Why Brazil’s First Trans State Legislator Built a Refuge for Black Queer and Trans People

Why Brazil’s First Trans State Legislator Built a Refuge for Black Queer and Trans People

Why Brazil’s First Trans State Legislator Built a Refuge for Black Queer and Trans People

Erica Malunguinho, an artist, educator, and politician, is fighting for an inclusive future.


Erica Malunguinho, a 39-year-old artist, educator, and state legislator, was born in Água Fria, a Black neighborhood in Recife, a city in Brazil’s northeast. She grew up surrounded by the dances and foods of Candomblé—her religion—and other Afro-descendent traditions that shaped her daily life. Malunguinho means “companion” or “one who travels with you” in Bantu, a name adopted by newly formed kin who were forcibly transported with one another during the slave trade and which Erica took as her own.

Malunguinho moved to São Paulo in the early 2000s, where she went to school to become a teacher and eventually received a master’s degree in aesthetics and the history of art. In the meantime, she transformed a 10,000-square-foot downtown artist’s studio into a space for collective use: Aparelha Luzia, a cultural refuge for Black queer and trans people. Walking in, you’re greeted by Raylander Mártis Dos Anjos’s large-scale artwork; in all caps it reads, you have to stop thinking you’re in the wrong place.

In 2018, following the extrajudicial murder of Rio de Janeiro city councilor Marielle Franco, Malunguinho ran and won her first election for public office. Popular Black and LGBT movements across the country had articulated a strategy of responding to structural violence through structural means, and Malunguinho welcomed the opportunity to telegraph this need via formal political representation. Running on the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) ticket, she aligned herself with a party that had been formed in the mid-2000s with the goal of encouraging women, queer people, and folks of color to become the new faces of the Brazilian left. In moving into electoral politics, Malunguinho followed in a tradition of artists and educators including Gilberto Gil, Lélia Gonzalez, and Abdias do Nascimento, who also entered public service public service through a commitment to reimagining the world.

Today, Aparelha is a laboratory for Malunguinho’s mandate in the São Paulo legislature—as well as a workshop for an inclusive Black future.

Thomas Jean Lax

Thomas Jean Lax: In 2018, you were elected as the first trans woman to state legislature in the state of São Paulo on the same day that Jair Bolsonaro advanced to the second round of presidential elections, which he won two weeks later after running on a queerphobic, racist, and authoritarian platform. How do you understand these two events occurring simultaneously?

Erica Malunguinho: On the day of the elections, I was very nervous, so I didn’t follow the election results as they were coming in. When they were announcing that Bolsonaro and I had won, I assumed that they were celebrating Bolsonaro’s victory, since São Paulo is a state where Bolsonaristas were in the majority. But when those screams came through my window, I realized they were also announcing that I had won.

Political polarization had been increasing in Brazil, and it reached a crossroads in the 2018 election. I am the radical opposition to Bolsonaro, to what he stands for and what he animates in people. I was elected on a platform that foregrounded race and gender, and pointed a finger directly at the whiteness of the country’s political system and its other kinds of normativity.

There’s an important symbolism here. To look at Bolsonaro is not only to look at Brazil today but also to see an entire historical process. There has been gender and racial violence since Brazil’s founding, well before Bolsonaro. This is something for the entire international community to see when looking at Brazil. When we went to France to present at Gaîté Lyrique in 2019, for example, people were constantly trying to contextualize Brazil through Bolsonaro. And I had to tell them, this imbalance didn’t start with Bolsonaro; it started right there with Napoléon Bonaparte. I pointed to their own history, because this violence began long ago, and Bolsonaro is a son in a direct colonial line. Bolsonaro is not Brazil’s problem; he’s a problem of the world.

TJL: In April of this year, you led an important resistance to Legislative Bill 504/2020, a discriminatory bill that aimed to ban advertising that included representation of LGBT people under the false pretense that it would protect children and adolescents. Tell us more about how you succeeded in overturning the queerphobic content of this bill.

EM: The law was first proposed last year to the Legislative Assembly. At first, we decided to prevent the bill from going to the floor, because we realized that the state legislators who proposed it were trying to steal the spotlight. But there was a point when we realized that their speeches were getting more and more violent and that there was a chance that the bill might go to plenary for a vote. Plus, we realized that their false claims—that they were protecting youth and children—might be misperceived and taken as truth. So we did what we had to do, which was to denounce the bill, to say out loud that it was queerphobic and transphobic, and make that known to a broader audience.

Then there was the question how to do it. We had the support of our most important partners across social movements, especially our LGBT contacts. But we needed to have more people with us than usual. My staff—who we call the Quilombo Mandate—and I decided we needed a narrative that would speak to people who weren’t already engaged in this struggle. We had to dispute the “common sense” that the bill was protecting children by separating them from LGBT people. It was a struggle over the imaginary. We made a public call to invite all people to post their photos of LGBT folks with young people to naturalize our presence in social space. We used the hashtags #lgbtnãoémáinfluência, #respeiteahumanidadelgbt [#LGBTpeoplearen’tabadinfluence, #respectLGBThumanity]. The hashtags said it all.

Hundreds of civil society organizations expressed their commitment. More than 700 companies made public statements in solidarity with our cause. The attorney general for the state of São Paulo came out to support us. We mobilized a movement from the corner pub to multinational companies, creating a kind of off-season LGBT parade in response to a very real political threat.

But of course, as we were waging this battle over the imagination, the bill was about to be voted on. In addition to what we were doing outside, we had to come up with a legislative remedy inside. So, we proposed an amendment that replaced the reference to sexual preference and sexual diversity with forbidding images of explicit violence, sex, and drugs related to children. We needed 19 signatures for the amendment; we ended up with 32. The bill had to go back to the committee, where hopefully it won’t ever return. Unfortunately, this political strategy is being imported by other legislative houses across the country even though according to Brazil’s constitution, state legislatures can’t pass laws regulating advertisements. We’re sharing our experience with others across the country. The fight goes on.

TJL: The queerphobia and transphobia of this bill will also sound familiar to those who have followed Republican state legislatures in the United States. Over the past year, many of them have introduced anti-trans bills targeting youth in sports and young people trying to access gender affirming health care. National sports associations, medical experts, and communities of trans and gender non-conforming folks have called out this as a manufactured threat and yet similar tactics are increasing around the world. The so-called defense of women and children is a longstanding tactic against LGBT people; how do you understand its resurgence globally?

EM: The rise in anti-queer action is proportionate to the rise of LGBT rights across the world; it’s a counterattack. Going back to your earlier question, it’s why Bolsonaro advanced on the same day that I won. In these attempts against LGBT rights and these false pretenses of “protecting children,” the fragility of cis-heteronormativity is exposed. If they believe that we can influence children through advertisements, it means that they do not feel safe or secure in their own sexuality. All of this makes me more certain of the importance of the struggle for LGBT rights, because what we’re fighting for is the collective emancipation for all people to be who they are. The opposition is eager to maintain a set of moral and social rules that do not fit society anymore. They never really fit society, but today they don’t fit at all. Conservatives are conservatives: They are cowards.

TJL: I want to move from that cowardness to its opposite, a special space that you founded in 2016 in downtown São Paulo: Aparelha Luzia. When I went there in January of 2020, I experienced Aparelha as many things. It is an art gallery. A rehearsal studio for dancers and musicians in the weeks leading up to Carnival. A nightly dance party filled with ’90s throwbacks from Congo, Brazil, and the Black US. And a hub for political and cultural education and organizing. Can you tell us the origin of the name, Aparelha Luzia?

EM: Aparelha Luzia refers to the memory of the spaces that were used to resist the dictatorship in Brazil from the 1960s to the ’80s. The resistance organized themselves in aparelhos and I named our space Aparelha as a homage to these spaces. But ours ends with an “a,” with the gender in the feminine, because our space is female. She’s a gata, she’s a babe.

Luzia is the name of one of the oldest fossils found in Brazil in what is now the state of Minas Gerais. Luzia, who lived 11,500 years ago, was a member of a group of hunter-gatherers. Her skeleton is one of the most ancient remains that have been found in Latin America. In 2018, there was a fire in the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro where Luzia was on display. The fire destroyed many precious materials. And, although there was some damage to Luzia’s fossil, she survived; she’s still there.

TJL: You have described Aparelha as an urban quilombo, a maroon community. What is an urban quilombo?

EM: First, you must understand what a quilombo is. In Brazil’s history, quilombos are places where enslaved Black people used to find refuge against slavery, a place where they could build their own society and their own sense of sociality far from the colonial power and from all the violence directed towards them. At that time, quilombos were physical territories for refuge. But over time, this idea transcended a physically marked space to become a concept. As a concept, a quilombo can rest in many places and in peoples’ bodies too.

This is how Black technologies manifest themselves: in our ways of being, of making, of staying, of feeling, of producing, of relating. We’re a biome, we’re an entire ecosystem.

TJL: Like so many cultural spaces around the world, Aparelha had to close its doors as a result of the Covid pandemic. What is currently happening there?

EM: Aparelha is in a sarcophagus, resting. After a sacred ritual, it will reemerge. She is waiting for the future that will be restarted sometime soon. Of course, it’s a struggle: Mummification is expensive. But she’s alive.

TJL: What’s the relationship between Aparelha and the Quilombo Mandate—the team of people you have gathered in your cabinet?

EM: The Mandate is the systematization of what Aparelha has been as a cultural space and a political hub. Our challenge has been how to pass on and impart the Black technologies I was just talking about to the space of the assembly, to this legislative and bureaucratic space. That’s our institutional challenge and Aparelha is our laboratory.

TJL: Aparelha is located in your former artist’s studio. How does art making inform your work now?

EM: We start from the point of view that something in the world is wrong, and we need creativity to go someplace different. I believe in a version of art that considers history and our moment from the perspective of the future. All other kinds of art are decoration and pyrotechnics. Conceptual deliriums—for example, what took place in the time of Marcel Duchamp—aren’t what we need now. Arte para arte é autofagia [Art for art’s sake is self-consuming].

TJL: A portrait of you by the Colombian artist Carolina Caycedo was included in the exhibition, Feminist Histories [2019] at the important Museu de Arte de São Paulo [MASP]. In the installation, My Brazilian Feminine Lineage of Struggle, Caycedo portrayed you in a drawing alongside dozens of other Black and Indigenous women, including Anna Terra Yawalapiti, Mapulu Kamayurá, and Marielle Franco. The work is part of a series called Genealogy of Struggle, which pictures environmental defenders and anti-capitalist fighters from around the world. What did it mean to see yourself in another artist’s work and in this museum?

EM: I was shy when I saw myself. And it was also wonderful. By picturing this group of women together, Caycedo was able to globalize the struggle. In Portuguese, we could also say mundialize. Of course, I recognized the important symbolism of being portrayed by Caycedo in this museum. And my feelings would probably be the same if it was another space; I would still feel shy. Caycedo’s work and collaboration is important in any place it is exhibited.

TJL: You are from the state of Pernambuco in Brazil’s northeast, a place with a reservoir of Black and Indigenous cultural traditions, as well as an important history of leftist and anti-racist political organizing. Can you say more about what it means to you to be from this place?

EM: There is a part of Brazilian history that we can’t forget: The northeast of Brazil was a territory that was abandoned during most of history by Brazil’s economic elite, by its dominant class. But before being abandoned, it was the main port of arrival for early immigrants from Europe and enslaved people from Africa. Through a set of political decisions and economic displacements, the wealth of Brazil moved south. Being Pernambucana—being from the state of Pernambuco—is being aware of a series of institutional abandonments by the federal government. But at the same time, it means being a conscious part of a history that is still very much alive. And I prefer to talk about this living history.

Pernambuco made me a person. It turned on all my channels. It expanded me to be able to live everything I live today. I was able to live art and culture at the front door of my house. During Carnaval, fantastical, quasi-mythological beings would walk by. In fact, this happens all year, because there are a lot of festivities when these artistic and cultural beings emerge.

I learned that art is life. I don’t believe this is the prerogative of all artists, but in Pernambuco I learned that art is being, art is part of everything that happens in daily life. Culture makes sense out of life. For example, the first time that I saw a transgender woman was in Maracatu party [a performance tradition practiced in Pernambuco]; she was dancing Maracatu. I saw many orchestras, huge sets with horns and drums and singers, moving in the street, spontaneously and free. I saw Black people with their drums. I saw Indigenous women teaching people their dances. All of them in a rhythm of war. Pernambuco opened the spores of my skin.

TJL: In your speeches, you often begin with an invocation or a blessing. How does faith influence you?

EM: Spirituality is one of the things that gives sense to my life. Reason is not enough to account for everything. My religion, Candomblé, offers a place to rest and to find silence.

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