SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Erika Hilton, a 29-year-old Sao Paulo city council member, just made history as one of the first two transgender lawmakers elected this week to Brazil’s Congress.
But the victory is bittersweet, Hilton said, after a stronger-than-expected showing by President Jair Bolsonaro and his allies in Sunday’s general election consolidated a robust right-wing coalition among her future colleagues, who she said have voiced transphobic sentiments.
“I’m concerned about the composition of Congress right now and the possibility of Bolsonaro’s re-election,” said Hilton, whose religious parents threw her out of the house at 14, leaving her to work for several years as a sex worker.
Bolsonaro and his leftist challenger, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, both fell short of an outright majority on Sunday, so they will face off in an Oct. 30 runoff vote.
Hilton and fellow trans lawmaker-elect Duda Salabert, from the state of Minas Gerais, said their top priority now is to get Lula elected.
Bolsonaro has frequently stirred controversy with comments denigrating women as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), Black and indigenous people.
Hilton, who is Black, called her historic election a case of “justice for (her) ancestors.”
“I think that being a woman, Black, travesti, we always have more challenges than other people,” she said. “We have the challenge of getting people to recognize that our political project is not just for travesti and transsexuals or for the LGBT community,” added Hilton, who has run on improving LGBT rights as well as addressing domestic violence, education and social housing.
Many trans Brazilians, including Hilton and Salabert, call themselves and their community “travesti,” a reclaimed pejorative term that incorporates both their trans and Brazilian identities.
Alheli Partida, head of global programs at the LGBTQ Victory Institute in Washington, called the Hilton and Salabert’s elections a “transformative moment for Brazil.”
“I believe they will have a tough job,” she added. “Conservatism is very strong still in the country.”
Brazil is one of the most dangerous places in the world for trans women, who are targeted frequently with violence, according to Transgender Europe. Last year, 140 trans Brazilians were murdered, according to the Rio-based National Association of Travestis and Transgender People (ANTRA).
Salabert, 41, who serves on the Belo Horizonte city council and has focused on environmental issues, faced down violent threats and intimidation in her successful run for Congress this year.
Salabert said her most recent death threats came from a website created just days before the election describing ways people wanted to kill her, which led her to use a bulletproof vest at the polling station. Hilton also travels with a security team at all times.
“Our victory is a victory for human rights, since we are going to bring to the center of the political debate an agenda that has been historically excluded from public debate, which is the reality of traveseti and transgender people,” Salabert said.
She said her team are organizing for Lula’s victory and she is helping his campaign in the key state of Minas Gerais.
“We are still a long way from what we want, deserve and need when it comes to citizenship, dignity and rights,” said Hilton, who was met with applause in the halls of the Sao Paulo city council on her first day back at work this week. “But, without a shadow of a doubt, it’s a change.”