In Brazil, transgressing gender norms can have consequences

  • Aline Becket is a drag queen who performs at “Site Club,” an underground club located about 30 miles from central Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. On many nights, transsexuals and drag queens perform; condoms and lubricants are given out for free; and there is a dark room where people in the club can have casual sex. “Site Club is the most underground place I have seen in Brazil,” photographer Pep Bonet told msnbc. This photo was taken in April 2012.
  • A wall with old pictures at “Turma Ok” club, in Lapa, an old neighborhood in central Rio de Janeiro. Founded in the early '60s, long before there was any organized gay rights movement in Brazil, “Turma Ok” has been a place that has produced and promoted cultural events and camaraderie among its clientele. “'Turma Ok' is a place where you can feel people have a lot of respect for the place,” Bonet said. “The vibe between all the people that are there is very friendly.” This photo was taken in April 2012.
  • Igo, a 19-year-old gay man and LGBT activist, stands on the streets of Fortaleza, Brazil in April 2012. He does not make a living from prostitution, and never did, but he loves to transform into a woman and educate others about their rights. He works with an NGO, Grupo de Resistencia Asa Branca (GRAB) to promote awareness by performing in a lot of shows, distributing condoms, and going to parties where they perform to highlight the rights of the members of their community.
  • Robson, 20, in Fortaleza, Brazil. Robson is a gay man and LGBT activist who works with an NGO to promote gay rights in Brazil. He is not a prostitute, but enjoys dressing as a woman and educating others about their rights. Transgender political activism in Brazil only began in the 1990s, as a result of the AIDS epidemic, in contrast to gay and lesbian mobilization for equal rights, which dates back to the 1970s. Transgender people have been less successful than gay men and lesbians in gaining any form of public acceptance and legal rights. This photo was taken in April 2012.
  • Camila de Castro is a transsexual commercial sex worker and works in the streets of Clarindo de Queiroz, Brazil. Transgender sex workers often feel they have no options and many see prostitution as the price they pay for choosing to transform. The combined effects of discrimination, humiliation, lack of education, and isolation from mainstream society place enormous emotional strain on Brazil's transgender people, especially those who earn their living as sex workers. Working at night in Fortaleza is extremely dangerous, and violence against transsexuals is rampant. This photo was taken in April 2012.
  • A gay couple hugs while dancing at “Site Club” located 50km from central Rio de Janeiro. “Site Club” is one of the most underground gay and trans clubs in Brazil, and on many nights transsexuals and drag queens perform.  This photo was taken in April 2012.
  • Transsexual party goer, Kyara Hilton, at the entrance of “Divine,” a nightclub for gay and transsexual people in Fortaleza, April 2012.
  • Maryanne is a transsexual commercial sex workers who finds her clients at the “Majestic” porn cinema in Fortaleza, Brazil. The cinema is three floors high, with the movie screen, a bar, and rooms prepared for sex. This photo was taken in April 2012.
  • Bianca, Robson and other volunteers from Grupo de Resistencia Asa Branca (GRAB), an NGO working for the rights of gay and transsexual people in Brazil, walk down the street in Fortaleza, April 2012.
  • Bianca, Robson, and Igo are friends and activists from the NGO GRAB, who work together to promote awareness among the gay and transsexual community in Fortaleza about their rights. They love to dress up as women and perform as one way to educate people about their rights. This photo was taken in April 2012.
  • Kyera Hilton smoking outside the entrance of “Divine”, a gay and trans discotheque in Fortaleza, Brazil, April 2012. Transgender people have been less successful than gay men and lesbians in gaining any form of public acceptance and legal rights in Brazil. There are relatively few activist groups in Brazil that encompass the whole range of alternative sexualities and genders. Within these mixed groups, transsexuals tend to distinguish themselves from transvestites, hence the increasing use of the term "GLBTT" — Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transvestite, and Transsexual.
  • Elley, a transsexual commercial sex worker, on Jose Bastos street in Fortaleza, Brazil, April 2012. Unlike female sex workers, who have a range of professional options available to them, transgender sex workers often feel they have no options. Many see prostitution as the price they pay for choosing to transform. Moreover, whereas female sex workers have a wide range of options within the profession — the street, various types of nightclubs and brothels, advertising in newspapers and on the Internet — transvestites generally work the streets and low-end brothels, known as "privés."
  • A meeting of transsexuals that live at Casa dais Bonecas in the Lapa area of Rio de Janeiro. About 25 transsexuals live and work as commercial sex workers, and the house is owned by Luana Muniz (center). Luana is an activist who cares for the people who live in her house and is an advocate for their rights. Here, they have gathered to talk about the issues they encounter while working, and support each other. This photo was taken in April 2012.
  • Lorna Washington goes down the stairs to start her performance at “Turma Ok” club, located in Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, April 2012.
  • Lorna Washington gets ready for a performance at “Turma Ok” club, in the Lapa section of Rio de Janeiro. One of Lorna’s most applauded shows was at the club “Parrots” in the mid-1980s. This photo was taken in April 2012.
  • Sara is a transsexual commercial sex worker who works in the street of Clarindo de Queiroz in Fortaleza, Brazil. Unlike female sex workers, who have a range of professional options available to them, transgender sex workers often feel they have no options. Many see prostitution as the price they pay for choosing to transform. The combined effects of discrimination, humiliation, lack of education, and isolation from mainstream society place enormous emotional strain on Brazil's transgender people, especially those who earn their living as sex workers. This photo was taken in April 2012.
  • Lorna Washington kisses a friend minutes before her performance begins at “Turma Ok” Club, located in the Lapa area of Rio de Janeiro. Lorna performs at the club for free to keep it afloat, and it has gained a reputation as one of the oldest gay clubs in Brazil. “Turma Ok” was founded in the early 60s, before there was a formal gay rights movement in Brazil. This photo was taken in April 2012.

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In just over a week, all eyes will be focused on Brazil’s (hopefully completed) infrastructure and shiny new stadiums for the world’s most popular sporting event, the FIFA World Cup. But behind the month-long soccer tournament and celebration lurks an underground community, one cast to the margins of Brazilian society.

Photographer Pep Bonet sought to change that by turning his lens on Brazil’s transgender and gender variant community – in particular, the segment relegated to drag entertainment and prostitution.

Originally, the project was meant to focus on HIV/AIDS, an epidemic that has affected the country’s poorest and most remote areas. But once on the streets of Rio de Janeiro and Fortazela in April 2012, Bonet found a different kind of plague – one of social stigma and police brutality.

“Many transgender people try to live normal lives, but society in Brazil rejects them,” Bonet told msnbc. “They’re forced into work that’s not so common, prostitution being the main one … The reality is they don’t have the same rights as other people.”

Though gender-bending has a long history in Brazilian culture – dating back to Rio nightclubs in the 1950s and ‘60s, and embraced today during Carnival festivities – transphobic violence remains a serious problem throughout the country. Latin America accounts for almost 80% of reported murders of transgender people in the world, according to the United Nations Development Programme, and more than half of those deaths occur in Brazil, where 550 transgender people have been reported killed since 2008.

In other areas, however, such as the fashion industry, Brazil has become increasingly accepting of its transgender population.

“Reproducing traditional female gender roles on one level is considered sexy, and beautiful, and amazing,” historian James N. Green, author of “Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil,” told msnbc. Because the country offers plastic surgery through its public health system, achieving a traditional standard of feminine beauty is even more attainable, Green explained, “which is unusual.”

Still, life on the streets – particularly for transgender sex workers – can be very dangerous. While many choose to be prostitutes for the money, which can be quite good, others have few alternatives. In Brazil, as in many other countries, it’s the visibility that comes with performing in nightclubs or working on the streets that often breeds vulnerability for transgender individuals.

“If you’re visible and a transgender prostitute working in Copacabana, for example, there is danger,” said Green. “There’s relative impunity of police action – they can arrest you to get bribes, get sexual favors. There’s no accountability with police. And that’s the problem in Brazil.”

 

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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