SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL — Aline is an attractive 37 year old, with tan skin, arched eyebrows, and an enviable head of thick black hair. When I met her at an adult education school in São Paulo, Brazil, she has just stepped out of a human rights class.
Aline is a participant in Transcidadania, a new program that provides a support system — including cash, housing, and education —
to transgender and “travesti” (loosely, a genderqueer person who uses female pronouns) residents of São Paulo.
Life hasn’t exactly been easy for Aline. For 20 of her 37 years, she was a prostitute. All she wanted was a regular job, a 9 to 5 that would take her off the streets, but finding steady work proved maddeningly elusive.
Meanwhile, she had to take care of her mother, who is both blind and deaf.
This experience is not that unusual; in Brazil, many members of the trans and travesti communities often find themselves turning to prostitution to survive .
Last year, Aline participated in a government-supported job training program that paid about $US200 a month, but it didn’t lead to a job in the end.
Then a friend tipped her off to Transcidadania. The program — the first of its kind in the world — is what led to my meeting with Aline, who is now on her way to completing high school.
When I ask her what she wants to do after completing Transcidadania, her eyes start to well up with tears. She’s silent for a moment, before looking me in the eye. “To work,” she says. “I want to work.”
A new route to success
Transcidadania was created in 2013 by Fernando Haddad, the mayor of São Paulo. Haddad grew up on a street in the city that had lots of transgender and travesti prostitutes, many of whom frequently found themselves in violent situations.
In a country that is at least somewhat tolerant of LGBTQ residents in big cities (gay marriage is legal, and São Paulo has the largest gay pride parade in the world), these members of society are still marginalized more than most.
So Haddad decided to do something, hiring a staff to reach out to trans and travesti people in the community, largely by handing out information about Transcidadania on the streets at night.
The program launched in earnest at the beginning of 2014, with a $US417,000 budget to take care of 100 people who go through a two-year program that culminates in a high school education. The main criteria for entry: that participants are trans or travesti, and that they lack fixed work.
Here’s what they get: two years of education, divided into 30 hours of activities each week. After the first year, they will at least have a 9th grade education (Transcidadania gives a test at the beginning of the program to determine what grade they belong in, because some participants forget when they left school). Many will go on to finish high school by the end of the two years.
In addition to taking general education courses, they also get professional training. In one course, participants learn how to find a job, write a compelling job application, and perform well in an interview. In another, they learn about careers in food production, finance, and administrative assistance. Cultural activities, like field trips to museums, round out the educational experience.
A team of social workers, psychologists, and teachers provide emotional support. And two designated homeless shelters, including one specifically for LGBT residents, provide housing to those who need it. As long as participants show up to their classes, they also get a $US235 stipend each month (next year this will go up to $US251).
Inside the classroom
On a drizzly Thursday afternoon in August, I decided to go back to school with the Transcidadania students. I’m greeted at the school entrance by Maria Adelia, the education coordinator of the project.
Adelia says she’s passionate about the program and the participants, who take many classes along with the general adult education population. According to her, the students who aren’t part of Transcidadania nonetheless welcome the program participants “with no prejudice.” As for the Transcidadania students themselves, she says that “they come to class, they participate, they’re very active.”
During my time in a social sciences class — a hybrid of history and political science — I find this to be mostly true. The Transcidadania students are by far the most engaged, and they seem to get along well with their adult education classmates.
But about halfway through the class, an older woman with red hair says to no one in particular: “This school is so great, except there are too many fags.” Then she looks back at me and smiles conspiratorially.
The warm and fuzzy acceptance only goes so far.
Nonetheless, the participants who I meet after class have nothing but good things to say about Transcidadania.
“If I wasn’t here, I’d be on the streets prostituting at night,” says Miuky, a 32 year-old travesti. “I always wanted to come back to school, so this program is perfect for me.”
Ciara, a 25 year-old travesti, says the program is like a family. “It’s like a second home with [the coordinator] as the big momma. When we have problems, she’s there. The big momma is the one who solves everything,” she says. “If not for this opportunity, we would be considered alive only at night.”
Multiple participants are so passionate about the program that they have become LGBT rights advocates outside the classroom.
Valeriah, a 35 year-old transgender woman, is now a candidate for the city’s LGBT municipal council. “After meeting these people, I have my sisters. But I want to do much more for our rights to education, benefits, and better jobs.”
All the participants harbour aspirations for what they will do after the program. Among their dream professions: lawyer, politician, nurse, social worker, and fashion designer. Some, like Aline, aspire simply to get a job — any job — that doesn’t involve prostitution.
The program is proving to be successful. Only 9% of Transcidadania participants ditch their classes, compared to 36% in the general adult education population in São Paulo, according to Alessandro Melcheor, the general coordinator of LGBT rights for the prefecture of São Paulo. Those who left the program did so due to personal problems, drug addiction, and in the case of three participants, arrests for prostitution.
A number of cities in Brazil are thinking about replicating Transcidadania, says Melcheor, and other countries have also taken notice of the program’s wins. In Uruguay and the U.S., government officials have contacted Transcidadania to see what they can learn from the program (with the hope of potentially launching similar initiatives). And for good reason — even in the U.S., which is making strides in LGBT rights, transgender people are four times more likely to live in poverty than the general population.
There are still kinks to work out. Just three out of the 100 participants are transgender men — something that officials and participants attributed to the group’s lack of visibility. Transcidadania is also relatively expensive considering that it’s only a 100-person program.
Melcheor admits that the city just doesn’t have the money at the moment to expand Transcidadania beyond the current number of participants. But he’s hopeful for the program’s future prospects. “There’s just no other program like this,” he says.
Ariel Schwartz reported from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).
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