SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Dandara dos Santos, a 42-year-old transgender woman from a northern Brazilian slum, begged for mercy as a group of men bashed her over the head with rocks.
In a video shot on Feb. 15, dos Santos crouched on the ground, her ripped clothes hanging from her slender frame. Blood trickled down her face as four men taunted, kicked and beat her. Eventually, when she was no longer able to move, the men picked her up, placed her in a wheelbarrow and took her to an alleyway — where they shot and killed her.
Dos Santos's gruesome killing has shaken Brazil and sparked a national conversation about the rising number of murders of transgender people. The video, seen more than 170,000 times, horrified Brazilians and was widely shared by celebrities and LGBT organizations, who called for greater protections for one of Brazil’s most marginalized groups. Several public officials have also condemned violence against sexual minorities. But even as the transgender movement gains more support, it is also clashing with Brazil’s religious and patriarchal roots.
Brazil leads the world in transgender murders. According to Rede Trans, a Brazilian organization that monitors attacks on transgender people, 144 transgender people were killed there in 2016 — more than double the number in 2008, when the site began tracking the data.
At first glance, the spike in transgender murders is perplexing. Transgender people have greater visibility in Brazil than in many other developing countries, and Brazil is home to two of the world’s most famous transgender models. Valentina Sampaio, a 22-year-old from Ceara — the same state as Dos Santos — was the first transgender model to make the cover of Vogue magazine. Brazilians also watch the largest amount of trans pornography, according to a 2016 study conducted by adult video website RedTube.
But while same-sex marriage is legal in Brazil and homosexuality has been decriminalized, there is no national legislation punishing hate crimes against people because of their sexual orientation. When they are reported, LGBT organizations say, such crimes are often ignored by authorities.
The influence of Brazil’s rising evangelical movement is one of the biggest obstacles blocking a hate crimes law. An endorsement from a popular minister can generate a wave of donations and votes that can decide an election. As a result, a strong Christian lobby — making up nearly one-fifth of legislators — has emerged in Brazil’s Congress.
That lobby has been fighting sexual anti-discrimination laws, which they see as hindering their freedoms of expression and religion. They have already stopped anti-LGBT hate crimes bills several times, but activists are hoping dos Santos’s case renews demand for the law.
“The video shocked society. It generated a commotion,” said Sayonara Nogueira, a researcher at Rede Trans. “And unfortunately in Brazil, laws often happen after a commotion.”
In 2006, Brazil passed the Maria da Penha law, an anti-domestic violence law named for a woman who was paralyzed after her husband shot her in a highly publicized case. Organizations like Rede Trans are hoping that dos Santos’s brutal murder will serve a similar purpose.
In an effort to fight that complacency and expose the plight of sexual minorities in Brazil, the country’s LGBT Alliance launched a website called “Whom has homophobia killed today?” The site tracks murders in Brazil targeting LGBT victims, which are normally swept under the rug.
“Dandara’s murder shocked people because the perpetrators made the grim decision to film it. That’s the only reason we are seeing this repercussion,” said Toni Reis, the director of the LGBT Alliance. “The sad reality is that what happened to her is a commonplace act. We see it every day.”
But to effect real change, LGBT groups in Brazil need to parlay the sympathy generated by dos Santos’s murder into political action, on scale with their opposition.
“I have faith,” Reis said. “Our opposition is organized but the barbarity of this crime has everyone speaking out.”