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Homophobia, fire and terror in Brazil

While specific horrific cases of homophobia are condemned, the overall mentality is not. Politicians wish the issue would disappear, and there is no education in schools.

Pedro Henrique Leal
21 October 2014
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Demonstrators protest against the Brazilian 'Gay Cure' law and violence against the LGBT community. Luiz Roberto Lima/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Thirteen years afterwards, September 11 still brings forth memories of terror, violence and fire; to 24 year old Solange Ramires and 26 year old Sabriny Benites, a lesbian couple from Santana do Livramento, those feelings about it are very personal. The two women were to be wed in a local Gaucho Traditions Center (CTG) on September 13, along with 27 other couples. However, at 4 a.m. two days beforehand, the so eagerly awaited marriage was threatened when the CTG was set ablaze by molotov cocktails, in what has been called ‘a terror attack’.

This attack was not random: a month earlier, when news of the wedding first came out in the small Rio Grande do Sul city bordering Uruguay, both the local judge - Carine Labres - and the head of the CTG, city representative Gilberto “Xepa” Gisler, received death threats respecting their “immorality”. Alongside these were the sadly fulfilled threats of arson. According to Gisler, an anonymous caller said, “there was no way” the wedding would be allowed to happen - even if they had to “beat the crap out of this so called ‘Xepa’, get rid of the judge and set the CTG on fire”.

To the police, the arson was a deliberate attack. To LGBT and feminist groups, the incident aims clearly to terrorize the community into silence. Legally, the arsonists face additional charges of criminal association - if they are ever identified.

According to eyewitness reports, after Gisler left the center early on September 11, four men moved off from a nearby bar in a white car, and lobbed what the police believe were molotov cocktails into the building. So far the culprits have not been identified, and the authorities fear that they escaped to nearby Uruguay. The attack started two localized fires, one of them in the main hall - which was completely destroyed. While locals started rebuilding the center on the following day, in preparation for the ceremony, the collective wedding had to be moved to the local courthouse, where it happened without further incidents. The CTG itself went back into normal activity on September 17, after 5 days of reconstruction and sizeable donations by the local community.

However, the whole affair prompted an enormous amount of debate in the social media and the Rio Grande do Sul press alike. Many - including Zero Hora columnist David Coimbra - took the position that the true offenders were the judge and the two women. According to this logic, they were “offending tradition” and “provoking hostility” to the point that “defenders of such traditions felt more comfortable torching the CTG than seeing it host a gay wedding”.

Others claimed minorities should “know their place” - which according to online comments, doesn’t include CTGs, churches, courthouses, stadiums or the state of Rio Grande do Sul - and that the judge should be “relieved of duty” for supporting gay rights. On September 12, Judge Labres requested that a fake facebook profile of herself be taken down - the online profile was being used to malign and defame her. About the intimidation, she was succint: “we won’t be shut down, the rights of minorities are guaranteed”.

Others too were supportive of the wedding - including many in the same newspaper, Zero Hora. Adriana Franciosi, another ZH writer, noted that in the name of tradition, blacks were forbidden to enter many CTGs until 1988; by claiming that marrying two women in the CTG “attacks tradition”, she claims, Coimbra is at the same time defending social conservatism. “If we followed David’s logic”, she said ,“women would still be confined to the kitchen and the household. After all, why work and be independent? As David puts it, why cause trouble?”

Legal limbo

To Brazil’s Human Rights minister, Ideli Salvatti, the fire is another reason why the country urgently needs to criminalize homophobia. Brazil lacks any sort of anti-homophobia legislation. A complementary law project, PLC 122, aiming to include LGBTs in the old ‘racism law’ - which also protects women, the elderly, migrants, religious minorities and people with special needs – has been met with hostility in the Brazilian congress since its inception, in 2006: and even after numerous cuts and changes benefiting conservatives, it was not approved. To conservative leaders - specially evangelical preacher Silas Malafaia - the proposed legislation threatens freedom of speech and religious freedoms.

Same sex marriage is also a controversial topic in Brazil: while the supreme court has sanctioned the right to gay and lesbian couples to be lawfully wed, there is no legal basis for those marriages, and no current proposed legislation seeks to correct this. Instead, projects by conservatives aim to annul the marriages created under judicial support, and re-establish “marriage” as “a union between a man and a woman”.

The same is the case with homophobia. Those conservative groups - in particular the ‘Evangelical Front’ of the congress, by far the main conservative group in the Brazilian legislature, holds as many as 70 of the 513 seats in the congress – and they see legalizing gay marriage as a threat to their freedoms. In an interview to news portal Universo Online, the already mentioned Malafaia saw gay marriage as a threat - to humanity. “Let everyone be gay. I’m talking preservation of society here lads! Get ten thousand gay couples on an island, they’ll disappear”.

While the rights of LGBTs is in this legal limbo, a few pieces of proposed legislation seek to restrain them; most notably project 234/11 - proposed by Social Democrat João Campos and presented last year by then head of the Human Rights and Minorities Comission Marco Feliciano (Social Christian Party). If approved, this legislation would annul a decision by the Brazilian Psychology Council, which forbade clinics, therapists and hospitals from treating homosexuality as a disease, and would allow families to impose “gay reversal therapies” on minors. Currently, such therapies are illegal in Brazil.

No discussion amongst candidates

Both topics seem to be a big no-no amongst the three mainstream presidential candidates. Seeking the conservative vote, President Dilma Rousseff (Workers Party) avoids talking about “sexual orientation” and “gender identity”, instead discussing “sexual choice”. Trying to appease them, the president has barred her own party’s projects for educating against homophobia in schools (claiming “she wouldn’t make propaganda out of sexual choices”), legislation against homophobia and the more recent João Nery law - giving transgendered people the right to use their personal names as identification and punishing discrimination against transgenders. During the debate the question was avoided. And in a Catholic TV debate, the president - and she alone – used the phrase  ‘sexual choice’ instead of the more accepted ‘sexual orientation’.

Social Democrat candidate Aécio Neves seems to hold no position on this question: in 2013 the then Senator was for gay marriage, yet not in favor enough to propose any legislation. This year, he took gay rights out of his government plan, in order to conquer the conservative vote - but he changed his position again early in September, positioning himself for gay marriage and same sex couples’ adoption rights. However, much like Dilma, none of these topics were present in public speeches or in debates.

However none of them reached the brazen levels of appeasement shown by Socialist candidate Marina Silva. The former Environment minister presented her government program on September the first – containing the most comprehensive proposals for the LGBT community; criminalizing homophobia, marriage, adoption, equal rights. On the same day, preacher Silas Malafaia made threats and extortion attempts on twitter - and a few hours later, as September 2 dawned, the Brazilian Socialist Party presented a new and “corrected” government program - one with nothing on gay rights except ‘legalizing civil unions’, a then unheard of construct that is yet to be defined. Marina blamed the changes - or to be more precise, the old program - on “diagram errors”. Immediately afterwards, Malafaia announced his support for Marina.

Violence is on the rise

Homophobia is a grave issue: according to statistics presented by the NGO Grupo Gay da Bahia (GGB) every 28 hours, one LGBT person is murdered solely because of their sexual orientation. Last year alone there were 312 homophobic murders in Brazil, a grim statistic that has fallen by a meagre 7.7% from 2012 - when the total was 338 deaths.

In the same week that the CTG was torched, another crime shocked the country: 18 year old João Antônio Donatti was strangled to death in an empty lot in Inhumas, state of Goiás. The young waiter was found beaten his mouth stuffed with paper; his killer, a 20 year old farmer, claimed to have killed him “because he tried to do funny stuff with me”. On February 17 this year, another shocking case: eight year old Alex Medeiros was beaten to death by his father for being “a sissy”. Effeminate behaviour is often seen as an excuse for violence; the idea is to “fix” the person by “beating the viadagem out of him”. While new legislation forbids corporal punishment against minors, a 2010 youtube video boasts congressman Jair Messias Bolsonaro (Progressives - a party that is anything but its namesake) defending “beating the crap” out of children who are “a little gay”.

While the specific case is condemned, the overall mentality is not. According to Bahia Federal University professor of Anthropology and GGB Founder Luiz Mott, the death penalty against homosexual children still exists in the collective imagination of Brazilians - “and there are no policies to educate people about the topic”.

However, death is only the most final part of the homophobic violence people face in Brazil; LGBTs face discrimination, aggression, unemployment and homelessness simply because of their orientation or gender identity. 38.29% of the violence happens at home, according to a Human Rights Secretariat report on homophobic violence. Another 30.89% happens in the streets, sometimes in broad daylight: on February 15, a lesbian couple, Vanessa Holanda, 24 years old, and Leidiane Carvalho, 31, were brutally attacked during a carnival party in Rio. In plain sight, the two were beaten up, their clothes torn, Vanessa’s body dragged across the asphalt - and no one tried to help, according to their own account of the affair on Facebook.

Things may be slowly changing: on September 2, 15 students of the renowned Colégio Pedro II - a traditional federal high school in Rio - wore skirts to class, in support of a transgender colleague targeted not only by bullies, but by the institution itself. Whether this performance is a sign of a change in the collective mentality of new generations, or just an anomaly, is yet to be seen.

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