Inside Transgender Star Carmen Carrera’s Fight for Justice
The ‘Drag Race’ star reveals why she was determined to draw attention to the often-dire situation of transgender women in Brazil.
Transgender glamor may be having a moment, but bookers are still telling model and actress Carmen Carrera that they’re “not ready” to feature a woman like her.
“What do you mean you’re ‘not ready’?” the former RuPaul’s Drag Race star thinks when she hears that rejection, as she told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. “I don’t view myself as a ‘trans actor’ or a ‘trans model.’ I mean, I am—it’s part of who I am—but it’s not something that solely defines me.”
But Carrera is pressing forward, “hopeful” that the entertainment industry will change soon. And in the meantime, she feels a responsibility to use her platform not just to advocate for acceptance in the United States as the first-generation American child of Puerto Rican and Peruvian parents, but to draw attention to the often-dire situation of transgender women in South America as well.
In the premiere of Fusion’s new travel documentary series Outpost, airing this Sunday night, Carrera visits the world’s most dangerous place to be transgender: Brazil.
“I never thought about myself as privileged until I came here,” Carrera announces at one point, and it’s easy to see why.
According to the Trans Murder Monitoring project, there were 868 reported murders of transgender people in Brazil between 2008 and 2016—over twice the figure for Mexico and almost six times as many reported murders of trans people as there were in the United States over the same time frame.
Although São Paulo hosts the largest pride parade on the planet and Brazil has some progressive LGBT legislation on the books, rampant employment discrimination and street crime make the country a minefield for transgender women, many of whom rely on sex work for income.
In addition to this violence against transgender people, Brazil also sees an enormous amount of anti-gay violence. As The Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson reported, a rightward turn in Brazil’s congress and an increase in U.S.-imported evangelical Christian ideology have made the large South American nation an even more precarious place to be LGBT in recent years.
In the Outpost premiere, Carrera sees Brazil at is best and its worst: One minute, she is partying on a float in a shimmering green bodysuit in front of millions of partygoers at São Paulo pride parade, the next she is interviewing transgender women who have survived horrific acts of violence—stabbings, shootings, sexual assault, rape.
“It’s like being locked in a birdcage,” a woman named Cris tells Carrera. “There’s no work, just discrimination.”
Carrera told The Daily Beast that, when she visits Brazil, she imagines how her own path—from RuPaul’s Drag Race to VH1’s Couples Therapy to modeling, acting and activism—could have easily been different had she not been born in New Jersey.
“My parents could have stayed in South America,” she said. “It puts me in a place where I begin to feel like they should have a lot of the knowledge that I have. They should have the inspiration that I get every day to wake up and take on the world.”
Carrera cannot singlehandedly combat the country’s cultural stigma, of course, but her Outpost premiere ends with a single small but powerful act of generosity: After interviewing a young trans woman named Sofia who is not accepted by her family and can’t find work, Carrera does her makeup and takes her to the São Paulo pride parade, holding her hand as they walk down the street. A smile breaks out on Sofia’s face.
“These people are magical people,” Carrera told The Daily Beast. “It’s unfortunate that they don’t have the resources and the knowledge that they need to be able to thrive.”
One problem, Carrera says, is a lack of attention in the United States to the epidemic of transphobic violence in Brazil.
The country’s anti-transgender violence got international media coverage earlier this month when a cellphone video showing a group of men beating a transgender women before carting her body away in a wheelbarrow began circulating on social media. But the recurring everydayness of this violence, Carrera says, gets buried in a general inattention to international news.
“Unless it’s ‘major news’ or a catastrophe or something terrible that happens, we’re not focused on what people are going through because most of us are just unaware of what’s happening,” she said.
Anti-transgender violence is a problem in the United States, too. Already there have been seven reported murders of transgender women in the United States, placing it on track to be among the deadliest years on record for the American transgender population. Carrera believes that we are only starting to notice transgender violence abroad because we are hearing more about it within our own borders.
“I feel like, if it wasn’t for us here in the states tallying up the murders and bringing it to the light, nobody would be paying attention to it,” she said.
Carrera is engaging in activism here in the United States, too. After the Trump administration withdrew guidance for transgender student restroom use last month, Carrera penned a Cosmo op-ed saying that the move “sends a message to kids that we need to be segregated and that certain people shouldn’t have the same rights as everyone else.”
During a time when anti-transgender lawmakers across the country are proposing bills that would restrict restroom use by birth certificate, Carrera also chose to go public about her own process of changing the sex on her birth certificate—a feat that can be time-consuming, expensive, or simply out of reach for transgender people, depending on where they were born.
(To those transgender people who can update their birth certificates, Carrera recommends doing it now: “It’s not going to be easy but once you get it you’re going to feel safer.”)
Carrera told The Daily Beast that she sees her activism not just as a personal responsibility, but as a necessity mandated by the current cultural stigmas around transgender people. Simply sitting back and collecting roles and job offers is not an option, even for someone with the successes that Carrera has had.
“Everyone who’s on the forefront [in transgender entertainment] nowadays kind of has to do some sort of activism,” she said, noting that “given the time, we almost have no choice.”
Ultimately, Carrera hopes that the work she is doing to change perception of transgender people comes back to help her career in the end. Maybe one day, she hopes, she’ll hear a lot less of the “not ready” excuse.
“If people can understand me and accept me as a woman, I’m going to get booked for more jobs,” she said. “It all works hand in hand.”
Outpost premieres Sunday, March 26 on Fusion at 8 PM and 11 PM. [Disclosure: the author of this piece was briefly employed as a Fusion reporter last year.]