Identification, identity, and sexuality in Brazil (2/5 blog on youth & ID for UNICEF)

Savita Bailur, Cecília Peres, and Hélène Smertnik

This blog is one of five blogs from our work on children and the tension between identification and identity in a digital age. Other blogs include:

  • Identification and identity for children in a digital age
  • Financial inclusion, identification and identity for children in Kenya
  • Refugee identification and identity for children in Lebanon
  • Biometric identification and identity for children in Thailand
Bianca talking about her experience of identification and identity. Photo credit: S. Bailur.

“My national ID says my name is Rodrigo, but on my school card and Facebook, I have my social name — I am Bianca. I was told I couldn’t change my official name until I was 18. I had to live with this name and formal identity all through school. I went to the registrar as soon as I could after my 18th birthday, but they said I had to have a body examination or a letter from a psychologist to change my name. Then I can only change everything else after I change my birth certificate.”

At Caribou Digital, with the support of UNICEF, we undertook a multi-country research study to understand the interplay and challenges of identification, identity, and digital ID for children in their journey to adulthood, from 0 to 18 years old, especially for emerging economies in a digital age. To do so, we conducted fieldwork in four countries: Brazil (which we discuss here), Kenya, Lebanon, and Thailand. Each country surfaced a different theme — in Kenya we saw the consequences of early and informal financial inclusion due to the high penetration of M-PESA; in Thailand we saw how children and youth experience biometric identification; and in Lebanon we examined the tensions in the identity-making of refugee children.

In Brazil, one theme was the perceptible conflict between sexual identities in the making and the static identification given at birth. For some, there is a gap between the identification issued at birth and a child’s evolving sense of their own gender/sexual identity, and our research in the South American nation uncovered evidence of how children and adolescents struggle to bridge this gap.

The graphic below maps a Brazilian child’s accumulation of ID credentials as well as personal data, from childhood to adulthood. ID credentials are represented by the solid grey blocks, divided by development age ranges. These credentials are both legal, such as a birth certificate, and non-legal, such a Facebook account. The floating dots illustrate the child’s personally identifiable information (PII) as it expands over time (e.g. a date of birth, a password, or a Google search). By the time a child reaches 18, a huge amount of PII is available on them.

Identification, identity and digital ID for children between 0 and 18 in Brazil

Visual developed with UNICEF.

We began each focus group with older youth (14–18) in Brazil by asking if they could say what kind of identifiers would be acceptable on a digital national ID (a digital version of the “carteira de identidade”, or RG) and what wouldn’t. In one focus group, youth felt that a digital ID could have the following:

A focus group exercise on what data is acceptable to include on a national ID. Photo credit: S. Bailur.

In the photo above, youth were comfortable with identifiers of name, signature, birth place, birth date, blood type, passport number, profession, gender, race, photograph, tax number, and parents’ names. On the other hand, they were less comfortable with identifiers such as a landline or mobile phone number, bank account, political affiliations, allergies/vaccines, whether you were eligible for social security, criminal record, religion, purchase history, and absolutely any connections to social media. While we will not go into detail on this distinction here, there is a clear desire to keep social media (construction of one’s identity) separate from identification.

A focus group exercise on what is not acceptable on a national ID. Photo credit: S. Bailur.

Waiting until 18 for one’s identity

Bianca’s experience and the quotation that began this blog captures the tension between identification and identity. Bianca was an 18-year-old transgender woman we met in the town of Gravatá in northeastern Brazil. She told us “I knew who I was at 13. I came out at 13 … it was like a stab wound for my mother. My father never accepted it. But I saw myself and I see myself as a girl, then a woman. I am a woman. I left my home at 13 and left school at 15 and now I try to earn a living as a cleaner. I hate my deep voice and my facial hair.”

Bianca knew she was Bianca at 13, but on all her formal identification she had always been Rodrigo. In March 2018, Brazil’s Supreme Court (STF) ruled that transgender citizens above 18 years old could alter their names and gender on their birth certificates without previous obstacles such as reassignment surgery, court order, or medical clearance. All they needed to do from now on is simply take the required documents to the registrar and proceed with the desired changes. However, they have to change their birth certificates, a sometimes lengthy process, before they can change virtually any other document.

We met Bianca and “Frida” (below) in a poorer neighborhood of Gravatá in northeastern Brazil. Photo credit: S. Bailur.

Reconciling legal and social name (identification and identity) is challenging

Bianca’s chosen name is what Brazilians formally call the social name (nome social) — i.e. the one by which transgender individuals are socially identified, which can legally replace the name given at birth on the documents issued by the Brazilian government once an individual has turned 18 years old. The Supreme Court’s 2018 decision allowing for legal name changes was an important step towards expanding freedom of expression and mitigating the social exclusion experienced by one of Brazil’s most marginalized groups.

Nonetheless, when Bianca tried to legally change her name and gender, she was told that a binding medical examination was still applicable — a harsh blow to her identification journey. “Doctors define your identity,” she said. Bianca has a voter ID (título de eleitora), her national ID card (carteira de identidade, or RG), her birth certificate, her SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde, Brazil’s Unified [Public] Health System) card, her taxpayer ID card (Cadastro de Pessoa Física, or CPF) and work permit card (carteira de trabalho) — all but one of these names Bianca as “Rodrigo”. All Brazilian citizens are eligible for these credentials, though several interviewees from our higher income demographics were unaware of the SUS (public health card). Importantly, Bianca doesn’t identify with all of these identification credentials in the same way. Of all her identification credentials she identifies most strongly with her voter ID which lists her social name and has no picture.

“I hate situations in public establishments because I say my name which is different from the one public workers see on my ID documents. And the picture on ID documents is so different from how I look in person. They have a hard time accepting my social name and won’t type it down/write it on papers (for example, at the hospital, on a medical report). So every time I have to think — who am I? I found it wonderful because at 13 I could be whoever I wanted to be on social media — I can type any name.” As an illustration of how little Bianca identifies with her legal name and how she asserts her identity, she carries a copy of Presidential Decree No 8.727 or the “social name decree”, inside her purse wherever she goes in case she needs to prove that she has the right to be called Bianca.

Other individuals in focus groups with LGBTQ groups confirmed that Brazilian identity credentials issued at birth became either hated or just irrelevant because details could not be changed until the age of 18: “I hate looking at my birth certificate”,said one respondent. Another recounted how hard his mother fought to assert his right and change his credentials. A third teenager said they didn’t identify with either male or female genders and left forms blank when gender-neutral or “prefer not to say” options were unavailable.

Theo is proud of his social name on the SUS card. Photo credit: S. Bailur.

When your identity is taken out of context and used against you

The digital age exacerbates the tensions between identification and identity for LGBTQ groups, especially in more conserative cultures. Marwick and Boyd wrote famously on concerns of social media context collapse (“all my friends can see everything”) and strategies pursued by teenagers. Duguay writes about LGBTQ youth in the United Kingdom who perform carefully on social media to separate their worlds. Finally, Dhoest and Szulc also write about first and second generation LGBTQ immigrants as well as “sexual refugees” (who were previously persecuted on the basis of their sexuality) in Belgium, and develop ways of demarcating their sexual identities from their other identities when they want/need to keep their sexual identity separate.

In emerging contexts, the less savvy may be at risk if they don’t know how to navigate these worlds. One example in Gravatá was of “Frida”. Frida is a gay 18 year old. When he was around 14 he decided to come out. He took a picture of himself dressed as Frida Kahlo and posted it on Instagram (as shown in the photo). A few weeks later he applied for a job, advertised on Instagram, as a retail assistant and was offered the position. A few days after that, his boss’s wife called him and told him not to bother coming in. He was sure it was because she was a strict Pentecostal Christian, searched back through his profile, and found this photo. He knows the position was then filled by someone else. Frida had not expected his identity to be taken out of context or that the signals he was giving out in a social context would be used against him … as identification.

“Frida”’s Instagram photo which he feels was used against him. Photo credit: S. Bailur.


Obviously, not all LGBTQ youth are unaware of how to navigate the tensions and consequences of identification/identity. However, we have found that all children and youth are navigating the choppy waters of identity-making, and in some contexts, these social identities may be used against them as identification (see, for example, the case of financial identity in Kenya or refugee identity in Lebanon) because they don’t understand the full ramifications. Sexuality is one another way that social identities can serve as a vector for discrimination.

Discovering one’s sexuality in childhood is always fraught with challenges. However, in this digital age, where children grow up quickly and are also more vulnerable, we suggest a few things:

  • While respecting that a minimum legal age for changing identification credentials remains 18, anyone interacting with an LGBTQ youth should recognise and respect social names. In many countries, for example, a natural way to begin a conversation after an introduction might be “what would you like to be called?” Or “can I call you ‘x’”.
  • Children undoubtedly need digital literacy education. Those coming out may need to be made more aware of privacy and context collapse without compromising their exploration. Social media platforms should play a key role here in being more transparent to children and youth about how data is used, “friends” are suggested, and so on.
  • Parents, guardians, (older) family relatives, teachers, medical professionals, NGOs all need to help LGBTQ youth in identification/identity overlaps and challenges, especially from the age of 11 to 13, when many of the respondents said they were becoming aware of their sexuality.
  • Laws on identification must be observed at the local level. A Presidential Decree (№8.727), stating that the social name must be respected, already exists in Brazil, and the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a simpler social name adoption process (no longer requiring medical examinations at 18). However, the fact that Bianca was unaware of this shows her own lack of knowledge, or at least that of the person(s) she spoke to. Although registrars across the country are legally required to respect the Presidential Decree, they still add obstacles, whether out of ignorance or prejudice. Municipalities (where street-level bureaucrats are most in contact with citizens) must raise awareness about the rights of transgender citizens, including with regard to identification and identity. This would mean cooperation between the mayor, the city representatives, the municipal secretaries of justice/human rights, and so on, to make these formal decisions known and demand they be respected.
  • Finally, we must push for legislation and accountability when PII data (identification) is taken out of context to punish or discriminate against those under 18 who are coming to terms with their identity.


This qualitative research was conducted over two weeks in July 2018. During our field work, we focused on Recife, Brazil’s fourth largest city in the northern state of Pernambuco, and the smaller town of Gravatá, an hour from Recife. We interviewed a total of 80 respondents through focus groups and interviews. These included accompanied children (11 to 14), youth (15 to 20), parents, caregivers, youth, frontline workers (school heads and teachers, health workers, NGO representatives), and government experts.

We were particularly aware of the complexity of talking about ID with children and youth and underwent a comprehensive UNICEF Ethics Board review prior to beginning fieldwork. We also made sure to create a friendly, non-intimidating atmosphere with the usual contract of anonymity. We were very grateful for the time and attention that children, youth, families, and officials gave us.

We would like to thank UNICEF Brazil (both in Recife and Brasília) for all their help. Finally, our sincere thanks to our Research Assistant, Cecília Peres, for her support, coordinating the field research, recruiting respondents, interpreting interviews and focus groups, and transcribing these over the two weeks.

In addition to the above, we are very grateful to Jonathan Donner (Caribou Digital) and the UNICEF team for feedback. These blogs represent our views and not those of UNICEF.

Author: Savita Bailur

I’m a researcher in digital development. Currently a Research Director at Caribou Digital and Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. Previous experience includes USAID, World Bank, Commonwealth Secretariat, World Wide Web Foundation, mySociety, Microsoft Research India and University of Manchester (lectureship).

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