How many LGBT murders can Brazil ignore?

The silence surrounding deaths in the trans community.
Photo Mídia NINJA/ CC BY-SA 2.0/ Source: Flickr

A woman is sitting on the road, in broad daylight – there is blood on her face, which she wipes with her hand. Several men surround her, armed with sticks, stones and slurs – they keep on hitting her and order her into a wheelbarrow. The image shakes as the person holding the camera says, scornfully, “They are going to kill the f***ot”

In February 2017, a transgender woman named Dandara Dos Santos was shot to death after being a victim of lynching in Fortaleza, a city in northeast Brazil. Her case was widely reported by the media in March 2017, after the release of a the cellphone video recording of the aggression.

Articles were published not only in Brazil’s national media, but by international media as well, and Dos Santos’ss murder hailed as the turning point in recognising the plight of the Brazilian trans community. Nonetheless, the purported shock in the wake of her murder differed widely from the feelings of the community itself – LGBTQ+ groups in Brazil had been trying for years to highlight the issue of the killing of transgender people in the country.

Brazil’s bloody history with the trans community

In 2016, Grupo Gay da Bahia released a report that put Brazil as the leading country in the deaths of transgender people in the world, with 144 individuals killed in that year. The same report put the average life expectancy of a transgender individual in Brazil at 35-years-old, a somber comparison to the country’s 75-years-old average. Dos Santos’s murder, though horrifying in its own right, was only continuing a cycle of violence against transgender and gender diverse people in the country.

In this year so far there have been 31 murders of transgender individuals covered in the news website, NLucon, that reports on trans rights in Brazil and across the world.

Despite the mediatic spectacle following dos Santos’s death, very few of these murders were reported by mainstream media outlets. In March, Brazilian trans rights activist Sayonara Nogueira declared to the Brazilian news outlet UOL that the only reason Dos Santos’ death became mainstream was because of the video of her death, otherwise “it would have been another crime ignored”. She goes on to reiterate the attack was in broad daylight and that the video captures the inaction of the passersby.

This calls into question Brazil’s wilful inability to guarantee human rights for the its transgender community. There are many Dos Santos’s in the country, victims of violent crimes due to their gender identities whose cases don’t make the mainstream media, presumably because their deaths are not deemed newsworthy. When they do make the news, the reaction is laden with victim-blaming and scorn.

The comments section in news outlets and Facebook posts reporting the death of trans and gender diverse Brazilians are full of individuals emphasising the danger transgender individuals subject themselves to by engaging in sex work and living in highly dangerous areas. In this article regarding Brazil’s world ranking in the killing of transgender people, the comments range from calling the report ‘ridiculous’ to blaming the victims for putting themselves at risk. The general tone of the comments is that the deaths of trans and gender diverse people are somehow deserved as their ‘choices’ are the cause for their murders.

This discourse of choice is proof of how the general society lacks understanding of the struggles the trans community faces. And this goes back to information, as there is a notable absence of discussions on the difficulties and violence members of the trans community face both in acquiring education and in entering the workforce.

A cycle of silence

The continuous lack of reporting on the violence against the transgender community in Brazil speaks to the undervaluing of transgender people as members of the community. The Dos Santos case demonstrates the several stances where indifference can result in death: the silence of the passerby, the disinterest of the police, the inattention of the media. The difference between Dos Santos’s murder and the murders of countless trans and gender diverse people in Brazil lies on the sensationalised display of the violence she suffered and the interest it generated. But the silence that falls over the deaths of Charliene Silva Barreto, Gil Pereira Costa, Carla Viana and all the other members of the trans community killed in 2017 shows that Dandara’s case did not break the cycle of silence.

The violence against the trans community in Brazil has to be fought by public policy and activism, but also has to be fought through information and reporting. The silence makes both the citizens and the media complicit in perpetuating the invisibility of trans and gender diverse people and their plight. Dos Santos’s death was not the turning point in Brazilian reporting of this violence – if anything, it showcased the easiness through which a crime would’ve been forgotten if not because of exceptional circumstances.

Author’s note: It is important to note that the number of trans and gender diverse people killed is likely an underestimation, due to the lack of mechanisms and training for the police to properly identify hate crimes, as well as the death of trans men and women whose families do not respect their gender identity.

Joana Midena Perrone

Joana Perrone is a PhD candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford, where she researches feminicide in Brazil. She has a BA in International Relations from the University of Sussex and an MSt in Women's Studies from the University of Oxford. Her main research interests are gender-based violence and human rights, especially in Latin America. You can find her on twitter at @jollyjellyfish_
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