So the feds finally recognize your marriage, big deal. Pop a cork, swig some champagne, then get back to work. You can’t legislate the end of homophobia. Just look at Brazil, with its enormous LGBT Pride marches, marriage equality — and also entrenched homophobia and violence.
I’ve been swapping messages about the state of Brazil’s Queer Nation with Mariana Rodrigues, a 31-year-old dyke activist who worked at Liga Brasileira de Lésbicas (League of Brazilian Lesbians) when she still lived in SÃ£o Paulo. She started off by telling me that despite all their legal progress, young queers who dare to come out are regularly met with fierce disapproval or even violence from family, friends, and society at large. When one of her young friends announced he was gay, his father actually tossed him out of a moving car.
And despite the parades, most people are still closeted at work, or they wouldn’t find any. Especially feminine gay men and butch dykes. Trans people almost never find employment in a formal workplace. Luma Nogueira de Andrade, the first trans university professor in the country, is a rare exception. Now, she’s actually the first trans college president in Brazil, at the University of International Integration of the Afro-Brazilian Lusophony (UNILAB) in the northeast. She describes herself as travesti (transsexual) instead of transgender to highlight the history of stigma and violence that transsexuals continue to face.
Queers are killed at the rate of almost one a day in Brazil, with trans people accounting for half the victims, largely because they’re forced to the margins of a society where violence is already endemic. In fact, violence against all LGBT people is increasing, especially in big cities like SÃ£o Paulo and Rio. Mariana believes it is the beginning of an enormous backlash.
Just two weeks ago, a video went viral showing a huge group of young men called Gladiators of the Altar shouting they were going to hunt down queers and kill them. They are organized by one of the largest evangelical groups in Brazil, the enormous Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. A few days afterwards, Mariana found an equally horrifying post on the group’s website showing an image of a father with a gun in his hand saying, “Who else wants to admit they’re gay?” The caption: “Everyone should have a gun at home to solve their own problems.”
More and more, politicians attack LGBT people and women’s rights during their campaigns, as they compete for the conservative evangelical vote. Mariana was shocked when the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, actually vetoed a curriculum developed to help teachers cope better with diversity in schools. A member of the Workers’ Party, which has been the most progressive on LGBT issues, Rousseff claimed that it was not the government’s role to “spread sexual orientation propaganda.”
As in the US, the division of church and state is increasingly blurred as conservative evangelical movements elect more and more legislators and invest entire fortunes in buying up media outlets and creating giant lobbying machines. Marco Feliciano, a staunch evangelical, is now the president of the Human Rights and Minority Commission of Brazil’s lower legislative house. Besides declaring that black people are cursed because they didn’t worship Jesus in Africa, he’s also blamed bisexuals for the AIDS epidemic. Jair Bolsonaro, another evangelical deputy, said that children only become gay because they’re not beaten enough. Both were re-elected in a landslide.
In the last election, a Catholic candidate promised to create a mass movement rising up against the evil of homosexuality, which among other things threatened the traditional family. In that case, the public defender filed a lawsuit against him because those statements were made on national television and incited hate crime. Last week, the candidate was sentenced to pay a fine that will go toward a public service announcement supporting LGBT rights, though it might be overturned on appeal.
Nevertheless, LGBT activists can’t keep up, and Mariana worries that evangelical politicians may actually be able to reverse decades of legal and social progress in Brazil. The removal of the program about gender equality and sexual orientation from the national curriculum came after intense lobbying from evangelicals, who claimed these “theories of gender are included to propagate and encourage homosexuality in children.”
And in Tocantins, the central Brazil state where Mariana now lives, LGBT activists worked for two years to pass a program addressing their community’s educational, health, social assistance, and employment needs and insuring basic human rights. Eight days after the plan was approved and announced, the state government caved in to pressure from Christian members and revoked the whole thing.
Even when the federal government does makes progressive recommendations, they are often ignored by the state governments. (Like in the US, LGBT rights and protections vary from state to state). Sometimes policies are passed, but not implemented because they aren’t awarded funds. Other times, judges rule according to their personal beliefs rather than the laws on the books.
Still, Mariana sees some positive shifts on the cultural front. A new soap opera featured a kiss by two older lesbians in the first episode. While there was a huge uproar from the evangelical population, there was also a number of strong, approving voices. This was progress from the first time there was a lesbian couple on a soap, when it caused such outrage the writers almost immediately killed them off. Gay activists are organizing some beijaços (kiss-ins) to support the new show.
One new twist in the ongoing war for LGBT rights is how evangelicals are beginning to claim that they themselves are victims of discrimination against Christians. They say that gay people are the abusive majority preventing them from exercising their “right” to denounce LGBT people and even call for their eradication. If these cries of “heterophobia” sound familiar, it’s because evangelical movements both north and south are joined at the pocketbook, and the tactic has been spreading in the US as well. Indiana’s only a heartbeat from Brazil.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” published last year by the University of Minnesota Press.