Portugal: Trans ‘Big Witches’ survive to become music stars

After winning several auditions, including for a Madonna video, Aquila Correia was close to realising her dreams in Portugal, after relying on sex work to survive as a transgender migrant.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Correia was evicted, despite a government ban on the eviction of cash-strapped tenants. As an undocumented Black Brazilian, without a written contract, Correia had no choice but to pack her bags.

Residents of Casa T, Luan Okan, Gu Nunes, Aicy Ray, and Áquila Correia (from left to right) Lisbon, 31 January 2021 – Image: Marina Watson Pelaez / Thomson Reuters Foundation

Determined to pursue her career, Correia used the website, GoFundMe, to raise 4,000 euros ($4,791) to set up Portugal’s first shelter and creative space for trans migrants, who have since come together to produce an award-winning music video.

“I became desperate,” the 28-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, from the living room of the Lisbon apartment she has named Casa T.

“I had nowhere to go and realised other people were in the same situation … The idea arose as a way for people like me to not have to depend on sex work, to have another option.”

Casa T is currently home to six trans migrants, all of whom were evicted or fell behind on their rent, amid the economic chaos of the new coronavirus, which has devastated the southern European nation.

Discrimination against trans people is rife in Portugal.

One in five trans and intersex people were physically or sexually attacked in the last five years, according to a 2020 survey, by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights – double that of other LGBT+ people.

For ethnic minority immigrants, it is even harder.

“Discrimination increases when you are trans, migrant and Black,” said Luan Okan, 25, another Brazilian Casa T resident.

“People would refuse to call me by the pronoun I identify with … Immigrants face so many barriers. You can’t get a job contract and you work hours and hours for very low salaries.”

Okan trained as an actor, but could only find work as a cleaner. He had a mental breakdown, and reached out to Casa T.

“Having a home has been the greatest help,” said Okan, dressed in black, with his dark hair cut short on the sides, and dyed purple on top.

“It was easier to start counselling and to become stronger to face the job market again if necessary. Through Casa T, I had the opportunity to dedicate myself to artistic work.”

Since moving in together, the residents of Casa T have produced a gothic music video ‘Bruxonas’ or ‘Big Witches’, which won the best lockdown video category at the 2020 Brazilian m-v-f music video awards.

It features Correia, wearing a black dress, red hat, and red gloves, taking a sip of red wine, and then using a flaming torch to set fire to a life-size, smiley-faced doll.

“Night falls … it’s time for the big witches to work,” announce the haunting opening lyrics of the song, which was also selected for Brazil’s For Rainbow – Festival of Cinema and Culture of Sexual and Gender Diversity.

‘Bruxonas’ is the first of seven songs Correia plans to release in 2021, in a bid to change the way Black trans women are seen in Portugal, by showing them as powerful and magical.

“There is a generalised prejudice against Brazilian women,” said Marta Ramos, head of ILGA Portugal, the country’s largest LGBT+ advocacy group.

“There is a hypersexualisation of their bodies and experiences and therefore many prejudices about promiscuous sexual behaviours – and clear racism and xenophobia in the case of Black women.”

Casa T has also provided sanctuary for Aicy Ray, a freelance animator, who needed help after her electricity was cut off.

“This is the only place where I can work where I am not subjected to racism and transphobia,” said the 31-year-old, who was born in Guinea-Bissau, and raised in Portugal, describing the dirty looks she received while queuing to vote last month.

“People are not comfortable with seeing a Black, transgender person … Casa T offered me the safe place I needed to carry out my artistic work, which is my only source of income.”

Racism is a growing worry for Black people in Portugal, following last year’s murder of Black Portuguese actor, Bruno Cande, who was shot dead on the street by a white man, who told him to go home.

January’s presidential poll also saw rising support for Andre Ventura, a far-right lawmaker, known for his derogatory remarks against ethnic minorities.

Margarida Alonso, a social worker with Casa Qui, which supports LGBT+ youth, said vulnerable trans migrants from countries like Brazil need more support.

“They flee from an oppressive state that doesn’t allow them to be who they are,” she said.

“The work Casa T is carrying out to meet the specific needs of the transgender migrant community in Portugal is admirable. It is crucial for there to be more Casa Ts.”

($1 = 0.8349 euros)

-Marina Watson Pelaez – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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