a shared history of oppression than a shared nature. These are the bases that the Galan family question with their strategy of subversion. We say that identity isn’t an end that you can reach, but instead a starting point where you reflect and deconstruct."
"Our country needs to liberate itself from colonialism which enclosed it. We need to change, rethink our economy, society, culture. We must think beyond being a poor country, but to get out of poverty we must also include a social and cultural transformation. There isn’t a recipe but we need to be open to themes we don’t often talk about like sexuality, patriarchy and machismo, to ensure that we have inclusive agendas. If we manage to create these spaces, we have the possibility of rethinking a country that we don’t even know yet."
David refers specifically to the Constituent Assembly, which will be responsible for drawing up a new constitution after elections in July 2006: ""Everyone sees the Constituent Assembly as a body just to re-do our constituition. But it also needs to be a space to rethink the country so that it is no longer just reduced to an economic mechanism."
In a country full of divisions, where exclusion and inequality have been bound up with racial identities over centuries, David’s challenge deserves to be heard. There is recognition by the vast majority of Bolivia that transformation is needed to create a more just society, and it will be important that during this time everything is opened up, put on the agenda. Nothing should be excluded. But it is also important to recognise that change fuelled by centuries of divisions can end up creating new divisions. Those at the forefront of both resisting prejudice but also challenging our core identities by raising provocative questions about what defines us have vital lessons for us all.
But is Bolivia ready for such a transformation?
David replies: "I have lots of hope. I have seen what happens with my own transformation. I can live a life freely and openly. I don’t have fear now. I believe it can happen, and we want to be part of that change that takes place in my country."