Transgender surveillance and violence on (social) media: Dandara’s story

3 minutes to read
Jenny-Louise Van Der Aa

Trans* identities seem to have gained popular attention in a time when violence against specific subgroups of this population has escalated and is largely reported on social media. This surveillance of trans* bodies is in stark contrast with a self-proclaimed trans* revolution in mainstream media. 

We like to pride ourselves that we have now entered what could be seen as a great increase of trans* identities in the mainstream media. In Europe and the United States, they get attention from the mainstream press in the form of extra newspaper editions, themed books, television shows on e.g. transitioning, gender identity and transgender kids and an explosion on social media of ‘how to’ tutorials from trans* individuals on how to feminize yourself, how to come out to your parents as well as numerous n-th month hormone updates (on the effects of estrogen intake in biological males and testosterone in biological females). Yet, the (un)reported violence on trans* folk is soaring to new heights with more than thirty-five unlawfully killed trans* persons in the United States last year (almost all of color) as well as numerous cases of severe abuse in Europe. The heightened surveillance of trans* bodies and its often violent repercussions are also visible on YouTube, where a recent case of extreme violence circulated and went viral.

The case in question concerns Dandara dos Santos, a 40-something year old Brazilian trans* woman brutally murdered in a poorer neighbourhood of Fortaleza by six attackers. While the thirty-plus American victims in spite of (largely) positive media attention remain largely invisible, Dandara’s fight in America’s backyard for her life was extremely visible. Hundreds of thousands of viewers have watched a video filmed by laughing bystanders in which a human being was spat on, slapped both with fists and wooden and metal objects, shot in the face, and finally carried away and beaten to death while crying, begging and hurling for her life. Comment sections exploded with both disgust as well as more hate. These movies are not new. We only need to remember the recent case of the drowning of Gambian refugee Pateh Sabally, which bystanders filmed while making racist remarks.

Quite apart from the fact that Dandara was visibly murdered on tape (which technically makes the clip a snuff movie), we should also ask ourselves the question whether the self-proclaimed ‘gender revolution’ is doing anything at all to improve the fate of the lot of trans* folk all over the globe. Recently, Cover Girl has put, for the first time in its history, a ‘boy’ on its front cover, wearing a cap and visibly made up (mascara, blush and lipstick) and nose-pierced. One can utter: “Waw. What a breakthrough!”. At the same time, what Cover Girl has done, is just to commodify in the Adornian sense an already existing gender category (‘boy with makeup’) and made it into a ‘sellable’ entity, just as has happened to the metro- and retrosexuals. Now (and this "Now" as a marker of change in gender politics has resurfaced many times in the past) it is okay for men to buy the said products and companies can be happy about the millions more earnt. This is what the media has themed the so-called ‘gender revolution’. However, by making explicit and popularize marginal categories, these groups of people often end up struggling more in being able to be their true selves and not conform to heteronormative standards. One only needs to remember the struggle of latinos and blacks over who was first after Madonna had claimed the concept of ‘voguing’.

We will never know what the motivation was for Dandara’s killing. Were her agressors monsters full of hate? Were her murderers, as one of the YouTube commenters suggested, upset because she was something they did not recognize as a dichotomized heteronormative human being? Is perhaps her not fully passing as a woman with a visible trans* appearance the cause for this terrible crime against humanity? These are questions any decent human being should ask themselves. However, there are in fact also many questions which we should ask ourselves as researchers. What do these videos say, what do they do, and how do they relate to what mainstream media feeds us about certain themes? Why are thousands of people watching a live rape on Facebook? My humble guess is that an anthropology of vulnerable subjects should include, no matter how heavy, shocking and inhumane the source material is and can be, (micro) analyses of these terrible materials in order to see which indexes can be traced to larger issues, troubles and norms in the socio-political and mediatic domain. May Dandara rest in peace.