The veteran LGBTQ+ activist who defies statistics and dreams of becoming a centenarian

Keila Simpson presides over ANTRA, the association that prepares the annual report on the murder of trans people in Brazil… the world’s deadliest country for this community

Kelia Simpson
Kelia Simpson, a Brazilian activist who fights for the civil rights of the transgender community in her country.Matheus Leite
Naiara Galarraga Gortázar

The dream of leaving her small town to see the world has been fulfilled, as she’s ventured throughout and beyond her native Brazil. Now, she has another dream: to be 100-years-old.

Reaching her centnerary would be quite a feat, considering that the average life expectancy of a trans Brazilian is scarily low: most only reach the age of 35. But, on the verge of turning 58 — and given that her mother is in her 90s — Keila Simpson is optimistic.

“I want to experience some of these things that I helped build in Brazil, because before, we didn’t even have the right to use our chosen names!” she recalls, during an interview with EL PAÍS. She sits on a shaded porch that protects her from the summer heat in Salvador, the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia.

Her chosen name — Keila — has defined her since she entered adolescence. That’s when she began to tie her shirts over her still-flat chest and roll up her shorts.

For decades now, Simpson has been an LGBTIQA+ activist (an evolving acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual and other sexual identities). She chairs ANTRA (Associação Nacional de Travestis e Transsexuais do Brasil), an organization that has gained recognition in Brazil and internationally. Since 2017, the group has been preparing the annual report on violence against “trans women, trans men, transmasculine and non-binary people.” It’s a detailed study filled with terrible figures. The latest edition — presented at the end of January — puts the number of trans Brazilian victims in 2023 at 145. This represents a year-over-year increase of 10%, although murders in general decreased. The youngest victim was only 13-years-old. Nine of the murdered individuals identified as male.

In the seven years since they began collecting information, ANTRA has recorded 1,057 murders of trans people in Brazil. That is, 151 a year, or 13 each month. This works out to almost one violent death every two days. For the 15th consecutive year, Brazil is the country with the most murders being committed against members of this community, well ahead of Mexico and the United States. This is according to Trans Murder Monitoring.

Simpson insists on the false moralism that underlies her homeland. More trans people are killed in Brazil than anywhere else, although the country leads when it comes to internet searches of the collective. She explains the logic behind this: “[People] want a transvestite (or travesti, a widely-used term in Latin America for a cross-dresser that is considered derogatory by many). They want an inanimate being who can give them pleasure. Then, they can discard them.”

The profile of trans Brazilians who are murdered is clear: they tend to be between the ages of 19 and 29-years-old, they often make a living as sex workers and are usually murdered in public places by strangers. And the way in which they are killed tends to be enormously cruel and unusual. This meticulous profile is based on journalistic information and ANTRA’s extensive network of collaborators.

Among the recent achievements of the group are the two seats held by trans women in the federal Chamber of Deputies. Another two trans women affiliated with the group won seats in the state legislatures of Rio and Sergipe.

“I’m trans. My gender is feminine, because I claim a feminine identity. But I don’t want to be a woman, nor a trans woman, nor a transvestite woman. I am, simply, a transvestite,” Simpson emphasizes. She also describes herself as a prostitute, the activity with which she made a living for decades. She highlights that, in her case, it was always a free choice, without a pimp. However, she acknowledges that a high percentage of sex workers are victims of exploitation and trafficking.

For someone like the president of ANTRA, every birthday is an achievement. “I don’t know a centenarian trans person, [or any who are] 80-years-old. There’s one who’s reaching 70,” she notes.

Unlike the majority of the victims that make up ANTRA’s statistics, Simpson was never kicked out of her home by her family, who always supported her. While she left her hometown of Pedreiras at the age of 13 in search of new horizons, she always maintained contact with her parents, her grandparents and her six siblings. Even today. She has always had a refuge to return to, where she’s received with love (although her father drank and was sometimes violent).

She had a happy childhood in the countryside of the state of Maranhão, even though the family was very poor. “We’re still poor,” she adds. The children amused themselves by bathing in the river and climbing trees. The local cinema only showed films for adults.

It was at the age of 13 when she began to feminize her attire. The transition began a gradual process that took years. “We [altered] our clothes with the children in the street. It was sort of a joke, but also a reaction to the condition predetermined by society. You had a small dick, you were a boy and you had to dress a certain way.” She chose to be called Keila. Her friends became known as Gardenia and Mayra.

The LGBTQIA + activist recalls two scenes — both with her mother as the protagonist — that illustrated the attitude of the people around her as she was beginning her transition. “I was in the market with my mother when a shopkeeper took out some panties and placed them on my lower abdomen. He wanted to ridicule me, or maybe he wanted to tell my mother something that she didn’t know... I was stunned, embarrassed. But this was my mother’s reaction: ‘You should be ashamed, Mr. Dorival. If he needs panties, I’ll buy them for him!’” When she finishes recounting this anecdote, Simpson highlights the many nuanced responses that her mother — Doña Rosa — used to protect her.

The second scene occurred a decade after she left home on an intense journey that led her — along with her friend, Bruna — to earn a living as a domestic worker and, later, a prostitute in Teresina and Recife, the respective state capitals of Piauí and Pernambuco. She was nervous: it was Keila’s first meeting with her mother after a long time. “I didn’t know what her reaction would be. If she called me Carlos (her name at birth), I wouldn’t have cared,” she points out now. “But my mother came over, hugged me and said: ‘How are you, my daughter? With that gesture, I was completely free.”

Simpson arrived in Salvador de Bahía when the Brazilian military dictatorship was coming to an end, in the mid-1980s. She remembers that time with nostalgia, because those who lived on the margins of society in the port city lived together in a certain harmony. They worked at night on the street, without fear of gunshots. “The most violence came from the police, who took you to the station and only let you out when you put on the masculine clothes that someone brought you.”

These were the times of the AIDS epidemic, that unknown disease that was treated like the plague. It triggered discrimination against sexual minorities throughout the world. “They stoned us, threatened to shoot us, beat us with baseball bats, yelled at us, saying that we were spreading AIDS to our parents.” At the time, she was living in a mansion with 15 or 20 other trans prostitutes, divided into several studios. That’s when she began her career as an activist, handing out free condoms on behalf of Grupo Gay de Bahia, a pioneering entity.

Subsequently, for a period of 42 years, she prepared the only annual report on the murders of LGBTQ people in Brazil.

“In the meetings, I saw that there were gay people [and] one or two lesbians… but there were no [trans people],” Simpson recalls. So, in 1995, she created the first association of this group. “In reality, even then, being trans was an insult to society. I think that, at the time, both trans men and women — and all those other identities that have always existed — still didn’t have the strength and power to claim visibility.”

She says that if someone refers to her as a man, or by what trans people refer to as their “dead name” (or name given at birth), she will politely and firmly urge them to refer to her in the feminine tense. But it wasn’t always like this, she explains. “This debate only gained more strength when, in Argentina, they began to argue about whether [trans men] could be identified with the female gender.”

This raises a point of contention that Simpson and ANTRA have with the Brazilian authorities. The current administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — whom they consider to be a friend of the LGBTQIA+ community — has maintained the introduction of national identity cards, a project proposed by the administration of Jair Bolsonaro (2018-2022). This seems intolerable to them, considering that it was implemented by the former far-right president, a declared enemy and noted transphobe.

“They (Lula’s people) promised us that the new card wouldn’t [include] sex or cause an issue about [registering chosen names rather than given names], things that Bolsonaro wanted. It’s a setback!” Simpson explains. A working group has recommended that, for now, biological sex shouldn’t be included on national identity cards and that — in the case of trans people — said cards should only include chosen names. Last year, some 3,900 LGBTQIA+ Brazilians officially changed their names before a notary.

Simpson — a world traveler who lived in Italy for a few years — had an unpleasant experience a couple of years ago in Mexico. She was on her way to the World Social Forum (she was invited to be a participant), but at the airport, her passport with her biological name caught the attention of customs officers. She was deported, despite having all the documentation to prove her identity. She described the expulsion as being the result of transphobia.

Back in Brazil, the activists from ANTRA are looking forward to a new government program, which will offer specialized healthcare for trans people. A few dozen Brazilians undergo treatments and surgeries every year for what is officially called “sexual reassignment” or “gender affirmation.” Last year, the public health system performed 65 surgeries, according to the Brazilian Ministry of Health. While the data doesn’t differentiate by sex, some studies estimate that the vast majority of surgeries were for those transitioning from being men to women.

“Our revenge is to grow old” is one of Simpson’s maxims. She has her sights set on 2066… the year of her 100th birthday.

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