Carmen Carrera is no stranger to activism.
The transgender model and actress first rose to fame as a contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race, a popular reality compeition for drag performers. But since entering the limelight, Carrera has espoused numerous causes on behalf of the LGBT community, including HIV activism as well as speaking out about transphobic language on her TV alma mater.
Now Carrera has set her sights on Brazil. And it's no small task. The South American country has the world's highest murder rate of transgender people — at least 144 were killed there in 2016. In fact, 46.7 percent of the world's trans murders occur in Brazil, with a murder rate 16.4 times higher than anywhere else on the planet. This epidemic was underscored by a shocking video, recorded last month, which showed a 42-year-old transgender woman, Dandara dos Santos, being tortured before she was shot to death.
Carrera wanted to understand the reasons for this violence, to use her platform to help inspire change, and to raise awareness of the threats transgender people face around the world. To this end, she traveled to Brazil and recorded her journey in an episode of a new docuseries, Outpost, which will air Sunday.
"The world needs to have a deeper understanding that these issues that we face as trans people are worldwide issues. They’re not just something that’s happening here in the States," said Carrera, who hopes audiences will "discover just how bad things could be in other places."
Brazil is a country with a mixed record on LGBT rights. The country has had same-sex unions since 2004 and same-sex marriage since 2013, beating the United States in its recognition of marriage equality. It also has a high level of transgender visibility — Brazilian model Valentino Sampaio recently became the first trans model on the cover of Vogue Paris. Carrera herself has a huge Brazilian following on social media, which comes second in size after her American fan base.
But Brazil's growing evangelical movement has clashed with the progress of LGBT rights. Progressives say the violence is linked to an alarming rise in religious fundamentalism, which has also had sway over politics. For example, the same year same-sex marriage passed, conservatives blocked hate-crimes legislation that might help stem the tide of violence. The party's goal is to undo marriage equality.
So while there are markers of progress — among them, the right to marry, and a televised same-sex kiss at the GQ Men of the Year Awards in Rio De Janeiro — there are still significant hurdles to overcome, which is what Carrera hopes to highlight in her televised trip to São Paulo.
"Brazil ... gives a false sense of security to their [LGBT] community members," said Carrera, who pointed to how queer people can march in Pride one day and be murdered the next as an example of this disconnect. She also criticized government programs, which offered resources like food, housing, and education to transgender people only if they "rethink their life trajectory." This means requiring applicants to deny their gender identity and "detransition."
"Ninety percent of women out there, who work doing sex work, they’re not exactly happy with what they’re doing, but they feel it’s better than (a) being on a three-year waiting list for the government to help you, and (b) they’re not thinking about detransitioning," said Carrera, who argued there should be greater access to support and fewer hurdles for LGBT people.
"There has to be more options within the government for different programs that will continue to help, because we have to be able to create a safe environment for trans people to get an education, for them to learn how to express themselves, and be able to thrive."
The experience of visiting Brazil has put her own life in perspective — making her appreciate all the advantages she's had in life. In her travels, she met an older trans woman — a sex worker, a profession many trans Brazilians take due to a lack of employment opportunities — who "found balance in her life by accepting ... the rejection from society, the fear of being a target." It was a standard of living that Carrera never wanted to accept.
"I’m extremely privileged. I could have been born in Brazil. My family is South American. What makes them different than me? It’s just location," said the Latina native of New Jersey. "I was just lucky enough to be born here."
Another advantages is her appearance, which allows her to "pass" among straight people. She acknowledged how this shielded her from harm.
"If you’re not passable in Brazil, you’re an instant target, 24/7," she said. "It’s just understood that we are the punching bag. We are the joke. We are the one where it’s OK to commit an act of violence — because no one really has their back out there."
Of course, being transgender is no crystal stair for transgender Americans either. At least eight trans women have been killed this year, and 2016 set a grisly record for the nation's known trans murders. Carrera and those within her social circle are no strangers to fear. They've witnessed the root of it firsthand.
"A lot of my girlfriends, when I started to transition, a lot of them were sex workers, so a lot of the stories that I would hear would be about men who didn’t want to pay or situations where they were being robbed," said Carrera, who said she's "seen a lot more than people know."
Carrera recalled once walking through Chelsea, a gay neighborhood of New York City, with a transgender friend — a fellow performer at the now-closed club Escuelita — and being verbally harassed with "horrible names." Another friend was murdered at home, an apartment that was set ablaze after the crime. The shooting at Pulse also hit close to home for Carrera — she was a frequent guest at the Orlando gay club, and knew many of the performers and regulars there well.
"There’s been instances where [I think], Thank God it wasn’t me. But it could have been," she said.
Fear and bias were the toxic ingredients that helped brew tragedies like Pulse and the killings of her transgender sisters. And Carrera sees communication as an important tool in countering them.
"It’s a work in progress on both sides. I feel that we as the LGBT community we have to work on society, we have to work on changing their minds, but also they have to be willing to understand us and to listen," she said. "There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen between the LGBT community and the cisgender heterosexual world. There’s a ton of misunderstanding."
As in Brazil, Carrera also believes education is key in fighting hatred and violence. At present, she is helping to develop a K-12 curriculum that would bring LGBT history into schools. She hopes these lessons will teach acceptance, erase stigma, and counter the bullying of LGBT youth, who are disproportionately more likely to experience harassment than their straight peers.
"Once the conversation starts, it’s like you’re letting the cat out of the bag, and you’re shedding a light onto this subject that is really important," Carrera said.
Carrera also hopes to be able to have a meeting with Betsy DeVos. Although the new secretary of Education was complicit in rolling back the Obama-era guidelines protecting transgender students — and their right to use the restrooms that correspond with their gender identity — DeVos also recently sat down with parents of these kids to hear their perspective. Carrera wants to be heard too.
Here's what she would tell DeVos:
"Every one of us deserves the right to have a great education that’s going to prepare us and give us the tools that we need in order to thrive outside of school," Carrera would say. "It’s our government’s responsibility to make sure that everyone is included."
"Please take into consideration that LGBTQ people have the right to learn and absorb information without the distraction of prejudice within schools. We need to do something to ensure that their future is just as promised as a cisgender person’s future in school," she added.
"When you don’t have a support system, and you’re constantly being bullied for who you are, and you begin to not accept yourself for who you are, it’s a distraction from schoolwork. It’s a distraction from learning and from growing. We need to do something to fix that."
But as bad as it may be for many LGBT people in the United States, there are many around the world who are in far more dire straits. And Carrera, through her upcoming docuseries, hopes to shine a light on their plight.
"I hope people understand that some of us who may feel down or depressed by what’s happening in our government, it could be worse," she said. "I also want the people who are in those places who don’t realize how bad it is, I want to inspire them to want to make it better."
"Aside from that ... I want to prove that a trans woman can do anything," Carrera concluded. "I’ve been told that I can’t do things simply because I was trans. So that’s another thing I want people to take away from. I’m capable. I can do this too."
Don't miss Fusion TV's Outpost Sunday at 8 and 11 p.m. Eastern. Watch the trailer below.