Male Prostitution in Latin America
Lila's House: Male Prostitution in Latin America, by Jacob Schifter; Harrington Park Press; 132 pages; $12.95.
From Toads to Queens: Transvestism in a Latin American Setting by Jacob Schifter; Harrington Park Press; 156 pages; $14.95.
The Haworth Press and its paperback division, Harrington Park Press, are famous for their contributions to lesbian and gay studies. Its special issues of the Journal of Homosexuality include some of the basic texts in the fields of GLBT history, literature, health, psychology and sociology.
However, in recent years Haworth has veered away from its scholarly pursuits to publish material with more popular appeal. Memoirs by Scott O'Hara and Roger Brown, and fiction by William Rooney, are not works of scholarship, no matter how entertaining they might be. (And I enjoyed some of those books.)
Two of his recent books, Lila's House and From Toads to Queens, reveal Schifter's thorough knowledge of, and concern for, the sexual minorities of Costa Rica. A third Schifter book, MacHo Love: Sex Behind Bars in Central America (also published by Haworth), is available, but I did not have the opportunity to read it.
Lila's House: Male Prostitution in Latin America is a misnomer, since the book is actually about a particular bordello in San José, Costa Rica. The clients are older gay or bisexual men, many of who are rich and/or closeted.
The hustlers, mostly teenaged boys, are mainly self-described cacheros, who Schifter defines as "men who lead heterosexual lives, but who occasionally have sex with other men, be it for pleasure or for money." (In Lila's House it's surely the latter.) Lila, of course, is in a class of her own: a former street prostitute who "insists that he merely introduces these young men to friends"--for a fee.
From Toads to Queens: Transvestism in a Latin American Setting deals with another aspect of GLBT life in Costa Rica. Like the more "masculine" cacheros in Lila's house, most of the queens in Schifter's study make their living in the sex trade, and as unpopular people plying an unpopular occupation, their lives are not easy
"Being transformed into a princess is every transvestite's dream," says one of them, José a.k.a. Pepa. However, as Schifter sadly relates, "deep-seated societal discrimination ensures that they remain more toad than princess, with many retiring after a few years, if they have not already been killed by drugs, AIDS, gay bashers, or by their own hands through suicide."
For his books, Dr. Schifter interviewed 25 male prostitutes, 22 transvestite/sex-trade workers and, of course, Lila, but no johns. Though Schifter can get too technical at times, his interviews are worth the price of the book, mainly because Schifter often lets his subjects speak for themselves.
Some readers might complain that, collectively, Schifter's books give the reader an incomplete and stereotypical view of queer life in Costa Rica with his emphasis on hustlers and drag queens. Perhaps Schifter will correct this imbalance in future volumes.
In any case, books like Lila's House and From Toads to Queens have made Dr. Jacobo Schifter the undisputed authority on gay, bisexual and transgender life in Costa Rica.
In his books, as in his social work, Schifter has created a niche for himself, one that he so expertly filled. Other scholars, both gay and straight, should learn from his example.