Brazil Is Confronting an Epidemic of Anti-Gay Violence

Rio De Janeiro — The assailant struck as Gabriel Figueira Lima, 21, stood on a street two weeks ago in a city in the Amazon, plunging a knife into his neck and speeding off on the back of a motorcycle, leaving him to die.

A few days earlier, in the coastal state of Bahia, two beloved teachers, Edivaldo Silva de Oliveira and Jeovan Bandeira, were killed as well, their charred remains found in the trunk of a burning car.

Late last month, it was Wellington Júlio de Castro Mendonça, a shy, 24-year-old retail clerk, who was bludgeoned and stoned to death near a highway in a city northwest of Rio.

In a nation seemingly inured to crime, the brutal killings stood out: The victims were not robbed, the police have yet to identify any suspects, and all of the dead were either gay or transgender.

While Americans have fiercely debated how to respond to the massacre last month at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Brazilians have been confronting their own epidemic of anti-gay violence — one that, by some counts, has earned Brazil the ignominious ranking of the world’s deadliest place for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

Nearly 1,600 people have died in hate-motivated attacks in the past four and half years, according to Grupo Gay da Bahia, which tracks the deaths through news articles. By its tally, a gay or transgender person is killed almost every day in this nation of 200 million.

“And these numbers represent only the tip of the iceberg of violence and bloodshed,” said Eduardo Michels, the group’s data manager, adding that the Brazilian police often omit anti-gay animus when compiling homicide reports.

Such statistics can be hard to square with Brazil’s storied image as a tolerant, open society — a nation that seemingly nurtures freewheeling expressions of sexuality during Carnival and holds the world’s biggest gay pride parade in the city of São Paulo.

Here in Rio de Janeiro, host to the coming Summer Olympics, fear of violent crime is on many people’s minds. Amid a crushing recession and soaring unemployment, street crime is up 24 percent this year and homicides have increased by more than 15 percent.

At the same time, human rights activists say members of the Rio police force, eager to clean up the city ahead of the Aug. 5 opening ceremony for the Games, have shot dead more than 100 people this year, most of them young black men living in poor neighborhoods.

But advocates say the constant homophobic violence also threatens to upend an idealized national ethos that promises equality and respect for all Brazilians.

“We live off this image as an open and tolerant place,” said Jandira Queiroz, the mobilization coordinator at Amnesty International Brazil. “Homophobic violence has hit crisis levels, and it’s getting worse.”

Brazil’s near-mythic reputation for tolerance is not without justification. In the nearly three decades since democracy replaced military dictatorship, the Brazilian government has introduced numerous laws and policies aimed at improving the lives of sexual minorities. In 1996, it was among the first to offer free antiretroviral drugs to people with H.I.V. In 2003, Brazil became the first country in Latin America to recognize same-sex unions for immigration purposes, and it was among the earliest to allow gay couples to adopt children.

In 2013, the Brazilian judiciary effectively legalized same-sex marriage.

Some experts suggest that liberal government policies may have gotten too far ahead of traditional social mores. The anti-gay violence, they contend, can be traced to Brazil’s culture of machismo and a brand of evangelical Christianity, exported from the United States, that is outspoken in its opposition to homosexuality.

Evangelicals make up nearly a quarter of Brazil’s population, up from 5 percent in 1970, and religious leaders reach millions of people through the hundreds of television and radio stations they have purchased in recent years.

American-style Pentecostal congregations are also playing an increasingly muscular role in Brazilian politics. Evangelical voters have helped send more than 60 lawmakers to the 513-member lower house of Congress, doubling their numbers since 2010 and making them one of the most disciplined blocs in an unruly and divided legislature.

Jean Wyllys, Brazil’s only openly gay member of Congress, said evangelical lawmakers, the core of a coalition known as the “B.B.B. caucus” — short for Bullets, Beef and Bible — have stymied legislation that would punish anti-gay discrimination and increase penalties for hate crimes.

“Evangelicals are getting increasingly powerful and have taken over Congress,” Mr. Wyllys said.

Eduardo Cunha, an evangelical Christian radio commentator who served as president of the lower house, once suggested that Congress establish a Heterosexual Pride Day. After a Brazilian soap opera featured a gay kiss, he broadcast his revulsion on Twitter. (Mr. Cunha, who faces allegations that he took $40 million in bribes, was ordered to step down in May.)

During a televised presidential debate in 2014, one of the candidates, Levy Fidelix, said that homosexuals were unfit to be parents and that “excretory systems aren’t for reproduction.” Jair Bolsonaro, a congressman well known for his conservative views, has recommended corporal punishment as a tool for turning gays into heterosexuals.

Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College who studies gay rights movements in Latin America, said much of the homophobia was a reaction to achievements like same-sex marriage.

“Brazilians are becoming more tolerant,” he said, “but the countertrend is that those who remain intolerant and opposed to L.G.B.T. rights are developing new strategies and a more virulent discourse to block progress on those issues.”

Marco Feliciano, a prominent member of the evangelical bloc in Congress, rejects suggestions that anti-gay sentiment fosters violence. In an interview, he expressed regret for an earlier remark describing AIDS as “a gay cancer,” but defended efforts to fight gay rights legislation, insisting, for example, that same-sex couples are unfit to be parents.

“They put civilization and traditional families at risk of destruction,” he said.

Conservative politicians have resisted efforts to teach tolerance in schools, and the police have shown little interest in adopting training programs to help rank-and-file officers tackle bias crimes. Victims of anti-gay and transgender violence say they often experience a fresh round of humiliation from the law enforcement authorities, some of whom are openly hostile to requests that they record a crime as bias-motivated.

Dudu Quintanilha, 28, an artist and photographer from São Paulo, said he had been beaten with a stick by four assailants during Carnival this year. The attackers, who set upon him in the heart of downtown, shouted anti-gay epithets as they bloodied his face, he said, but the police refused to consider the attack an act of homophobia.

Over several hours, he said, officers at a police station insisted that he had been the victim of a simple robbery because he lost his cellphone and wallet during the chaos. “In the end, they made me doubt whether a homophobic attack really happened,” he said. “They made me doubt if I was in my right mind.”

Antonio Kvalo, 34, a web designer, created, a site where Brazilians can log instances of anti-gay violence. He said he had been motivated in part by his own experience, in 2008, when two men tackled him on a street in Rio and kicked him dozens of times.

When the police arrived, they repeatedly questioned his account and, after he insisted that they record the attack as a hate crime, told him to drape himself over the trunk of their vehicle and assume the pose of a suspect. “They made me feel like I was a criminal,” he said.

Activists say transgender Brazilians face the greatest brutality, with many murder victims badly mutilated. Last year, a group of men videotaped their assault on Piu da Silva, 25, an ebullient samba dancer in Rio, who was tortured and forced to beg for her life before being stabbed and shot six times. The assailants, who posted the attack on Facebook, were not found.

“Transsexuals live with constant fear,” Mr. Kvalo said.

Even when suspects in homophobic violence are arrested, advocates say, they are often treated leniently. The two men who savagely beat André Baliera, a 28-year-old law student, in an upscale neighborhood of São Paulo were originally charged with attempted murder. Last year, after serving a two-month sentence, the men were ordered to pay a $6,300 fine and released.

The fear is palpable for Gilson Borges Reis, 18, a student in Lauro de Freitas, an industrial city in northeast Brazil. Last month, a cousin who had long taunted him for being gay chased him down the street with a kitchen knife, stabbing him in the chest and arms as relatives watched in horror.

Mr. Reis survived, and the cousin, an evangelical Christian, was arrested. He has been charged with attempted murder, but was promptly released on bail.

The two cousins live on the same street. “He passes my house and flashes me an awful expression,” Mr. Reis said through tears. “I have no protection. I am afraid.”

by Andrew Jacobs
Source – The New York Times