Laerte Coutinho, born in São Paulo (Brazil) in the year 1951, first ventured out as transgender wearing a skirt and a blouse to walk to the café just on the corner. Despite some people’s staring and whistling as well as some rude comments made behind her back, the experience was not as painful as she had first assumed. “I thought I would be assaulted, ridiculed, ”Coutinho explains. The famous Brazilian cartoonist, with a prolific career spanning four decades, first went crossdressing for one year in private and then came out as a transgender woman during an interview in 2010.
She says her first day wearing female clothes on the street was terrifying. It was justified. In Brazil, 689 transgender people were murdered between 2008 and 2014, according to Transgender Europe. That is the highest rate in the world, according to data available. The non-governmental organization does not have information about each and every country, however.
Despite that gloomy scenario, some achievements have been made in Brazil lately. For instance, reassignment surgeries, which had been forbidden until 1997, became possible in several public hospitals – absolutely free of charge. It is also possible to have one’s name lawfully changed, but the person must first be diagnosed with “identity disorder.” These are some of the paradoxes found in a country that is usually considered by outsiders as being sexually liberated: “Brazil is very unequal and ambiguous. We live under great liberalism and extreme repression and aggressiveness against the LGBT, female, black and other population minorities,” says Laerte (which is a male name, not without an article that refers to the feminine in Portuguese, anyway).
At first, She considered adopting Sonia as her first name. However, Laerte had become almost a trademark. So, she decided to keep it, while referring to herself by pronouns and articles in the feminine.
Laerte attributes part of the intolerance to a political conservative wave, which attempts to restrict the concept of family to male-female unions and make it even harder for women to interrupt pregnancy.
Laerte asks, “Who does this Congress represent? Is there the same proportion of black people that there are in the Brazilian population? No. Any proportions of women, LGBT, Indians…? No. What there is is a bunch of white, rich entrepreneurs who do not represent society.”
LGBT activism after a long way
Laerte collaborated with the creation of the Transgender Brazilian Association (Associação Brasileira de Transgêneros). She also issues cartoons on a daily basis in the famous Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, often on the front page, and contributes to the Rolling Stone magazine as well.
Generally speaking, Laerte is welcome wherever she goes. “They treat me with a lot of respect and affection. It surprises me to find it in a country that kills transvestites by barbarian means and deals with women in barbarian ways. I wonder, am I privileged because I am white, a journalist, popular? When I transitioned, I was living my most popular moment. And I did not lose readers.”
Speaking of privileges, Laerte puts the finger into wounds often ignored by many: racism, classism, and others. Laerte has taken a stand for minorities and become a champion for the transgender community in Brazil. “It is utterly important that there are positive models. I never had any when I was young. Existing in a calm way, taking up identities that used to be forbidden is transgressing and produces results,” states Laerte.
Three times married to women and a father to three children, Laerte found herself a transexual person in 2004 when she was introduced to the Brazilian Crossdresser Club by one of her readers. At 63, she is still discovering herself. “When I build myself, the way I present myself, how much of a woman I am and what type of woman I am…these questions are endless.”