Unboxing self-esteem among transgender women in Brazil and their dreams for dignified life

UNAIDS

Sasha wishes to have two children. Deusa wants to go to business school. Rihanna’s dream is to be respected and be who she wants to be. And all Alicia wants is to fulfill her dreams. In the lead-up to the May 17 celebrations of the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOBIT), UNAIDS echoes the voices and dreams of four transgender women. They, like many others are in search of a dignified life, full of opportunities able to love who they wish to love, and not endure violence, stigma and discrimination.

Inspired by the Unbox Me campaign, launched by UNAIDS on the International Transgender Day of Visibility, 31 March, UNAIDS gave four Brazilian transgender women a small box with their portraits from a photo shoot session in 2021 with Sean Black, a photographer from the United States who specializes in LGBTQI+ subjects. As the portraits were revealed to the transgender women, they reflected on the importance of their bodies, of self-care, and of their right to live healthy and empowered lives.

“This insecurity comes from our experiences, and from our past. But with each passing day I had the opportunity to strengthen myself, to discover the beauty that I sometimes thought I didn’t have, so I felt more confident,” recalled Alicia Kalloch, when unboxing her self-portraits.

“There are so many bad things that we go through,” said another participant, Sasha Santos. “My portraits from the photo sessions gave me the certainty that I’m capable of many things like going to college, owning a house and having children,” she added.

Alicia, Sasha, Rihanna and Deusa were chosen to represent the 24 women from the transgender shelter, Casa Florescer, in São Paulo, who participated in the FRESH Project. Developed by UNAIDS in partnership with Black and Casa Florescer, the initiative included photo sessions as part of a therapeutic approach to provide positive reinforcement and stimulate behavior change. All the photos are being released virtually today in cooperation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) office in Brazil, marking the IDAHOBIT celebrations.

“When I saw my picture, I saw an empowered woman,” said Rihanna Borges, who currently works with other transgender women to provide counseling and peer support. “I think the role I play today is incredible, working with other sisters, talking to them about the importance of self-care and HIV combination prevention.” Their plea is to have society see transgender people for who they are. “I want us to feel empowered and say, ‘Today I am somebody’ and leave this invisibility behind,” she added.

Inequalities, stigma, and discrimination disproportionately affect populations in situations of greater vulnerability, such as transgender women. A report by the Brazilian National Association of Transsexuals and Transgender People (ANTRA) shows that 140 transgender people were murdered in 2021 in the country, 99% of whom were transgender women. HIV prevalence among transgender women in Brazil is above 30%, whereas for the general population prevalence is at 0.4%.

Most of the transgender women at Casa Florescer were forced to leave their homes against their will and many ended up using drugs or suffering various types of violence.

“At the shelter we seek to work with people in a cycle of self-discovery and empowerment so that they can overcome past vulnerabilities,” explained Beto Silva, Coordinator of Casa Florescer. “Photographic art, which was an important part of the FRESH Project, was an efficient way to mobilize and engage them.”

“Participating in the photo shoot not only served to show the internal and external beauty of this group of transgender women, it was also an important step to help them gain control over their bodies and their lives,” said Claudia Velasquez, Director and Representative of UNAIDS in Brazil. Deusa de Souza could not agree more. As a participant in the photography workshop, she said, she felt recognized as a beautiful transgender woman. “It was important for me to see myself in these photos and how they reflect my empowerment and my own personality and beauty.”

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