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Brazil's LGBTQ community faces surging violence, but they're fighting back

When it comes to LGBTQ people, Brazil has a miserable record. But as awareness grows and more of them get elected to office, that could start to change.

Pedro Augusto P. Francisco Robert Muggah
9 December 2020, 6.34pm
Center of Campinas received public of the 18th LGBT Parade of Campinas held in Campinas, Brazil on July 1, 2018.
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Maycon Soldan/Fotoarena/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Discrimination and violence against Brazil's LGBTQ communities are widespread, yet often underreported. Consider the case of Julio Haag, a young school teacher, struck by a stone on his way home from teaching some years ago. His attacker claimed that Julio, who is gay, was looking at him suggestively. Years later, Julio considered running for the city council in Sarapiranga, a small municipality in Rio Grande do Sul. He withdrew his candidacy when his social media profiles were flooded with homophobic hate mail and threats. He worried that the next message coming his way could be a bullet.

In Brazil, LGBTQ people are disproportionately harassed and victimized precisely because of who they are. One reason is the deep strain of social conservatism in Brazilian society. Another is that Brazil is extremely violent: the country has the highest absolute number of homicides in the world, including many that are a result of hate crimes. Over 150 transgender people alone were killed in Brazil as of September 2020. This is 70% higher than in 2019, which means that the country has the highest levels of violence against trans in the world according to the National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals (ANTRA).

The full dimensions of violence against LGBTQ people is still unclear. This is because official and non-governmental data on physical and digital violence targeting gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and trans people is patchy and uneven. Where threats, attacks, injuries and killings are recorded at all by Brazilian authorities, they rarely register the underlying motive. To date, most available data involving violence against LGBTQ people is produced by non-government advocacy and research groups such as Transgender Europe, Grupo Gay da Bahia, Instituto Brasileiro Trans de Educação and others.

The numbers are staggering: 22 incidents a day or one every hour. In the majority of cases involving LGBTQ teens, the victims are black.

A recent study by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation documented more than 24,600 incidents of violence perpetrated against Brazil's LGBQT population between 2015 and 2017. These figures were drawn from reports to Disque 100 - a state-sponsored hotline that collects, analyzes, and reports human rights violations. The study also incorporated victimization data from SUS, Brazil's universal healthcare system. The numbers are staggering: 22 incidents a day or one every hour. In the majority of cases involving LGBTQ teens, the victims are black.

Due to gaps in official reporting, our understanding of violence against LGBTQ often relies on voluntarily reported incidents. Coding Rights, a think tank, conducted a survey of all 27 Brazilian states after the Supreme Court criminalized violence against LGBTQ people in June 2019. Just 23 of them responded to the request and only 12 states supplied hard data. The study registered just 2,900 incidents, very likely an undercount. Another survey conducted by Gênero e Número tracked violence against LGBTQ people during and after Brazil's 2018 presidential campaign. It found that over 50% of respondents suffered from some form of violence due to their sexual orientation. At least 92% claimed that such violence increased following the election of president Bolsonaro.

There is even less publicly available information about how Brazil’s LGBTQ community is targeted online. The Genero e Numero survey found that 36% of LGBTQ respondents - and 53% of black LGBTQ people - suffered from digital aggression. Roughly 30% of all respondents claimed to have experienced some form of online aggression on Facebook (which is also by far the most widely used app in Brazil). At least 19% reported an incident on WhatsApp compared to Instagram (16%), Twitter (3%), dating apps (2%) and others (0.5%).

The low level of official reporting by LGBTQ people is often a result of the prejudices they face in the policing and criminal justice system.

Virtually all survey respondents - over 98% - believe that hate speech promoted by politicians and candidates against LGBTQ rights contributes to increased violence on social networks. A prominent example of this occurred after a video of soccer fans singing homophobic chants calling on Bolsonaro to kill LGBTQ people was spread on Facebook and WhatsApp. And yet very few LGBTQ people report these acts to the police or seek legal redress (3%). Instead, the majority respond verbally or online (79%), block attackers (69%) and report offensive content to the platforms themselves (62%). A small number may delete their own profile (5%).

The low level of official reporting by LGBTQ people is often a result of the prejudices they face in the policing and criminal justice system. A survey released by the Brazilian Public Security Forum on the online behaviour of police found that 24% of them publish anti-LGBTQ content on their personal and professional social networks. There is considerable anecdotal evidence of how many police, prosecutors and judicial authorities are biased against the LGBTQ community. There is even less support provided to the LGBTQ community to defend themselves from online attacks.

Fortunately, some digital rights groups, including Coding Rights and Internetlab, together with Gênero e Número, have started working to promote digital literacy among vulnerable communities and to raise awareness on online violence. Coding Rights recently published a report on online visibility and violence against the gay and lesbian community and supports anti-digital surveillance workshops, as well as practical guidance on how to safely share photos and videos online. Internetlab and Gênero e Número have been working on research to map inequalities, violence and hate speech against vulnerable communities. Likewise, SaferNet, an NGO focused on fighting Internet crime in partnership with Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry, supports anonymous reporting on abuses and provides information and training on Internet safety and security.

Meanwhile, many LGBTQ people are themselves stepping-up politically to defend and protect their communities. At least three times as many trans candidates (281) ran during the 2020 municipal elections as in 2016. A record number of LGBTQ candidates were elected during the 2020 elections, more than at any time in the country's history. The way a society cares for its most vulnerable populations is often an index of its civility. When it comes to LGBTQ people, Brazil has a miserable record both online and off. But as awareness grows and more of them get elected to office, that could start to change.

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