In Brazil, transgressing gender norms can have consequences
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.”