Activism is Survival for Brazilian Trans Women

Since the campaign and subsequent election of Jair Bolsonaro, who was long known for trotting out hate speech against marginalized communities in his bid for Brazil’s presidency, violence against LGBTQ folks has become more explicit and socially acceptable. But in many ways, the everyday lives of trans women in Brazil haven’t changed since he assumed office.

“The fear for us is not new,” Robeyonce Lima, the first trans woman to become a lawyer in the Northern State of Pernambuco, explained to Ms. “We have always been scared.” 

Protestors demonstrated in support of women’s rights and LGBTQ rights in Brazil during the presidential campaign—and in opposition to Jair Bolsonaro. (Hilreli / Creative Commons)

Between January 1, 2009 and September 20, 2018, 2,982 trans people worldwide were murdered, according to the website Trans Murder Monitoring. 2,350 of those murders happened in Central and South America. Brazil has boasted the highest number of trans murders, every single year, since 2009.

In 2018, an alarming 41 percent of all documented murders of trans people worldwide happened in Brazil. Over 60 percent of the victims were between 17 and 29 years old; 82 percent were Black, and 97.5 percent were trans women. Every 19 hours, an LGBTQ+ Brazilian is murdered; more often than not, they are murdered by multiple bullets or stabs.

“I have never experienced physical violence myself, but I have multiple friends who have, including some who have been assassinated,” Olga Rodrigues, an award-winner gamer from São Paulo, told Ms. “I try not to think that this will happen to me one day, but it is rare for me to go out and not experience stares, verbal harassment or threats.” 

In Brazil, celebrations of the LGBT community happen alongside the state-sponsored violence against those who challenge heteronormativity and binary expectations of gender expression. But in the face of such discrimination and violence, Brazilian trans women fight every single day for their community. By unapologetically occupying public space, trans women reject the government’s anti-LGBTQ ideology.

Brazilian Human Rights Minister Damares Alves’ inauguration speech echoed their resistance: “It’s a new era in Brazil,” Alves declared. “Boys wear blue and girls wear pink.”

“Think about a Black LGBT person occupying spaces such as a law school from a Federal public university,” Lima told Ms. “The mere fact of you being present in that space—you are being political. Activism starts with you being there, present, in those historical buildings, built over 100 years ago, built by your enslaved ancestors. Then you return to that space not to build walls, but to participate in a different activity.”

Lima emphasized the importance of student activism in the struggle for LGBTQ equality—because “after graduation, activism goes out of the University gates.” After completing law school, Lima started providing legal services to LGBTQ+ people and became an elected official of her state.

But Lima was also not rejected by her family, and did not get kicked out of her house, which makes her an exception in her community. Rodrigues’ experience resonates more with the norm: She struggles financially and was forced to leave her family’s house; for a good while, she made a living for herself by juggling at stop lights on the streets of São Paulo.

Nevertheless, she is persisting—by taking up space as a gamer and continuing to pursue creative work in community.

“[I resist by] creating relationships with people who have similar experiences,” Rodrigues told Ms. “To know that I have a support system is the biggest resistance for me.”

About

Marcela Rodrigues is a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar and an undergraduate student at Smith College, where she studies Psychology and The Study of Women and Gender.