Michael Palin’s latest travel series for the BBC sees him visit Brazil. It is a timely series, given that the country will be hosting the next soccer World Cup and the next Olympics. Also Brazil is a fascinating country (and one to which I have family links and would love to visit one day). But what sparked this post is that the series is also proving QUILTBAG-friendly. In episode two Palin was asked, live on Brazilian radio, whether he supported marriage equality. He came out firmly in favor of people who love each other being allowed to get married. And last night he was shown attending Rio Pride. Not just attending it, either — he was a guest on board the official bus of the Rio trans community.
Whenever anything to do with sex comes up (as it seems to do quite often in Brazil), Palin tends to retreat into that sort of British attitude that such things are all too embarrassing to talk about. Nevertheless, he was prepared to hang out with a bunch of trans folks, and even interviewed one of them on air.
The lady in question attempted to explain the difference between “transsexual” and (the non-inclusive version of) “transgender” to him, and here’s where language got in the way. Throughout Latin America the word “travesti” is used in much the same way that English-speakers use “transgender”. It is originally a theatrical term indicating an actor playing a role of a different gender, and Palin accordingly translated it as “transvestite”, which is not really what was meant at all (see my Gender 101 if this is all getting too confusing).
To make matters worse, the Brazilians pronounce “travesti” the same way the the British pronounce “travesty”. Of course the words have the same origin, but through the miracle of language evolution “travesty” has come to mean something wrong and abhorrent. It might be better if “travesti” were pronounced French style which is more traa-ves-ti than tra-vesti, but I doubt that there’s anything that can be done now.
Despite this minor confusion, I was very pleased with how Palin incorporated this segment in his programme. Indeed, he seems to think that this was an indication of how modern Brazilian society was. Thank you Michael, much appreciated. For those of you able to access it, the series is available on the iPlayer.