Feature image by Mídia NINJA
This article has been updated to correctly represent Marcelle Franco’s bisexuality. An earlier version mistakenly referred to her as a lesbian.
Rio de Janeiro Councillor Marielle Franco, who was assassinated on 14 March 2018 after speaking at an event for the empowerment of Black girls, was a firebrand of a politician, feminist, and human rights activist whose work was deeply informed by her experiences as an Afro-Brazilian Catholic bisexual woman born and raised in the favelas.
Marielle is best known for fighting against increased militarization and police brutality within low-income urban settlements in Rio de Janeiro — sparked by the death of a friend caught up in the crossfire between police and gang members in Maré, where she was born and raised. Having started her education and political activism in the local Catholic church, which at the time were influenced by the South American liberation theology movement that analysed Roman Catholicism through a Marxist framework that centered the needs of the oppressed poor, she went on to earn a full scholarship at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, where she was one of only two Black women in her Social Sciences program. Her thesis for her Masters in Public Administration from Universidade Federal Fluminense, “UPP: a redução da favela a três letras” (UPP: The reduction of the favela to three letters), critiques the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, or Pacifying Police Unit, as “reinforc[ing] the penal state model.”
Marielle ran for City Council in 2016 as part of the socialist democratic Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (The Socialism and Liberty Party) and was the fifth most voted in Rio, with 46,502 votes. This was seen as a significant victory given the very low representation of women in Brazilian parliament, with only six women out of a total of 55 seats. Her time as Councillor, while short-lived, was jampacked with a dizzying number of projects, proposals, and bills addressing the needs of marginalised communities, especially women and the LGBTQ community, in the favelas. Amongst her many projects are anti-harassment campaigns for women on public transport, increasing the number of birth centres in Rio de Janeiro, and proposing a night-time centre for children to attend while their parents are off at work or school.
Lesbian visibility and safety were incredibly important to Marielle. She spoke up about rising numbers of murders of lesbians in Brazil, citing statistics of one murder a week in 2017. Working with the Rio de Janeiro Lesbian Front, which consisted of lesbian collectives such as Liga Brasileira de Lésbicas (Brazilian League of Lesbians), Coletiva Visibilidade Lésbica (Lesbian Visibility Collective) and Sapa Roxa, they campaigned for a Lesbian Day of Visibility on August 29, a date first proposed by Brazilian lesbian activists in 1996 during the first SENALE, or Seminário Nacional de Lésbicas (National Seminar of Lesbians). Alongside this campaign, Marielle also hosted the #NossaHistóriaExiste (Our History Exists) blog project, presenting essays from lesbians in Rio de Janeiro speaking about their lived experiences. While the bill was defeated by just two votes, Marielle still remained hopeful that the bill’s supporters will be able to continue effecting positive change on the streets.
If gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans people are not in your family, then where are they? They simply cannot not exist. We are here in front of you, today.
Marielle also demonstrated her allyship to the Brazilian trans community, awarding the Chiquinha Gonzaga Medal, the highest honor of the Rio City Council, to Jaqueline Gomes de Jesus, the first trans person and first Black woman to receive the Medal. Jacqueline, one of only two trans female doctors in Brazil, edited Transfeminismo: Teorias e Práticas (Transfeminism: Theories and Practices), the first Brazilian text on transfeminism. Marielle also celebrated a bill allowing trans people to have their chosen name reflected in Rio city council documentation with her advisor Lana de Holanda, who Marielle had earlier supported in getting her own name reflected in official work identification.
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VITÓRIA! STF aprova troca de nome e sexo no registro civil de pessoas trans sem necessidade de cirurgia, laudo médico ou decisão judicial! Grande vitória do movimento trans e um grande passo para todas as mulheres! A nossa assessora @lanadeholanda, mulher trans e ativista, explica! 💗💙
Indeed, joy and celebration underpinned a lot of Marielle’s activism, as shown on her highly active social media profiles. Her #NãoÉNão (No is No) campaign to educate Rio Carnaval revelers on sexual consent was met with enthusiastic spirit from both the party-goers and Marielle herself, who dressed up for the occasion. Marielle also embraced humour, sharing survival phrases for women dealing with the patriarchy and turning her confrontation against homophobic politicians policing lesbian and queer identity into a meme. “His words on queer visibility are nothing compared to mine!”
Marielle openly celebrated her queerness, sharing plenty of adorable photos of her and her partner Mônica Benício, as well as joining in on LGBTQ demonstrations not just in Brazil but also elsewhere — sometimes both at once!
Marielle Franco was a bright and vibrant personality whose work and public profile was at once serious, funny, determined, poignant, heartfelt, and spirited. A true living embodiment of the Audre Lorde quote “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own,” used in her last ever speech before her death, Marielle achieved a banner year of change for women, LGBTQ people, people of colour, and other marginalised people living within the favelas and elsewhere in Rio de Janeiro — all within the atmosphere of a right-wing police state that has recently enacted further violence on Brazil’s LGBTQ community. Her closing words of “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s occupy everything together” may have been some of her last — but they are but the beginning of a wave of a queer feminist people-of-colour-led revolution in Brazil.
Marielle Presente e Marielle Vive.
Marielle is Present, and Marielle Lives.
Special thanks to Albert Santos and Ana Paula Rocha for assistance in translating and providing cultural context.