Could Brazil be the worst place in the world to be gay?

People take part in the 2nd Gay Parade Against Homophobia in Brasilia in support of gays, lesbians and transgender persons in on May 18, 2011. Despite such movements, an anti-LGBT culture continues to persist throughout the country.

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Every member of Mães pela Igualdade ("Mothers for Equality") – an association of parents of homosexuals in Brazil – has a story to tell. Eleonora Pereira's is one of the most heart-breaking: On Oct. 14, 2010 her 24-year-old son, José Ricardo, went missing. Two days later he reappeared, severely beaten, at the intensive care unit of a local hospital. He died from his wounds soon after.

José Ricardo's death is suspected to be a revenge killing – a month before he died, Pereira, a human rights activist, helped convict a death squad accused of murdering the partner of a local police officer. But vengeance wasn’t the only reason why José Ricardo was murdered, investigators found. Of Pereira’s three children, he was the only homosexual.

Brazil doesn’t have explicit anti-gay laws, but that doesn’t mean gays and lesbians are any safer. Every 28 hours, an individual becomes a fatal victim of homophobia in Brazil, according to the Gay Group of Bahia, a non-government organization that defends the rights of homosexuals.

And the murders are often violent: “Besides firearms, many victims were killed by melee weapons – knife, sickle, ax – beating and hanging. There are even cases of torture and carbonization,” according to a report by Homofobiamata ("Homophobia kills"), a group that tracks the number of people who die as a result of gender violence. “These characteristics indicate that these are not trivial occurrences, but hate crimes against LGBT people.”

For instance, in 2011 it was reported that in Sao Paulo, a man had his ear cut off by a group of strangers who thought the boy he was hugging was his partner. It turned out they were father and son.

Homophobia is directly linked to sexism, which is very strong in Brazil, according to studies published in 2012 by the Psychology Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. More than actual sexual orientation, the way people behave or dress, when interpreted as homosexual, could lead to some sort of abuse.

The rise of evangelical fundamentalism in Brazil in the last decade and their hate speech against homosexuals is seen by many as the main contributor to this increasing homophobia.

The group represents only 22 percent of the population, but unlike other religions, they are willing to use any available means to spread their views. Besides owning television and radio stations, they also managed to elect 73 representatives strong enough to defend their values in National Congress.

Criminalizing homophobia

The current law against discrimination is generic and doesn’t address homophobia specifically. For that reason, in 2001 Iara Bernardi, former member of the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House), presented a bill aimed at criminalizing homophobia.

For years, the bill passed from one commission to another finally arriving at the Federal Senate (Upper House) in 2006. The bill, now named PLC122/06, remained filed until 2011. Numerous attempts to pass this bill were hindered by evangelical backbenchers, who claimed that the bill would hurt freedom of speech and religion as those who publicly criticize homosexuality can be sentenced up to 5 years in prison.

In November 2013,the bill was withdrawn from the agenda so that a "consensus on the text" could be reached. The project might be discussed again if the Penal Code in place is eventually reviewed.

During the recent presidential elections, Dilma Rouseff was the only candidate who showed support for the bill. Two days after her victory, she posted on her Facebook page that criminalizing homophobia is a “civilized measure”, drawing criticism from two of the most influencial pentecostal priests in the country, Silas Malafaia and Marco Feliciano.

Fighting for justice

The way the national law enforcement institutions deal with cases reveals the pervasiveness of homophobia. The police chief who first dealth with José Ricardo’s case suggested that he was involved in prostitution and drug trafficking.

“My son was a theatre professor and choreographer,” Pereira said. “Unfortunately, whenever the police is dealing case involving homosexuals, they often assume their involvement in some sort of crime.”.

As the latest Global Study on Homicides released by the UN shows, nearly 11 percent of all homicides worldwide in 2012 happened in Brazil. For that reason, it is hard to tell an ordinary crime from a homophobic one.

José Ricardo’s murderers have been incarcerated for four years. Although the investigations proved that he was killed for being gay, homophobia isn’t considered a crime, so it won’t possible to convict them for that.

“Nowadays, there are 58 countries in which homophobia is criminalized. Homophobic crimes still happen, but there have been a reduction in the cases,” said Toni Reis, executive director of Grupo Digninade (Dignity Group) – a non-government organization that promotes gender diversity. “I firmly believe that we can only achieve the end of prejudice against gay people with education and respect for human dignity. It is a long battle without an easy solution. Criminalizing homophobia is just the first step.”