Legal Victory Strengthens LGBT Activists as Threat From Bolsonaro Looms

On Thursday, June 13, after months of postponement, Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court officially made homophobia and transphobia –– locally known as “LGBTphobia” –– a crime and outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In an eight to three ruling, the remaining judges of the Supreme Federal Court voted to criminalize LGBTphobia under existing anti-discrimination laws that prohibit intolerance and bias based on race, religious intolerance and xenophobia.

Six of the 11 members of Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court had already voted in favor of outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Brazil on May 24. At that time, one of the six members who voted in favor of LGBT protections, Supreme Federal Court Vice-President Luiz Fux described homophobic crimes as “alarming” and noted the “epidemic levels of homophobic violence,” according to a BBC report. Two other justices added their votes on Thursday, formalizing the final tally of eight to three.

This landmark decision comes at a critical time in Brazil when concerns over the trajectory of human rights for the LGBT community and other marginalized groups are at an all-time high. Brazilian activist and professor Nilton O. do Vale notes that while he is elated to be a part of such a historic moment in Brazilian history, the country still has a long way to go in terms of equity for the LGBT community.

“It is very interesting how much the country has evolved. Now, [the LGBT community] has the right to get married. We can adopt children. We can include the names of our spouses on health insurance,” he said. “But at the same time, there are some groups [in this country] who are trying their best to stop everything we have conquered. This Supreme Federal Court decision is a victory but we cannot stop advocating for our rights. From now on, we have to fight even more otherwise we will lose the rights we have.”

“We are people. We have needs. We have feelings. We pay taxes and we go to work and school. We are normal. Our sexual orientation is just different from others. Why should that matter in terms of our rights?” he continued.

Countless Brazilian LGBT activists have pushed for legislative protections for years, in many attempts to garner de jure and de facto rights that guarantee their safety and inclusivity. However, many were concerned about the Supreme Federal Court outcome, especially since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing, conservative politician and known homophobe, racist and misogynist. Bolsonaro’s comments against marginalized communities — including LGBT persons, women, and Black and Indigenous communities — have been so incendiary, Brazil’s Attorney General Raquel Dodge charged Bolsonaro with instigating and inspiring hatred and prejudice in 2018. During Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign, political violence and threats against opponents surged. For example, in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, Moa do Katendê, an Afro-Brazilian capoeira master and Worker’s Party advocate, was violently murdered last year by Paulo Sérgio Ferreira Santana, a pro-Bolsonaro supporter. Santana stabbed Katendê 12 times in the back after they had an argument about the state of Brazilian politics in a bar.

However, his inflammatory remarks about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are not new. In 2002, Bolsonaro said that he would beat two men if he saw them kissing on the street. In 2011, he noted in Playboy magazine that he would not be able to love his son if he were gay and that, “I would prefer my son to die in an accident” than for him to be in a homosexual relationship. In 2013, Bolsonaro declared he was a “proud homophobe” and in 2015, he proposed hospital patients “should have the option to reject gay blood.” In 2016, Bolsonaro told actress Ellen Page in an interview:

I believe that for the majority of gay people it’s a behavioral issue. When I was young, talking about percentage, there were few [gay people]. Over time, due to liberal habits, drugs, with women also working, the number of homosexuals has really increased.

Many LGBT Brazilians worry that Bolsonaro’s homophobic comments –– and even the prejudicial comments of his cabinet members –– will translate into legislation. For example, early in the year, just hours after his inauguration, one of his first political actions in office was signing an executive order that directed Brazil’s human rights ministry to disregard LGBT rights as human rights. After Bolsonaro’s executive order was enacted, a day later, Damares Alves, Brazil’s minister of women, family, and human rights tweeted: “Attention, attention! It’s a new era in Brazil: Boys wear blue and girls wear pink!” Alves also said in her inaugural speech that under the new presidential administration, “a girl will be a princess and a boy will be a prince.” Shortly after Bolsonaro was officially inaugurated, Brazil’s openly gay congressperson and LGBT rights activist Jean Wyllys, who has openly criticized Bolsonaro, abdicated his political seat and fled the country amid death threats, saying, “I do not want to be a martyr. I want to live.”

In March of this year, while on a visit to the White House and during a press conference with President Trump, Bolsonaro said that the Brazilian government will uphold “respect of traditional values” and disregard ideals of “gender identity.” In April, Bolsonaro also said that Brazil must not become a “gay tourism paradise.” Moreover, some also fear that Bolsonaro, who was a former military officer, will use the military to further push his proposed agenda of purging “communism, socialism, populism and left-wing extremism” from the country.

Leandro Ramos, director of programs at All Out, a global organization that advocates on behalf of LGBT persons around the world, notes that the fears of many LGBT Brazilians are heightened by the levels of uncertainty about Bolsonaro’s potential actions against them.

“We have heard the narrative and we have heard the hate speech but we do not know how it is going to translate into concrete political action,” Ramos, who is Brazilian, said.

“We have already seen how [Bolsonaro’s speech] is translating into day-to-day violence. We have seen the number of attacks increasing –– not only against LGBT people but against minorities in general –– particularly during the campaign,” he continued. “Is that going to get worse once he starts taking concrete measures? It is very unclear. I think the moment [we] are in now is still a moment of uncertainty.”

While many apprehensively wait on Bolsonaro’s next political moves, what is certain is violence against the LGBT community in Brazil is pervasive –– and has always been. So far in 2019, 141 LGBT murders have been committed, according to Grupo Gay da Bahia, the oldest LGBT advocacy organization in Brazil. Data from their 2018 report showed that 420 LGBT persons died of hate crimes in Brazil. Of those 420 LGBT-related deaths, 320 were homicides and 100 were suicides. Within that unfortunate death toll rate, the assassination of Afro-Brazilian bisexual politician and human rights defender Marielle Franco catalyzed protests and global solidarity in efforts to uncover her untimely death. Franco, 38, was shot dead in a car after speaking at an event in Rio on Black women’s activism in the country in March 2018. Her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, was also murdered. Two months later, in May, Matheus Passarelli, 21, a non-binary transgender LGBT activist and model, was abducted and murdered in Rio de Janeiro. Passarelli was found dead, their body severely burned and the police investigation determined Passarelli’s murder was motivated by homophobia.

Although the Brazilian state promotes imagery that suggests inclusivity of its vibrant LGBT communities, underneath this veneer of amicability, LGBTphobia persists. While the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 and in 2018, also approved the rights of transgender persons to have their “social names” or gender markers changed on legal documents without having to undergo medical or judicial review, violence and anti-LGBT hate crimes are still rampant. Ramos believes that these types of socio-political and economic contradictions have always formed the bedrock of the Brazilian state.

“For LGBT people in Brazil, the dark side of this issue is that Brazil is a very sexist and violent country toward women and minorities in general,” Ramos said. “If you look at the kind of violence that is happening against LGBT people in Brazil, it is mostly transgender women making up the number. And if you look at the racial divide, it is mostly women of color suffering from violence.”

According to the National Association of Travestis and Transvestites (ANTRA), Brazil is the country “that kills the most transgender people in the world.” Their research shows that transgender murders in the country are three times higher than in Mexico, a country also known for its high transgender mortality rate. With their mission being to draw attention to serious violations against transgender people in Brazil, ANTRA’s research also details that “every 48 hours a transgender person is murdered or assassinated.” The organization also publishes an annual map of murders of transgender people in Brazil. So far this year, ANTRA has recorded 59 murders of trans people in the country. According to ANTRA’s dossier on violence against transgender persons in Brazil, 163 people died due to transphobic violence in 2018. This number included the murder of Raphaela Souza, 32, a transgender woman, who was shot three times in the head in the state of Bahia this past November. Souza was also a LGBT human rights defender and served in the State Council for the Rights of the Population of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transvestite and Transgender. She was the first transgender employee to work for her city’s Social Development Secretariat, in Vitória da Conquista. Data shows that Afro-Brazilian transgender women disproportionately endure violence, discrimination, and prejudice in the country.

Symmy Larrat, a Brazilian transgender feminist, LGBT activist and president of the Brazilian Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transvestite, Transsexual and Intersex (ABGLT) and the first transgender woman to fill this position, noted that critical political interventions, including the recent Supreme Federal Court decision, must be enforced effectively in order to ensure the safety and protection of the transgender community.

“Because of the strong vulnerability scenario in Brazil, the [transgender] population is strongly related to prostitution, clandestine forms of social organization, and other serious social issues,” Larrat said. “Thus, it is urgent to think of intervention strategies in order to guarantee rights and combat the widespread transphobia that has facilitated the manifestation of violence against this population. The few studies in Brazil indicate that trans people are the ones that suffer the most physical violence and the [group] that least has access to public services, social goods and public policies, besides having the lowest rate of education among the LGBT population,” she said.

“In general, LGBT people fear for their lives and suffer discrimination and prejudice in diverse environments: family … educational and work,” Larrat continued. “We hope that with the criminalization [of transphobia and homophobia], this violence will decrease or be curtailed.”

Despite all these concerns, LGBT activism for equity in Brazil has not stopped. All Out, in conjunction with human rights organizations such as ABGLT, the Sexual and Gender Diversity and Advocacy Group (GADVS) and Beta Feminista organized a petition that garnered over 700,00 signatures in efforts to secure that Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court legislates effectively on behalf of the LGBT community. Historic wins were made in October 2018, as activists Erika Hilton and Erica Malunguinho became the first Black transgender women to gain political seats in Sāo Paulo’s state legislature. Hilton is affiliated with Bancada Ativista, a political organization in São Paulo that supports aspiring progressive candidates for legislature who will support social justice causes in Brazil.

Despite his concerns about the future of LGBT rights in Brazil, Ramos emphasizes that the heightened sense of activism across the country has catalyzed not only a positive sense of urgency but solidarity and community.

“There have been a lot of new alliances and new connections among the activists and among movements that I wasn’t seeing before, at least not this intensely,” Ramos said. “I think this is actually the result of the situation we are in right now. It is a moment of uncertainty, but it is also a moment of hope, eagerness, [and] resistance.”

Note: This article has been corrected to specify that 163 people in Brazil died due to transphobic violence in 2018.