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What Brazil’s election of the far-right’s Bolsonaro means for LGBTQ people

‘Bolsonaro has used LGBTQ+ people as scapegoats throughout his political career – we don’t know if we will be political targets or just targets on the street’

“Brazil is not the easiest country for LGBT+ people. It is fairly challenging but, up to now, it was viable,” explains Brazilian LGBT+ activist Leandro Ramos. “But hate has now come out of the closet in Brazil.”

Leandro works as a Program manager for All Out, an international organisation that creates mobilisation campaigns to protect and advance LGBT+ rights across the world. Based in Brazil, Leandro’s work spans across the globe. Following the election of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, his home nation of Brazil has become the leading concern.

In a political career spanning nearly three decades, Bolsonaro – a retired army captain and torture advocate – has worn homophobia as a badge of honour, once declaring: “Yes, I’m homophobic – and very proud of it.” In a 2013 interview with Stephen Fry, Bolsonaro claimed “homosexual fundamentalists” were grooming children to “become gays and lesbians to satisfy them sexually in the future”. Next he proclaimed: “Brazilian society doesn’t like homosexuals.”

Bolsonaro’s insistence that he would rather his son die in an accident than be gay, or that he would punch two men if he saw them kissing in the street, are undeniably shocking statements. But is true that Brazil has long been a challenging and dangerous environment for LGBTQ+ people. Last year, violent deaths reached an all-time high, with LGBTQ+ rights group Grupo Gay de Bahia, the oldest organisation of its kind in Brazil, claiming that there were 387 murders and 58 suicides of LGBTQ+ people in 2017.

Leandro believes that the already worsening atmosphere of violence has been intensified by Bolsonaro’s use of homophobic hate speech throughout his campaign. “People are now feeling very validated and comfortable to express and act on their hate,” says Leandro. “This explains the rising attacks on LGBTQ+ people, the verbal abuse faced by LGBTQ+ people and groups on the subway chanting that Bolsonaro is going to ‘kill all gays.’”

Reacting to reports of a spike in attacks on minorities since the election, All Out has partnered with four other organisations to create ACODE, a platform to provide assistance to people who have been victims of politically motivated violence.

With Brazil’s LGBTQ+ communities in such dire need of support, Bolsonaro’s pledges to wipe out activism, or potentially criminalise activists as terrorists, are particularly worrying. “Bolsonaro said he would eliminate all kinds of activists, but it is unclear what that means.” explains Leandro. “It could be a Russia-style propaganda law or registration for all organisations. Bolsonaro has used LGBTQ+ people as scapegoats throughout his political career, so we don’t know if we will be political targets or just targets on the street.”

This feeling of uncertainty, combined with Bolsonaro’s validation of hate, has created an atmosphere of fear among Brazil’s LGBTQ+ community. “We are already changing the way we behave and the way we act because of fear,” says Leandro. “We’re questioning the littlest things. Are you going to hold your boyfriend’s hand in public? Who are the people around you? It’s very sad because that’s the first victory that an authoritarian government wants to have – to stop you from being yourself.”

Against a backdrop of rising violence and hostility, the legal rights of Brazil’s LGBTQ+ community have expanded in the last decade. Same-sex marriage was legalised nationwide in May 2013, following a Supreme Court ruling that brought with it additional marriage-related rights including adoption. Yet the Brazilian Congress has never voted through any laws that grant LGBTQ+ people more rights, with each advancement being granted by the Supreme Court. A group of conservative representatives in Congress, known as the “bullet, beef and Bible caucus”, band together to block any legislation that threatens the advancement of gun rights, livestock farming and evangelical Christian interests. President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016 following a corruption scandal, only began reaching out to the LGBTQ+ movement as impeachment neared in her second term. Her successor Michel Temer has been neither an outspoken supporter nor opponent of the LGBTQ+ movement. This lack of political support in Congress and other parties might explain why 29 per cent of LGBTQ+ Brazilians reportedly voted for Bolsonaro.

Brazilian human rights activist and attorney Marina Ganzarolli says they have been primarily focusing on the Supreme Court to progress rights. “The Supreme Court and Congress debates are complete opposites,” she explains to Dazed. “One is academic and based on research and the other is not. Congress has been impermeable to our demands.”

Marina is the co-founder of DeFEMde, a feminist collective of legal professionals that provide free legal aid for lesbian and bisexual women, trans women and trans men in danger. She explains that lesbians like her are generally less harassed in terms of violent attacks than gay men, but more often the victims of sexual abuse.

“Homophobic people still see lesbians as a sexual object or a fetish,” she says. “The darker a lesbian’s skin or the more economically vulnerable she is, the greater possibility she has of suffering sexual violence on the street.”

“It’s very sad, the first victory that an authoritarian government wants to have (is) to stop you from being yourself” – Leandro Ramos

The rampant sexual violence faced by LGBT women is particularly worrying given the fact that women have no right to a legal abortion in Brazil, even in cases of rape. Working between the LGBTQ+ and feminist movements has shown Marina how the feminist and LGBTQ+ causes are intertwined. This is particularly relevant in cases of “corrective rape”, a term used to describe rapes motivated by the desire to “cure” a victim of homosexuality. In 2016, over 30 men conducted a corrective rape on a 16 year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro, which was filmed and shared on social media. This horrific incident prompted a crucial change to the law. Marina’s feminist collective helped to draft an amendment to the law, which was approved by the Supreme Court and signed by the outgoing President, creating a longer sentence for corrective rapes on LGBTQ+ people.

“This first time we have a criminal offence relating to LGBTQ+ people in Brazil – a box for criminalising homophobia,” she explains. “We still have no crime for LGBTQ+ motivations for aggression or even for murder – that’s a huge problem. A great demand of the Brazilian movement is that we have a crime that describes homophobia.”

In the next two weeks, Brazil’s Supreme Court will decide if discrimination against LGBTQ+ people should be classed a crime. Right now, there is no legal protection against hate crimes, but this could be enshrined in law by the outgoing President and Supreme Court before Bolsonaro takes office in January. All Out are mobilising people in and outside of Brazil to pressure the Supreme Court by signing an online petition.

Trans women face additional barriers in Brazilian society and are particularly vulnerable to violence. According to National Association of trans people, 90 per cent are working as sex workers, as Marina explains. “There’s nothing wrong with that, though many of them don’t want to be sex workers but have no alternative.”

A 2015 report from Al Jazeera stated that Brazil has “the greatest number of murdered trans people in the world.” Transrevolução, a Brazilian trans-rights group, estimated that life expectancy for the trans community in the country is “about 30”, compared to an average life expectancy of 75 for the general population. These violent attacks have increasingly featured political overtones. A week before Brazil went to the polls, 25-year-old trans woman Jessica Gonzaga was brutally murdered in São Paulo’s LGBTQ+ district. One witness recalled that the perpetrator shouted “Bolsonaro!” and “Faggots must die!” as they stabbed her. Accurate reporting of trans deaths can be difficult, because, according to Planet Transgender, Brazilian media outlets frequently misgender trans people. This is just one reason why the annual death toll may be in fact be far greater than organisations suggest.

Despite Brazil’s patriarchal society discriminating against a variety of groups, presenting various intersections of discrimination based on race, class, sexuality and gender identity, Marina laments that, out with her collective, there is currently little collaboration between the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements. She also describes the LGBTQ+ movement is dominated by men. “The movement is very male-focussed. We always say that ‘L-G-B-T’ movement is more ‘G-G-G-G’ movement,” she explains. “We have a gay parade every year, but it’s just that: a gay parade. No one remembers lesbians and bisexuals – we’re completely invisible. We have a lesbian parade the day before, which is much smaller, but it has a stronger feeling of political demonstration.”

Research by VOTELGBT suggests that many of Brazil’s gay men are unaware of struggles faced by black members of the community and women. Many also oppose abortion rights. “But there are improvements,” says Marina. “Recently more gay men have been coming to the lesbian parade to get educated.”

“We won’t go anywhere if we keep fighting in our own boxes” – Marina Ganzarolli

Marina cites the lack of intersectionality between marginalised groups as a major reason why they were not able to counteract Bolsonaro’s hateful message and defeat him. But following Bolsonaro’s victory, a climate of fear is galvanising people into action. She tells me that a group of LGBTQ+ lawyers recently made a helpline, which received 15,000 calls in two hours. The lawyers had to block the number because of excessive demand, but a rumour soon spread that the number was actually a form of mapping LGBTQ+ people to hunt them for violence. “I looked at my phone three hours later I had 1000 messages from people saying ‘they’re going to find us and kill us!’ People are terrified, people are panicking. They are on the edge like I have never seen.” Many of Marina’s friends are having nightmares, feeling unable get out of bed and struggling to eat. Others are consuming alcohol and drugs excessively, having panic attacks and expressing suicidal thoughts.

Imminent threats to Brazil’s LGBTQ+ community are that Bolsonaro will attempt to invalidate the same-sex marriage ruling. This may come in the form of laws that would give the “heterosexual family” an elevated legal status above other family types. The Supreme Court will be essential in protecting LGBTQ+ people from these attempts, but Bolsonaro has threatened to shut it down or fill it with his supporters if it does not comply – and he may have Congress and business groups behind him. “I have friends who are getting married because they are afraid they won’t be able to get married any more,” Marina says. “Everybody’s afraid that their marriage rights will be taken. Everybody is terrified because so many lines have already been crossed.”

Moving forward, Leandro says that, despite a mood of caution, people are mobilising to respond. “People are putting their hands to work,” he observes. “It’s hard to tell how easy it is going to be to continue doing this work in Brazil. But we are going to keep doing it and if someone tries to stop us we’re going to fight back with all we have.” He views international pressure and support, whether in the form of petitioning or donating to crowdfunders to help those affected, as crucial.

Following the election, Marina senses an opportunity to regroup and to form a more intersectional movement. “We won’t go anywhere if we keep fighting in our own boxes,” she explains. “During the last month I’ve seen organisations getting more mixed, I’ve never seen more lesbians and black people in the LGBTQ+ movement. This is happening because we are starting to think beyond boxes. Our biggest challenge now is to engage people who are not organised within a movement and to use this opportunity to bring more hearts and minds into this fight.”