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Afro-Brazilian Trans Women Fight Pervasive Racialized Misogyny

We must start recognizing their lives and their work.

A group of protesters march for trans visibility on Avenida Paulista, in the central region of Sao Paulo, Brazil, on January 27, 2018.

Dália Costa, a transgender college student, was attending an event centering on LGBT inclusivity at the Federal University of Pernambuco’s Recife campus in Brazil this past March. As she was walking to the bus stop with some friends after the event, she was berated by a cis man who constantly asked her and her friends if she was a woman. Disliking Dália’s response, when she walked away, the man threw a stone at her and punched her face. She said the man was joined by other attackers, who during the physical assault, touched her inappropriately and threatened to “break her face.”

Sharing her horrific ordeal and injuries on Facebook, Dália wrote about how much the transphobic and racialized-gendered assault took a toll on her physically, emotionally and psychologically:

I have not cried for a long time, and today I cried. I cried ashamed to get home and look at my mother with a face that is not mine. Black, trans, feminist and peripheral woman. Humiliated, beaten and harassed.

Unfortunately, Dália’s assault is not an anomaly for many trans women of African descent in Brazil. Her story is reminiscent of Jade and Beyoncé, two Black trans women who were shot by a man near a nightclub in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The assailant quickly fled the scene, while Jade and Beyoncé waited for help in a pool of blood. In April 2015, Verônica Bolina, a 25-year-old Black trans woman was arrested, sadistically beaten and disfigured by police and workers at the penitentiary system of the city of São Paulo, after being allegedly accused of murder. Photos that showcased the aftermath of Bolina’s beating surfaced online, catalyzing the social media campaign, #SomosTodasVeronica (We Are All Veronica) demanding justice and police accountability for her assault.

While these assaults may have received some media attention, their ordeals speak to what scholars Moya Bailey and Trudy aka @thetrudz have coined as misogynoir, and in the case of Afro-Brazilian trans women, the pervasiveness of transmisogynoir, which is racialized-gendered misogynoir, oppression and violence against Black trans women in the diaspora. Moreover, there is a hyperinvisibility of their lives, plights, ordeals and even resistance against police brutality, discrimination and employment inequities in Brazil.

The Pervasiveness of Violence Against Afro-Brazilian Trans Women

In regards to Black trans and queer women, Brazil has the highest rates of trans-related murders in the world — about 16.4 percent higher than any other country. Data shows that in the past five years, almost 1,600 Brazilians were fatal victims of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and a gay or transgender person is killed almost every day in the country of 200 million. Last year, 445 LGBTQ Brazilians died, with 387 murders and 58 suicides. According to a 2016 human rights report on Black women conducted by Geledés and Criola — two think-tanks dedicated to the rights and parity of Black women in Brazil — between October 1, 2014, and September 30, 2015, there were 118 transgender persons murdered in Brazil. The police are central figures in perpetuating violence against Afro-Brazilian trans women, and instead of protecting and serving them, they chronically target and even rape, murder and torture them. Many trans women in Brazil do not live to be 35 years old. Kelia Simpson, president of a trans advocacy organization called the Associação Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais (ANTRA) notes that “it’s hard to meet a 70-year old [trans woman].” Moreover, economic inequities persist as they are constantly denied access to the job and educational sectors, as they make up “only 0.02 percent of the population at universities and 72 percent do not have high school diplomas.” Just like the late Marielle Franco, who was an outspoken critic of the Brazilian state and its chronic marginalization of its Black, poor and queer citizens, many Black Brazilian women who are victims of violence were human rights activists and defenders. Over the past five years, 194 politicians and activists in Brazil have been murdered.

Recognizing Afro-Brazilian Trans Women’s Activism

However, there is little to no data on the violence against the Black trans and lesbian community due to the lack of statistical collection and reporting by the Brazilian government. Jean Wyllys, the coordinator of the Mixed Parliamentary Caucus for LGBT Citizenship notes on the Global Rights: Partners for Justice dossier on the status of Afro-Brazilian trans women that “the limited research that we have that attempts to map violence, human rights violations, of diverse segments of the LGBT population, does not address the ethnic specificities. Do they try to talk about the black LGBT population, or about the poor LGBT population? No, they do not specify, gender, ethnicity, or even class.”

While Black Brazilian trans women suffer disproportionate amounts of socio-economic and political violence, their activism also makes them important socio-political agents of radical change and resistance in the Black diaspora.

Joseane Gomes Santos Borges, the coordinator of the LGBTFOBIA Coping Center of the State Department of Social Service and Citizenship and a long-time activist and organizer within the Trans and Human Rights movement in Brazil, recently became the first Black trans woman from Piauí, a state in northeast Brazil, to receive a bachelor’s degree in social work from the Faculdade Adelmar Rosado. With her degree, she continues to work in ending the exclusion and abuse of trans women in prisons and is catalyzing public policies to ensure their safety and well-being.

Afro-Brazilian trans women are not just victims or spectators — they are survivors, leaders, politicians, theorists, scholars, teachers, activists, thinkers and doers. We must recognize their work because leaving their lives and political contributions out of diasporic Black political conversations severely weakens the fight against global white supremacy and heteronormativity. Especially in US academia, there has been an intentional disregard of Black queer activists’ historical and contemporary political participation and an erasure of Black queer studies and Black queer critical theory. Moreover, as anthropologist Christen A. Smith has noted, “the experiences of English-speaking Black women tend to receive more attention within academic conversations about the global project of Black feminist studies.” As a result, Smith argues, “Afro-Latin American women’s voices have been muted, despite the fact they have made significant theoretical and philosophical interventions that could potentially change the way that we think about gendered racial politics transnationally.” Meanwhile, in 2017, Robeyoncé Lima, a lawyer and activist, became the first Black trans woman from Pernambuco to have her social transitioned name recognized in the portfolio of the Brazilian Bar Association. As an active member, activist and organizer with Transrevolução, an organization based in Rio de Janiero whose mission is to defend the rights and equality of trans people, Alessandra Ramos works diligently to ensure that the voices and lives of Black trans people are seen and heard. Jaqueline Gomes, a professor, psychologist and writer, was the first Black transgender woman to receive a city council award and recognition for her political activism in advancing rights for the Black Brazilian trans community. Gomes will also be running for Congress in Brazil’s national elections in October.

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