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¡El Arte no Calla! - Episode 5: Transgender Art and Censorship in Brazil with Renata Carvalho

Transgender artist and activist Renata Carvalho

El Arte no Calla!,” a monthly Spanish-language podcast of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), explores art, freedom of expression, and human rights in Latin America. In each episode, ARC's Latin America Representative Alessandro Zagato invites a different guest to help analyze the varying states of artistic freedom in Latin America and the violations that artists and activists are suffering in the region.

Episode 5: Transgender Art and Censorship in Brazil with Renata Carvalho

In this episode, Renata Carvalho, a prominent transgender artist and activist from Brazil, discusses the repeated attacks she suffered due to the theater piece, “O Evangelho Segundo Jesus, Rainha do Céu,” where she interprets the figure of Jesus as transgender. ARC spoke with her about the position of trans people in the Brazilian arts world and society, and how the possibility of inclusion and acceptance still seems to be far from reality. This situation has been aggravated by the current strength of right-wing and transphobic religious groups, paired with the Brazilian government’s irrational and disparate management of the pandemic.

ALESSANDRO ZAGATO: Can you tell me about your artistic trajectory? How and when did you start doing theater? 

RENATA CARVALHO: I started doing theater in 1996 in Santos, the city where I was born. Once I started, I never stopped. I have worked 24 years as an actor, playwright, producer, even makeup artist. However, mainly, I consider myself a “trans-pologist” since I am a travesti who studies the trans body - what I do is therefore a trans anthropology. I have a degree in social sciences. I am the founder of “Movimento Nacional de Artistas Trans” (MONART) which is a national movement of trans artists in Brazil. Within it, I produced a manifesto of trans representativity demanding that trans artists interpret trans characters and that trans bodies be included in spaces of artistic production. I also founded the T Collective which is the first artistic collective entirely composed of trans artists. 

AZ:  We followed the case of your play, “O Evangelho Segundo Jesus, Rainha do Céu,” which was highly successful, but it also attracted a lot of hostility in Brazil. This theater piece was censored and attacked several times. Can you say something about this case and those who censored your work?

RC: This is a text by an English writer called Joe Clifford, where she asks, what if Jesus came back today as a trans person? We premiered in 2016 and since then we suffered censorship attempts in each of our representations. Five of these attempts were successful: two through legal actions, and three because of religious or political pressure, since in Brazil we are living a moment of religious fundamentalism where the extreme right wing is co-opting politics, including the fact that it reached the presidency. 

“Those people are not attacking Renata Carvalho personally, they do not even know me. They are attacking a travesti who is interpreting Jesus.”

AZ: What is the place of trans bodies in this situation? Do they have a place in the Brazilian arts world or are they still looking for one? 

RC: Brazil is an extremely transphobic country.  It has the highest rate of trans assassinations in the world - 40% percent of the world's rate. The main cause of death for us is “suicide” – we are “suicided,” as we say here.

Those people are not attacking Renata Carvalho personally, they do not even know me. They are attacking a travesti who is interpreting Jesus, independently from who this person is. As a travesti I have a history, a social construction that is carnivalesque and media-produced, which permeates common sense and imagination. This is what the word travesti carries with it. We are linked to hyper-sexualized, criminal, masculinizing stories, and other vicious narratives. This is a trans-cestrality  that does not give us a space in art, which is why we are struggling today for a representativity that is denied by power. When we hit a stage or a recording room we have to face all this prejudice towards our body, which is still not seen as a human body, as something natural – it is a body that causes discomfort in any type of space, and this is why things are so hard for us. Since we are not human, then we have no capacity to humanize a character. They do not see us as artists. They do not believe that a travesti or a group of us might be able to discuss art in an intellectual or purposeful way. Therefore, we always have to transcend these barriers to be considered as artists and not simply as trans bodies - as exotic or folkloric bodies.

AZ: Are you arguing that these barriers and prejudices do not just exist outside the art world but also within it?

RC: The entire world – society – is transphobic, and art is part of society, so it is transphobic too. We artists have been historically responsible for displaying specific trans bodies, sexualized, extreme - so we are also responsible for changing this narrative, for a transformation of such imagination on our bodies. 

AZ: In such a radical context, what do you think is the political role of trans artists in today’s Brazil? Is there a direct link between art and politics?  

RC: Art and politics go together since art started – and it will always be like this. This is a duty of all artists, not just trans artists in Brazil. The arts and the media told our story was wrong. Through these stories about our bodies, people have an image of the trans person, so they think they know who I am and who I was. As artists we need to work together to change this.  

“Everything was done to delegitimize my work, because it is easy to make my body guilty - it is too easy since it is guilty and stereotyped already.”

AZ: Do you think there is fear in civil society to be associated with trans artists? Alongside the attacks that you received, was there a support movement external to the trans world?

RC: We are always a marginalized body, but we are attempting to leave this condition of marginality. However, the attacks had to do not just with criticizing the piece. I was threatened to be murdered, shot, beaten on the street, they threw bombs in the theater during the play, they staged protests in front of the theater, they wrote things in the entrance, they set things on fire, they attacked theater staff, they put my address on Facebook, they circulated fake news, and so on.

Everything was done to delegitimize my work, because it is easy to make my body guilty - it is too easy since it is guilty and stereotyped already. We received help from many people, but I did not get any legal support from any institution, not even medical support, and I suffered a lot with all this. So, it is weird that we got support, but we got none at the same time. My fight was a very lonely one – with the constant fear of leaving home, of being recognized in public places, and so on. Moreover, we did not get support from people in the arts world, because many of them think it is too much for a travesti to interpret Jesus. We travesti cannot be the image of Jesus, because we are sinners, immoral bodies, with no soul, with no god. There is a religious discourse that attacks our bodies daily and publicly.

AZ: Why did you choose the figure of Jesus? Do you feel a connection with it, or with history? What was the creative process of associating a trans person with Jesus like? 

RC:  When Joe Clifford formulated this comparison - this hermeneutics - she was very young and she was not allowed to enter a church, so she wrote a piece about this. I find it sensational, because if you think about which body would be crucified today, there is no doubt that it would be a trans body. Therefore I say that if Jesus was to come back today, he would do it in a trans, black, peripheral, and fat body. However, people [believers] do not really read the Bible - its message does not resemble what they actually do. When people see a pastor or priest talking, they take for granted everything he says – including on topics like homosexuality. 

AZ: Had you experienced previous attacks due to your artistic activity?

RC: Nothing like with Jesus. This was a very particular case. Imagine that we organized an online presentation during Corpus Christi, and people tried to cut the internet connection. Many politicians used this piece to campaign for election, so the play went viral. Because this is a very easy thing to do - there is just one thing that unites Catholics and Evangelicals, and it is LGBTQ issues. They might disagree on everything else, but they get together when it comes to condemning LGBTQ. Because you can kill your mother, or a female actor, you can throw a child from a window, rip the heart from somebody’s chest as it happened in Brazil – and nobody will get worried. As I say, not even our mothers cry for our deaths, because 90% of trans people are forced to leave their homes when they are between 12 and 14 years old. The average life expectancy for a trans person is between 26 and 35 years. We do not even have the right to get old. We are talking about a population that works for the 90% in compulsory sex work. Even if I had never experienced attacks as in Jesus, as long as I’ve worked as an actor people have tried to remove me from stages. Moreover, I was not allowed to interpret male roles because of my femininity. Therefore, since 2002 I started working as a director because I felt that it did not matter if I was more feminine. However, since 2007 – which is when I came out as trans - I became a “voluntary agent of prevention,” meaning that I was working in the health department of Santos helping trans people who were doing sex work. Therefore, since 2007 I really started studying the trans body. I started from healthcare, psychiatry, and I studied biographies, films, academic works and so on. Today I have what I call a “travesteca” (trans-library) with more than 100 books addressing the trans topic. With the work “Dentro de mi Moura Outra” (“Inside Me Lives Another Person”) I used my identity and research to talk about my life and the process of becoming trans – and since then I always worked on the topic of transgenderism.

AZ: How did you and others trans people's way of working change with the pandemic and the lockdown? 

RC: We experienced great problems with the pandemic. For instance, art institutions are not contracting trans people. So we are asking, which artists are going to survive this? Which artists will still be artists at the end of the pandemics? Which artists do we want to save? Which artists need to be helped? In Brazil it happens that they are just contracting famous people, artists who already have contracts with big broadcasters and who do not need money in the pandemics, so they are earning even more than before. Trans, black, and peripheral artists are not being called. Therefore, we have an institutional necropolitics that this government is practicing. We are the only country that ended the lockdown without actually having a lockdown - big cities like Sao Paulo are living a normal life. In this situation, dissident bodies will survive if we help and support each other from the bottom, as we have always done.

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