Two trans candidates won historic victories in Brazil this weekend as voters stopped just short of ousting Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s homophobic president.
On October 2, candidates Erika Hilton and Duda Salabert won seats in the National Congress of Brazil, a first for trans representation in the populous South American nation. At least 76 trans candidates ran for office this year, which the National Association of Travestis and Transsexuals (ANTRA) said marks a 44 percent increase from the previous elections. That total includes 67 trans women, five trans men and four non-binary candidates.
In an October 3 statement posted to Instagram, ANTRA called Sunday’s elections a “promising result that makes us move forward, in the defence of democracy, human rights and the secular state…. We are proud to have come this far together,” the organization wrote.
Each of these officials stands to break barriers when the new congress meets for the first time next year. Hilton, a former sex worker who made history by winning a seat on the São Paulo city council in 2020, will be the first Black trans woman seated in the Chamber of Deputies. During her time in public office, she has spearheaded investigations into anti-trans violence in Brazil and sat on the country’s human rights commission, according to Bloomberg Linea.
Hilton, who describes herself as the “Beyoncé of Brazilian politics,” believes her victory will make a major difference to Brazil’s extremely marginalized trans population. The country has the world’s highest rate of anti-LGBTQ+ homicides. According to the advocacy organization Grupo Gay da Bahia, more than 310 queer and trans people lost their lives to violence last year. At least 114 of the recorded victims were trans.
“We are going to get off the street corners, we are going to get out of jails, we are going to get off crack corners and prostitution and start to think about public policies and legislation,” Hilton told The Guardian. “Our mandate in Brasília will be more organized, more committed and closer to people.”
Also set for the Chamber of Deputies is Salabert, founder of the trans advocacy group Transvest, and a former teacher. In 2020, Salabert became the first trans member of the Belo Horizonte city council.
In an Instagram post translated by the Washington Blade, Salabert said she had faced “attacks from Christian fundamentalists and death threats from the extreme right” during her campaign. But her perseverance paid off: She received more votes than any other federal candidate in the history of Minas Gerais, a southeastern Brazilian state.
Alhelí Partida, director of global programs at the U.S. political action group LGBTQ Victory Institute, celebrated their victories in a statement, but noted that the challenges facing Brazil’s queer and trans community will remain.
“While we hope their success is a sign of better days, Brazil remains an incredibly tough place to engage as an out leader—where homophobia, transphobia, death threats and worse are common,” she said. “In 2018, we lost one of our own, Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco, assassinated by anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-women attackers. While her loss continues to be devastating, she has become an icon and the fuel needed to inspire more courageous LGBTQ+ Brazilians to raise their voices.”
LGBTQ+ Brazilians hope the progress their country needs includes a change in leadership at the very top. Bolsonaro survived the first round of Brazil’s presidential election after his leftist challenger, former leader Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, failed to cross the 50 percent threshold in Sunday’s polls. Lula finished with 48.4 percent of the vote, securing over six million votes more than the incumbent, who won 43.1 percent.
The two candidates will head to a runoff scheduled for October 30, and Lula is expected to win following Bolsonaro’s disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. That would be a significant relief for Brazil’s LGBTQ+ community, which has often been a key target of the president’s vitriol. Bolsonaro is proudly anti-LGBTQ+, saying at various points in his controversial political career that he would rather have a dead son than a gay son, and that people who wear masks to prevent COVID are “fairies.”
While Bolsonaro may soon be out of a job, Sunday’s elections unfortunately showed that his brand of far-right fanaticism is here to stay. His party won 99 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, up 66 seats from 2018, and will control both houses of congress next year. Bolsonaro, for his part, has performed better than elected in the presidential race, with tracking indicating that he would lose the first round by 10 points.