Brazil is the deadliest country for transgender people in the world. Between 2008 and 2016, at least 868 transgender and transvestite people were murdered, according to the Brazilian National Association of Transvestites and Transgenders (Antra), a national network that articulates throughout Brazil 127 institutions that carry out actions to promote the citizenship of the Transvestite and Transsexual population, and NGO Transgender Europe (TGEU), an Austrian charitable organisation.
The life expectancy of trans people in the country is only of 35 years, and the situation does not show signs that it will improve substantially in the near future.
Some legal decisions, such as one by the Federal Superior Court (STF) in February of last year that recognized the right of transgender people to change their birth name for names according to their gender even without sex reassignment surgery or judicial decision indeed improved their lives, but their exclusion and marginalization remains a sad reality.
In February 2017, the shocking video of Dandara dos Santos, a 42-year-old transvestite stoned to death in the state of Ceará, in northeastern Brazil, circulated widely through social media networks – five people involved in the crime were sentenced to up to 21 years in April 2018. Many of the reactions on social media showed no solidarity with Dandara.
Everyday prejudice give birth to the violence responsible for abbreviating the lives of transgenders and transvestites. Many are forced to prostitute after being driven out of their homes by intolerant parents. Thus, cases such as those of Luma de Andrade (the first transvestite to receive a doctorate in the country), or Márcia Rocha (the first transgender lawyer to be able to use her social name at the Brazilian Bar Association, OAB in the Portuguese acronym) are widely celebrated.
Such cases are highlights and motives for celebration, but they are rare, which, according to activists, remarks the importance of initiatives that seek to include and integrate trans people into society – and for society to also accept them.
One of the ways that many transgenders seek to guarantee their rights is through politics. The pioneer, Kátia Tapety, was elected councilwoman of the small Colônia do Piauí, a city with a little more than 7 thousand inhabitants in the interior of the northeastern state of Piauí. She was elected in 1992 and then reelected twice, besides having occupied the position of vice-mayor.
Other transgenders were able to hold public office after Tapety, such as Madalena, elected councilwoman for Piracicaba, in the state of São Paulo. She was elected in 2012, but decided not to seek reelection after suffering a series of threats and from transphobia. Pamela Pop, in Uberlândia and Najara, in Caldas, both in the state of Minas Gerais were also elected for office in the past.
In 2016, 80 transgender were running for office, about 10% of them were elected and took seats in municipal assemblies. For the October 2018 elections the total number of transgender candidates reached 52 – ten times the number of candidates running for the same offices in 2014. The small left-wing party PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party) launched the candidacy of 19 transgenders last year – and for the first time Brazil had a transgender candidate for the federal Senate, Duda Salabert, from Minas Gerais state- and they managed to elect Erica Malunguinho da Silva. She is the first transwoman in the history of the Legislative Assembly of the state of São Paulo.
But being elected does not guarantee respect or even protect transgenders from threats and transphobia, as shown by Madalena’s case. Even so, politics remains one of several paths sought by trans activists to ensure visibility and also to impose agendas that can protect them and guarantee their rights and the rights of other members of the LGBT community.
Helena Vieira is a trans activist based in the northeastern state of Ceará, the same as Dandara, and she ran for office, for a seat of federal representative. Despite not being elected, it was an important moment for transgenders all over Brazil. Helena is a 27 years old writer born in São Paulo living for the past 5 years in Ceará, where she started her gender transition.
She recalls that her process of “giving birth to Helena” started once she moved to Ceará and began to understand herself not as a “feminine boy”, but as a transgender. Victim of homophobia before her transition, Helena tells that the first time she went out on the street in feminine clothes, she “was hit with a banana and shells of tangerine were thrown from inside a bus and a taxi refused to take me. It was the most painful few meters I had to walk in my life, because at every person’s look, it was like if I were a ‘monster’. It made me ashamed of being there [in the street] the way I wanted to be”.
Being a transgender in Brazil, to Helena, is like “being a stranger in a land that does not want you”. And for a trans woman to run for office, even if not elected in the end, “means to make it possible to imagine one of us at the national congress”. She finalizes by adding that “it’s crazy, because we cannot even think about it ourselves at the national congress… This is about believing in ourselves and to be able to speak for ourselves”.
Despite the growth of candidacies and the election of Erica Malunguinho, Brazil did not wake up more progressive after the elections of October 7, 2018 when Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician and former army captain who constantly and aggressively preaches against LGBT rights, was elected president.