There was good news for LGBTQ people in Brazil this week as President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva confirmed his commitment to protect their rights at a meeting with US President Biden in Washington DC. The news comes after a difficult four years which saw many people flee the country as homophobic and transphobic violence escalated under the Bolsonaro regime.
The meeting, which also addressed issues around racial discrimination and the need to protect indigenous populations in both countries, saw the two leaders agree on the need for cooperation and coordination in their efforts to advance human rights. Since he took office on 1 January, President Lula’s reforms have included appointing a new Minister for Human Rights and Citizenship, Silvio Almeida, and restoring LGBTQ rights to the ministry’s remit.
Research carried out by Grupo Gay de Bahia found that at least 242 LGBTQ people were murdered in the country in 2022, with another 14 dying by suicide. Populations in rural areas, especially in the north of the country, faced significantly higher risk. Another study, by Associação Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais (ANTRA), found that 131 trans people had been murdered that year, with a further 20 taking their own lives.
Although research like this is unlikely to capture the full picture as it relies on accurate reporting, comparison with similar studies carried out in other countries, and with the murder rate for the general population, shows that the problem is significant. Furthermore, the AMPAS study found that in 72% of cases the killers had no connection to the victims, increasing the probability that the attacks were motivated by hate.
Responding to the research, Almeida insisted that addressing such violence is not just a matter of political correctness. “Is it possible to build a country supporting the murder of people just because they are what they are?” he asked. “If we don’t have the decency to change this reality, we won’t deserve to be a country.”
Human rights concerns under Bolsonaro’s regime
Former President Jair Bolsonaro made extensive use of homophobic rhetoric in his election campaigns in 2018 and 2022, stating that if his own son ever came out as gay, he would rather he were dead. He said that he would beat up men he saw kissing in the street and also argued that if a child’s behaviour suggested he were gay, beating him severely would ‘cure’ him. He condemned the Brazilian Supreme Court’s decision to criminalise homophobia and transphobia in 2019.
Amnesty International warned that LGBTQ people faced ‘physical attacks, threats, discrimination and social marginalisation’ under the Bolsonaro regime. It also expressed concerns about the safety of human rights defenders in the country at the time, citing the murder of LGBTQ rights campaigner Lindolfo Kosmaski, who was found shot to death in her burnt out car in the south-eastern state of Paraná.
Both Lula and Biden spoke out against fake news, which is a huge problem in Brazil, going to such extremes that Lula was forced to make a public statement, during his 2021 election campaign, denying that he had formed a pact with Satan. It has been used extensively to target LGBTQ people, with rhetoric often centring on a supposed threat to children. Organisations like Outright International have identified this as part of a pattern of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric which has become increasingly common around the world in recent years, and which includes the targeting of equality campaigners in Scotland. In Brazil, the lack of any official strategy to counter it has made it particularly toxic.
Despite this, in the same election which saw Bolsonaro defeated – a defeat which some of his supporters have yet to acknowledge – there were further advances for LGBTQ people, with two trans women, Duda Salabert and Erika Hilton, elected to the country’s National Congress. The country’s first openly gay state governor, Eduardo Leite, was re-elected to serve Rio Grande do Sul and has even been tipped as a future presidential candidate.
Lula has been a longstanding proponent of equality, spearheading the Brazilian Health Ministry’s Brazil Without Homophobia campaign in 2014 and working to tackle prejudice within the police force. However, some people remain worried that he will give way to pressure from the country’s religious right, making it difficult to tackle entrenched prejudice. It has also been claimed that courts have been slow to process hate crime cases so the 2019 laws have not actually done much to help. The Washington speech, which included a condemnation of extremism and hate speech, will provide some reassurance as LGBTQ people around the globe aim to support each other through a volatile period.