“True militancy in Brazil, has nothing to do with NGOs. I was saying this to a friend of mine that works at a local LGBT referral centre. Militancy in Brazil you do like João Nery did it, like Benjamin is doing it, like I’m doing it, without being connected to an NGO or anything. It’s going there, opening people’s minds up, and confronting, and demanding dignified treatment.”
Interview and translation by Claire House. Photos by Tata Baretto. Portuguese version to follow.
In honour of International Day of Transgender Visibility 2014 (March 31), I invited Benjamin (a high school teacher, and post-grad in public health) and Simon (an anthropologist), to do a collective interview about the emergence of trans masculine communities in Brazil in the last few years – events they’ve both been involved in, in different ways. I did so partly because this is a topic on which very little information exists, certainly in English, and partly because – as we discussed at the start – it might be interesting to provide a different kind of reference to discussions about trans masculine communities, so often based on North American and European communities.
Simon and Benjamin started the conversation by commenting that they thought it was a nice idea to invite them to participate together, because – whilst they are friends – they also have really different opinions, experiences and ways of expressing themselves. As Simon put it, “Benjamin is totally into the whole queer question, he likes confrontations and so on. I am a modest, discrete guy, in a visual sense, in terms of my aesthetic, right? The way I look is binary. Benjamin, no.” Benjamin responded, “If we could bring a third or fourth to make a ‘melting pot’ like you know (laughs), because it’s cool. Simon feels comfortable like this, just that there doesn’t exist a recipe. There doesn’t exist a true transsexual. I am just as true, as authentic, as Simon. In my narrative, my narrative is also just as truthful as his.”
I then started by suggesting that things were really different in about 2009, 2010, as compared with now. Back then, even just 4-5 years ago, there wasn’t even a community to speak of, whereas even in late 2012, there seemed to have been a big shift, with new communities forming in certain city spaces, at certain events, online, and in the form of new political networks. Benjamin invited Simon to respond first.
Simon: FTM communities are considered the last to come out of the closet, of the LGBT communities. So when I came out, I didn’t even know that I was in the closet, because we didn’t have any knowledge of masculine transsexuality. Whilst feminine transsexuality already – ever since Roberta Close exploded and had huge success – there was already information, but the masculine was a mystery, no one knew about this. I didn’t know, I didn’t have any information.
So what I would say is that in this period you suggest, what happened is that the existence of the possibility of self-definition became visible. I won’t even talk about identity because it’s a very limited term, but this possibility of defining yourself. This is recent, and it’s the publicising of this. It’s great, because it helps people to have this possibility in their lives. Also because if you don’t know, you don’t chase, you don’t know you can, and you don’t do. So succinctly it’s this. Visibility increased, yes. It was good. And they say that it’s the last community that has expressed itself. Now, on more details about these communities, I believe that Benjamin will have more to say than I do.
Benjamin: From 2009 to now, I can see two movements that really grew a lot in Brazil. The visibility of videologs – international at the start, and then afterwards a channel for Brazilians was created. So there were these videos produced by Brazilians, all trans, trans men, or male trans people, or men. But beyond the visibility of these videos, also, I think that a great mark – which was in 2011 – for Brazil, a person like, with an absurd representative quality, a great deal of charisma, and a phenomenal life story – who is Jean W. Nery. The first trans man, that we know of, in the history of Brazil, the first self-declared trans man, who published his biography.
In fact it was the second edition. The first edition was called ‘Erro de Pessoa’ (Error of Person), where he – when he started to publicise this book, in the 1980s, or thereabouts – when he would give interviews, they were conducted in the dark. He didn’t appear, he didn’t show his face. So – talking about visibility – look how complicated this is, right? Here is a person who is open about his identity, who told that whole incredibly rich and magnificent story, but who didn’t show his face. Nobody knew who he was.
And afterwards then, in 2011, when he publishes the second book – which is actually just the second edition with some chapters added. When he started to promote this book, he finally showed his face in the interviews. So I think this is without doubt a great mark, for men, right, Brazilian men. It changed a lot. And he starts to share this book, and does seminars in universities, and is invited to many places, and it generated a lot of attention.
Simon: But now there is the Brazilian Association of Trans Men (ABHT), right? Before there was only one or another blog here and there. I remember when I went to look – I had really little information – at this blog which was from Leonardo Tenório, where I also got some information.
Luís Capucho is a friend of mine, who is gay, and was invited to participate in the National Meeting of Travestis and Transsexuals, I think it’s ENTLAIDS, here in Rio de Janeiro, in Glória. And so he contacted me to go because I had revealed to him – whispered in his ear – my question. And said that I knew that in the United States there was, and in Europe too, but that here in Brazil there wasn’t any information. I said to him, “I guess I have to sell all my things, say goodbye to my family and go to the United States to do a metamorphosis”.
And he went and sent me a message saying to me: “there will be an event, ENTLAIDS, let’s go there, for you to meet other people”. And when I arrived, there were only women. And I went there quickly looking for other trans men, at the event.
This was in 2011, or thereabouts. And there I met a guy called Guilherme Almeida, who is a professor at the State University here in Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). And I said to him, I introduced myself, and he was very kind. We talked and he said to me “look I get treatment here in Rio de Janeiro, at the Pedro Ernesto University Hospital”. When he said that I almost fell over in shock, and said “so I can stay here in Brazil, and get treatment here?!” And him: “yes you can, go there to the Pedro Ernesto Hospital”.
So it was from this meeting by chance – there wasn’t information on the internet like this – and look, I researched a lot about this treatment, if it was possible, to be done here in Brazil.
Benjamin: In fact, there were various stories that went out in the papers, I know because I looked for them a lot. As I had already been to the United States and seen that this was possible, I kept thinking when will this happen here? When will this be available for me to access? Because if I depend on this to access a programme, I will sign any test that says I’m crazy, but I will enroll in this programme, because I want to access this service.
I searched a lot in the papers, and I found a story – when I was in São Paulo – I found a story in a journal, that was in 1997, saying that they had started a kind of pre-project. It was at a university hospital, there at the University of São Paulo, and everything was still experimental. And so, it was more or less around 2000, 2003, that the transgender referral centres (centros transexualizadores) were created in Brazil.
There are four centres. All of them are linked to universities. There isn’t any private sector centre right, as they exist in some developed countries. So all of them are linked to a university, to teaching, to clinical medicine, to research. They are in the state of Rio de Janeiro, in Rio Grande do Sul, in São Paulo and in Goiás.
Claire: And they are all qualified to deal with trans people…
Benjamin: Yes, there is a difference between theory and practice.
Claire: I was talking with someone, who was saying that the construction of new trans masculine communities in Latin America in general, is very much connected to the search for health services? That – as part of this searching – many times, trans communities that didn’t exist before, ended up being formed, understand?
Benjamin: Yes. For trans men yes. And I saw very recently, this week, a trans man said that he accessed a service – the CRT, which exists there in São Paulo – which was the first time that he didn’t feel, like, alone in the world, right, isolated. Because he is from a rural city, and he said that he only knew, and actually saw trans men, other trans men, when he accessed this service for the first time. Outside of this he had only seen this in magazines, on the internet, he had never seen, never talked with one, face to face.
So this happens a lot, because as there are only these four referral centres, the people come from all the other states, where there isn’t this service. They even get – or theoretically, they should get access from the Ministry of Health – they theoretically get access to a grant, through their local health clinic, to get travel costs to one of these centres to be attended. So this means that many people – who had their transition existing only as a dream, right, as a utopia – that this started to become reality, to be possible also for these people, from all the more rural places.
“We have to prove to certain people that our lives are worth something, in the health system. Because they don’t value our lives. Some guy is there, some health worker, but he doesn’t think that your life is worth anything. Here in Brazil you get tired of knowing, because there are people that die at the doors of the hospital, understand?”
Simon: I have friends from the countryside in Minas Gerais, who come here to Rio to get treatment. One friend, he lives in Santos Dumont, a small town in the countryside in Minas, and he receives, even, medication from the national health service. He takes his hormones through the national health service. I know people from Juiz de Fora, because when you have a referral centre people do really end up coming, they come from other places and receive their transport costs even. The state is not so bad, if you know how to communicate.
We – Benjamin and I – whatever our differences, we study the same course and there’s this really interesting guy who I like to hear about, who says that we have to prove to certain people that our lives are worth something, in the health system. Because they don’t value our lives. Some guy is there, some health worker, but he doesn’t think that your life is worth anything. Here in Brazil you get tired of knowing, because there are people that die at the doors of the hospital, understand? So if you don’t prove that your life is worth something, you will keep getting put to one side, to one side. So it’s this, what he’s saying. Because in this country that we live in, one thing is the law, and another thing is the hospital giving you treatment. It’s totally different.
There is something that Roberto da Matta, who is an anthropologist, says: Here in Brazil, the law doesn’t come from practice, as in the majority of countries, where you have a law which is really traditional, which comes from custom, and then you will create a law. It’s not like this that it works. Here things are implemented from above. First comes the law, which comes to change the practice.
Benjamin: And it’s difficult for you to change the practice. It’s really difficult for you to change what happens in practice.
Simon: Understand? It’s upside down here. You have the law, and this law comes to change what happens in practice. The law says that I have the right to get some laser treatment for my beard – in the case of a trans woman – but in practice the judge thinks that it’s wrong, that I shouldn’t do it. Because what he wants to know is if my appearance is worth this investment from the state. In practice the law says that such and such a place should have a referral centre. That I have the right to go there, to get treatment, and then I arrive there and there is nothing. The people don’t even know about it, understand? And they don’t even want to.
The true – look here – true militancy in Brazil, has nothing to do with NGOs. I was saying this to a friend of mine that works at a local LGBT referral centre. Militancy in Brazil you do like João Nery did it, like Benjamin is doing it, like I’m doing it, without being connected to an NGO or anything. It’s going there, opening people’s minds up, and confronting, and demanding dignified treatment. This is true militancy.
Benjamin: Just that there are few people who do this.
Simon: You have to illuminate people, about what you’re doing there, who you are.
Benjamin: You need to, because people, they have a final objective in their heads, of how they want to be. Just that they don’t know how they are going to access services and navigate the service, to get what they want. Because the law is guaranteeing one thing, but practice works in a different way.
So, for example, when they make a multidisciplinary team, to attend people, this exists on paper, but if you don’t chase it, if you don’t go there and knock on the door, in the specific sector for this (which is urology in the case of the Pedro Ernesto Hospital). If you don’t go there on the day that they ask you to go. If you don’t insist and knock on the door, take the law in writing, printed out and show: “no, it’s my right, you have to take care of me, take care of my health, if you don’t take care of me, if you don’t want to care for me, I will sue you.”
Just that people are afraid. They are still, we are still, right, a very vulnerable population. Few people know the rights that they have, the power that they have to change this practice, of ensuring that the guy there really searches, to relay that conversation, to articulate this individual situation, of the patient, and to communicate with the clinic, with the endocrinologist, with the gynecologist, with the psychologist and psychiatrist.
In fact, the multidisciplinary team just exists on paper, because people are sent to medics, of different areas, and these medics never sit and talk with each other to ask “how is Simon?”, “how is Benjamin?”, “how is João” right? They never sit, they never talk, they don’t even know the patients that they have. So how is it that you can talk of taking care of someone’s health if you don’t even know the patients which you have?
Simon: It’s like this, look, you take a does of 2ml of testosterone, every 21 days, and this can cause you some side effects, such as cysts on your breast. This could also cause a problem with your uterus. You didn’t have your uterus taken out, you are a man, you feel like a man, but your body has everything, all of the organs, it is the body of a woman. You are a man in your subjective experience, in your options and in the way you construct your image, but in the biology that you were born with, you are a woman, just like any woman. So, what happens? You took this hormone, and it gave you a cyst in your breast, but on the health team there is no mastologist to examine you, for you to know if it’s okay.
So when I say that our life has to be worth something it’s because the guy, if you go to him and say “look I have a cyst in my breast, I took hormones, I have a cyst, is there a way to see a mastologist?” He should not hear as a response: “Ah I don’t know, let’s see”.
Benjamin: I think that, just going back, touching on a question that I think is important, which is to remember that normally the people that search for these referral services, are those that are less economically privileged. And we know that in Brazil, this is directly linked to education. So Simon is a guy that has had opportunity to study. He is an intelligent guy that searched for information in many places, so he can access these services, and he has consciousness of what he needs to demand, and how he will do it, so that this theory becomes practice.
“[I put] treatment in inverted commas. Some people will like this word, others won’t. I don’t like ‘treatment’. I’m not treating myself for anything. I’m well, I’m not sick. I’m not treating myself, they are providing a service for me. For me and for other men.”
And I access the service for different motives than the great majority of people, which is for financial reasons. It is the only way – the only channel that people find, of getting that image we talked about before. So many people look for private services, they have a private health plan and look for medics that are willing to deal with this ‘treatment’. ‘Treatment’ in inverted commas. Simon used ‘treatment’. Some people will like this word, others won’t. I don’t like ‘treatment’. I’m not treating myself for anything. I’m well, I’m not sick. I’m not treating myself, they are providing a service for me. For me and for other men.
So when I access this service, it’s not because I don’t have financial conditions. I have a private health plan. Because in my work situation, I searched for this, to have a level of comfort that would allow me to access some things that I wouldn’t be able to, if I hadn’t chased after this part. My transition started much longer ago because I chased after this – to ensure that I could move on, standing on my own two feet.
So I access the service, and I know others do too – not the great majority, it’s a minority that does this – but I access the service for political reasons. Because I go there, when I can – I knock on the door, demand, and show them the research, which I take.
For example, I did a big project about hormones at home. I took some articles and showed them to the medic, and even used various terms in English with them, and saw that some didn’t feel comfortable in the room. There is always a medic right, and they have assistants. All of them were there like, with this strange atmosphere. And at the same time they go opening these sessions, I go opening – I go trying, in my own way to open up avenues, to open up rifts, so that other people, who come to access the service don’t have so much difficulty.
Claire: I know that now within the education sector, for example, there are some networks – informal or otherwise – of people who are organising to confront these problems in a more systematic way. It would be interesting to know a bit more about this. Or rather, beyond personal, individual militancy, how is it that the situation will change? Who is organising to change the situation, in the areas of public health, of public policy, of discrimination in a more general way?
Benjamin: Yes. Two organisations were created. One Simon mentioned, the Brazilian Association of Trans Men (ABHT), and also IBRAT (Brazilian Institute of Transmasculinity). They are two organisations which are organising, politically, and trying to call more people, to involve themselves with militancy. I think that there is a very big resistance, amongst Brazilian trans men, in relation to political activism. Trans women have really gone forward and shown themselves more, and for this they have won so many gains. Because how is it that you will win something if you don’t show yourself? No one wants to show their face right, no one wants to appear. People want to access some things but they don’t want to show themselves. So they try – Luciano, Leonardo, and others – to bring people into activism in some way. Trying even, look, “you don’t need to photograph yourself, you don’t need to be filmed, but perhaps you could contribute with your experience, right. You could write something and send it to us. Or, even, we could do a voice recording.”
So they are trying to bring people in, and they invited me, IBRAT, it was about a month ago, to participate – to help them in the production of these new health demands. Because there are some demands that are being attended to, but many others no. And, principally for trans men – who were the last not just to have visibility, to come out of the closet, but to have these demands attended to – not all of these demands have been elaborated. Or, if they were elaborated they need to be re-elaborated, from a practical standpoint right; from the necessities of each person.
Simon: When I spoke, before, about militancy, I don’t mean to disqualify it – on the contrary – the majority of legal rights were given through militancy, from NGOs and so on. What I want to say with this is that the great militancy, beyond this militancy for the search for legislation, is the militancy of everyday life. The law is important. These NGOs, people participating and everyone fighting for rights is cool, but I say that none of this becomes concrete, without everyday militancy. And there are many people who don’t go to NGOs but, for example, are going there to the hospital (Benjamin: Are accessing the service, exactly), are annoying the guys there, and are changing things.
Owing to this insistence, this everyday militancy, many of us managed to get this identity card (pictured, above), which is a national health service card, with our social name on.
Benjamin: Or are going to school. Just the fact of a guy leaving his house, of him managing to leave the house, and going to school, or going to a university and sitting there with 30, 40 people, that is already a militancy.
Simon: Yes, his life is a already a militancy (Benjamin: exactly). I want to say, his existence in the world is already a form of militancy. Because the guy is there forcing a change in the practical, in customs, and in people’s heads. Taking them out of ignorance, illuminating with his physical presence, his energy. Do you want to see something? (Takes out his wallet, as does Benjamin).
When I would go there to the hospital and they would treat me that way. I started to go around with the law in my wallet, which was the NGOs that did it, that helped. So, every time I passed them my exams, I passed them this letter here as well, with the law on. It’s a form of militancy, of clarifying. I never again received this kind of treatment.
Benjamin: And now, what we managed – not just Simon and I – many other men as well, owing to this insistence, this everyday militancy, many of us managed to get this identity card (pictured, above), which is a national health service card, with our social name on.
Simon: Visibility and invisibility, let’s play with this. I become visible, when I fight for my rights in a certain space. But I become invisible, to the extent that I have passed through ‘hormonisation’ – or hormonal treatment, or whatever you want to call it. So what happens? I became invisible. I had never experienced this.
If before I was considered a butch, right, as they call it, everyone would see me. So I had a lot of visibility (Benjamin: Yes, too much visibility!), I had a lot of visibility (Laughter). Yes, people would look at you like adyke (mancha), right?! Because of that androgynous, really strong profile. So I was real queer (pintosona), like a really cool trucker! (More laughter!) So with the hormonal question, I became invisible. I became invisible.
My neighbours, some love me, some hate me. One has this garage, he’s a mechanic, and he adores me, one day he said he loved me. On the other side of the corner, my neighbour came to talk to me. Also, he said like, he came up to my niece and said “hmm, his life must be so difficult, so much time imprisoned in the wrong body”. Then he also wanted to know – “what did you take to grow so much?”, he said, comparing my size, before and after – because he wanted to also take my medication! My cousin also came to ask me what I was taking, so he could take it, understand? The rest of the neighbourhood, has been taking some time.
So the people in the building opposite me, on top, they don’t know much about my life, they see me come and go. And then they asked me about a young woman that was always in my house. Came up to me and asked me about her, and I said “she’s not here”. And so after, they called my niece over and asked, what had happened “with me”. And so my niece said: “she went to Salvador”. Understand? Went to Salvador. What happens? I became invisible to the people that don’t know, who think think that I moved. Because I’m no longer the same person.
So what happens with this visibility and invisibility, is that I became invisible to these people – they think that I am another person. And actually I am another person.
So when is it that visibility comes? Some guy crashes into my car, the police arrive and register it, and I have to give my ID: “what is this, are you messing with me?” and so, you have to explain. This is when you become visible. I become visible when I am at the hospital and I present a document. Now, in day-to-day life, I stay invisible. I have become a common man. I have become like, as Caetano Veloso (a famous Brazilian musician) says, Peter Guest.
And this changed the way people treat me, because I suffered discrimination, many times I suffered discrimination, in this situation. People could see before and treated me badly, many times.
But you understand what I wanted to say with this thing of the visible and the invisible?
Claire: Yes and I think it’s really interesting. Because literally, right, there is a visibility which is, politically, talking about rights, representation, and demanding your rights. This is a kind of visibility. On the other hand there is also the visual, literally. Which is also to say: to pass, or not.
Benjamin: Yes. I am on the limit at the moment, especially after the surgery, right. I realise that a lot changed. Just for having done the surgery. People only change their preconceptions if I open my mouth, if I speak. Or sometimes people, they don’t know very well how to read it, they don’t know what they are seeing, right, they’re really confused. How good that it’s them that’s confused now, and not me! (Laughter)
Claire: It’s an inversion in a way. It’s not quite like coming out (assumir); coming out but at the same time disappearing (sumir), and resolving some questions that come with visibility…
Benjamin: This, this. And for the majority, right, of trans men, this is the great desire. This is (Simon: And because of this we don’t get so much space to fight for rights, no one wants to show their face, because of this João Nery stayed covered so long). Uhuh. It’s to be invisible really. Or to be visible as you are, it’s this: to be yourself.
Claire: To close, do you have a message you would like to leave in honour of International Transgender Day of Visibility, to other communities, maybe in different countries, who might be reading this?
Simon: I will say the following: chase your objectives, because they are worth it. It is worth it that you chase what you want. Because some people think that it’s difficult, that you won’t get there, or that there are some long distances to cover, or some complicated processes. I would leave to people the message that it is worth it, despite the difficulties, that you chase what you want – that you continue in the affirmation of things you believe in, and that you chase them.
Benjamin: Show your multitude. Show the multitude that exists in you. Because there does not exist just one single Gabrielle, or one João – show who you are, in this sense. Not in the sense of showing “I am João the trans man”, no: show who you are, what other qualities you have, right? Educate yourself, if it’s possible, and if you want to. And enjoy your journey. Enjoy your journey.