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Portions of the included interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.
For the last five years, the rights of the Brazilian trans community have been under duress. Former President Jair Bolsonaro was a supporter of the Evangelical religious right and openly endorsed socially conservative policies such as anti-LGBTQ+ laws. Bolsonaro, who refers to himself as a “proud homophobe,” engages in regular tirades against all members of the LGBTQ+ community, whom he calls “maricas”, or “faggots,” a derogatory term for gay men used by people who do not belong to the LGBTQ+ community. Bolsonaro himself said at his inauguration that “we will unite people, value the family, respect religions and our Judeo-Christian tradition, combat gender ideology and rescue our values.” He has also spoken out against Brazil becoming a “gay tourism paradise” and argued against “gender ideology in the classroom.”
It wasn’t just Bolsonaro who expressed harmful anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments– it was also his cabinet. Damares Alves, Bolsonaro’s Minister of Women and Families and an Evangelical Christian pastor, also expressed strict views on sexual orientation and gender during her mandate, once declaring that “there will be no more ideological indoctrination of children and teenagers in Brazil.” Bolsonaro’s Minister of Education, Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, also pursued policies to suppress the teaching of “gender theory” in Brazilian schools, despite presenting no concrete evidence of critical gender theory’s presence in Brazilian classrooms. Bolsonaro and his cabinet have used culture war issues like fighting “gender ideology” to rally their base around and stir up hatred against the LGBTQ+ community, sparking significant backlash from LGBTQ+ individuals and activists.
In 2021, Brazil was ranked as the country with the highest number of transgender people murdered for the 13th year in a row. Over 70 percent of all murders of transgender people occur in Latin America. The overwhelming majority of trans people murdered–96 percent–are trans women. While current President Lula’s rhetoric on LGBTQ+ Brazilians has been more inclusive, transgender people and members of the LGBTQ+ community are not protected groups under Brazilian law or the Brazilian constitution. Sexual orientation and gender identity are also not listed as prohibited sources of social, political, and economic discrimination.
To discuss trans rights in Brazil and how dialogue and advocacy can help protect the rights and existence of the LGBTQ+ community, I sat down with Vitor Martins, a renowned trans rights activist from Northeastern Brazil.
What is the state of transgender and travesti rights in Brazil?
“We do not have large policies for the inclusion of transgender and travesti people in Brazil. There is also a health system for gender-redesignation surgery and transsexualization. They offer a part of the hormones, you can do the surgery through the SUS (federal public health system) although it is still often precarious. What is lacking, however, is in workplace, education, and reproductive health policy. Those areas do not have public policies.
The community of trans and travesti people in Brazil suffers from a shortage of policies guaranteed by the state that facilitates the inclusion process for the community. There is a need for trans people to not only access health services, but also feel safe within those spaces.
There is also a discrepancy between the law and law enforcement. While the judiciary considers acts of LGBT-phobia as hate crimes, there is no law giving protection from discrimination for LGBT people.
We also have the ‘social name policy’ in Brazil, where trans and travesti people can change their name in institutions and structures without a legal name change. For example, while my official name is Vitor, I can call myself Vitória within public institutions. There is also a reduced bureaucratic process for a legal change for trans and travesti people in Brazil.”
How have trans rights progressed in Brazil?
“This is neither a time of progress nor regress for trans and travesti people in Brazil. We can see that there are policies that did not exist before, to protect the rights of the community. For example, the SUS policies or the ‘social name policy’. These things have not always been there, and these breaches still allow us to exist and have certain rights, politically.
Still, I would not say that we are in a place of progress. Life expectancy for trans people is still below 35 years old in Brazil, less than half of the average life expectancy in the country. According to the ANTRA, Brazil is also the country that kills the most transgender people, in the world. I would not call this progress, even though we have some small advances.
The ‘social name policy’ in 2015 was a defining moment in the treatment of trans and travesti people in Brazil, as was the recognition of LGBT-phobia as a hate crime by the judiciary and law enforcement authorities.”
What was it like to be trans during Bolsonaro’s term? What is that like now?
“During the government of Bolsonaro, we had policies that were not thoughtful of minorities. That includes the black community, women, the LGBTQ+ community, the disabled. All those groups, in truth, were not included in state policy during that era. For the trans and travesti community more specifically, he was a lot more explicit.
There was an explicit expression of hatred in his discourses. For example, he protested against discussing sexuality in schools, which he called ‘gay doctrine,’ as well as talking about gender-neutral bathrooms in schools– as if gender-neutral bathrooms didn’t already exist in restaurants and bars.
Therefore, as a psychologist, I can assert that these types of discourses produce a certain type of behaviour and strengthen a negative culture. And for me those discourses from the former President, Jair Bolsonaro, exactly reinforced that part of a Brazilian culture where there is no space for trans and travesti identities.
The near entirety of Bolsonaro’s cabinet and government was occupied by cishetero white men, and by some cishetero white women. All of this, in my opinion, created an ideological conception that jeopardizes non-cisnormative identities. We had four years of a government where not for a single moment the state thought about advancing the inclusion of trans and travesti people.
The Bolsonaro government reinforced the ideological conception of trans and travesti people adopted by more socially conservative and religious sections of the country. The trans and travesti rights issue was turned into a weapon of war, into a strategy for a political campaign.
Despite Bolsonaro no longer being President, this conservative ideological conception of trans and travesti rights continues to exist, in part through the electorate but also through conservative state and municipal governments, as remains political ammunition for the conservative coalition of Bolsonaro.”
Are you optimistic about Brazil’s future, as a trans person?
“At this moment, I am not optimistic about trans and travesti rights. There seems to be a paradox within the state of affairs. While our country has the rightest number of murdered trans people in the world, Brazil is also the largest consumer of transgender pornography in the world. This paradox, therefore, does not make me very optimistic.
Still, it is not only a matter of government, but also a cultural matter, in Brazil and the entire world. I lived in the United Kingdom, in Brighton, the city with the highest concentration of trans people in the United Kingdom and Europe. I then lived in London, which is also a very multicultural city. We live in a world where white and cis people dictate the functioning of society, we have the Western conceptualization of identity represented by white and cis people.
My experience informed me that culture and context can create certain preconceptions about trans and travesti people. Being a black trans woman creates various mechanisms of exclusion within white, male, and cis spaces. Creating a cultural context that embraces inclusion and diversity is important, but state policy is also important. We should also be promoting policies that guarantee the protection of trans and travesti people.
Yet, social markers, put together, inflate mechanisms of exclusion in all realms of life. To emphasize this point, I am doing well, I am published in a variety of outlets, and I earn a good living, despite my social markers. But, I know that I am literally the exception of the people in my group, because 90 percent of trans and travesti people work in prostitution. Only 5 percent of the community work in the formal sector. Within that formal sector, rare are the trans people who are paid well.
I speak Spanish and English, as well as Portuguese, which is also another advantage for economic mobility. My loneliness in social and professional spaces made me want to be active in the fight for many trans and transvestite people to reach good social and economic levels. I recognize that the majority of people in my community are not doing so well.” Being black and trans woman, being from the Northeast and living in the south, which is another exclusionary socioeconomic marker, makes everything potentially more difficult and challenging.”
What changes would you like to see implemented?
“Access to work. Trans and travesti people should have better access to jobs. The sun, despite its abundance in Brazil, is not enough to feed us. We are not photo-synthetic beings. We have to have the money to buy rice, protein, vegetables, the food, water, and shelter we need to survive. To do this, we have to have access to employment and job markets.
A large segment of trans and travesti people are either unemployed or under-employed. Economic and education policies should also be revised to provide more opportunities for the community. Economic and education barriers are still very prominent, because even when trans people have education, they keep being systematically excluded from the labour market, or under-employed.
I would also like the education system revised to accommodate the inclusion of trans and travesti people in Brazil. The community has a very high rate of truancy, in part due to discrimination and exclusionary behaviour and policies. Discrimination and exclusion in the classroom leads trans and travesti people to join the streets, where they are much less safe and economically secure.
Finally, we have to pursue health reforms that include the trans and travesti population. It is not only about hormones and surgery, but also about living in a society that was not only constructed for people who are not like me. To do this, I need to have access to psychological services, mental health services, to help address the concerns of the trans and travesti population. Culturally, not being represented is also contributing to social suffering, as we need to feel like our identity is being included and represented.”
Edited by Ashley Renz and Light Naing