When Erika Hilton decided to run for city councilor in Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city, in 2020, she had no idea she would receive more votes than any other woman running for city councils across the country that year.
Since then, the buzz around the 29-year-old transgender has only grown. Erika has received a great deal of support from left-wing artists and politicians, appearing on several magazine covers in Brazil. In October last year, she received the Most Influential People of African Descent award, supported by the United Nations (UN), which recognizes the most influential black people in the world.
Erika told Reuters that she intends to run for a federal deputy seat representing the PSOL party in October’s elections. If elected, she will be the first transgender member of Congress in Brazil, the country that most kills trans people in the world, according to Transgender Europe (TGEU), a network of non-profit organizations that advocates for trans rights globally.
Murders and suicides among transgender Brazilians have increased in recent years, amid President Jair Bolsonaro‘s attacks on what he calls “gender ideology” among those pushing for the safety of transgender people in the country.
“Brasilia needs to be shaken by the human rights agenda, by the LGBTs, and by their bodies, by their voices,” Erika said in an interview.
From her seat on Sao Paulo’s City Council, Erika proposed tax benefits for companies that hire trans employees. She also pushed to expand the reach of the city’s Transcitizenship Program, which aims to help vulnerable trans people.
While Erika Hilton is among the pioneers in Brazil, she is not alone in Latin America, where a new generation of trans politicians is working to fight violence and prejudice against trans people.
In Chile, transgender lawmaker Emilia Schneider, 25, won a seat in the federal legislature in November after years of activism.
She said the leftist wave that brought Chile’s president-elect, socialist Gabriel Boric, to office has also inspired the drafting of a new constitution with a greater focus on human rights and the defense of the trans population.
“I am very hopeful and confident that this government and the new Constitution will signify a new horizon of rights and recognition for the people of Chile and for sexual diversity,” she said in an interview.
Across Latin America, political progress to advance trans rights has been accompanied by violence.
At least 189 transgender people were killed last year in the region, more than anywhere else in the world, according to the TGEU, which warned that the actual number could be higher due to underreporting.
In Mexico, the second deadliest country in the world for transgender people, Maria Clemente Garcia Moreno, a 36-year-old federal deputy from the ruling Morena party, said she struggled to explain in the Mexican Congress the challenges faced by transgender people, even for those who understand and respect their own trans identity.
“This responsibility to translate the needs of the trans population into being able to root them in the political framework to protect our rights is complex,” she said.
In Venezuela, the struggle for trans rights often takes a back seat to broader political, social, and economic issues, said Tamara Adrian, a lawyer, researcher, and parliamentarian elected in 2015.
For Erika Hilton, who heads the committee investigating trans crimes in Sao Paulo, physical violence is just the tip of the iceberg. For her, trans rights need to be part of social policy.
“What they steal from us is exactly the right to be recognized as human beings. And when we are recognized, we have all human rights,” she said.