Some years ago, perhaps out of serendipity, I grew close to a transgender woman. As we started to chat, we had many rich conversations on various topics, and she helped me investigate the questions that constantly flourished in my mind. Because of her, I started to search for more people from the trans community, specifically members of the community who are considered feminists, and now I keep up with many of its Brazilian spokespersons. Moreover, I have learned so much from them.
I used to have, as do the majority of Brazilians, a very critical opinion about trans women. Brazil, unfortunately, behind the mask of a multicultural and tolerant country, has a very exclusive culture: it only accepts those who fit within its predefined patterns. Trans people, of course, aren’t part of the “normal pattern”, and that’s why they are on the receiving end of so much prejudice and violence. I live in a country where trans people have a life expectancy of around 35 years (less than half of the life expectancy of a cis person) and, shamefully, also the country that kills the most trans women. In Brazil it is common to see “garden activists”: people who pose as accepting allies, fighting for equality and global isonomy, but fail to follow up in the real world. Many people claim to support the LGBT community, but when confronted with an actual situation involving trans people, behave monstrously and discriminate against them. Born into a transphobic culture, I did the same until I started to fight against my ignorance about the trans community.
Inversely proportional to the violence towards trans people is their presence in the population. Understandably daunted by the prospect of living surrounded by aggressors, this section of LGBT culture hides in closets and corners, more likely than many other groups of people to lead depressing, stifling and suicidal lives or to get involved in a world of drugs and prostitution, away from the eyes of the overbearing judging mass. Having imbibed the “Christian” teachings of what family and gender mean, this mass is in reality intolerant and cruel — and that would be easily intelligible if we were in fact a country of diversity (after all, living with so many divergent forms of human life and thinking must be odd sometimes, as it challenges ways of living and asks for more cooperative behaviours), but we are this nation only in numerical data. In reality, we are a repugnant crowd, homogeneous in our hypocrisy, full of imaginary barriers to shade our minds and avoid contact with people different from us.
Because of all this, in the past, I gave in to the hate, and, after observing a few trans celebrities on North American TV, I wouldn’t even lower my voice to say that “trans people are men with fetishes”, “he (misgendering someone) promotes chauvinism to millions just to satisfy his sexual desire”, “giving him (again, huge disrespect while using the wrong pronoun) a different name is tricking nature”, “he/she shouldn’t use a bathroom according to his/her new gender because that would enable him/her to sexually abuse someone”, “how can she be trans and lesbian at the same time? See how she fails to cover up what she really is!”, “So many labels are just a proof that their lives are artificial.” Prejudice and ignorance made me say terrible things.
But once I was given the opportunity to learn more than the usual about trans people and study their theories just like I had studied the opposite ones (like trans-exclusionary radical feminism), I am really convinced that we are wrong to be so transphobic and I am very proud to say that they have never been so strong, especially with all the frightening violence they have to deal with. In media, the public sees trans women only as make-up and extravagance. In contrast, I want to show that trans people are actually strong men and women (and nonbinary people) who are committed members of equality movements.
When trans people overcome all the boundaries that society imposes on them and begin living authentically in the world, it can be assumed that many hard experiences have already been accumulated in their lives. It’s very common to lose family, friends, professions, chances of studying, home and quality of life as a result of being openly trans. And when, after going through this traumatising process, they reveal consciousness and empathy, representing women’s rights and all of its fights, defending even those who stab their nature, it is understood that they are more than courageous: they are ethical individuals, able to learn and grow far from the difficulties of a marginalized life; and that’s not an easy job.
Engaged trans women usually identify themselves with transfeminism, a movement that requests all the needs that women still don’t have, but has the intersectionality to consider trans women’s unique obstacles and promote the importance of their lives. Some of the most pressing issues on their agenda are the fight against transphobia, the recognition of their condition as non-pathological, the rights to their own bodies, less bureaucracy in the process of arranging a name change and gender reaffirming surgery, the end of extreme sexualization and fetishisation of trans people and better life conditions for sex workers (which comes under what is dubbed in Brazil as whore feminism).
All of these needs are very urgent, but unfortunately, very far from concrete. While multiple voices say that the fight for equal trans rights is corrupting “real” feminism (because, in the mind of these people, trans women are not real women, so they can’t represent this gender), the biggest worry of most trans people is to merely be treated as humans, a status that has already been achieved by all the other kind of feminism. Almost 90% of trans women and are sex workers in Brazil and in this industry have to deal with sexism, rape, psychological abuse, residential segregation, poverty, absurdly unfair salary, unsecure and inhuman working conditions and the danger of drugs, with almost no assistance even from charitable associations like NGOs — mostly because of lack of outreach in the clandestinity imposed by pimps. Alongside this extreme discrimination, don’t forget this same community is the most searched for on pornography websites – in the same country that kills the most trans people in the world. What we conclude from that is the following logic (unclear to many due to ignorance): here, these women aren’t humans, even if constitutionally they are given that basic right. In the real world, they are objects. They are disposable. Use them, abuse them, and then throw them away. In a less euphemistic sentence: Rape and kill them. And don’t worry about consequences, because there will be none (as probably no one will take notice of what you’ve done).
Trans people are in such a predicament that their requests are painfully basic. They merely seek to not be treated or medically seen as mentally disturbed people. Currently, only Denmark, France and Argentina don’t pathologize the experience of being trans. The state almost completely ignores the existence of trans people; they do not support their health, education or work rights. Instead, a lack of humanity and respect reigns, forcing trans people to deal with scarce public psychological, endocrinological and sexual health resources and quite restricted siliconing or gender reaffirming surgeries. In the whole territory of Brazil, there are only 5 medical public centers able to offer gender reaffirming surgery. In the hospital of São Paulo, the economic heart of the country, only one surgery of the kind is done per month – the waiting list is so long that the last person in line would be there for 160 years before becoming eligible for surgery.
Well, this must mean there is only one bureaucratic measure to get over, right? Sadly wrong.
Clinics and government assert that they, as external agents, must be responsible for confirming that trans people are actually trans (even though none of them are trans and have little understanding of trans lives or needs) and give them the permission to make a genital change. Very obviously, they fail (again) to properly attend to this group. In a nation where public health in general is already flawed and overcrowded, specialized attention to trans people (which should not be considered a luxury) is fated to fail. Trans people are obligated to receive at least two years of psychiatric therapy before having their name put in the endless pile of names waiting for surgeries. Public agents justify this gatekeeping by saying that “if you do the surgery and then regret it, you will become suicidal! We do this for your well-being!”. But no data testifies to these mythical suicides. The true testification comes from the number of trans people who suffer from depression and dysphoria because they are not comfortable with their body.
Non-governmental affairs, though, aren’t much different. Trans people who are qualified to work tend to be rejected only because they aren’t cis and the company has “no management” to deal with them – which would involve merely respecting their identities and educating workers to avoid transphobia. This systemic deficiency shows how even in the case that a trans person can finish their studies, they are unable to get hired due to discrimination. If, even more unusually, a trans person is hired, they (as many trans folk document) are compelled to prove they have surgically altered their genitals and they also go through enormous pressure to be an exceptional worker: any incompetence will be attributed to their non-cis nature, and they will be responsible for vilifying the possible next trans person to work for that business.
The media, instead of publishing at least well researched work, is one more means to condemn trans people as harmful to society. Trans people tend to be vehicles only to portray exotic sexual preferences, mental illness, criminal behaviour or eccentric lesbians (or gays): all gross misrepresentations. Media is the main societal cause of transphobia in Brazil. Analyzing when I used to be transphobic, I realized that my understanding of the realities of people outside my social circle came from the TV and internet. If you are not selective about what you want to receive from these technologies, you will only know about the general prejudiced opinions, and that is very dangerous. As the state and industries aren’t concerned about minorities, and the public wants easy entertainment (which many times means offensive humor), media becomes an instrument to spread information about things like the trans reality. Yet because they only comment about trans people pejoratively and people won’t know them in other ways, the recipe for transphobia is made.
However, if you paid attention to one of the paragraphs above, you would remember me saying trans people are now more strong than ever. I still think so. Trans people, who each have the same potential as the rest of humanity, are fully capable of pursuing their dreams. Through arts, humanities, tremendous creative capacity and wide sensitizing power, the trans community unites itself beyond social and spatial frontiers, using the internet for a their cause all over Brazil.
On YouTube, Facebook or alternative media, trans people explain their histories, theories, information and requests. In low-cost productions, they try to demystify their universe and show they don’t struggle through a transition only to propagate misogyny, oppressive patterns or crime. To solve the problem of lack of job opportunities and transphobia at work, one of Brazil’s greatest trans activists created a website to promote employment open to this community. As approximately 80% of trans people develop anxiety through their lives in Brazil, web fora were created and provided even by other feminist chains to listen to testimonies. Also strengthened by the internet, trans communities organize and participate in their own protests, talks, fairs, help groups, professional workshops and meetups. Aware of the danger sex workers are placed in, trans people are training their community to avoid risky situations, prevent STDs, defend themselves and create shelters to house and treat them. Even while cis people don’t recognize trans lives, trans people unite themselves to be more powerful and, someday, reach their rights.