Brazilian trans politician fights for change despite dangers

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Ttalking to Erika Hilton is like attending your own private gathering. Hilton, who last November became the first trans woman elected to São Paulo city council, speaks loudly and rhythmically, the words tumbling down so quickly that one thinks she might lose track. But she never does; each sentence is constructed in an inspiring crescendo, whether it is about anti-black discrimination or happy childhood memories. “I’ve always been like that,” she laughs and shrugs above Zoom. “As a child, this sometimes caused me problems. People told me to speak more slowly, to speak more quietly. But that’s how I communicate.

Hilton, 27, says her propulsive style came from growing up with “very strong women” in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city of 22 million people, the largest in America. South. But she doubled her stake at the age of 14, when her family, having become deeply involved in the evangelical church, kicked her out for expressing her gender identity. She lived on the streets for six years and survived on sex work. “I think after experiencing the violence, the abandonment, in the street,” she said, “my voice became even louder, because I felt that I had to assert myself even more.

Hilton became a more prominent trans rights activist in 2015 after a private bus company refused to let her use the name she chose on a ticket. In 2018, she successfully submitted a joint candidacy with eight others for a seat in the Legislative Assembly of the State of São Paulo. She then went on to run for city council in 2020, winning more votes than any other candidate in the country.

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In March, she was appointed chair of the city council’s human rights commission, a role she hopes to use to put more emphasis on racism and LGBTQ rights. But she says she encountered resistance “to my name and to the political project that I represent” from other officials.

Hilton’s arrival on the front lines of politics coincided with a dangerous time for his community in Brazil. In 2020, murders of trans women increased by 45%, with black women accounting for two-thirds of the victims. Activists say the rise in violence is part of a cultural backlash after the 2018 election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who repeatedly made transphobic, homophobic and racist comments.

Hilton has received death threats and had to change her daily routine and lifestyle to keep her safe. “Even with all this fear, I understand that my presence, as a young black trans woman from the margins, in the corridors of power is also a response to this moment, a demonstration that the social bases are not taking the attacks that we have. . experienced lying down.

Hilton’s leftist party has asked him to run for a seat in Brazil’s chamber of deputies, the lower house of congress, next October, as the Brazilian left also hopes to prevent Bolsonaro from winning a second term. As Hilton looks to the future, she says she thinks about the past a lot. “I get strength from watching characters from history, down to my ancestors,” she says. “Because I know they must have been very scared too, but they didn’t let fear cripple them. If you are paralyzed, you cannot go where you need to go.

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Write to Ciara Nugent at [email protected]


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