Transgender Brazilians Embrace Hit Soap Opera: ‘Now You Can See Us.’: “Edge of Desire,” watched nightly by some 50 million Brazilians, is shaping perceptions about gender identity in a nation where transgender people face stigmatization and violence.
Transgender Brazilians Embrace Hit Soap Opera: ‘Now You Can See Us’
By SHANNON SIMSOCT. 7, 2017
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Residents of a shelter for transgender and gender-nonconforming Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro watching “Edge of Desire,” a soap opera chronicling the transition of a transgender man, played by the actress Carol Duarte. CreditDado Galdieri for The New York Times
RIO DE JANEIRO — “Edge of Desire,” a popular prime-time soap opera chronicling the transition of a transgender man, was about to start, and the residents at a shelter seemed oblivious to the sirens wailing outside and the cockroaches navigating a maze of dirty feet and popcorn bowls on the floor.
Gathering nightly to watch the television show in a graffiti-covered living room has become a ritual for the residents at Casa Nem, a refuge in downtown Rio de Janeiro for transgender and gender-nonconforming Brazilians, who view the story of Ivana’s transition to Ivan as the first dignified and nuanced portrayal of people like them in the country’s mainstream media.
“Look, she’s got a cute little beard now!” said Letthycia Siqueira, one of the residents, referring to the Ivan character. “You think they’ll give her a full mustache?”
The hit show, which draws about 50 million viewers per night, has also struck a broader chord in Brazil, at a time when gay and transgender issues have become more prominent in the country.
Currently pending before the Brazilian Supreme Court are two closely watched cases viewed by activists as fundamental to transgender rights, one involving a shopping mall’s refusal to offer a transgender woman access to a restroom, and another concerning the requirement of surgery as a necessary condition for the recognition of a person’s identity as transgender.Continue reading the main story
There have been some notable victories for gay and transgender people in Brazilian courts, including the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2013 and the recognition of the right to change a person’s name and gender marker on some government-issued identification documents. Recent changes in health care policy also have made it easier for transgender people to get transition-related medical care, such as hormone replacement therapy.
But activists view this progress as tenuous and reversible at a time when conservative politicians and evangelical churches that oppose gay and transgender rights are becoming increasingly influential.
“This issue needs to get out of the courts and into legislation in order to clarify and assure trans rights in a uniform way,” said Ligia Fabris Campos, a law professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro.
In the view of activists, however, the prospect of advancing gay and transgender rights in Congress in the foreseeable future is dim.
One of the leading contenders in next year’s presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro, a lawmaker who frequently disparages gay people and says that allowing transgender women to use women’s restrooms represents “an inversion of values.” A federal judge recently ruled that so-called conversion therapy to treat homosexuality should be permissible.
While Brazil developed a reputation for inclusive social policies during the 13 years it was led by the leftist Workers’ Party, whose tenure ended last year, the country remains in many ways a deeply conservative nation, where activists say gay and transgender people face widespread stigmatization and violence.Continue reading the main story
Residents of the Casa Nem shelter — clockwise, from top left: Leon Albuquerque, Clarice Telles, Persefone Gray and Cristiane Vasconcelos.CreditDado Galdieri for The New York Times
Last year, at least 144 transgender people were killed in the country, according to Brazil’s National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals, a nonprofit organization. This year, the group has identified 138 killings, including the case of Dandara dos Santos, a 42-year-old transgender woman in northern Brazil whose fatal, public beating in February by eight men and teenagers shocked the nation after a video of the attack was posted online.
Globo, Brazil’s dominant television network, has previously used its widely popular soap operas to shape social debates around contentious issues, including interracial couples and same-sex relationships. But the network had never before broadcast a soap opera starring a transgender character. Several of the show’s supporting characters are transgender in real life.
“The soap opera is a reflection of Brazilian society at any given moment,” said Glória Perez, the writer and creator of “Edge of Desire,” adding that she wanted to create a transgender character for whom viewers would feel empathy and whose story would start a conversation among viewers. “I thought it was time for us to talk about it,” she said.Continue reading the main story
Cast and crew on the set of the soap opera “Edge of Desire,” which is shaping perceptions about gender identity in a nation where transgender people face strong stigmatization. CreditDado Galdieri for The New York Times
Carol Duarte, the actress playing Ivan, said the role had felt like a daunting responsibility.
“But the reaction has been so warm and supportive,” Ms. Duarte said. “People are cheering for Ivan to find his own happiness.”
Ivan’s story, which airs after the country’s most watched news broadcast, may be the most prominent positive portrayal of transgender issues in pop culture. But there are others. The singer Pabllo Vittar has become a beloved icon among many Brazilians and an emblem of gender fluidity.
“I don’t care if you call me he or she,” said the singer, who expressed a preference for the gender-neutral Mx. in place of Mr. or Ms. “I’m just a 22-year-old gay boy from Maranhão State,” Mx. Vittar said while untangling an earring from a long platinum wig in the dressing room before a show in Rio de Janeiro.Continue reading the main story
The singer Pabllo Vittar, a beloved icon among many Brazilians and an emblem of gender fluidity, before a performance in Goiania, Brazil.CreditDado Galdieri for The New York Times
The singer’s hits, sung in a nasally soprano, have become unofficial anthems for Brazil’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. A duet Mx. Vittar recorded recently with Anitta, one of the country’s biggest pop stars, broke a Brazilian record for YouTube views, and three of the singer’s songs were recently among the top five most played songs on Spotify in Brazil.
In one of the soap opera’s most recent episodes, Mx. Vittar appeared in a supporting role, performing at a concert while Ivan swayed in the front row.
Mx. Vittar’s Instagram followers tripled, to 4.6 million, after a recent appearance at the music festival Rock in Rio.
“The most followed drag queen in the world is Brazilian,” Mx. Vittar noted with satisfaction. “And yet still we have these problems here.”Continue reading the main story
Pabllo Vittar on stage during a show in Goiania, Brazil. CreditDado Galdieri for The New York Times
The television show dramatizes some of those struggles faced by transgender people. In one scene, Ivan cuts off his long hair, a highly valued sign of femininity in Brazilian culture, and much of the soap opera revolves around Ivan’s strained relationship with his mother, who struggles to let go of the image of her darling little girl with bouncy curls.
Outside of his increasingly uncomfortable home, Ivan also confronts the challenges of a life in transition: Potential employers twist their faces at him, and belligerent strangers taunt and even attack him.
Problems like those are part of the everyday grim reality at Casa Nem. Most of the 30 or so residents were homeless before moving in. Like an estimated 80 percent of transgender Brazilians, nearly all of the residents earn money through prostitution and return at night to double up in triple-stacked bunk beds.
Ms. Siqueira, 22, was kicked out of her home when she was 7 for dressing in women’s clothes.
“I’ve lived through everything the soap opera is showing,” she said while watching an episode. Although the show’s middle-class protagonist Ivan has not had to contend with homelessness or fall back on prostitution to survive, like she has, Ms. Siqueira sees similarities.
“Trans people go through struggles and confront prejudice no matter what color or class or age we are,” she said. “We have all been rejected at different moments.”
The show, she said, has given her hope.
“We’ve always been invisible,” she said, her eyes glued to the television screen. “At least now people have the chance to open their hearts. At least now you can see us.”Continue reading the main story
An estimated 80 percent of transgender Brazilians earn money through sex work. CreditDado Galdieri for The New York Times