Transgender woman of African descent makes history in Brazil

By : Felipe Alface OF THE WASHINGTON BLADE, COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL LGBT MEDIA ASSOCIATION
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Above: São Paulo Congresswoman Érica Malunguinho is a transgender Brazilian woman of African descent who was elected last fall. (Photo courtesy of Comunicação Alesp)

SÃO PAULO — São Paulo Congresswoman Érica Malunguinho made history last fall when she became the first transgender woman elected to a state congress in Brazil. The groundbreaking politician who is also of African descent sat down with the Washington Blade on April 26 to talk about politics, representation and the challenges she faces.

Washington Blade: When we talk about visibility, what does it represent to you being the first transgender woman elected in Brazil?

Érica Malunguinho: Being elected as a transgender woman is first a denouncement because it is inexplicable that I am the first transgender elected (to a state congress) if we think that the transgender population has existed since the beginning of time. It is absurd that we have only reached this position in 2019. That says a lot about how the political field is delayed in the presence of the most diverse agents in society. And if we think that half the Brazilian population is black and has such a tiny representation in the political field, I would say being elected is a double denouncement. The state of inequality in our country is proportional to that representation because we have people making decisions about the ones who need the most without any identification or concern for black people, transgender, LGBT people, women and other minority groups. And it is within those groups that transformation and disruption of inequalities will occur because it is those minorities that suffer the biggest violence and life precariousness in our society.

Blade: What are your most important goals in this first term as a congresswoman?

Malunguinho: I have so many goals, and we have so many challenges. The first one is to build a political narrative completely aligned and substantiated with race and gender issues, and it all begins with making people understand that most inequalities affect those people. We can’t focus on a public security policy, for example, that doesn’t effectively prevent violence against those groups that are historically and institutionally more vulnerable. The black population is the most murdered and also women, both cisgender and transgender, are the most violated in all kinds of ways. Those people denounce a state that has failed them and they are not a part of the system of normativity. It is a goal to build public policies that break those cycles of structural violence.

Blade: This week you proposed the expansion of the “TransCitizenship” project from the city of São Paulo to the entire state. Why was this one of the first proposals on which you focused?

Malunguinho: This project is important to disrupt a cycle of institutional marginalization of the transgender community. If we think about vulnerabilities that need to be corrected, the transgender community is the most vulnerable among minority groups for a number of reasons. Brazil is the country that kills the most transgender people in the world. And one of the reasons for it is that transgender people are usually abandoned by their families, by their schools and by a job market that leaves them out. So 90 percent of the transgender population is living in the streets and working as sex workers. It is a vicious cycle that the “TransCitizenship” project tries to break by offering a formal education, vocational training and mediating the relationship between transgender employees and public and private companies the project urges to absorb that transgender workforce.

Blade: The Supreme Court has finally scheduled a ruling about the criminalization of homophobia on May 23. What is your expectation about that decision?

Malunguinho: I am anti-punishment. I don’t agree with a society that has to constantly organize itself through penalty sanctions. But I understand that at this moment in time this is one of the few mechanisms we can use to regulate and determine some civilizational pacts. We have legislation in this moment in history to safeguard these necessary punishments. My expectation is that the criminalization of homophobic acts and violence will be approved, but that alone is not enough. It needs to come attached to other educational actions that can change the culture within our society and the comprehension of what LGBT-phobia is and means. It needs to be discussed in the schools, it needs to be discussed inside companies.

Blade: Supreme Court Justice Carmen Lucia in March also blocked a 2017 decision that allowed psychologists to perform conversion therapy on the LGBT community. Do you consider it another victory?

Malunguinho: It is sad that we have to spend energy on this. It is absurd in an age with so much knowledge we still have to discuss the dismissal of a proposal like that. We should be fighting for rights and time and time again we are obligated to give steps back in order to stop proposals like that to protect our right to live.

Blade: And this proposal was created against the opinion of the Counsels of Psychology Professionals in our country …

Malunguinho: Every proposal created in these spheres to diminish people’s humanities come from a dark place of individuality based only on opinion and misinformation. It is mediocre.

Blade: In parallel with the Supreme Court voting on the criminalization of homophobia, evangelicals in Congress are preparing an amendment that seeks to criminalize homophobia, but would also allow churches to talk about it in a “critical tone” under the guise of religious freedom.

Malunguinho: Our constitution says that we live in a secular state. There’s not a singular reason for religious groups to organize themselves within our policies and advocate against or for any religious group. Those groups shouldn’t have the right to talk about LGBT issues and lives in a critical tone that comes based on their religion and a complete lack of love. What is this critical tone of them? I can have a critical tone about the LGBT community, but not in a sense of robbing its individual freedoms. Again, it comes from a lack of information and from the noncompliance of civilizational pacts. There is no sense in their trying to go above our constitution. You don’t have to be afraid of using a critical tone if you are not using it to discriminate and incite hate.

São Paulo Congresswoman Érica Malunguinho speaks at the 2018 International LGBTQ Leader Conference in D.C. on Dec. 7, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

São Paulo Congresswoman Érica Malunguinho speaks at the 2018 International LGBTQ Leader Conference in D.C. on Dec. 7, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Blade: In more than one occasion you talk about a “constant negotiation of belonging”. What does that mean?

Malunguinho: There is a central point that structures our society and conducts it and determines what is normative. White, heterosexual, cisgender men are a part of that center. Everyone who is outside of that norm are in a constant negotiation of a sense of belonging. Obviously, that happens differently for the people outside the center. If you are a white cisgender woman you have to negotiate being a woman within the patriarchy; if you are a black man or woman your negotiation is different and so on and so on until you get to a black transgender woman. That is what that constant negotiation of belonging means. We live in a society organized by that center and it conducts itself to the exclusion of the “other”. People outside that organizational norm need to constantly negotiate their lives, their right to work, their beauty, their love. Our existence is not given naturally just by the fact that you are breathing. I am the first transgender woman elected. I negotiate my belonging constantly by being that.

Blade: What is your evaluation of these first few months of President Jair Bolsonaro?

Malunguinho: I feel a profound shame and indignation. I have a true difficulty in believing that we have to hear a nation’s chief with that kind of reasoning and tract. I won’t even talk about him in a political or institutional sphere because he has no proposals for Brazil. This absence of political proposals for the country is completely linked to a lack of insight and intellectual knowledge that leads to his constant exclusion practices. He is nothing but an empty and perverse being.

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