On Sunday, Duda Salabert left her home in Belo Horizonte – the capital of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais – and went to vote wearing a bulletproof vest. A few hours later, she was elected as the congresswoman for her district by a landslide.
In São Paulo, Erika Hilton experienced something similar. Together, they are the first trans women in Brazilian history to be elected as federal deputies. They will face a hostile environment: after the general elections last weekend, the National Congress is more socially conservative than ever.
While Salabert and Hilton are pioneers at the federal level, they are not new to politics. After spending much of their lives as activists, they have been popular city councilors for the past two years. In addition to having been a municipal politician, Salabert was also a Portuguese teacher at one of the best schools in Belo Horizonte. She was dismissed from her job last year, she claims, because of parental pressure and constant verbal threats. Despite this, however, her career in politics has gone beyond the fight against transphobia.
Salabert – who uses her social media platforms to talk about politics and share vegan food recipes – has put the environment at the front-and-center of her platform. When she was elected councilor, she promised to plant 37,000 trees – one for each vote received. In the recent federal elections, she boasted of running the first “carbon-free” campaign in history, without using pamphlets, flags or stickers. Her proposals include reducing the use of pesticides and diversifying the economy away from natural resource extraction.
The death threats that Salabert and Hilton consistently receive, though, have nothing to do with their policies. They are attacked online and in-person almost exclusively because they are trans women. Hilton, who is Afro-Brazilian, has also faced racial discrimination, in addition to transphobia.
Hilton grew up in a conservative family that expelled her from home for not accepting her gender identity. She was barely 14-years-old when she began to prostitute herself on the streets. Over time, she managed to defy statistics: thanks to the student movement at her university and her push for private companies to respect trans identities, she caught the attention of the left-wing Socialism and Freedom Party. Hilton was invited to become a member.
While her electoral base is the LGBTQ+ niche, in order to reach more voters in the 2022 campaign, Hilton made an effort to underline the fact that the left cannot see the religious voter as a threat – there has to be an understanding of the role that churches play in disadvantaged communities in Brazil. She even participated in events with a progressive evangelical pastor, Henrique Vieira, who was also elected to the Chamber of Deputies.
Both Salabert and Hilton are survivors in a country where LGBTQ+ people are killed at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world. Last year, 140 trans Brazilians were murdered, according to the National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals. Entering politics in such a difficult context – especially with President Jair Bolsonaro’s virulent anti-trans rhetoric as a backdrop – is almost an odyssey, as explained by the recently released documentary Corpolítica, directed by Pedro Henrique França. The film features Hilton as one of its protagonists.
The rise of Hilton and Salabert goes hand-in-hand with the push for more female representation in the traditionally male National Congress. Along with the election of two Indigenous congresswomen – Sônia Guajajara and Célia Xakriabá – their arrival in the halls of power is seen as a bright spot amid disappointing election results.
The majority of the Brazilian legislative branch is in the hands of the right-wing parties, with a notable rise of the most ultra-conservative deputies, many of them evangelical defenders of the so-called “traditional family.” Several have made threats against LGBTQ+ community.
Three days before being elected, Salabert posted a message for her followers on social media: “I try not to normalize armored cars, bulletproof vests and the simple fact that I can no longer go to the bakery alone. I wonder, for how long? Could it be that there is little left to overcome… or is this just the beginning?”