Staying alive

Visibility offers no protection for trans people in Brazil. Amanda Palha analyses the roots of violence and exclusion faced by her community – and its fight to stay alive.


This is transphobia: Verônica Bolina (left) as she was before being taken into police custody – and (right) after. ©

One morning, earlier this year, Brazil awoke to see its social networks flooded with images of a naked, cropped, disfigured, handcuffed black travesti* (or trans woman) in police custody.

In one of the photographs she was sitting on the ground in front of a police car, her breasts exposed and her face unrecognizable. In the second picture, she was lying face-down on the floor with her pants ripped, surrounded by police officers. Her name was Verônica Bolina and the details that might explain those two images surfaced slowly throughout the day, with all the sensationalism and disrespect the mainstream media usually affords us.

We were told she had been arrested for assaulting an elderly woman who was her neighbour. We were informed she bit off a part of a prison guard’s ear shortly after she arrived at the police station. We learned she was now facing two charges of attempted murder: against her neighbour, who was by now in hospital, and against the prison guard.

Activists succeeded in getting Verônica out of the police station and into a temporary detention centre where she could at last speak alone to her lawyer. That meeting confirmed that Verônica had been tortured, beaten, photographed and stripped while in custody. She had been humiliated and forced to confess to attempted murder and to lie about the violence inflicted on her by the police.

But by now, to the outside world, Verônica was no longer Verônica but ‘Tranny Tyson’ – an example of ‘how violent these people can be’.

And Verônica could be anything because, to all concerned, she was not a human being. Because, to all concerned, none of us is.

Born a person

Verônica, like all of us, was conceived and born into this world, naked, a person.

What is the social machinery that led that baby all the way to those pictures next to the police car? Where does this extreme ‘abjection’ (or unbelonging) come from?

To understand the roots of abnormality we need to understand normality, and the first step in that direction is to deconstruct it. That a norm exists is a fact: women have vaginas, men have penises. Men and women, however, are not mere biological data but social categories. They are understood through the ideological ensemble that governs their social relations.

The norm says that bodies with a vagina will occupy one established social position and will be socialized to that end; bodies with a penis will be men and everything in our society will work to assure that: the colour used to paint the bedroom wall; the baby’s clothes; the toys – cups and pans for her, action figures for him; the advice – ‘sit with your legs closed’ for her, and ‘do not take shit from anyone’ for him.

The first exclusion happens inside our own home

There is a noticeable hierarchical character in those constructions as well: men must be strong, dominant and public; women must be fragile, dominated and domestic. Men have penises and must feel attracted to women with vaginas; women have vaginas and must have relationships with men with penises.  

The rule is as clear as it is artificial. And, as happens to all artificial things, reality is quick to unmask it. We are not inert pieces of playdough, being passively moulded according to such determinations. Diversity itself contradicts such determinist thinking.

Suddenly and relentlessly a baby with a vagina grows up to be a man, while another with a penis grows up to be a woman, even if that was not the initial intention. The norm has been broken, betrayed! Its artificiality denounced and its guts are now exposed! And that, my dearests, is unforgivable.

How we are made vulnerable

Even if it takes us a while to rationalize the proportions of such rupture, we feel it early on. The contradiction between how we understand ourselves and how we are seen by the rest of the world generates – for trans people especially – a cruel and painful feeling of disconnection from reality. That disconnect will affect our relationships with our own bodies. The mirror becomes our worst enemy, the one that reminds us every day that we don’t belong to ourselves. That we do not fit inside ourselves. That we do not exist. This feeling of non-existence, as cruel as it is inevitable, only gets worse with time and with the deepening of our social relationships. Puberty, a highly anticipated phase for most kids, runs us over like a tractor. That body fits us less each day and each day we are more certain that this world is not our place.

Our families are usually the first place where such impressions are confirmed. As the smallest core of our social organization, the family also concentrates the synthesis and perpetuation of norms. As we grow up we fail, one by one, our families’ expectations. Every day we belong less; psychological and physical violence become frighteningly common. So, the first exclusion happens inside our own home.

School, another place where norms are strongly maintained, is no less hostile. Talk about trans people ‘abandoning’ education is far from the truth. In reality, we are kicked out of school by psychological, physical and institutionalized violence, by hostile interactions that constantly tell us we do not belong there either.

Society teaches us, throughout our lives, that we do not belong anywhere, while necessity shows us that there is a place where we can exist: the streets

A childhood and an adolescence marked by exclusion and rejection inevitably lead to more violence and marginalization.

Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring project points out that 65 per cent of trans people murdered in the year leading up to May 2015, whose occupations were known, were sex workers.

The Brazilian Association of Travestis and Transexuals – ANTRA – estimates that more than 90 per cent of trans women in Brazil work in prostitution. Is it reasonable to believe that such a large proportion of one demographic should, of their own free will, choose the same profession – a marginalized, criminalized activity, often synonymous with violence and abuse?

The truth is that society teaches us, throughout our lives, that we do not belong anywhere, while necessity shows us that there is a place where we can exist: the streets.

It is an objective fact that the doors of the labour market are mainly closed to us. It is a material reality that social barriers keep us from universities and from any job considered ‘normal’ because we are not normal.

65 percent of trans people murdered between May 2014-15, whose occupations were known, were sex workers

But it is also a subjective reality, because when we are alone and vulnerable the best place to be is with others of our group, and they too do not belong anywhere but the street. For trans women, there is prostitution; for trans men, the drug trade. For all of us, always the gutter and the margins.

Kicked out of home, of school, of jobs considered ‘respectable’, we end up kicked out of public life itself! Public spaces are denied us, and so is daylight.

Dehumanized, we are susceptible to all kinds of violence and abuse – whether perpetrated by ordinary members of society or by agents of the state.

According to Forge-Forward, a US-based support organization for the trans community, 50 per cent of trans individuals in the US have experienced sexual violence at least once, and seven per cent of such episodes take place at the hands of police.

A sense of purpose

If the international community was shocked to learn about Verônica’s case, to us, Brazilian trans people, there was no surprise. The difference was that her case made public what we are used to seeing and living every day. If Brazil is today the number one country in the sad ranking of murders of trans people, the United States, dubbed a ‘first world country’, comes third, right after Mexico. If in Brazil, according to ANTRA, our life expectancy is 35, according to Transgender Europe (TGEU) 73 per cent of us worldwide will die before our 40th birthday.

Society may mask its workings with a fake discourse of equality and progress, but the truth is that social vulnerability, violence, sexual abuse and exploitation of trans persons is a problem worldwide that is still far from being resolved.

That’s exactly why we resist collectively! Activist groups emerge as opportunities for socialization and support. Activism for our very existence – such a basic and universal demand – brings a new sense of purpose for those of us who up to now only had reasons to quit living. Solidarity, learned in our struggle to survive, has become our biggest combat weapon.

However slowly, trans community advocacy and support groups are multiplying around the world and starting to gain ground. Argentina’s progressive 2012 Gender Law has inspired a similar law currently before the Brazilian Congress.

Transwomen taking part in São Paulo city’s new Transcidadania project, aimed at helping trans people resume their education and get a job.

El Diario Montanes

This year São Paulo’s municipal administration inaugurated a programme offering scholarships and professional training to encourage marginalized trans people to resume their education and to find a job.

These examples present society with a new and different view of us: the unthinkable and revolutionary idea that we are persons.

Idealists say ‘we are all human beings’. Verônica, however, did not go through such a violent episode because she was a human being: it happened because she is a travesti. And if she is alive today, it is because she is not alone.

It was because we were together and organized that we were able to offer support, mobilize and demand justice from the state. Together and organized we can get laws passed, get support programmes and be recognized in our humanity. It is together and organized, with oppressed people uniting and resisting, that we will show the world the meaning of equality.

Amanda Palha writes for Revista Geni, an independent online collective of journalists, academics, artists and militants fighting for equality and difference.

Translated by Carolina de Assis .

*travesti is a term commonly used in Latin America to describe trans women. It has been suggested that the travesti community constitutes a separate cultural and gender category.