While much of the world basked in the peaceful and characteristically vibrant celebrations that marked Pride 2016, there can be no denying that this has been a turbulent year for LGBTQ communities; and nowhere more so than in the Americas.
The world looked on in horror in June, as a lone gunman stormed a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida killing 49 people and injuring many more – the single worst mass shooting in US history. Not even progressive, ever-popular Canadian President Justin Trudeau’s smiles and waves at Toronto’s Pride event could paper over the cracks this time.
Now, as the Olympic Games approach, the spotlight has fallen once more on Brazil. To the outside world, the country has long shown itself to be a Utopian society built on the firm foundations of happiness, tolerance and equality: a place that embraces, even celebrates its diversity – with anyone and everyone being accepted.
But in terms of LGBTQ rights, is this really the case?
By rule of law at least, Brazil is progressive in its commitment to equal rights. In 2003, Brazil became the first Latin American nation to recognize same-sex unions for the purposes of immigration and was among the earliest to allow gay couples to adopt children. Legal recognition of trans individuals’ gender identity has been legal since 2009 (not in itself a rarity in Latin America, as Colombia and Mexico – among others – have equality laws, while Argentina leads the way with the most progressive and least-bureaucratic legislation in the region). The most common measure of LGBTQ rights, same-sex marriage, was legalized in 2013, granting gay and lesbian couples the same rights as heterosexuals.
The very same foundations that define the Brazilian progressive stereotype are coming into question though, as a worrying trend has begun to emerge. Violence against members of the LGBTQ community has risen dramatically over the last year in a country as part of a wave of intense political and social unrest.
21-year-old Gabriel Figueira Lima was murdered on a street corner in the Amazonian city of Manaus in June. Teachers Edivaldo Silva de Oliveira and Jeovan Bandeira were killed in the state of Bahia, while Wellington Júlio de Castro Mendonça was found dead in Olaria. Besides their innocence, the only connecting factor between the victims was their gender or sexual identity.
As far back as 2013, activist website LGBTQ Nation reported that 44% of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes worldwide took place in Brazil. In 2015, the Los Angeles Times claimed that in Brazil roughly one person was killed every day in a homophobic or transphobic attack. LGBTQ organization Grupo Gay da Bahia estimates that nearly 1,600 people have died in hate-motivated attacks over the past four and half years.
The figures make for grim reading, and leave many questioning the safety of LGBTQ tourists visiting Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Olympics. While street crime has risen 24 percent this year alone and homicides have increased by more than 15 percent, the answer is likely ‘yes’. Despite fears over funding, preparation and planning on the part of Rio’s police force, there is likely to be little trouble, as was the case at the World Cup in 2016.
38-year old Itamar Matos was one of Brazil’s first openly gay policemen. His story is one that bridges the gap between the machista (chauvinistic) world of Brazil’s police force and the LGBTQ community; while giving hope that the two can certainly mix.
Coming into the police from a devout Christian family, Matos initially found life difficult having always known that he was different. In 1999, he came out to those closest to him and was delighted to find that little changed – in fact, those closest to him if anything became closer. Having completed twenty years of service this year, the message he wants to convey to his compatriots is that; “yes, it is possible to be gay and to serve in the Military Police. I want to break down the misconception that police work and sexual orientation are incompatible.”
While his own experience and the hope that he brings with him can only be a good thing, he is nonetheless concerned by the current situation in Brazil. “In the current global climate of hate, fundamentalism and intolerance, Brazil has not gone untouched. Here, shameless homophobia has become more evident. For some people, using homophobic insults has become a matter of pride, and this is extremely worrying.”
Of course, one has only to spend a few days in Brazil to experience the polarity caused by gender and sexuality which Matos describes. On one side of a street, transgender people can happily coexist with fellow Brazilians; while on the other, machista culture is alive and well, and groups of young men address one another with homophobic slurs such as ‘viado’ (faggot) in carefree conversation.
Homophobia in this form has long been a part of Brazilian (indeed, Latin American) society – whether intended to cause offence or not. What is new to the debate, however, is its presence in politics.
Notoriously poisonous Congressman Jair Bolsonaro of the Partido Social Cristão (Social Christian Party), or PSC – who has already been branded “Brazil’s Donald Trump”, is the country’s fiercely right-wing 2018 pre-presidential candidate.
He publicly supports the military dictatorship the country endured from 1964 until 1985, and recently told a congressional contemporary, Maria do Rosario: “a few days ago you called me a rapist… I wouldn’t rape you because you’re not worthy of it,” before bragging about the incident on Twitter.
Regardless of his appallingly racist and chauvinistic views, it is his unapologetic homophobia that is perhaps his most infamous ‘trait’. In 2011, Bolsonaro claimed that he would rather have his son die in a car accident than be gay; he has compared same-sex marriage to paedophilia; and once even encouraged the physical abuse of children believed to be gay.
Despite all of this, in April this year, Bolsonaro was polling fourth among the presumed candidates for the presidency according to pollster Datafolha – twice the approval rating he had in December 2015.
However, for all the intolerance and darkness that Bolsonaro represents, there is a ray of light in Brazilian politics. As the country’s only openly gay congressman, Jean Wyllys represents the antidote to Bolsonaro’s venom, and their various altercations have attracted extensive media coverage.
During the congressional impeachment vote however, Wyllys let his emotions get the better of him and spat in Bolsonaro’s face when the latter provoked him with homophobic language. Further footage shows Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, spitting towards his father’s fellow deputy in an apparent act of retaliation. Wyllys later said that he would do it again “as many times as were necessary.”
While it is difficult to foresee Bolsonaro coming to power, who would have predicted the looming rise of Donald Trump just a few years ago? A global shift is undoubtedly occurring, and Bolsonaro could yet find himself at the vanguard of the left-to-right swing which has already found traction in Latin America as the ‘Pink Tide’ recedes.
It would mean a lot of good work undone for Brazil should he come to power, and not least for the country’s sizeable LGBTQ population. Who knows, perhaps by 2018 Donald Trump could be seated opposite Jair Bolsonaro at the top table of global diplomacy, and the once-progressive topic of LGBTQ relations in Brazil will have to be revisited once more.
In the present, the Olympics are more likely to showcase Brazil’s infamous outward image; a happy and fun place to enjoy this festival of sport. The truth, as we know, is that homophobia and hatred will bubble beneath the surface, and the LGBTQ community’s struggle will resume when the global circus rolls out of town on 21 August.
A 24 hour, state-sponsored hotline is available for tourists (and residents) in Rio de Janeiro for those who encounter homophobic abuse.
Call: 0800 0234567
Or visit http://www.riosemhomofobia.rj.gov.br for more information.