Column by Scott Salmon
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Last week’s vote by the Federal Supreme Court (STF) laid the foundation for landmark legislation which will include protection for sexual minorities in the nation’s anti-discrimination laws.
In doing so, the STF threw into stark relief a fundamental tension underlying Brazilian society: a profound ambivalence concerning the rights of its LGBTQ community.
Brazil is still a predominantly Catholic country but one also experiencing explosive growth in evangelical Christianity. Both groups constitute powerful conservative social forces ensuring the hegemony of heteronormativity and reinforcing traditional gender roles.
At the same time, Brazil contains a vibrant LBGTQ community and has an international reputation (albeit undoubtedly exaggerated) for sexual permissiveness.
Same-sex marriage was legalized in 2013, making Brazil the third country in Latin America and the fifteenth in the world to do so.
This societal paradox–a nation simultaneously socially conservative yet liberal–is nowhere more clearly encapsulated than in attitudes towards granting legal protection to sexual minorities.
While several states have extended legal protection to their LGBT communities, bills have been introduced to Congress (since 2001) calling for nationwide legislation, but none have been brought to a vote.
It was this delay – a protracted failure to treat discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or identity as legally equivalent to racism – that a majority of the STF ruled unconstitutional.
The decision is in many ways a recognition of the reality lived by the nation’s LGBTQ communities. Traditionally a rural machismo culture, open hostility, and discrimination towards sexual minorities is still surprisingly common in Brazil.
Worse, its cities are not safe environments for the public expression of sexual orientations or gender identities that differ from traditional norms.
Brazil is reported to have the world’s highest LGBTQ murder rate, with at least 380 murders in 2017 alone.
According to gay rights activists, there has been an upswing in homophobic hate crimes since last year’s election, which has seen incidents of violence against sexual minorities triple.
The STF ruling will put pressure on a parliament which has debated criminalizing homophobia but consistently failed to overcome opposition from conservative religious factions.
But it will also antagonize President Bolsonaro who, open in his contempt for the LGBTQ community, has declared himself “homophobic with pride”.
Likely following his lead, anti-gay epithets also found their way on to some of the signage displayed during Sunday’s pro-Bolsonaro demonstrations in cities across the country.
Playing to this conservative base, the President recently declared that Brazil wouldn’t become a “gay tourism paradise.” Leaving few constituencies unscathed, he went on to say, “if you want to come here and have sex with a woman, go for it, but Brazil can’t be a country of the gay world, of gay tourism.”
Despite such sentiment emanating from the Planalto, São Paulo is home to the world’s largest Pride festival, attracting more than 3 million visitors every year.
This shows no sign of abating. São Paulo was just ranked first of 50 top destinations for Gay Pride festivals in 2019 by one of the internet’s most influential tourist search engines.
All globalizing societies must eventually develop the capacity to accommodate difference – whether social, racial, ethnic or sexual – and this is especially true for nations, such as Brazil, simultaneously experiencing a rapid rural to urban transition.
Old ways, traditions, and comfortable prejudices are inevitably challenged by the existence of, and proximity to, alternity. Difference – and change – are realities of twenty-first-century urban life and, arguably, the source of its greatest creative potential.
This does not mean people are required to endorse lifestyles they do not approve of – whatever their grounds – but rather to simply recognize the humanity of others.
Allowing for lifestyle difference on the principle of “live and let live” is merely a recognition that life – in its infinite variety – is sacred.
If Brazil is to become a truly cosmopolitan nation, that “country of the future” it once aspired to be, it must come to terms with the need for difference – in this case in personal lifestyle – to harmoniously co-exist.