The presence of cross-dressing in the carnival of Martinique seems even more marked than when I was last able to attend this annual fête in 2005. An element specific to Martinique (I am told that travestis are not as numerous during carnival in Guadeloupe for example and are certainly not a tradition seen in carnivals of the Anglophone Caribbean), these performances appear and swiftly disappear with the onset of carême (lent). Limited to the carnival space – yet not necessarily the parade, as in Martinique this remains relatively porous, blurring divisions between spectator and participant – and the carnival season running from the opening at the end of January to Mercredi des cendres (Ash Wednesday), which fell on the 22nd February this year, any such expressions remain invisible for the remainder of the year. Although most of these cross-gender performances involve straight-identifying men, there are to my knowledge a small number of non-straight-identifying men who dress in female attire for carnival. All ‘travestis’ seem to respect and create their look within the traditions of the carnival, adopting the appropriate colour codes and themes for the different ‘jours gras’ (e.g. red and devil attire for mardi gras, black, white, silver in mourning on mercredi des cendres.)
Comments from female onlookers tend to be those of admiration, praising the men for their ability to walk with ease in high-heels and impressions of the aesthetics of their outfits. The ability to create a beautiful female costume and carry it off with conviction is important to those spectating. Photos of male to female cross-dressed carnavaliers posted this year on the internet provoked some homophobic remarks, which in turn prompted a flux of comments in their defense, including:
“ces hommes déguisés en femme ont tjrs fait sensation au carnaval ! je me suis tjrs demandée comment ils faisaient pr etre aussi magnifique…” (these men dressed as women have always caused a sensation during carnival! I’ve always wondered how they manage to look so fabulous…”)
“moi j’adore car toutes les photos sont magnifiques et on se doit de respecter le travail des carnavaliers car fou’ cé boug la bel lol j’adore !!!” (I love it as all the photos are beautiful and we must respect the work of the carnival participants as ‘I don’t care if it’s a bloke it’s beautiful lol I love it!!!’)
This year I also discovered the tradition of Touloulou (shown here in a car park of Fort-de-France and also spotted towards the end of video above). Touloulou are anonymous figures veiled, masked and clothed from head to toe in order to hide their true identity. An important part of carnival in Guyana, where there are many Touloulou soirées, this character orginated in the carnival of St-Pierre in Martinique, but after the eruption of 1902, travelled with many Martiniquan migrants to Guyana, leaving in today’s carnival only small clusters and traces of this tradition.
“Masquées, gantées, rembourrées, les Touloulous ne ressemblent à rien. Et c’est précisément cette envelope de poupée de chiffon qui permet aux femmes de tout oser les samedis soirs que dure le carnaval à Cayenne. Elles seules ont le droit d’inviter à danser ces soirs-là et le regard des hommes en dit long sur la cruauté de la situation, inverse de ce que les femmes endurent habituellement.” (“Masked, gloved, padded, Touloulous don’t look like anything. And it is precisely this rag-doll envelope which emboldens women on Saturday nights during carnival in Cayenne. During these evenings, only they have the right to ask someone to dance, and the look of the men speaks volumes in this ‘cruel’ situation, the opposite of what women usually endure.” Claudine Doury, 2009)