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.
Thank you so much for writing this! As a Brazilian living outside the country, I often feel disconnected from the politics and news there, so I’m glad you wrote this, which provided more context and nuance to the international reporting of her story. Its honestly really hard to have any hope in my country politically, and it’s really unfortunate that I’m only learning about Marielle’s work after she was killed. I hope there are other people there who continue her legacy and that they fight to make it a better place.
Thank you! I found that a lot of international reporting didn’t really cover how funny and full of life she was. I do hope this is not the end for her or her legacy.
I came to the comments section to express this exact sentiment! Thank you, Autostraddle, for covering this. As someone from Rio who lives in NY, it feels incredible to have some light shed on this for the rest of the community. We grieve for her in Rio, and it’s comforting to see the community grieve with us as well.
Priscila, obrigada por dizer o que eu também quis expressar. Que a vida da Marielle nos inspire a ter mais esperança pelo nosso país, e que consigamos acreditar nas mulheres que continuam lutando por lá. Que a sua morte não nos tire toda a força.
Thank you ~ we were talking/mourning her loss at work and with friends, and hearing conflicting stories being reported. I really appreciate your clear reporting, links to her work and celebration of her work, being and spirit.
Thank you! She is an incredible person.
Her Death hit me hard. Most of my friends voted for her, some were already envisioning her running for senate and, in a few years, for president.
The thing is that she was in charge of a commission that investigated police brutality and corruption and she was pushing for results and heavy punishment for the culprits.
I guess when you start rocking the boat too much you get five bullets in the head. Sending a message…
The bullets that killed her came from a batch that was purchased for police use but were reported “stolen”. Yes, the cops claim their ammo was stolen (!)
Some think that this will be a turning point and the outrage of her assassination will bring change. Sadly I don’t share that optimism.
Rest in Power, Marielle.
I’m so sorry for your loss. There was one article I found that talked about how Marielle’s murder could have a chilling effect on women who want to enter politics because they may be too afraid to do so now! I do hope that’s not the case but it’s reasonable to not want to risk your life in a situation like this.
Kudos, Tiara. This was an excellent post. One of the best I’ve seen on the subject on the international press
Thank you! That’s quite the honour.
Thank you for covering Marielle’s story, Tiara.
Thank you for this article. What a tragic loss for the world.
Thank you for covering Marielle’s story with such a powerful, kind and thoughtful article. I voted for her in 2016 and yesterday marched in her honor and memory in Maré. Her death hit us really hard here in Rio…
I can imagine! I’m so sorry for your loss.
I had the honor to meet her on early 2017 and she was such a passionate person, she could inspired you to fight for anything and against everything.
I don’t give a shit how pejorative some piece of shit people want to make it sound, SHE WAS A SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIOR. Her murder is not just a great loss for Brazil, it’s an incommensurable loss for the whole fucking world.
I really wish I was capable of using some greater words to say how much she meant to me but I just can’t.
REST IN POWER, MARIELLE.
You are very lucky! Even though I needed help understanding what she was saying in her videos, just her energy and passion were obvious enough to inspire me the same way she inspired you. When I looked at the Projects page of her website I was all “GOOD GRIEF she’s done a LOT in a short amount of time!”
She’s one of the the best social justice warriors there was and I wish more of us knew about her before she died – or not because of her death.
Thank you for this! Since the night of her death, I’ve been having intervals between crying, experiencing deep sadness and a sense of immobility. And yet, everything Marielle fought for was the opposite of that. So I stand up and try my best to engage in the debate and actions of the feminist collectives of which I’m a member.
I can not measure the pain of Monica, Marielle’s wife, in the middle of it all. I just wish that we could pick the little pieces that’s left of us and find strength to fight this nightmare that became living in Brazil nowadays, a nightmare that, it’s worth highlighting, becomes much more real and painful for the poor and black population. And yes, we’re livind under a coup d’etat and the world needs to know and address it.
I’m so sorry for your pain. I hope you’ve been able to take care of yourselves and each other. Marielle showed how important fun and rest were in her life just as much as in her work so I hope there’s opportunity for you to get some fun and rest too.
I’ve been thinking about Monica too! Marielle so obviously and openly loved her.
We stand behind you as you fight through this nightmare.
Obrigada for this, Tiara
It was an honour. I feel like I might have scooped this from you, since you’re actually Brazillian and maybe would have been the better choice to write this! But I hope I did Marielle and all of you justice.
Really lovely post, thank you. It’s so important to see her joy, struggle, and life and not just her death.
Totally! She’s done so much, lived so much, it’s incredible. So many smiles, so many many smiles.
Rest in power, Marielle.
Thank you so much for your words. I believe you did her justice indeed.
Rest in Power Marielle!