What violence data in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco reveal about institutional LGBTphobia

By Amanda Mendes and Roberto Peixoto

Jard Araújo has no guarantee that her right to the city will be assured when she opens her home door. The resident of Ibura, a neighborhood in the South Zone of Recife, northeast Brazil, has no idea whether someone will curse, make faces, and/or make fun of her simply because she will be passing through a street, waiting for a bus, or making her way to her college’s campus. In fact, the days when the graduate student of Social Service does not suffer repression while moving through urban spaces seem even very unusual for her.

Jard is a travesti (the term is used in Latin American countries — especially South American — to designate people who have been assigned male sex at birth, but develop a gender identity according to different expressions of femininity) and uses public transport daily, mainly to get to college. In this article, she talks about her experience, which, unfortunately, is the reality of many other travestis and transsexuals.

Being a travesti adds a layer of difficulty to a woman’s life that is unique to their existence, an experience that they go through daily, without others even realizing how arduous the simple act of existing is for these women.

To understand a little more about these particularities, Jard brings a piece of her life, showing her obstacles, which start with the looks she receives in the public space: “The crooked look is something that happens a lot. When it is not the crooked look, it is the questioning look; that look that you see a very big question mark in the person’s head ”. For Jard, taking up space on public transport, especially on a bus, is almost a challenge, in which she often has to quietly accept the looks and giggles of strangers.

Jard says she tries hard to educate the person causing the mockery, but it is not always possible to remain calm in the face of other people’s prejudice; the college undergraduate says that she once came across a mother who nudged her young daughter and pointed at her, encouraging her to laugh. Eventually, Jard decided to confront the woman: “When she stopped her act and turned around, I went over there. When I nudged her, she turned and got really scared ”. She also says that after the woman made an excuse about being sick and fainting, she replied with a sarcastic: “So get better!”.

This is just an anecdote that speaks of a more difficult reality: the fact that travestis are excluded from the public scenario by society. “Most of the time it is really sad because we are always walking through spaces and people look at you like an alien,” says Jard. “And even though this is not a way to get yourself out of this situation directly, it ends up intimidating you, and you start to not want to be there.”

Cases like these are not and have never been punctual and, precisely for that reason, in 2013, Pernambuco was the first state in the country to legally establish that situations of violence, discrimination, and crimes against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, travestis, and transsexuals must be registered and specified in the federation unit’s police reports. The Joint Ordinance №4818 of the then Secretariat of Social Development and Human Rights (SEDSDHE) with the Secretariat of Social Defense (SDS) of Pernambuco came into force on November 29, 2013, establishing “necessary measures to include the fields ‘social name’, ‘affective-sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity, as well as that of homophobic motivation in the police reports ”, so that this insertion could supply the Police Information System (INFOPOL/SDS), the database with statistics of state criminality.

Although the term “homophobic motivation” does not syntactically encompass the entire LGBT community, since it does not specifically refer to an “LGBTphobic motivation”, the inclusion of the expression was a great victory for the whole community, because, with the documentation of the cases and the classificatory record of the victims, statistics could be calculated to foster the promotion of public policies that would better serve this population. Any neighborhood in Recife that pointed out a high rate of injury and defamation reports to travestis and transsexuals, for example, could articulate specialized services in that region, such as the implementation of awareness and training courses on sexual and gender diversity.

Barriers in the Effectiveness of the Ordinance

However, since Ordinance 4818/2013 was promulgated, certain measures have not yet been fully structured. The training of police authorities so that they can provide a humanized service to the LGBT population, making the correct registration of LGBTphobic manifestations in B.O.s is one of them. Four months before the decree went into effect, in August 2013, a military policeman from Pernambuco made a homophobic post on his social network profile. In a photo shared in the publication, the officer held a wooden club with the inscription “gay cure”. In September of that same year, another officer attacked an unidentified young man who participated in Pernambuco’s Pride Parade with a strong slap. At the 2015 carnival in Olinda, a gay couple was arrested for allegedly, according to the police force, for performing an obscene act while kissing.

Cases like these show that policing, which should guarantee security for the LGBT population, represents yet another field of intimidation for these people. Despite efforts to change this situation, the police are still a structure where LGBTphobia is latent. Jard has witnessed friends being approached several times, especially on the bus, and says that this tension is not difficult to notice. “When [the police] ask a certain group or a certain person to get off the bus so that they can stop and search, it is always people with the same characteristics. It is visible. It’s always the same stereotype, ” Jard reports.

With this in mind, in April 2016, the Public Prosecutor Office of Pernambuco, along with the State Department of Social Defense and the state’s military force, prepared a document with guidelines for how the military police should address LGBT people, respecting their sexualities and identities of gender, the so-called “Standard Operating Procedure (POP, in Portuguese) for the LGBT population”. This year, the police’s booklet, which, among several aspects, highlights the importance of treating travestis as women and respecting their social identity, was distributed to police officers who worked at the Boa Viagem Pride Parade, in a PDF version of 16 pages prepared by the LGBT Coordination of Pernambuco.

“We need to prepare the entire public security structure to accommodate this population,” says Marcone Menezes, who helped prepare the document and is the LGBT Coordinator for Pernambuco, an organization linked to the State Secretariat for Justice and Human Rights. “Today there is a way for the military police to approach this population. Every officer, in their training process, has 16 hours of thematic training for the LGBT population. We are crawling, but we see this as an advance ”.

Through the inclusion of “homophobic motivation” in police reports, the LGBT Coordination can carry out a detailed survey of LGBT victims of Intentional Lethal Violent Crime (CVLI) — intentional homicide, theft followed by death and bodily injury followed by death — in the State of Pernambuco, from January 2014 to December 2017. The data, obtained exclusively for this report, reveal that 2017 recorded the largest number of victims in the historical series: 56. In 2014, there were 54; 2015, 49 and 2016, 48. The municipality with the highest number of victims over these 4 years was Recife, with 34. Jaboatão dos Guararapes was in second place with 22 occurrences. Third, Cabo, with 15.

The numbers of the Coordination paint a very detailed panorama of the LGBTphobic violence in Pernambuco, bringing specifications in relation to the neighborhood of the occurrences, the nature, the place, the day of the week, and even the time. However, there is no distinction in the data between sexuality and the gender identity of the victims, since, although provided for in the 2013 state ordinance, police reports are not recording this. Thus, it is not possible to measure, for example, in which municipality transsexuals and travestis are being more violated and murdered.

“What we see in most of the country is that cases of LGBTphobic violence end up being made invisible”, comments UFPE Sociology professor Gustavo Gomes da Costa Santos, coordinator of the Diversiones Research Group — Human Rights, Power and Culture in Gender and Sexuality of The Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). “These data are the biggest problem that we experience when working with the LGBT population because we are talking about a population whose identity is linked to certain sexual practices and sexuality is something very fluid. So we have great difficulty, for example, in defining the size of the LGBT population in a census. Another problem: we have a large-scale institutional LGBTphobia that makes this population invisible. Many times [the occurrences] are registered as robbery and murder, but without emphasizing the issue of LGBTphobia”.

Trying to address the lack of these state indicators, the city of Recife created in May 2018 a virtual platform for receiving reports of prejudice and discrimination. In the online form, the person making the complaint can declare his / her gender and sexual identity, which facilitates the profiling of the occurrences and allows the creation of specific indicators. However, Recife’s LGBT Policy Manager, Wellington Pastor, confesses that the platform is not yet well known and, therefore, had few complaints, which makes it impossible to quantify the data. “The absence of indicators harms the creation of public policies in a horrible way. It was from this argument that we created the platform ”.

Thus, hampered by the lack of these sets of programs, actions, and activities developed by the State, Jard is forced to choose between not using a mode of transport that is essential for her mobility and suffering a veiled exclusion daily, to the point of being strange when a day goes by without receiving even a glance. She says that some harassments are even punctual: “Every day I avoid taking the bus at my stop at 9 am because, at that time, there is a specific bus that passes at the bus stop where I take it and when [the driver] sees me he gives me a glance or he screams something. ”

Avoiding a certain location at specific times is not just a matter of “comfort” to escape unpleasant comments: it is, in fact, essential for Jard’s survival. “I avoid walking on the street at night,” she explains, “I avoid it for the sake of my self-security.”

A large portion of the city and certain experiences are closed to travestis because of this. Wellington exemplifies this issue by saying that a gay couple exposes themselves to dangerous situations by looking for isolated places where they will not have to face faces, swearing, or even being expelled from a public place. The same extends to transvestites, forced to stay between exclusion or insecurity.

Despite the adversities, Jard decided to go through the long transition process. At first, she was apprehensive: “I was afraid because I know that if I externalize [my femininity], I could suffer violence.” But she didn’t let that stop her. She says that the experience has been very good, due to the attention of all the hospital employees she frequents, Darlen Gasparelli and Lessa de Andrade, in Recife. She says they treat her well, making her comfortable.

She admits, however, that the service is not available to everyone. Public hospitals in Pernambuco that offer services to the trans population are overwhelmed by the high demand, to the point of waiting for up to 10 years to schedule a procedure. And this long wait also happens to those who wish to undergo sexual reassignment surgery (which adapts the genitalia to the person’s gender) at the only hospital in the North-Northeast that performs the procedure, Hospital das Clínicas, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco. According to an investigation carried by the local portal G1 Pernambuco, more than 70 transgenders await surgery in line at the HC of UFPE. In addition, outside these specialized spaces, the scenario is worrying for trans women for another reason: the lack of training for health professionals. “We have a high rate of transgender and travesti people with cancer because they don’t take care of themselves,” explains Wellington, “they don’t reach [the health system] because these people won’t respect their social name, due to prejudices”.

Outlook for the future

Even with its flaws, the health system has made important advances, providing several resources for trans people. The labor market, however, is still extremely hostile to transvestites, commonly transphobic due to their desire to maintain the norm and homogeneity that has always existed in formal jobs. For this reason, Jard admits to being afraid of pursuing a job: “I arrive at a shopping mall, deliver a resume, and have nothing to guarantee me I will get the job. Because I know that when they realize that I am a trans person or a travesti, they will not want me to work there”.

This is a problem that LGBT organizations are aware of and have been trying to tackle for years, but without much success; the process is difficult and slow due to the resistance of HR departments. “It is a very closed job market,” says Marcone, who also recalls that there is a barrier for transgender and travestis due to the high numbers of low schooling in this group, which Wellington explains is a phenomenon caused by the way that these women suffer violence in schools and are expelled from home, being unable to finish their education.

In view of the already existing challenges, plus those that promise to come in 2019, it is difficult to remain confident, but Jard has a positive view for the future and reinforces the importance of being tough in times of adversity: “In this political moment [the election of the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro] it is being very explicit that we cannot lie down now, you can’t relax now, it’s a time of a lot of struggle. But this moment speaks a lot about how we should position ourselves, it talks a lot about which paths we will have to guide and it is showing that it will not be easy, that it will not be something hand in hand. But we never had anything like it, everything was built with a lot of struggle, so this is not the time to go to bed”.

This story was originally published in Portuguese in October 2019

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Tradutor EN-PT / Jornalista | Tecnologia, ciência e meio ambiente | DDJ | Membro @IRE_NICAR @IBWellsSociety @WFSJ @abraji @EscolaDeDados

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Roberto Peixoto

Tradutor EN-PT / Jornalista | Tecnologia, ciência e meio ambiente | DDJ | Membro @IRE_NICAR @IBWellsSociety @WFSJ @abraji @EscolaDeDados