Is Manaus gay friendly

Gay, hated and marginalized

Brazil is experiencing a wave of homophobic violence, in which the police also have their part. But it is mainly conservative politicians and evangelical preachers who stir up hatred. Homosexuals and transgender people are therefore calling for an education offensive - and have already founded their own church.

By Andrzej Rybak

Diego Vieira Machado, a homosexual, died on the campus of the State University of Rio de Janeiro. The half-naked, mutilated corpse of the 29-year-old literature student from Belém on the Amazon was found last July with traces of torture and head injuries on the shores of Guanabara Bay. "He fled the homophobia, which is widespread in the north," says his brother Maycon in a suburb of Belém. "In Rio he hoped to find a liberal society that would accept his gayness. It was there, of all places, that he was brutally murdered."

Machado isn't the only victim. Brazil has been experiencing a wave of homophobic violence for a number of years. In 2015 alone, 318 lesbians, gays and transsexuals were murdered because of their sexual orientation or gender identity - one murder every 27 hours. "It's gotten a lot worse recently," says Jandira Queiroz of Amnesty International in Brazil. "The situation is threatening to get out of hand."

From January 2012 to September 2016, 1,600 homosexuals and transgender people were killed in Brazil, estimates the non-governmental organization "Grupo Gay da Bahia", which has evaluated newspaper reports. It is the oldest and best organized association of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in the country. The number of victims is likely to be much higher, because homophobic murders are often not registered as such by the police.

Brazil enjoys the image of an open and tolerant country. The world's largest gay parade takes place in São Paulo every year, and sexuality is celebrated in public during the carnival. Since the end of the military dictatorship 30 years ago, Parliament has passed many laws that improve the lives of sexual minorities. Since 1996 the country has offered free medicines to people infected with HIV; gay and lesbian couples are allowed to adopt children; In 2013 gay marriage was legalized. But behind the liberal facade, hatred and violence smolder.

"I've been beaten up and raped many times," says transvestite Natascha Carvalho. With these words he shows no emotion at all, as if he had got used to the violence. He lives in São Jorge, a poor district of Manaus, where many drug addicts, gays and transvestites live. Natascha dropped out of school early and can hardly write. "I couldn't find a job. I had no choice but to get on the streets."

Natascha has long hair dyed blonde and badly varnished fingernails. The transvestite knows many who have fallen victim to homophobic violence. A lesbian friend was brutally raped by a group of men who wanted to teach her a lesson and force her to have a "correct" sexual orientation. A gay neighbor was murdered with 55 stab wounds - and he was already dead after the third. Natascha wants to leave: "When I've saved enough money, I'll go to São Paulo," says the transvestite. "I know a man there I can live with."

Even in this country where violence is widespread, homosexual murders are noticeable for their brutality. "Homophobia is deeply rooted in Brazilian culture," says the anthropologist Luiz Mott, founder of the "Grupo Gay da Bahia". "The violence against gays is fueled by the machismo that is socially acceptable. A typical Brazilian mother would rather have a thief for her son than a gay one." Homosexual or transgender people are often rejected by their families, bullied at school and ultimately ended up on the streets.

Evangelical agitation against homosexuals

The evangelical Pentecostal churches, which openly agitate against sexual minorities and transgender people, are also to blame for the increasing violence. They spread rapidly in Brazil in the past decades, and they are said to already make up around 30 percent of the population. Evangelicals consider homosexuality a perverse disease and blasphemy - and downright hunt down non-heterosexual church members.

"They use every opportunity to gossip against us," says the gay activist Eduardo Benigno from the "Grupo Homosexual do Pará" in Belém. "Even during masses, they incite churchgoers." As a gay student, he fought against the stigmatization of those infected with HIV and against the spread of AIDS. Now the 39-year-old campaigns for LGBTI rights.

The evangelical churches in Brazil control dozens of television and radio stations through which they distribute homophobic propaganda. In the meantime they also have an enormous influence on Brazilian politics, around 60 evangelical MPs and senators sit in the Congress in Brasilia.

They form a strong and very disciplined group there, which has set itself the goal of stopping any further liberalization of legislation with regard to sexual minorities and consistently withdrawing the freedoms granted so far. They recently opposed the attempt to tighten the penalties for gay discrimination and blocked an educational reform aimed at teaching tolerance towards minorities in schools.

One of its prominent leaders, Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, even demands corporal punishment in order to raise homosexuals to be heterosexuals. His conservative colleague Marco Feliciano sees the continued existence of the nation and the family at risk, since same-sex couples cannot have children.

Police victim

Such voices reinforce prejudices in society - and in the state apparatus. The police consider it unnecessary to hold training programs for officers who are involved in the fight against anti-gender crime. Victims of homophobic violence repeatedly accuse the police of harassing and humiliating them. Even in court, things are not always impartial. In most cases, attacks on homosexuals are either not punished at all or only very lightly punished. And often the perpetrators get away with a fine.

Berto Paes knows this from personal experience. The owner of the "Bar do Angela" in Belém, which is known as a popular meeting place for gays and lesbians, was beaten up and locked up by police officers. "Two officers came in while we were having a party and started searching people for no reason," said the 43-year-old. "They grabbed the women between the legs and by the breasts, then asked for money."

When he protested the harassment of his guests, he was unceremoniously taken away and beaten up in prison. After violent protests by the Brazilian Association of Lesbians, Gays and Transgender People, Paes was released the next day, but his lawsuit against the police was dismissed for lack of evidence - despite clear beaten marks.

"The police are only a reflection of society," says the transsexual Renata Taylor, who has been a victim of the police several times and is repeatedly confronted with violence. In front of the Teatro da Paz, a neoclassical building in Belém, Taylor immediately attracts attention with her six feet. She wears a headband that lets her long black hair fall back. "Transsexuals and gays used to wait here at night for their clients," says the 48-year-old. "Sometimes the police would come and grab people and make them sit in a fountain for hours."

Taylor, a trained hairdresser, also hunted for a while because nobody in town wanted to give her a job. Then she opened her own small salon - and began campaigning for the rights of the LGBTI community. Today Taylor is executive secretary of the human rights division of ANTRA, the national association of transsexuals and transvestites.

Taylor believes that the lack of education is primarily responsible for homophobic violence. "Many people actually think transgender and gay people are perverted or at least sex addicts. They have heard these prejudices and slanders over and over again." The problem is exacerbated by poverty, which leads gays and transgender people to the margins of society in their struggle for survival, into prostitution and crime.

Sanctuary church

In this Brazilian everyday life, which is characterized by homophobic violence, the Christian Contemporary Church (Igreja Cristã Contemporânea) is an important refuge. It was founded in 2006 by the gay lawyer and theologian Marcos Gladstone in Rio de Janeiro and is open to sexual minorities and transgender people.

"We believe that homosexuals, lesbians, and transgender people are just as much God's children as anybody else," says Gladstone, 50, who is married to a fellow gay pastor and is raising two adopted boys. Their marriage was officially registered last year - the first gay marriage between two pastors in Brazil. "In His mercy, our Almighty God cannot cast off anyone," says Gladstone. "Not even the gays."

The headquarters of the church is in Madureira, in the north of Rio de Janeiro. In front of the simple, yellow-painted house of God, private security guards make sure everything is in order. Because the churchgoers are afraid. "Some of our members have been personally attacked, beaten, or verbally abused," says Gladstone. "Unfortunately the violence has been increasing lately. I have tightened security measures and am trying to offer consolation."

The church is a reservoir for the colorful gay and lesbian community of the metropolis and is growing every day. There are frustrated gay and lesbian Christians who have been cast out from their churches. And there are heterosexual believers who show solidarity with the idea or accompany a homosexual family member.

In the mass everything runs the usual Christian course, a band plays edifying hymns, the congregation sings along and dances. Gladstone preaches. "We do not differ from other churches in Christian teaching," emphasizes the pastor. "But we are of the opinion that gays also have the right to hear the word of God."

The contemporary church now has five houses of worship and more than 12,000 followers. After Rio de Janeiro, Gladstone opened churches in São Paulo and Belo Horizonte. The trade fairs there are also well attended. "Most of the LGBTI community is as religious as the straight," says Gladstone. "She needs spiritual guidance." The church lives on donations from its members, who mostly belong to the middle class.

Not only does Gladstone go about his pastoral duties, he also advocates tolerance towards sexual minorities at every opportunity. He gives interviews in Brazilian media, seeks dialogue with other religious leaders, but also with the agitators from politics. "Violence against gays and transgender people can only be reduced through education and information," says the pastor. "And with God's help."

This article appeared in the February 2017 issue of the Amnesty Journal.