When the African trypanosome Trypanosoma brucei is taken up from mammals by a tse-tse fly, it replaces its variant surface glycoprotein (VSG) coat by a procyclin coat. Transcription of VSG genes stops in the fly, but transcription of sequences derived from the promoter area of the VSG expression site(s) remains high. Whether this is due to continuing high activity of one promoter or to low activity of many promoters was unclear. We have used the small differences between the sequences of different expression sites to show that multiple expression site promoters are active in insect form trypanosomes. This is confirmed by the low expression of single copy marker genes introduced into the transcribed area. However, if the expression site promoter is removed from the genomic location of the expression site and inserted in the non-transcribed spacer of the ribosomal DNA (rDNA), it is derepressed. Derepression of transcription can also be accomplished by replacing the promoter of an expression site by an rDNA promoter. We conclude that the down-regulation of VSG gene expression site promoters in insect form trypanosomes is affected by both the DNA sequence of the promoter and the genomic context in which it resides.