Sports Illustrated Model Valentina Sampaio Calls Attention to Violence Against Trans Women

Illustration for article titled Sports Illustrated Model Valentina Sampaio Calls Attention to Violence Against Trans Women
Photo: Victor Boyko (Getty Images)

Valentina Sampaio made headlines on Friday when Sports Illustrated announced that she would be featured in this year’s Swimsuit Issue, making her the first trans model to appear in the publication’s iconic annual installment—at least the first one that we know of! In case you’re not aware, trans women have been building successful modeling careers without publicly disclosing their transness since before Sports Illustrated published its first Swimsuit Issue in 1964, though many of those modelslike April Ashley, Tracey Norman (a.k.a., Tracey Africa), and Caroline Cossey—had their careers totally derailed after they were outed by the press.

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Anyway, while it’s true that the Brazilian model is making history by appearing in Sports Illustrated, as Today and countless other outlets have zeroed in on in their coverage, her efforts to use that platform to speak out against the violence that trans people face in her home countrysomething that is, frankly, far more pressing than yet another white trans woman’s media-friendly representational first—isn’t receiving nearly as much attention.

Brazil is a beautiful country, but it also holds the highest number of violent crimes against the trans community,” Sampaio says in a video interview.

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Over 330 trans and nonbinary people around the world murdered in 2019, as The Advocate reported earlier this year. Of those reported deaths, 130 of them happened in Brazil—far more than were reported in Mexico (63) or the United States (30)—prompting Brasil de Fato to call the South American nation “the world’s deadliest country for trans people.” In the face of such horrifying violence, Brazilian Pres. Jair Bolsonaro continues to rail against trans people and what he calls “gender ideology, tacitly endorsing and encouraging transphobic violence just as he does with violence against Afro-Brazilians, Indigenous Brazilians, women, gays, and other groups vulnerable to violence in Brazil.

Being trans in Brazil, we don’t have the same opportunities,” Sampaio continues. “The door is closed for you just because you are trans. It’s hard. I had to learn how to fight for myself. We are doing some steps, but we have a lot to do, even today… I feel so blessed and grateful to have the support and love of my family. They are proud, proud of me today. I recognize that I am one of the fortunate ones, and my intention is to warrant that as best as I can.”

That such groundbreaking trans visibility could occur at a time of such alarming levels of anti-trans violence—much less be used as a means to call attention to that violence—makes for an unsettling contradiction. But it’s one that we must “grapple and reckon with,” as Salacia director Tourmaline notes in the editors’ introduction to Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, published in 2017.

“We are living in a time of trans visibility,” write Tourmaline and her fellow editors, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton. “Yet we are also living in a time of anti-trans violence… To the degree that anyone might consider such potential [for liberation] to exist within representation, one must also grapple and reckon with radical incongruities—as when, for example, our ‘transgender tipping point’ comes to pass at precisely the same political moment when women of color, and trans women of color in particular, are experiencing markedly increased instances of physical violence.”

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Watch Sampaio’s Sports Illustrated interview below.

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DISCUSSION

teamnancy
Team Nancy

I’m torn here. I mean, on the one hand, good that Sampaio is breaking professional barriers and using her platform for advocacy. But on the other hand, there’s an elephant in the room: her historic, newsworthy achievement was appearing in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition—one of the most notorious and enduring examples of women’s objectification in all of print media. (In my opinion, the fact that it’s published by Sports Illustrated makes the swimsuit issue especially troubling because the SI brand not only lends a veneer of acceptability—wholesomeness, even—to patently chauvinist content but ensures that an especially young and impressionable audience is influenced by it.)

I’m not saying Sports Illustrated—or Sampaio, or any other model who appears in the swimsuit issue—is implicitly supporting gender-based violence, but the normalization of objectification absolutely contributes to violence against women—women of color, trans women, and women in general. In other words, there’s some dissonance between Sampaio’s public statement and her decision to pose for SI. I think that discrepancy should at least be acknowledged before she’s hailed as an inspiring hero.