Interview by Dariela Aquique
HAVANA TIMES — Transformism is the term used to describe the practice of those individuals who, for aesthetic reasons, adopt the appearance and cultural demeanor traditionally associated with members of the opposite sex, in order to create a character they can “transform” into. It is also considered a variant of transvestitism.
It is practiced chiefly by males, who generally adopt the habits and mannerisms commonly attributed to females (makeup, dresses and effeminate gestures).
The practice is considered a form of artistic expression in many cultures around the world, as is true of the onnagatas in Japan’s kabuki theatre, or the male actors who play female roles in traditional Chinese opera. Cross-dressing was also a common stage practice in some European countries long ago.
And that is what my interviewee, Alexis González Ocaña, Alex de Galex on stage, does for a living.
HT: You’re a transformist. Where do you perform, and how did you come to do this professionally?
AG: Currently, I perform in a show staged in the Roof Garden Cabaret, at the Casa Granda Hotel [Santiago de Cuba]. I began working as a professional transformist around 1994, but it’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing. As a kid, I would feel the desire to dress up as a woman. I would see my mom put on makeup, wearing high heels, and I was intrigued, I loved it. I wanted to represent that one aspect of femininity, because women can look and act feminine in many different ways, beyond the makeup they use to accentuate their features, or without the need to wear high heels. What I enjoyed was this facet of the female aesthetic.
I do it because I like cross-dressing, nothing more. I don’t dress up as a woman all the time, I don’t even do it to get attention or provoke anyone. I do it because it brings me personal pleasure, not as an act of social irreverence. Cross-dressing means trying on a different identity. It is not an act of transgression.
One day, a friend saw me cross-dress at a party we had thrown for another friend’s graduation and told me about a show they staged. It was then that I realized that I could channel this impulse of mine artistically. Later, a director invited me to take part in a variety show staged in the Martí Theatre, where I’d dress up like Celine Dion (Laughs). Afterwards, another director invited me to join their theatre company, which put together shows in hotels. And that’s the company I’ve been working with to this day.
HT: In his book Transvestites: An Investigation of the Erotic Desire to Cross-Dress, German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who coined the term “transvestitism”, describes a group of people who voluntarily and regularly dress in clothes commonly associated with the opposite sex. He notes that this group includes both men and women who describe themselves as heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and transsexual. Does your sexual orientation have anything to do with your profession as a transformist?
AG: No, I don’t think there’s any connection. My sexual orientation is my identity. Cross-dressing is taking on a role I create.
HT: Do you feel that there’s greater receptiveness to the issue of homosexuality in Cuba today and that one could say there are clear signs of tolerance in this connection?
AG: Yes, I believe the campaign aimed at promoting tolerance and acceptance of sexual diversity has been effective. You still come across prejudices about these issues, but, it’s like everything else: you find them among homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. There are all sorts of people out there, moral and immoral. Perhaps the behavior of some is used to stigmatize others, and some people are paying for the mistakes of others. I get to travel around the country regularly and I can tell you Santiago de Cuba is one of the cities where homosexuality enjoys the greatest degree of tolerance in Cuba.
HT: Many still haven’t had much of a sexual education and do not clearly distinguish between a transsexual, a transvestite and a transformist. Could you comment briefly on this?
AG: Transsexuals feel that they are trapped in the wrong body, they are unhappy about the genitalia they have, with their physical appearance in general. Transvestites enjoy cross-dressing, but not necessarily because they are unhappy about their natural appearance. In fact, many of them do not enjoy passive sexual roles. There are people who cross-dress out of pure curiosity. And there are some who aren’t even gay or lesbian. You come across transsexuals and transvestites of both genders. Transformists are performers. We create characters of the opposite sex, we bring to life characters we dream up. This has nothing to do with our sexual orientation.
HT: There are a number of stereotypes surrounding transvestitism. For instance, even though being a transvestite or cross-dressing doesn’t necessarily imply prostitution, there’s a certain tendency to associate the two practices. What is your opinion about this?
AG: Yes, sometimes the two go hand in hand. The fact is that many transvestites are involved in prostitution. Most are the ones who get operations, who get silicone breast implants and other plastic surgeries. They do this to look more feminine, to attract more customers, I suppose. Here’s an interesting fact for you: transformists rarely get surgeries, we use props and makeup. This doesn’t mean there are no transformists involved in prostitution, just as being a transvestite doesn’t necessarily mean being a prostitute. It’s a question of percentages.
HT: Do you have any anecdote to share, an incident in which you were treated as a prostitute?
AG: Yes, of course. I’m always traveling around Havana and other cities and I frequent gay parties and gay meeting places with my friends. I have very close friends who are involved in prostitution, just as I have a lot of friends who are transformists plain and simple. When we go out, cars pull up to us and people make us offers and I’ve had to turn people away, tell them I don’t do that sort of thing. In the hotels where I work, I’ve also had propositions of this nature, mostly from foreigners. Some have been respectful; others have treated me like a drag queen looking to make a buck.
HT: I know that, in addition to your work as a performer, you’re involved in health awareness campaigns. Tell us about this work and why you do it.
AG: Yes, it’s very rewarding work, and we do it voluntarily, to try and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and, most importantly, HIV. We hand out fliers and condoms. We sometimes conduct a quick AIDS test in places that are heavily frequented by people. I was involved in a project known as MSM (Men Who Have Sex with Men). Now I am part of a larger group called Trans, which includes transvestites, transsexuals and transformists.
HT: Recently, I read the following passage:
One day, a friend saw me cross-dress at a party we had thrown for another friend’s graduation and told me about a show they staged. It was then that I realized that I could channel this impulse of mine artistically. Later, a director invited me to take part in a variety show staged in the Martí Theatre.
It is important to stress that transvestites have no conflict with their bodies or genitals (…) they do not feel trapped in the wrong body (…) Transvestitism always entails, for its practitioner, an act of transgression. Could this be said to describe your situation in particular?
AG: I don’t know, I don’t think so. I do it because I like cross-dressing, nothing more. I don’t dress up as a woman all the time, I don’t even do it to get attention or provoke anyone. I do it because it brings me personal pleasure, not as an act of social irreverence. Cross-dressing means trying on a different identity. It is not an act of transgression.
HT: Many world-renowned artistic and literary celebrities were transvestites. To mention two examples, French writer George Sand and German actress and singer Marlene Dietrich were transvestites. Do you think it is possible to achieve artistic success as a transformist?
AG: Yes, Marlene Dietrich even wore a fake moustache. Coco Chanel made male fashion popular among women for a long time. There are plenty of examples. Right now, unisex clothing is a fashion trend worldwide; the frontier between male and female has almost completely disappeared.
If you went on appearances alone, you’d have a hard time deciding who’s gay and who isn’t. Metrosexuality is edging closer and closer to transvestitism. The art world is where these practices meet with the least number of prejudices, so, yes, I think you can. Transformism is considered a specialization within show business. You can even be evaluated professionally as a transformist, just as a comedian or actor can get evaluated.
A highly popular theatre piece premiered in Havana, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. And all of the actors cross-dressed for the play; all of the female characters were played by men.
HT: Thank you, Alex.
AG: My pleasure.