Hugging Suzy - the abandonment lived by transvestites* in prisons

Monday, March 23, 2020
Author :
A. Gustavo Passos

Recently, “Fantástico” (a Brazilian weekly TV newscast) conducted an in-depth report that touched on the theme of transvestites and trans women deprived of liberty. In this report, Drauzio Varella, a doctor who has worked for years in prison healthcare, has a conversation with Suzy. She has not received a visit in 8 years. Moved by Suzy’s story, Drauzio hugs her. Shortly thereafter, there begins a wave of news stories around the crime for which Suzy was convicted. She is serving time for the rape, then death by asphyxiation, of a 9 year old child.

I was the consultant responsible for the research study LGBT IN BRAZIL’S PRISONS: diagnosis of the institutional procedures and experiences of incarceration commissioned by the Ministry for Women, Families and Human Rights, cited in the “Fantástico” news report. I too was moved by Suzy’s story. It is one among the countless other near-identical stories of abandonment that I have accessed. The national diagnosis shows that only 40% of those people that self-declare as gay, as transvestite or as a trans woman in the male prisons have someone listed as a visitor in the prison registers where they are incarcerated. However, this does not mean that those who make up this 40% actually do receive any visits.

During the qualitative gathering of data, which was accomplished through in-person interviews, I noticed that an extremely low number of gays, transvestites and trans women received visits. While the crime Suzy committed is especially disturbing, I cannot identify any scientific evidence that can guarantee a relationship between her crime and abandonment in the context of incarceration in male prisons.

Prison workers will know that visits lines in the male units are endless. I know of innumerable cases of cisgender (in other words, not trans) heterosexual men who, even when charged with the most barbaric of crimes, still receive visits from their mothers and/or wives, for example. A good example of this is the case of the soccer goalie Bruno who was charged with homicide, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and hiding of a dead body. A quick online search will reveal news articles that show that Bruno received visits from his wife while serving a sentence in prison. Therefore, if cisgender men suffer less from abandonment regardless of the conviction, it seems to me reasonable to conclude, bearing in mind the national standard of vulnerability for this population, that Suzy and other trans women are, indeed, more subjected to family abandonment than other individuals deprived of freedom.

I agree that the crime that Suzy committed was barbaric, but it is important to underscore that sentence executions in high-security prisons in Brazil do not prescribe family abandonment as part of the conviction. They do not implicate institutional violence, rape, using people as a “currency” for trade, or using trans people’s anuses as a site to hide weapons and drugs. No other group of inmates has their anuses leased out to criminal factions.

Even though in the context of the research I conducted with the Ministry for Women, Families and Human Rights the specific crime was an important question, in the scope of my activism, just like with Drauzio Varella, it is of little relevance to me to know which crimes people have committed. I conclude reiterating that, without concrete data to back this up, the specific crime-type cannot be used to reliably predict abandonment of the person deprived of liberty. On the other hand, to be LGBT in prison – as described and argued in detail in the national diagnosis – certainly subjects this population, particularly and significantly, to abandonment. The abandonment lived by transvestites and trans women is, indeed, a pattern of selective vulnerability produced by the transphobia that permeates our society.

*While we understand that the term "transvestites" may carry different connotations in different contexts, the persons in this article use this specific term as a self-identification category.

A. Gustavo Passos, Ph.D. in Education, member of the Board of Directors of Corpora en Libertad - Red Internacional de Trabajo con Personas LGBTI+ Privadas de Libertad. He was the consultant responsible for the research report "LGBT persons in prisons in Brazil: Diagnosis of institutional procedures and imprisonment experiences", commissioned by the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights of Brazil.

For the past years, APT has been working extensively to raise awareness about the specific risks of abuse and discrimination faced by LGBTI persons in detention contexts while fostering measures to enhance protection of their rights and personal integrity. In 2018, APT published the manual “Towards the Effective Protection of LGBTI Persons Deprived of Liberty: A Monitoring Guide” (available in English, Portuguese, Spanish and French for download) aimed at providing a practical monitoring methodology that is sensitive to issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics. In Brazil, APT has been working alongside torture prevention mechanisms and civil society organizations to raise awareness of LGBTI persons´vulnerability  when held in detention and ensure that monitoring bodies are equipped with the necessary knowledge and tools to prevent torture and abuse against LGBTI persons deprived of liberty.

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