Essay • The Great Brazilian Paradox: How One of the World’s Gayest Countries Can Be Its Most Homophobic

On a cold and grey Sunday morning in São Paulo, my friends and I congregated on the streets of Avenida Paulista – Brazil’s Fifth Ave. The colorful and revealing clothing we sported contrast greatly with the dreary weather. With drinks in hand, music bumping, and dancing all around it was easy to forget how oppressively cold it was. We were at Pride anyway – a place for the LGBTQ community to forget the reality of daily microaggressions and celebrate the progress made. Ten years earlier, in 2009, São Paulo’s Pride became the world’s largest when more than 4 million people attended. Yet, just a year prior, Alexandre Peixe dos Santos, president of the São Paulo’s Gay Pride Association (which puts on the festivities) was brutally beaten. How can the organizer of the world’s largest celebration of queer pride be subject to a hate crime in that same city?

This is the ugly Brazilian paradox. While the country appears celebratory of LGBTQ individuals, on most days LGBTQ people are neglected, abused and often killed. Just as Brazil is the country with the largest Pride parade in the world, it is also the country with the most reported violence against the LGBTQ community. To better understand how these two contradictory realities can apply to a single country requires a greater understanding of how conservative cultural norms and social values contribute to regression in acceptance for the community.

Brazil is a nation founded on Christianity, machismo, and economic inequality.  These values contribute to a government and society constantly grappling with how to address the inclusion of LGBTQ people. Despite being progressive on my fronts, Brazil’s queer advancements mostly benefit the elite, educated, and White. Meanwhile the poor, Black and/or trans are subjected to conditions so “foreign” that their issues go unaddressed. As a privileged American tourist, but also someone who is Brown and gay, I came to Brazil in a special position. I am able to navigate racial stratification with ease, thus, allowing me to experience several responses to my race and sexuality. 

De Juris: What rights do LGBTQ+ individuals enjoy?

LGBTQ individuals in Brazil enjoy many legal protections and rights that make the country appear progressive. What I first learned about Brazil’s queer culture was the magnitude of the Pride parade. This parade was first held in 1997 and in its 22 iterations has grown into a massive event. Mass attendance is driven not solely by the size of the large LGBTQ population in the city, but also by large financial investments on behalf of local businesses and government (state and city) to back the festivities.

São Paulo’s tourism administration has even developed a Gay Tourism Information Center on Rua Frei Caneca, the gay center of the city, to better equip LGBTQ individuals with the tools to take advantage of the local queer culture. Eight malls, 25 cafes, 23 nightclubs, 20 restaurants, eight saunas, and several museums are currently in this partnership. According to Marcelo Cerqueira, president of the Gay Group of Bahia, the country’s oldest LGBT group, this center is “a great idea because it presents São Paulo as the gay capital of Latin America to this public that consumes and spends.”

Events like the Parade are also very politicized. During my own time there, I witnessed several politicians take to the streets along with teams of volunteers who distributed postcards with the politicians’ names on them. Aboard one float, named “Coordenacao de Politicas para LGBT” (Political Coordination for the LGBT), several politicians spoke about their platforms and the heightened urgency to vote this year as several rights which they promise to uphold are on the line. 

Thus far, the political rights already granted to LGBTQ people are many. In 2013, Brazil legalized same-gender marriage, following the countries of Argentina and Uruguay. Prior to the legalization of marriage, a 2010 ruling decreed that same-gender couples in civil partnerships were allowed to adopt children. Regarding hate crimes and discrimination, there is an anti-discrimination ordinance currently pending support in the Brazilian Senate. However, several Brazilian states and municipalities already carry such ordinances. Additionally, laws regarding gender identity have been slowly changing to allow more leeway. For example, as of a 2018 judicial ruling, trans individuals no longer need to undergo surgery to change their name or gender identity on legal documents.

As with legal advancements, Brazilian society has generally progressed forward in terms of acceptance of LGBTQ individuals. 74 percent of Brazilians believe in accepting queer identity, which is a 12 percent increase from three years prior. Yet, these numbers and laws have proven misleading as others demonstrate surges in violence against the LGBTQ community.

De Facto: What Brazilian society is like for LGBTQ+ individuals?

Just last year, 2017, there were a record number of crimes committed against the LGBTQ community. According to the Grupo Gay da Bahia, rather than a drop, there was a 30 percent spike in crimes. Of these crimes, 387 were homicides. Additionally, 58 people died by suicide. While there was an increase in violence, the amount of violence has been high (on verge of epidemic) for years. According to the same group, about 150 LGBT people were murdered yearly during the 2000s.

Several Brazilian politicians have promised to take rights away. For example, in September 2017, a federal judge approved the use of conversion therapy on LGBTQ people. The use of conversion therapy is also supported by several legislators. Jair Bolsonaro, a conservative candidate for the 2018 presidential election (and current front runner), once advocated for beating to rid children of their queerness. Further, Bolsonaro has opposed other LGBTQ-inclusive matters such as providing public money for events like Pride.

The most vulnerable populations are undoubtedly trans women. Gay Group da Bahia reported that “transvestites,” the term commonly used in Brazil, are the “biggest targets due to stigmatization and marginalization, and their subsequent involvement with prostitution and drug traffic.” 32.5 percent of trans individuals said they had been subjected to physical violence, 42.5 percent to unconsecrated sex acts, and 82.7 percent to psychological violence.

Compounded Identities: Race, Gender and Class

The issue of violence against trans individuals is tied to the “machista” culture of Brazil. Within the LGBT community, there exists a heteronormative binary that applies roles to romantic or sexual partners based on characteristics like appearance, clothing, and mannerisms. Don Kulick, an anthropologist who studies trans individuals, says that males who present as more masculine are less discriminated against than “bichas” a derogatory term for males who present as feminine. Effeminate men are read as out of “out-of-ordinary” and this causes them great persecution.

This is something I have seen for myself. I am gender non-conforming and while I rarely present fully as a woman, there are many effeminate traits I possess. This presentation elicits a lot of confusion and questioning. During my abroad program stay with an indigenous village, I was asked by a young girl there if I was a man or woman, because I wore very short shorts. When at a local club, one of our hosts at the same village curiously asked me if I present myself as the man or the woman when dancing. While I present myself as whatever I want, I must admit that being femme in the clubs of Brazil comes with a mixed bag of reactions. At gay clubs, I was often ignored in favor of more masc men. At straight clubs, I was often subjected to uncomfortable stares. I experimented with my looks and dressed more masc to see if reactions, particularly at gay clubs, would change and they did. Some of these experiences were frustrating, but I am thankful that no situation ever escalated to physical violence, which in Brazil is a norm.

It is not just gender expression that contributes to violence, but factors like race and class too. Christian Aid in Brazil examined how violence intersects with other inequalities to exacerbate inequality for specific sectors of the population, in a study titled, Violence and Inequality: A Focus on Gender, Sexuality, and Race in Brazil. Findings in a similar study by researchers Adriana Vianna and Sergio Carrara were that “Brazilian society can be discriminatory and intolerant due to the persistent presence of religious and moral conservatism which are aggravated by high levels of poverty and lack of education.” These factors: class, race, and religion are interlinked in Brazil. The poorest classes in Brazil are Black and have the highest percentage of religious practitioners. This reality subjects queer Black and poor individuals to the abuses mentioned above the most.

Conclusion

As usual, money is at the center of the unequal experiences LGBTQ individuals in Brazil face. The political rights and social advances made, as well as the ones not made can be squarely attributed to money’s power. Pride is so heavily invested in by local companies and governments because it generates money – moving R $180 to R $190 million. Laws approving same-gender marriage and adoption exist because these are top priority issues for economically stable couples. Meanwhile, poor trans individuals’ focus is on earning enough money to eat tomorrow. Despite living in harsher conditions, the latter individual is not prioritized and policing practices show this. Sex workers and trans individuals are arrested and harassed by police while Pride gets law enforcement’s protection. The advancement in LGBTQ inclusion, too, is largely based on the success of lobbying groups to raise money for campaigns. If there is no money to be made, certain members of the community are left with less protection, which is why trans women are more subject to violence, suicide, and unfair laws.

Education levels contribute greatly to an individual’s perception of the LGBTQ community, as well as their ability to grapple with social issues with empathy. Furthermore, a lack of education makes it more difficult for LGBTQ individuals who are poor to advocate for (or even fully understand) their identities. Since education access and poverty are interlinked, the ability to understand the experience of queer Black and Brown people is undercut.

Rosanna Miranda, of Christian Aid Brazil, argues that to “overcome this scenario, civil society, faith-based organizations, and NGOs need to work together to expose the scandal of inequality and push for LGBT rights to be put firmly back on the agenda. More research and widespread advocacy are the first steps toward ensuring LGBT people a fulfilling life free of violence.” Research and advocacy need money. Civil society, faith-based organizations, and NGOs, while generally less wealthy than corporations, can do more to truly change perceptions and still must shift money to do this. With more money invested in the advancement and liberation of LGBTQ individuals, not just the White or rich ones, possibilities are endless.  

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