SAO PAULO, March 9 (Reuters) - When Erika Hilton decided to run for political office in South America's biggest city in 2020, she had no idea she would receive more votes than any other female candidate to win a city council seat in Brazil that year.
Since then, buzz surrounding the transgender 29-year-old has only grown. Hilton has seen an outpouring support from artists and leftist politicians, appearing on magazine covers in Brazil. In October she was recognized as one of the Most Influential People of African Descent, a United Nations-backed award recognizing achievement by Africans and their diaspora.
Hilton told Reuters she now aims to run for federal office in Brazil's October elections for the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party. If elected, she would be the first transgender member of Congress in Brazil, the deadliest country for trans people in the world, according to Transgender Europe (TGEU), a network of non-profits advocating for trans rights globally.
Murders and suicides among transgender Brazilians have climbed in recent years, while far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has attacked what he calls "gender ideology" among those pushing for more protections for transgender people.
"Brasilia needs to be shaken up with an agenda of human rights, of LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) issues, for these bodies and these voices," Hilton said in an interview.
From her city council seat, Hilton has proposed tax benefits for companies who hire more trans employees. She has also pushed to widen the reach of the city's Trans Citizenship Program, which aims to help vulnerable trans people.
Although Hilton is a trailblazer in Brazil, she is not alone in Latin America, where a new generation of trans politicians is working to combat violence and prejudice against trans people.
In Chile, transgender lawmaker Emilia Schneider, 25, won a seat in the federal legislature in November after years of activism.
Schneider said the leftist tide bringing socialist Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric to office has also inspired the drafting of a new constitution with a greater focus on human rights and defense of the trans population.
"I am very hopeful and confident that this government and the new constitution will signify a new horizon of rights and recognition for the people of Chile and for sexual diversity," she said in an interview.
"We have conquered institutional spaces, in Congress, in the (president-elect's) cabinet, and that is a profound transformation, it is going to change the culture of society," said Schneider. She noted that Boric's appointed cabinet includes openly gay Education Minister Mario Antonio Avila and lesbian Sports Minister Alexandra Benado.
Across Latin America, political progress towards boosting trans rights has been mixed.
At least 189 transgender people were killed last year in the region, more than any other, according to TGEU, which warned that the true number may be higher due to under-reporting.
In Mexico, the world's second deadliest country for transgender people, Maria Clemente Garcia Moreno, a 36-year-old federal lawmaker with ruling party Morena, said she struggles to explain the challenges facing trans people in Mexico's Congress, even to those who understand and respect her own trans identity. read more
"This responsibility to translate the needs of the trans population to be able to entrench it in the political framework to protect our rights – it's complex," she said.
In Venezuela, the fight for trans rights often takes a back seat to wider political, social and economic issues, said Tamara Adrian, a transgender lawyer, researcher and federal lawmaker elected in 2015.
Students, for example, are often forced to hide their transitioned identities, she said.
Otherwise, "they have to drop out of school or not appear or show themselves as a trans person in places like universities,” she said.
To Hilton, who also leads committee investigating trans crimes in Sao Paulo, physical violence is just the tip of the iceberg, adding trans rights must be part of social policy.
"What is stolen from us is exactly the right to be recognized as human beings. And when we are recognized, we must have all human rights," she said.
(Reporting by Carolina Pulice; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)