In Brazil’s northern state of Bahia, in its capital city of Salvador, there’s a narrow road tucked between an abandoned colonial mansion and a private hospital. Leading downhill, it’s the kind of street Uber drivers don’t know exists unless you specifically point them to it. Ankle-breakingly steep, it’s uninviting in the daytime and poorly lit at night — a forgotten avenue of the city used only by the neighborhood residents and local sex workers. It’s on this street corner that Fernanda used to stand from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. waiting for her clients. She didn’t feel comfortable having her real name in the story, so Fernanda was the pseudonym we settled on.
Roadwork recently led to the street’s closure, so she had to move. Now, she stands next to a bright blue church with white trimmings, built in the popular Baroque style, with a large Alcoholics Anonymous sign hanging outside. It’s only about 100 feet from where she used to be, but the change is quite significant. “I really prefer my other spot,” she told me. “It had more privacy. It was almost hidden — here there’s too much light. It’s too open.” Fernanda is a 27-year-old Afro-Brazilian sex worker and her desire for anonymity is not simply about keeping her job from her loved ones, but to also protect her from harm as her sexual identity has become a point of contention in national politics.
Fernanda identifies as a gay cross dresser with an “androgynous style. I really like to play with masculine and feminine,” she says. Standing about 5’9″ she has an infectious laugh, braces, an easy smile and a personality that’s as fierce as it is offbeat. A lover of tattoos, six are placed on different parts of her body, with her favorite being the “Born This Way,” inked in black letters on her upper forearm, an homage to Lady Gaga, her favorite musician.
Fernanda and I met almost eighteen months ago, when she helped me figure out the bus schedule for my way home. I later moved, coincidentally to a place close to where she works. From that point on, our friendship grew from simple waves to conversations about our lives, the dreams we had, and the things we had done to achieve them.
“When I first started working here it was because of lack of employment. This was the only job I could find so I decided to try it. I have been doing this for eight years now,” she said. In 2002, the Brazilian government classified sex work as an official occupation, so sex workers could now claim benefits such as pensions. Although exchanging sex for money is not illegal, it’s against the law to run brothels or profit from the coerced sex work of others — in other words, sex-trafficking. Conversations around sex work and sex trafficking have intersected in debates around the country, with the former being conflated to be as violent as the latter. Moreover, the legality of the profession has not made it any more accepted in the conservative society. Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world, with an estimated 110 million worshippers.
Fernanda lives in Cabula, a neighborhood about 40 minutes from this spot. “I had to work far from home because people talk, you know. Here no one knows me except my clients.” She points to a friend of hers working at the bus station a few feet away. “She’s about 60 years old and she’s been doing this for a long time. She doesn’t really like to talk about our work, because I think she’s a bit sad that she’s had to do it for so long.” While we talked, Fernanda paused to see if the car coming towards us was one of her regulars. After it drove by, she continued where she’d left off. “I do this three times a week but I am not going to do it for the rest of my life. I have already started making plans so that I can stop.” Since last year, she’s been taking administrative courses at a local university and she just started working part-time at a telemarketing company.
Fernanda’s desire for what she calls trabalho fixo, or fixed work, comes at a time when economic stability would offer her a way out of the country, which has undergone a drastic political shift in the last six months. On January 1st, 2019, Brazil’s highest political office welcomed Jair Bolsonaro, a man determined to deny all rights to people who identify as LGBTQ. Bolsonaro is a member of Partido Social Liberal (PSL), a right-wing party that opposes abortion, same sex-marriage, and gender identity studies in the education curriculums. Dubbed “The Trump of the Tropics” by western media, the moniker offers a one-dimensional description of a man whose own right-wing policies are deeply influenced by Brazil’s former military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985. This 21-year governance is largely remembered as a time of civil unrest, police violence against perceived dissenters, and mass censorship of media.
It’s also a regime that Bolsonaro has praised for its “law and order” practices and “respect for traditional family values.” In February, a month after being sworn in, his government announced plans to revise public school textbooks and remove all information referencing racism, violence against women, feminism, and homosexuality. Fernanda watched his presidential campaign with amusement in the first few months, which gradually shifted to dread as he gained momentum. After his election her feelings turned to full panic. “Things are terrible now. I am lucky I live in Salvador where homophobia is low, but places like Sao Paulo are terrible and that is where [Bolsonaro] was elected.” According to Grupo Gay da Bahia (GGB) — the oldest LGBTQ rights association in the country — there’s been 141 deaths in the nationwide LGBTQ community this year, tallied from January 15th until May 31st. Of these, 126 were homicides with the majority of them — 22 — occurring in Sao Paulo.
Having been in politics for almost 30 years, Bolsonaro was largely a fringe politician, known less for his policies and more for his unrelenting attacks against the LGBTQ community. “I would prefer my son die in an accident than have him be gay,” he told Playboy in 2011. During a 2010 roundtable assembly on the LGBTQ community, he suggested corporal punishment as a way to deter a child from expressing homosexuality. “If your son starts acting a little bit gay just raise your hand and it will change his behavior immediately,” he said. And in a 2014 interview he said, “For the love of God there should be no gay marriage. This would lead to children seeing a gay future.”
In late May, the Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF), the highest court in Brazil, voted to criminalize transphobia and homophobia under the same criminal code as racism. This means that, in the same way criminals can be arrested for hate crimes driven by race, so too will they be arrested for crimes driven by homophobia, with a sentence of up to five years. Prior to this verdict, crimes against the LGBTQ community were prosecuted without taking into account homophobia as a root cause. This was a historic move, yet a few days after the decision, Bolosonaro gave a speech at an Assembly of God Ministry and argued against it. “Isn’t it time to have a minister in the Supreme Tribunal Court who is an Evangelical?” he said. The message behind the question was clear: there was no room in his Brazil for any discussion on LGBTQ rights and he was going to use religion and conservative family values to undercut any efforts towards them.
Statistics released by GGB found that in 2018, there were 420 LGBTQ deaths in Brazil as a result of homicide and suicide. That was less than the 445 reported in 2017, and yet Roberto Efrem, a law professor at the Federal University of Paraiba, told NBC that Bolsonaro in power meant, “a lot of consequences for LGBT people.” For Fernanda, being a gay sex worker means that she always has to be hyper aware of everything happening around her. That is what keeps her alive — her eyes constantly scanning the streets, taking into account everyone passing by and figuring out which people to engage with and whom to ignore. “Sometimes I feel safe, sometimes I don’t. But it all really depends on my perceptions of people. Like if I get in the car I ask for payment right away. If they refuse then I quickly get out,” she says. “I always have to be alert. Sempre.”
A few years ago Fernanda had thought about transitioning, but the few opportunities she saw available to transgender people made her reconsider. “When you’re transgender it’s difficult to get a job. No one wants to hire you, and so this,” she said, gesturing at her white crop top, striped mini-skirt and fuschia lipstick, “is only something I can do when I work here. The rest of the time, and during the day, I’m just a regular boy. I had to think about my future.” According to the Associação Nacional de Travetis e Transexuais (ANTRA), a Brazilian advocacy group for transgender people, 163 transgender people were murdered last year. Ninety-seven percent of the victims were women, and 82% of them were black or brown. The median age of those killed was 26.
In January of this year, Jean Wyllys, federal deputy of Rio de Janeiro and one of the most visible members and supporters of the LGBTQ community in Brazil, decided to step down. In that position, Wyllys was the Rio representative in the Chamber of Deputies, which is responsible for proposing, amending, and repealing federal constitutional laws. His friend, Rio Councilwoman Marielle Franco, had been assassinated the previous year, and in the months prior to his resignation, he had received an increase in death threats. Wyllys was now afraid for his life.
His resignation meant a big loss to LGBTQ allyship at the political level, yet last year, Erica Malunguinho, an Afro-Brazilian transgender woman, was elected State Deputy of Sao Paulo. The same year that Bolsonaro was elected by 55% of the population — almost 58 million people — Malunguinho received almost 55,000 votes. Her win was a hard-fought response to the global pivot towards ultra-rightwing governments, and it’s a victory that is being celebrated even as it stands against a tidal wave of anti-LGBTQ policy makers.
I saw Fernanda a few days ago, after Salvador weathered days of incessant rain and high winds. The rough weather led to the city being put on a pré-emergência, or an orange alert, and those on the road were cautioned to drive slowly because the streets were slippery and the rain made it difficult to see. As I walked to the church, I didn’t expect to see her, but there she was, working during what she called the best time for her to be out. “Business is so much better for me on rainy days. The streets are deserted and so people feel more comfortable coming to see me earlier,” she says. In a city known for regular muggings she doesn’t really feel more vulnerable on those days. “Robbers don’t really pay attention to me,” she says. “They can see I’m a prostitute and so I think they realize we are in the same situation. It’s a strange kind of consideration.”