Out Leadership’s Managing Director, Global Equality Initiatives, Fabrice Houdart spoke with Gabriel Galli, Journalist and operational director of the NGO ‘Somos – communication, health and sexuality,’ about the state of LGBTQ+ equality in Brazil.
Gabriel, you have devoted your life to journalism and activism on LGBTQ+ issues, how do you look back at it? Do you feel you saw more progress than you expected?
It is undeniable that we have made important advances in Brazil in recent years. We have earned the right to marry, we can adopt children, donate blood, transgender people and travestis can change gender and name on documents and discrimination has become a crime. At the same time, we see more LGBTI+ people taking up space in the media and politics. These achievements are the result of a lot of struggle by social movements.
None of these achievements came through the National Congress in Brazil, they were all the result of requests from NGOs in the judiciary. The parliament continues to ignore us and we see an advance of conservative forces at this moment in Brazil. So yes. I think we have had more achievements than I expected, especially in the last two years, when we have a president who dedicates time and energy to fighting LGBTI+ people in Brazil. As soon as Bolsonaro was elected, I wrote a story for Global Voices describing how LGBTI+ people were suffering from anxiety attacks and even having panic attacks projecting what could happen. I also heard reports of people being assaulted in the streets with political-related violence. In these two years and a half of government, we see that the violence against us continues to be very severe, but we also see the social movement more articulated. This is important.
Brazil has always been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ issues globally. Yet, the current administration has rolled back some of the progress achieved. Can you give us some examples of these steps backward?
The Bolsonaro government has not only neglected the rights of LGBTI+ people, as if it has not paid attention to the agenda, for example. The government has been fighting us directly. We saw the president’s representative in our supreme court argue that LGBTIfoia should not be criminalized. During the covid-19 pandemic, our population, which already suffers from violence, was not the target of public policies to reduce the effects of poverty that makes access to education and employment even more difficult. On the contrary, in the midst of the pandemic, Bolsonaro said he would send a bill to the National Congress to prohibit talking about sex and gender diversity in schools.
The NGO of which I am part of the direction has space in a national council to combat torture, which is very common, especially within prisons. We see the minister of human rights, Damares Alves, trying to disrupt the functioning of this council and this is very dangerous for LGBTI+ people, who are tortured in prisons and have their rights denied. The minister has also been dedicated to preventing any action that arises involving sexual and gender diversity in the government. The government is also trying to legalize and encourage home education so that conservative groups, especially those linked to churches, can commercially operate the service and teach ideas that discriminate against our community but also deny science in many areas. All actions to combat bullying and encourage diversity in the Ministry of Education are gone. In the field of Health, Brazil, which was an international reference in the fight against HIV/AIDS, sees the dismantling of public policies and campaigns to prevent sexually transmitted infections have become prudish and ignore the LGBTI+ population. In Culture, there is a frequent boycott of films, books and any type of production that talks about sexual and gender diversity.
We should be expecting progress, but today we are sighing with relief when there is no setback. That is very dangerous.
One of the candidates to the Brazilian Presidential elections came out as gay. Is this a major event?
It’s definitely an important event. We have never had an openly LGBTI+ presidential candidate and my state, Rio Grande do Sul, has never had a gay governor, which is the case with Eduardo Leite. I believe the fact that it comes out of the closet makes it visible to LGBTI+ people that it is possible to occupy spaces of power. But it is important to make a caveat: we LGBTI+ have been learning more and more, not only in Brazil but throughout the world, that a large part of the oppression we suffer is connected with structural oppression of the system, which denies us poverty and the denial of rights. In this sense, Eduardo Leite does not automatically become an ally of the LGBTI+ cause just because he is gay. Even though he was gay and a frequent victim of homophobic speculation during the last campaign, he openly supported Bolsonaro, the president who had said in an interview that he preferred a dead child to an LGBTI+ child, and is already recognized internationally as one of the biggest enemies of the community in Brazil. When Eduardo Leite announced his sexuality on a TV show, he pointed out that he is a “governor who is gay and not a gay who is a governor” (“Eu sou um governador gay, não um gay governador”, in Portuguese). He meant that his sexuality would have no impact on his way of governing. I wrote an article for Revista Fórum, for which I am a columnist, calling attention to the exact opposite. The fact that he is gay has a direct impact on political life. If not, it would never have taken him so long to come out in public to talk about it. Being gay in such a homophobic country, he could have developed a sensitivity to combat discrimination as a whole, but he chose the moment of announcement to make a “cleaning” of his image.
As governor, Leite is not an example of public policies for the LGBTI+ population. He had some important specific actions, such as the creation of a police station specializing in violence against LGBTI+ in the state capital, which is very important, but there is no concrete plan to combat discrimination, nor data generated on the subject.
You decry violence against LGBTQ+ people in Brazil and mentioned two months ago that a gay boy suffered gang rape and was tattooed by force, what do you believe is at the root of this anti-LGBTQ+ violence?
While I was writing the answer to this question I had to stop. I was informed by a friend that a 16-year-old boy, the son of a Brazilian singer, committed suicide because he was the target of homophobic comments after posting a video on the internet. He made a joke, insinuating kisses that didn’t materialize to a friend and published it online. The two recognized each other as heterosexual. The comments were so violent he couldn’t take it. I was so disgusted that I couldn’t write anymore that night.
Not even a month ago, a transsexual woman was killed after being burned alive in Recife, in northeastern Brazil. There was this case that you commented on corrective rape followed by tattooing, there was a remarkable case of a travesti who was beaten and carried in a wheelbarrow. Two weeks ago, a travesti was put into a trunk, tortured and beaten with police watching idly. I describe these situations because I think sometimes people outside of Brazil don’t have a real sense of what’s going on. And I can’t tell you one reason just why we tolerate so much violence and so drastically, but I have some suspicions.
We have an extremely sexist society that sees anything that deviates from the traditional family pattern as wrong. We had hundreds of years of influence from the Catholic Church with conservative policies, which reached the height of criticism of the use of condoms at the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Now, neo-Pentecostal churches assume power with more prejudice. There are no concrete public policies to combat discrimination in Brazil. And only now is there any change in the media, which for a long time has tolerated recreational homophobia as legitimate. Violence against LGBTI+ is naturalized and embedded in our culture.
I believe that this can only be resolved with broad public policies that attack different sectors, from culture, through education to public safety and social assistance. We are still a long way from that.
Brazil has a vibrant private sector, do you feel it is doing its part to advance LGBTQ+ equality in the country?
The movements created by LGBTI+ workers within companies are very important for them to demand their rights, fight discrimination, create welcoming environments and encourage companies that are not always open to addressing the issue to campaign and publicly position themselves. These movements are still much more discreet than they could be in Brazil, but they are evolving well.
It is still a challenge to make many companies truly understand that their actions have a profound impact on the lives of the communities where they operate. This makes people sometimes try to argue with managers that it is important to invest in diversity because it brings more profit, for example. I believe this is not the best strategy because it is not necessarily true and human rights are not products. Concrete reality change policies demand a lot of internal training on diversity, changing practices and research. And externally, the company needs to invest in projects by social organizations and long-term qualification of LGBTI+ people. I give an example. About 90% of transgender people and travestis in Brazil need to resort to prostitution to live and cannot finish school. If a company wants to bring these people together, it needs to invest in their education. This costs time and money. But it should not be done because it will generate a profit, there are no guarantees that it will. It must be done because we are in a country where these people are exterminated. It’s about taking responsibility.
But I welcome initiatives that are developing. Recently, there was a large union of companies that publicly took a stand against a bill in São Paulo that wanted to ban advertising with LGBTI+ people. This initiative was coordinated by my friend and important consultant in the area, Ricardo Sales, from Mais Diversidade. These actions have a real impact that goes beyond representation in advertising campaigns, which is important, of course, but does not actually solve the problems. I think it’s an example that should be followed.