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Shot at close range: demeaning, pleasure, and desire in cases of police violence against travestis1

À queima-roupa: rebaixamento, prazer e desejo em casos de violência policial contra travestis
Roberto Efrem Filho
p. 49-66


Neste artigo, eu procuro analisar como noções de humilhação, nojo e desprezo informam “imagens de brutalidade” acerca de mortes de LGBT reivindicadas como crimes de ódio ou LGBTfobia. Valendo-me de dados colhidos durante o acompanhamento de atividades do movimento LGBTI+ na Paraíba, entre 2012 e 2016, de entrevistas em profundidade com seus militantes e do acesso a autos judiciais relativos àquelas mortes, centro atenção especialmente nas narrativas em torno: a) de uma cena de tentativa de homicídio, provocada por um policial militar que, numa rua do centro de João Pessoa, disparou à queima-roupa contra uma travesti que se prostituía e recusou sua cantada; e b) do caso do “serial killer de travestis”, um policial militar acusado de cinco assassinatos numa cidade do sertão paraibano. Com isso, intenciono principalmente notar a relevância de práticas de rebaixamento para a configuração daquilo que é tomado como brutal, inclusive a violência policial. Busco sobretudo compreender a sexualização narrativa daquele que rebaixa, humilha, enoja-se e despreza e cujo ato de violentar ou matar é identificado como um gesto de prazer ou remete à suspeita de um desejo.

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Notas da redacção

Recebido em 16/07/2021
Aprovado para publicação em 05/08/2021 pelo editor Alberto Fidalgo Castro

Texto integral

Field notes:

  • 1 The word travesti will be used instead of a translation into English. I believe the Portuguese term (...)
  • 2 In this text, some names have been fictionalized and are in italics. Certain terms and emic categor (...)

1[May 23rd, 2017, Geisel auditorium at the central police station, João Pessoa — PB]. “Professor, a case like this must be very interesting to study, no? The man kills because he cannot accept himself. It is awful. It is internalized homophobia” — says Fabíola2 while we left our seats as soon as the event had been over. Fabíola works at the State’s Women and Human Diversity Secretariat (SEMDH) from the government of Paraíba, and had participated in the process of organizing the seminar for which I had been invited as a university professor, alongside social movement activists, and government officials.

  • 3 LGBT, LGBTI+, LGBTQI+ and their variants refer to the acronyms regarding lesbians, gays, bisexuals, (...)

2The seminar entitled “LGBT Victims in Police Inquiries” resulted then from the joint efforts from SEMDH agents and the State’s Secretariat of Social Defense and Safety (SEDS), and aimed at showcasing statistic data regarding LGBT3 deaths occurred in 2016 in Paraíba, as well as the study of a few cases of emblematic lethal violence presented by the chiefs of police who had conducted the investigations. The last case that had been presented, the one Fabíola referred to in her comment by the end of the event, had become widely known as the “travestisserial killer case”. The case involved five homicides and one attempted homicide that, according to the local chief, had all been committed by the police officer Renato Humberto de França, a serial killer whose “signature” modus operandi consisted of firing a gunshot in his victim’s skull base. His victims were all prostitutes approached by him at night in the town center of Carcarás, in Paraíba’s hinterlands, and taken by motorcycle to the vicinity of Campo da Bagaceira, a nearby location where the sex encounters were supposed to take place. According to the chief, the “travestisserial killer case” could be identified as a hate crime, which could be confirmed by the modus operandi of the killings, as well as by the following statement uttered by Renato Umberto and heard by Edmundo, his only survivor victim, after three gunshots, one of them in the head: “now that I have finished you and the other four, I’ll get rid of the remaining sluts, dykes, and faggots”.


3Taken as a symbol of homophobia by the State agents present in that May 23rd 2017 seminar, the “travestisserial killer case” had also been understood as such by the activists from the LGBTI+ movements in Paraíba back in 2011, when two victims from Carcarás filled the list of names in the annual report on “crimes related to hate against homosexual people in the state of Paraíba”, compiled by members of Movimento do Espírito Lilás (MEL) through records in the local media and police stations. In the report, thus, the deaths of Lígia and Xaxá — according to the chief, the fourth and fifth fatal victims of the serial killer — were added to other 19 killings that compose what I have once called, in a first analytical treatment of the data, “images of brutality” (Efrem Filho, 2016).

  • 4 LGBTphobia, transphobia, homophobia, etc. are used here as emic categories that are recurrent in th (...)
  • 5 In the corpus analyzed here, the expression homophobia is usually used to talk about violences expe (...)

4These images of brutality consist of narratives of violence that are usually mobilized and made visible amidst strategies for the production of public recognition regarding the vulnerabilities experienced by the LGBT community and the urgency for policies to tackle LGBTphobia4. They concern bodies that are marked by acts of physical violence whose excesses — smashed heads, disfigured faces, rape prior to the killing or postmortem, dozens of stab wounds, the insertion of a knife blade into the anus — made it possible for LGBTI+ activists and certain State agents to identify the events as hate crimes. Therefore, in that annual report as well as in processes of denouncing and claiming for rights, the gunshots fired against Lígia and Xaxá were added to different acts of physical violence that, narratively brutalized, consubstantiated the hate and, thus, the homophobia to be fought against5.

5By being placed upon the body, these images of brutality are saturated by emotional meanings. They take the body to its limit, fractured and exposed, smashed or beaten, in order to make it into something intelligible and comprehensible, as stated by Butler (2010). However, the narrative brutalization of the body upon which the actions against were understood as violent allows the body and its injuries the instigation and materialization of emotions, which come from the possibility of an utterance of hate, allegedly felt by the perpetrator of the physical violence. Such hatred works discursively then as a justification or cause for the violent act and, above all, its excesses, which end up presupposing categories such as repulse, disgust, and contempt cultivated in hate, something similar to what Maria Claudia Coelho (2010) has called, in direct dialogue with Miller (1997), the emotional complex.

  • 6 This statement, uttered by the chief of police during the May 23rd, 2017, seminar, is also present (...)

6Thus, the brutalized body alludes to the existence of demeaning practices and a hierarchization based, for instance, on an emotional complex of hate-repulse-disgust-scorn attributed to a certain perpetrator like the “travestis’ serial killer”, a persona that is discursively capable of both catalyzing these emotions to end five lives in Carcarás while producing an almost novelistic sentence said in front of Edmundo's apparently dead corpse: “now that I have finished you and the other four, I’ll get rid of the remaining sluts, dykes, and faggots”6. So, the brutalized body also goes through an effort of differentiation on the part of the perpetrator — the one who combines emotion and excessive acts and whose exposure aims to provoke new emotional complexes in those who witness such images of brutality, and unquestionably feel stunned, shocked, doubtful, or even furious, as it has happened to me in many situations since I have started to investigate narratives of violence.

7In this paper, I look back at images of brutality informed by notions of repulse, humiliation, disgust, and contempt labeled as hate crimes, homophobia, or transphobia. In order to do that, I focus especially on narratives regarding: a) a scene of an attempted homicide, provoked by a police officer who, at night downtown João Pessoa, shot a travesti (or trans woman) at close range when she rejected his flirt; and b) the aforementioned “travestisserial killer case”, a police officer accused of five murders and one attempted murder committed in Paraíba’s hinterlands. By doing so, I intend to analyze possible correlations between violence, demeaning, and sexuality for the constitution of what is perceived as brutal, including police violence. My objective is to go through the narrative sexualization of the one who demeans, humiliates, and is disgusted by others, and whose acts of violence or killing are identified as a gesture of pleasure, or raises questions about desire, as it could be seen in Fabíola’s comment by the end of the Seminar in the police station auditorium: “the person kills because he does not accept himself. It is awful. It is internalized homophobia”.

  • 7 The project entitled “Disputas acerca da vítima: conflitos e materializações nas narratives judicia (...)

8The narratives of violence analyzed here come from the corpus of my doctoral research (Efrem Filho, 2017a), which included the monitoring, between 2012 and 2016, of activities by the LGBTI+ social movements in Paraíba; in-depth interviews with its activists; and the access to police inquiries and lawsuits concerning killings labeled as hate crimes. The narratives around the “travestisserial killer case”, however, also stem from public documents, journalistic pieces, television, and radio interviews, as well as the judicial records, all gathered during a research project that I coordinated at the Federal University of Paraíba between 2017 and 20197.

  • 8 The sealing of records is stated in the article 155 of the Civil Process Code and must be granted, (...)

9The diversity of this research corpus, especially in regards to the serial killer case, is explained by two main factors. Firstly, due to practical reasons, it was only possible to access the legal proceedings related to one of the six hypothetical victims of the Carcarás serial killer, Suzanita, once the other records were sealed8. This limitation resulted in some difficulties to analyze the case and the comprehension of its internal conflicts, namely the defense and prosecution theses, which required the extension of the researched documents to interviews, media pieces, and other public documents. As well stated by Cilmara Veiga (2018), the “paper rhythm” of lawsuits regarding serial crimes have a peculiar dynamics in which “the rhythm ends up being maximized by the series” and a “kind of mimesis” between the form of killing, repeated in the execution of the crimes, and the documents that are repeated in the different lawsuits (Veiga, 2018, p. 79; p. 86). Even though the judicial records regarding Suzanita’s killing — according to the chief, the third fatal victim of the serial killer — reproduce documents and narrative elements from other lawsuits, such as the sentence heard by the survivor Edmundo after being shot three times, these records suffer from the lack of documents and elements that seem to have been dealt with in the other suits, in the investigation of Lígia's and Xaxá’s murders, for instance.

10Moreover, the second reason is methodological and concerns the analytical relevance of these diverse documents for the engendering of images of brutality and narratives of violence that I focus on this text. Following Letícia Ferreira (2013), I understand that documents produce and rearrange relationships, consisting of spaces for decision-making and not merely representations of pre-existing facts and subjects. On the contrary, as observed by Lucas Freire (2016), documents can provide reality and materiality to subjects, who can only become recognizable and able to access their rights through certain papers. The phenomenon acquires specific shapes and its own gravity when the documents in question are judicial records. As Mariza Corrêa (1983) has noted in a fundamental work on the theme, in lawsuits, “the actions no longer have any importance themselves and become relevant in relation to their function in the proceedings, the theses that will be publicly debated by the prosecutor and the defense” (1983, p. 24).

11Thus, it is not as important if the police officer Renato Humberto de França in fact said the sentence heard by Edmundo, once the ways in which this utterance is articulated and included in the records become more relevant amidst the existing conflicts, especially regarding the characterization of the perpetrator and the summing up of connections between the different murders — “now that I have finished you and the other four…” —, connections that enhance the categorization of a serial killer. In similar fashion, it is less important whether Renato Humberto really felt hatred, repulse, disgust, or contempt by gay people and travestis, and more important the way in which these emotional feelings are attributed to him for the configuration of a “motive” narrative for the five homicides and Edmundo's attempted murder. Such entanglement between emotions, actions, and the perpetrator guarantees the making of “coherence”, as stated by Larissa Nadai (2016), capable of supporting “causality links”, “sufficient evidence of authorship” and the political processes of denouncing and claiming for rights and justice that these images of brutality assume.

Field notes:

12[July 20th, 2013, State Center for LGBT Rights, Downtown, João Pessoa — PB]. “I have already been the victim of policemen many times. Last time I was a victim, I was shot at close range, which has left me a scar on my leg until today. So, I have nothing good to say about the police” — Lua told me the story while showing the scars on her legs. Seated across from me in one of the rooms at the LGBT center in João Pessoa, the recorder between us, Lua remembered different instances of violence she had experienced or witnessed during the five years she worked as a prostitute on the streets of Paraíba’s capital, “pains and pleasures” — she tells me, “more pains than pleasures” — she explains. One of these episodes of violence, maybe the most physically damaging, started out with a flirtation. Lua had already started to leave the streets back then, keeping only a few regular clients that would seek her whenever they were interested, and she had become more and more engaged with the LGBT+ movement's initiatives that would end up giving her a professional occupation over time. That night, she had decided to go to a party promoted by the owner of a bar in her neighborhood. She was buying cigarettes when a uniformed police officer approached her, distancing himself from both women who were with him at the bar table: “he came up to me and said he’d leave those women at home, one of whom was his girlfriend, that he would drop her off at home, and when he came back, I was to give him a blow job, that he would cum in my mouth, and that he would do this and that.” Lua, however, did not like his approach, “the way he chose to flirt with me”. She felt offended, “it left me feeling really bad”, and she reacted: “shame on you, go be with your girlfriend, your woman over there, who by the way is really pretty, and you just left her there to come say such things to me”. She called him out and left. The police officer left the bar and came back right away. According to Lua, “he was blinded by rage”. He forcibly dragged her behind the bar, “started to rip off my clothes, I started to scream, he put his gun in one of my nostrils, he wanted to put it inside my mouth, passed it down on me, rubbing the weapon against my breasts. Then, when he arrived in my legs, he shot me at close range. Appalled by what Lua had just told me, I asked her whether the gun shot had been intentional. She confirmed it. And later explained that the policeman “had chosen the place to fire his gun and terrorized me.” The officer in uniform passed his gun on her face, “made me smell it, put it in my nose”, tried to put the gun into her mouth, “even cutting my mouth a little”, and then he took down the weapon, “and he was taking it down and down”, rubbing the gun against her body until reaching her thighs, “and when he reached my legs, he fired his gun twice here and there”. After the two shots, the policeman went back to his car, parked it on a street corner and turned back once again towards Lua, loading his gun, and shooting again. At the moment, a woman who had witnessed everything threw herself on top of Lua, “she was laying down on top of me, and I can only remember her whispering in my ear ‘don’t move, he’s still shooting’”. Once the gunshots were over, the women took Lua to the bar’s restroom, noticed the amount of blood, tied her bleeding leg with a shirt and left the place. The policeman, who had apparently loaded his gun once again, fired his gun three more times against the restroom’s door, but did not hit Lua. When she finally left the restroom after some time, Lua did not find anyone else at the bar.

Police violence, State, and degeneration

13Police violence is part of the daily experiences of sex workers, to the point that the issue is central to prostitutes’ movements (Olivar, 2012; Mello, 2016). Most typically, the police actions on street prostitution that can be called “violence” have to do with territorial management. They include, for instance, police raids, which were analyzed by Claudia Fonseca (1996), taking prostitutes off the streets of Porto Alegre to the police stations where they, even aware of not having committed any felony, ended up deciding to pay their bail in order to avoid a long bureaucracy that could interfere with their time and work. According to Lua’s memories of the streets at night, however, these actions had to do with the violation of rights. “At the time, I was a minor and, even then, I suffered many violations of my rights from police officers”.

14Lua tells me that she and other sisters were placed in front of the police cars with the headlights on “so that our vision would be blurred”, then thrown inside the car only to be taken back to the station, “just to put us through the embarrassment, to be moving us here and there, look at your sister, this thing is your sister”. For Lua, these actions from the police at times represented the interests of local businesses downtown, who wanted to get rid of the prostitution in certain areas. “There were a lot of encounters that happened right there on the streets, so there were traces of condoms, or something else in the following morning, which left people very dissatisfied”. At other times, the police action was tied to intensified processes of criminalization, which linked prostitution to property crimes, illicit drug use and its market.

15Therefore, in Lua’s memories, State agents acted against street prostitution through the urban territorial management, which allowed for the taming of maneuverable, coercible, and displaceable bodies, constituted by very precarious experiences in terms of class, and by unequal relations of gender, sexuality, and age — after all, as she says, “I was a minor”. In fact, following Lua’s account, this taming of bodies depended on the understanding that prostitution per se produced a scenario of “sexual degeneration”, as stated by McClintock (2010), which can be illustrated through the traces of condoms and their work left on the streets. However, these degenerate bodies became more available to police intervention as they were more closely tied to criminalization processes, of what Michel Misse (2010) called “criminal subjection”. In this sense, police violence against sex workers is similar to the violence routinely perpetrated in the outskirts of big Brazilian urban centers, a part of the constitution of the “urban violence” problem as an inexcusable justification for exercising control over deeply racialized subjects, bodies, and territories.

  • 9 During the interview, the chief of police refers to the travesti with male pronouns and presents he (...)

16Lua’s narrative on the night out at the bar in her neighborhood in João Pessoa, and an important part of the judicial narratives about the victims of the travestisserial killer from Carcarás converge, nevertheless, in an even more strict link between prostitution and police violence. Here, policemen are not external agents acting on a scenario of sexual degeneration and delinquencing: Renato Humberto de França and the police officer who shot Lua at the bar are meddled in this context. In an interview given to a local TV channel in Carcarás at the time of Renato Humberto’s arrest, in February 2012, the chief reported that he was only able to reach the suspects after conducting a “search with the travestis9 aiming at “telling apart the people who were frequently in the area”. Renato Humberto was one of these regulars, a “very assiduous regular of that place”, a “well-known person amongst the gay people that worked on the streets”, as highlighted by the state’s prosecutor in the filing of the lawsuit for Suzanita’s murder. Thus, according to what the bar's owner reported to Lua in the following day, that cop already had a reputation, and was well known by her and her clientele, “he was known to become aggressive after drinking, he would shoot his gun to the air, as if bragging “I’m a cop, I am in charge of the streets”.

17In the narratives on both of these cases of violence that I am hereby analyzing, therefore, policemen seem to exercise their sexuality, and act sexually upon the territories and bodies, so that sexuality does not emerge as an alterity to be contained — sex workers in the streets of João Pessoa and Carcarás —, but it consists of a primary or suspected link between victim and perpetrator. It is important to highlight that the phenomenon does not exclude the adjective “police” from the noun “violence”. The violence narrated by Lua is still police violence despite the perpetrator not being on duty at the time of the incident. Nevertheless, Lua only brought up the story after a specific question on the participation of policemen in the criminalization of prostitution. “Policemen are very cruel until today. I do not have a good reference to give you on the part of policemen, because everything I have experienced with them has been negative, (…) from solicitation to being approached on the streets, everything was inhumane”. The episode at the bar, thus, can be added to the other experiences Lua has had with the police. Even though it represents more explicitly an image of brutality, it is not isolated from her other experiences, it just reached a more extreme level.

18My perception of the imbrications between sexual practices and police violence, however, comes from the reading of Breno Marques de Mello (2019; 2016). From an ethnographic research conducted with the Association of Sex Workers from Paraíba, Mello had access to narratives of sex workers whose relationships with police officers — somewhat close clients, boyfriends, and husbands — put them under violent situations, such as beatings and rape, but also to sexual practices at first consensual, which became violent over time, including the use of police uniforms, weapons, cuffs, boots, batons, etc. Mello (2019; 2016) understands such instruments presented in these scenes as signs of power alluding to an aesthetics of the State that prevents us from differentiating, for instance, the police officer from the client (also a police officer) who pulls out his gun against the prostitute’s head during sex.

  • 10 Carcarás has approximately 108 thousand inhabitants.

19From the legal and public documents available on the “travestis’ serial killer case”, it cannot be said whether the sex workers and the other “regulars of the area” identified Renato Humberto as a cop — something that would not have been unlikely, given his alleged assiduousness and the dynamics and size of a town like Carcarás10.

20Nothing can be found in the documents regarding the possibility that a police officer may or may not have facilitated Renato Humberto’s access to his victims. However, the emergence of Renato Humberto’s gun narrative in the legal proceedings on the murder of Suzanita brings about difficult links to be ignored between police work and the violent act. While pressing the charges, the state’s prosecutor highlights as evidence of crime authorship, the Ballistic Report that had pointed out that “the investigated bullets had come out of a gun apprehend with the suspect”. But such links also come with the decision of sealing the lawsuits, as it was requested by the chief given that the suspect was a cop. He explained the situation during the seminar on May 23rd, 2017, suggesting that the police work could have hindered the investigations and provoked even more killings.

21Thus, the scene of the uniformed officer dragging Lua behind the bar, tearing up her clothes, and pressing his gun against her face after being rejected by her is filled with the signs of power discussed by Breno Mello (2019). At first, there is the uniform. “Think about it, a uniformed officer, having a beer at a bar, with his wife, carrying a gun (…) he was already wrong the moment he decided to have a beer while wearing his uniform, with the police uniform and a gun that also belonged to the police department”. According to Lua, the uniform evokes effects of power, which might have even been part of his sense of entitlement to flirt with her, and the following understanding of her rejection as something so inadmissible. But there is even more to that. There is also what had been known about him, the man who became aggressive after drinking, “that would fire his gun to the air, as if bragging “I’m a cop, I’m charge of the streets”. There is, in other words, a territorial management implied in exaggerated performances of masculinity. There is, furthermore, a belief in the impunity, part of the State processes that protect some of its agents.

22Those judicial narratives on the serial killer and Lua’s narrative on the police officer that approached her at a bar surface experiences of police violence whose recognition requires catching the perpetrator in the act. It is about taking the police work in its performativity, in a similar analysis conducted by Vianna and Lowenkron (2017) regarding the “double making of gender and the State”. The act of pulling out a gun and shooting Suzanita’s head, as well as the acts of dragging Lua, tearing up her clothes, and rubbing a gun against her face arise discursively as State actions — and that being said, not only because the weapons belonged to the police department. State processes take place profusely at their own margins, in the efforts to constitute borders, in the intersections of what is discursively constituted as lack or absence of the State. State processes even come out of that is produced against the State, in the engendering of delinquent bodies, territories, and subjects, liable to control (Efrem Filho, 2017b). Police violence and State violence take place at the same time sexual practices and policies are being made. These practices can be materialized in the headlights against a group of travestis detained in João Pessoa at night; or in a flirtation whose rejection on the part of a travesti is unequivocally inadmissible.

Violence, demeaning, and pleasure

23If the violence narratives I discuss here can be densely categorized as “police violence”, it is possible to argue that part of what has been constituted as “violence” is intimately linked to an understanding of the police work in the production of hierarchies, demeaning, and humiliation. This is certainly evident in Lua’s account on her encounters with cops, in which she and her friends were thrown in the back of police cars towards the station “just to put us through the embarrassment, to be moving us here and there, look at your sister, this thing is your sister.” Except for the incident at the bar, Lua did not report any other case of physical violence perpetrated by policemen against her. The violence she primarily identifies with them, “policemen are still cruel”, stems discursively from experiences of embarrassment, disrespect, humiliation, which, according to Everton Rangel (2020, p. 184), may operate either interpersonally or through technologies of the State.

24I do not intend to suggest that hierarchization, demeaning, and humiliation practices are synonymous with violence. As it has been widely discussed in a relevant bibliography on the subject, the constitution of violence requires moral investments that conceive them as such (Corrêa, 1983; Gregori, 1993; Simião, 2006; Cardoso de Oliveira, 2008). Humiliation, on its turn, is not always understood as violent by the perpetrators or those who are subjected by them (Díaz-Benites, 2019; 2015). By highlighting the relevance of hierarchization, demeaning, and humiliation practices in Lua’s account, I aim at, following Everton Rangel, identifying narrative contexts in which “both phenomena at stake exist in a relationship of dependence and demand forms of thinking about gender” (2020, p. 172). This is because the aforementioned understanding of the police work in the production of hierarchies, demeaning, and humiliation ends up being articulated through an anthropomorphized and masculinized state subject, materializable in the police officers described by Lua, something similar to what Vianna and Farias (2011) observed in the accounts by mothers and family members of State violence victims.

25In other words, Lua’s accounts underscore the presence of something related to the “State" and conversely to gender in regards to hierarchies, demeaning, and humiliation, and, therefore, something she perceives as violence. “We (policemen) are ourselves and that’s it. And they always saw us as the minority, as human garbage, as…”. The headlights, the trunk of the police car, the mocking at the station — “look at your sister, this is your sister” — would be performances of masculinity enacted by and enacting processes of production of authority and competence that do not fall very far from the “I’m a cop, I’m in charge of the streets” attitude attributed by Lua to the police officer who shot her at the bar. Thus, the link between State practices, gender performances, and demeaning is decisive in the apprehension of what is violent according to the analyzed narratives. This violence narratives, however, are intensified in images of brutality as they become more intimately connected to sexuality, sexual practices, and policies.

  • 11 BDSM is the acronym for bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism e masochism.

26This link between violence and sexuality is related to what Maria Filomena Gregori (2008) has called “limits of sexuality”, a borderland space in which norms and transgressions, consent and abuse, pleasure and pain, the tense relationship between pleasure and danger coexist. This limits are intensified, for instance, in conflicts in which subjects experience their sexuality through the ritualization of pain and suffering, as is the case for the BDSM community and sadomasochists11 discussed by Gregori (2016) and Regina Facchini (2008). These conflicts may embrace the ratification of moralities and the mobilization of sexual panics that identify certain “communities” as degenerate and violent, liable to being criminalized. Not surprisingly, according to Facchini and Machado (2013), the narratives given by the members of these communities emphasize notions of consent, consensuality, safety, freedom of choice, and disavowal of aggression in order to legitimize themselves and their pleasure, whose language is informed by the eroticization of hierarchies. Another example of the tense relationship between such limits of sexuality can be found in the practices of bizarre porn discussed by María Elvira Díaz-Benítez (2012). According to Díaz-Benítez, pornography involving animal sex is usually criticized for the lack of consensuality, which takes these practices to be categorized as illegal and so the members of these networks have to respond to their actions.

27Therefore, as Laura Lowenkron (2015) has observed, consent occupies a central role in the definition of what is legal and legitimate when it comes to sexual practices. It is linked to a “moral economy of pleasure” aimed at controlling and condemning violence and violation of rights instead of immorality (Lowenkron, 2015, p. 226). It is formed, then, alongside the notion of vulnerability, with current judicial regimens, the regulation of sexuality, and what’s constituted as violence. Thus, the aforementioned examples of tensions in the limits of sexuality provide a ratification of the value of consent for the experiencing of the so-called good exercise of sexuality as opposed to violence. However, if sexual pleasure is affirmed through the denial of consent, or the presence of vulnerabilities that prevent one of the parties to give consent; if the violence is what constitutes the pleasure, the limits of sexuality are dismantled and violence is conceived, according to Gregori, as “abusive actions liable to being socially and morally condemned as well as criminalized” (2008, p. 576).

28The suspicion of the presence of pleasure in violence is a relevant component in the images of brutality present in the accounts regarding the “travestisserial killer case”, as well as the violence experienced by Lua that night at a bar. In these narratives, the suspicion of pleasure is a catalyst of brutalization. As I have argued before, the scene of violence against Lua takes place only after she rejected her perpetrator. It is an act of revenge, retaliation, and a punitive measure. The series of events, nevertheless, suggests pleasure through the performance of a demeaning practice that reaches its peak when both gunshots are fired. The uniformed police officer sexualized the violent act. According to Lua, the cop “chose exactly where to shoot”, but before doing so “terrorized me”. Such terrorizing corresponds to an erotic ritualization of the production of fear, hierarchy, and humiliation. In Lua’s words, after all, the cop did not simply take her behind the bar and shot her. He did more than that: “started to tear up my clothes, I started to scream, he put his gun in one of my nostrils, wanted to put it inside my mouth, went through me and rubbed it against my breasts”.

29Here, the tearing of her clothes per se suggests sexual violence. While I listened to her account at the LGBT center in João Pessoa, I thought Lua was about to describe a rape scene. Afterwards, however, the arbitrary stripping down opens space for the exercise of a liturgy in which the gun’s trajectory — or the phallus — through her body, penetrating her, subjected, demeaned, and humiliated her. All of these actions precede an attempted murder that is initiated by the gunshots against her legs, which is only not finalized because another woman protected her, taking her to the restroom. In any case, what I believe needs to be highlighted is that the borders between sexual violence and lethal violence are extremely loose in Lua’s account, which somehow stems from the discursive markers of demeaning and humiliation — or, according to Díaz-Benítez (2015), “extreme humiliation practices” — suggesting pleasure in the violent act. The prominence of these humiliation practices in Lua's narratives leads me to seriously take into account the following insight by Díaz-Benítez in her studies on violence and eroticism:

  • 12 Free translation from the Portuguese original: Levando em conta que as novas formas de erotismo col (...)

Taking into consideration that the new forms of eroticism place consent as the legitimate basis to realize and legitimize practices, and that much of what is understood by sexual rights come from this assumption, would it be interesting to reflect upon the double pleasure/violence outside the limits of consent?12 (Díaz-Benítez, 2015, p. 66).

30As stated before, I believe that the insinuation of pleasure is productive in violence narratives because they make up the unacceptable, the absurd, the monstrous, the images of brutality activated for the struggles for policies against violence, for justice in certain cases and criminalization and accountability of the perpetrators. This is what can be seen in the legal reports on Suzanita’s murder, the alleged third victim of the travestisserial killer case. Just like in Lua’s account, these documental narratives suggest possible contact zones between violence and pleasure. Even though there are no records of any sexual relations between Renato Humberto de França and his victims, while pressing charges, the prosecutor implies that, since Renato Humberto was “an assiduous regular of the place” and “well known by the gay people that worked on the streets there”, the victims were “lured” by him “to the place where they were executed”. I believe that, given its ambiguities and multiple meanings, the word “lure” employed by the prosecutor can be placed in the constitution of these zones between pleasure and violence.

31I have argued elsewhere that the emergence of a narrative of “seduction” may suggest eroticism, desire, and sexuality, as well as fraud and deceit (Efrem Filho, Souza Júnior, and Leite, 2020). Looking at the eroticism at stake here, one is to deal with the image of a murderer whose sexuality is directly linked to the crimes, a “maniac” who, according to Cilmara Veiga, sees himself in “a relational interface between violence and gender” (2018, p. 181). Thus, given the fraud at hand, a Machiavellian subject is characterized, one who is punishable and accountable for his actions, someone absolutely capable of intending to eliminate all the “remaining sluts, dykes, and faggots” from Carcarás. This ambiguity between eroticism and fraud regarding an “assiduous regular” in the streets where travestis and gay people work brings about questions regarding Renato Humberto de França’s desires.

32This is because the mere suggestion of pleasure and luring ends up activating the idea of desire for the perpetrator. The legal records regarding Suzanita’s murder and the other public documents related to the “travestisserial killer case” potentialize the questions around the police officer’s sexuality: after all, was Renato Humberto “well known amongst the gay people who worked there” because he was a client? Did he lure his victims because he sexually desired them?; What would be the sexual identity of Renato Humberto, married to Linalva de França, father of three children?

33In the narratives around the case, these questions regarding Renato Humberto de França’s sexuality correspond to the questions around the identity of his victims. In some cases, the victims are generically identified as homosexuals. Other times, they are described as travestis, or homosexuals and travestis. Besides, even though all of the serial killer’s hypothetical victims were sex workers on the streets, there are narratives in which prostitute is added to travestis and homosexuals — which seems to have happened because of Suzanita, the only cisgender woman among the victims who is not identifies as travesti or homosexual. Except for Suzanita, all the other victims were identified as male at birth and are recurrently cited, in the legal proceedings and records, by the male names stated in their documents.

  • 13 According to the chief, the Carcarás serial killer’s six victims were, in order: 01) Alisson Marque (...)

34At that May 23rd, 2017, seminar in the police station auditorium, the chief that conducted the investigation projected an image on a white screen in front of the audience that he called “a timeline” of the deaths13. This timeline had the names, and black and white photos (some of which were copies from their ID cards) of the five lethal victims. Next to the document name of four of the victims, one could find, in parenthesis, “nicknames” or “aliases”, to use the language of police investigations and legal proceedings. Next to Suzanita’s ID photo, for instance, there was “Suzana (Suzanita).” For other three victims with male names, there were other names in parenthesis. Two of them were female, Lela and Lígia, one of them alluded to the name of a very popular candy, Xaxá — ambiguous in terms of gender identity. Only the first lethal victim, Alisson Marques, is presented just with their document name.

  • 14 Lígia’s body was the only one without a shot on the base of her skull, but a gunshot on her chest. (...)

35As soon as I started to read the documental narratives, the first impression I had on such confusion regarding names and gender identities was that the chief, prosecutor, police officers, and journalists had very little to no knowledge of the LGBTI+ repertoire mobilized by the social movement, left wing sectors, the field of gender and sexuality studies, and the State bureaus working directly with human rights language and policies. Thus, in the narratives about the “serial killer case,” homosexual victims, travestis, and prostitutes end up constituting an indistinct mass, marked by the victimization and the gunshots at the base of the skull — the so-called killer’s signature14. Even though my first impression remains very much present, given its verisimilitude, a closer contact with documental and judicial narratives on the killings of the LGBT community has offered me different perspectives as well.

36As a rule, according to Mariana Melo (2020) in a recent research on LGBT homicides in Paraíba, the state management of these murders usually requires a certain framing of such violences, which authorizes police, judicial, and governmental agents to constitute identities and control bodies. Therefore, as previously stated by a vast literature on the theme, processes of claiming rights, struggles for justice, legitimization of victims, and punishment for perpetrators tend to require a victimizable subject of rights, with a well-defined identity, both morally and normatively (França, 2017; Efrem Filho, 2017a; Freire, 2016).

37However, my understanding after dealing with lawsuits regarding LGBT killings is that these judicial narratives constitute identities and materialize bodies while framing a scenario of sexual degeneration and delinquency that blurs the status of victims and perpetrators (Efrem Filho e Gomes, 2020; Efrem Filho, 2016). The phenomenon can be observed in the documents related to the “travestisserial killer case”, which seem to reproduce what had been reported by Lua. In these documents, questions around names, gender identities, and the sexual practices of victims and perpetrators are catalysts of degeneration.

Violence, sexuality and desire

  • 15 It is not an aim of the present work to explore the issues around this interpretation. It is import (...)

38Here, what Fabíola said to me precisely after the seminar in May 2017 takes a central role: “Professor, a case like this must be very interesting to study, no? The man kills because he cannot accept himself. It is awful. It is internalized homophobia.” This statement is indicative of a very common trend amongst debates on LGBTphobia: the theory of self-hatred and the repression of one’s own sexual desires that would lead to discriminatory practices, prejudice, and violence against those who would in fact embody the desires of the repressed15. What Fabíola seemed to be declaring is that Renato Humberto de França was just as gay as his victims, but that the feelings of repulse he felt about himself led him to violence and, ultimately, the serial murders. Fabíola attributed to the cop a “disgust about himself”, an emotion that would imply the acknowledgment that something in the body of the perpetrator contains the very characteristic of being scornful, but whose causes could be moral or physical, as explained by Díaz-Benítez (2019) in her study with former porn actresses and their perception of themselves.

39The attribution of emotional feelings such as aversion and self-aversion, repulse and self-repulse, disgust and self-disgust, to the serial killers constitutes the perpetrator’s narrative as I have discussed at the beginning of this article. It also works, therefore, as a component of an exceptional character, whose monstrous acts include violent acts that are also read as exceptional, contrary to the human condition. Even though this perpetrator operates multiple meanings in the judicial records and in the “case”, widely speaking, providing a guilty party and motive for the killings, its villain story telling hides State processes and extremely unequal social relations that enabled the murders in Carcarás in the first place, just as much as the account of violence and humiliation described by Lua during our interview at the LGBT center in July 2013.

40The travestis and homosexuals allegedly victimized by the serial killer shared more than the gunshots fired against their heads, and the disposal of their bodies at the Campo da Bagaceira. They also shared experiences of class, racialization, territorialization, generation, gender, and sexuality that were very similar, even similar to those described and lived by Lua and her sisters years ago. Such similarities can be expressed, for instance, in their activities as sexual workers in the streets of Carcarás and João Pessoa, as well as in their potential exposure to violence, criminalization, and humiliation. In the intersections of these experiences, transphobia and homophobia cannot be simply explained by the figure of the serial killer. Nor would they be clarified by his conviction, since, in fact, he was not.

  • 16 He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for aggravated attempted second-degree murder. The jury’s ve (...)
  • 17 On February 8, 2012, police officers raided Renato Humberto de França’s home with a search and arre (...)

41Renato Humberto de França was only convicted for the attempted murder against Edmundo16 and for illegal possession of a gun with restricted use17. In the judicial records regarding the murders of Alisson Marques, Lela, Lígia, and Xaxá, the court issued a mistrial, probably due to claims of lack of “sufficient evidence of authorship,” which means Renato Humberto did not even stand in front of a grand jury. While I finish writing this paper, in January 2021, the lawsuit regarding Suzanita’s murder is still in motion. Suzanita was killed almost ten years ago on July 21st 2011. As it can be noted, then, the judicial outcomes have opposed the characterization of the serial killer. After all, the conviction of one attempted murder does not a serial killer make.

42However, the exceptionality of the serial killer narrative, as well as the hypothesis raised by Fabíola, that the motive behind the violent acts could be explained by a frustrated sexuality, are extremely controversial at least for one more reason. Besides masking social inequalities and State processes that promote conditions for vulnerability, let alone the apparent lack of evidence to convince a judge, they place homosexuality as the origin of the problem, lost in the limits of sexuality, ratifying the inadmissibility of the links between violence, pleasure, and desire. What I would like to argue, first and foremost, is that identifying the root of violence in a frustrated sexuality or “self-aversion” ends up holding homosexuality — its aversion and horror, etc. — accountable for the violence itself.

43In the end, it reproduces the understanding of the homosexual subject as someone who can be explained through their sexuality, unimaginable outside or beyond its limits. The phenomenon was discussed by Foucault (2010) in his work on the relationship between the creation of medical sciences and the homosexual identity.

44Even if, hypothetically, the suspicions and doubts raised by the judicial records about his sexuality were proved, even if Renato Humberto de França “came out” in public, admitting a hidden homosexuality experienced on the down low at the Campo da Bagaceira, attributing a frustrated homosexuality as the motive for his violent acts — as an internalized form of homophobia or any other reasons — foreshadows the moral (and political) incapability of recognizing that people may desire violence, humiliation, and demeaning others. Besides, it presupposes the political (and moral) incapability of recognizing that certain practices by State agents constantly operate violent acts and humiliation practices through a language of gender and sexuality. The desire and pleasure for violence and demeaning are, after all, dimensions of State processes and relations of inequalities, as well as the ways in which subjects are constituted while experiencing and producing these acts. They are not natural human expressions, but they are formed by social hierarchies that, when involving violence and oppression, must be fought against. This is what LGBTI+ activists do when they use the term LGBTphobia and make reports listing the names of the victims. Dealing with contradictions, they bring about images of brutality in order to tackle the issue of violence, so that it will not be repeated in the future.

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1 The word travesti will be used instead of a translation into English. I believe the Portuguese term carries specificities to the Brazilian context that cannot be properly conveyed with any English counterpart. The term will be italicized throughout the text.

2 In this text, some names have been fictionalized and are in italics. Certain terms and emic categories that are under erasure, and which may be the object of further criticism, such as homophobia and travesti are also in italics. Direct citations and other longer expressions and emic categories were included between quotation marks, such as “the travestis’ serial killer case”.

3 LGBT, LGBTI+, LGBTQI+ and their variants refer to the acronyms regarding lesbians, gays, bisexuals, travestis, trans women, trans men, queers, non-binary, intersex, as well as any other gender or sexual identities and expressions. In this context, I am utilizing the acronym LGBT to follow the corpus of my research. For further discussions on the political issues raised by these acronyms and the identities they represent, please see: Facchini (2005) and Aguião (2016).

4 LGBTphobia, transphobia, homophobia, etc. are used here as emic categories that are recurrent in the LGBT movement repertoire and the subjects that move through its “field” or “arena” (Facchini, 2005). Generally speaking, these expressions refer to discriminatory, prejudicial, and violent experiences lived by the LGBTI+ community. However, I understand them as “forms of intelligibility” that shed light on the ways in which gender and sexuality operate in experiences of vulnerability, being conversely constituted by relations of class, generation, racialization, and territory (Efrem Filho, 2017b).

5 In the corpus analyzed here, the expression homophobia is usually used to talk about violences experienced by any member of the LGBTI+ community. Nowadays, however, these cases would probably have been described as transphobic.

6 This statement, uttered by the chief of police during the May 23rd, 2017, seminar, is also present in the filing of the charges that initiated the criminal lawsuit regarding Suzanita’s murder.

7 The project entitled “Disputas acerca da vítima: conflitos e materializações nas narratives judiciais sobre mortes de LGBT”, approved by the DCJ/UFPB and filed under the codes PIH9380-2017 and PVH820-2018 included the participation of seven undergraduate students and was sponsored by two research scholarships from CNPq. For partial results of this project, please see: Efrem Filho; Gomes, 2020; Efrem Filho, Souza Júnior Leite, 2020.

8 The sealing of records is stated in the article 155 of the Civil Process Code and must be granted, for instance, in the “name of public interest”. I understand the public interest in the “travestis’ serial killer case” is linked to the fact that the suspect was a police officer. It is not clear, however, why the judicial records regarding Suzanita’s murder have not been sealed as well.

9 During the interview, the chief of police refers to the travesti with male pronouns and presents her name registered at birth, a practice that is recurrent in legal proceedings and journalistic pieces on the “case”.

10 Carcarás has approximately 108 thousand inhabitants.

11 BDSM is the acronym for bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism e masochism.

12 Free translation from the Portuguese original: Levando em conta que as novas formas de erotismo colocam o consentimento como base legítima para a realização e a legitimação das práticas e que muito do que se entende por direitos sexuais parte deste pressuposto, interessaria pensar na dupla prazer/violência para além da chave do consentimento? (Díaz-Benítez, 2015, p. 66).

13 According to the chief, the Carcarás serial killer’s six victims were, in order: 01) Alisson Marques, killed on 14, 2010; 02) Lela, killed on October 4, 2010; 03) Suzanita, killed on July 21, 2011; 04) Edmundo, victim of attempted murder on September 1st, 2011; 05) Lígia, killed on October 16, 2011; and 06) Xaxá, killed on December 8, 2011.

14 Lígia’s body was the only one without a shot on the base of her skull, but a gunshot on her chest. According to the chief’s explanation in the seminar, this change in modus operandi led him not to include her amongst the probable serial killer’s victims. Thus, in the filing of charges for Suzanita’s murder presented by the prosecutor in April 2013, Lígia’s name is not listed. Other evidence, such as the time and place of the homicide and witnesses’ testimonies, ended up changing the chief’s initial position and Lígia was included amongst the victims.

15 It is not an aim of the present work to explore the issues around this interpretation. It is important to highlight though that the notion of “internalized homophobia” appears in scientific circles at psychology departments. Antunes (2016)’s doctoral dissertation is an example of this debate.

16 He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for aggravated attempted second-degree murder. The jury’s verdict was confirmed by judges from Paraíba’s Court of Justice.

17 On February 8, 2012, police officers raided Renato Humberto de França’s home with a search and arrest warrant, finding, in a drawer inside his bedroom, accessories and ammunition for restricted use that had not been authorized for him. A firearm was also apprehended with him at the time. This crime is listed in the article 16 from the 2003/10.826 law.

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Para citar este artigo

Referência do documento impresso

Roberto Efrem Filho, «Shot at close range: demeaning, pleasure, and desire in cases of police violence against travestis»Anuário Antropológico, v.46 n.3 | -1, 49-66.

Referência eletrónica

Roberto Efrem Filho, «Shot at close range: demeaning, pleasure, and desire in cases of police violence against travestis»Anuário Antropológico [Online], v.46 n.3 | 2021, posto online no dia 28 setembro 2021, consultado o 20 janeiro 2022. URL:; DOI:

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Roberto Efrem Filho

Universidade Federal da Paraíba - Brasil

Professor at UFPB (Santa Rita, PB) in the Legal Sciences Department and at the Graduate School of Anthropology at UFPE (Recife, PE). Doctor in Social Sciences by Unicamp, BA and Master’s degrees in Law from UFPE.



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