The Deadly Side of Brazilian Carnival
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what looks like pluralism can hide deadly divisions.
Casa Nem, the only all-LGBT shelter in the state of Rio, last month set aside its usual mission — preparing gay and trans teens and young adults for college entrance exams — to prep a sound system and deck the halls of its downtown Rio de Janeiro offices with glitter. For this year’s Carnival, here among the narrow lanes of the Lapa district, the shelter and safe house hosted CarNEM, a street party to protest prejudice and violence against LGBT Brazilians. Shelter director Indianara Siqueira looked festive in a black Carnival mask draped with chains of gold plastic stars, but her mood was somber as Afro-Brazilian drummers and dancers encircled turbaned musician Eliete Miranda, who defiantly shouted into a microphone: “We can’t pass this Carnival without protesting.”
Despite its reputation for tolerance and alegria, Brazil has a growing problem with hate crimes directed at its LGBT communities. State and federal governments don’t keep statistics on violence against LGBT Brazilians. Instead, they rely on the prominent watchdog organization Grupo Gay da Bahia (GGB), which in turn monitors media reports for its tally. On that basis, the GGB claims that 343 LGBT Brazilians were killed in 2016 — the deadliest year on record since the group began tracking such fatalities in 1981. According to the organization’s director, Federal University of Bahia anthropologist Luiz Mott, that figure is “only the tip of the iceberg.” The GGB calculated that nearly half of those killed last year were transgender.
When the tide is going completely against us, we need to put our demands in public space.
Luana Caiube, theater director and LGBT activist, Fortaleza, Brazil
Younger LGBT Brazilians are at risk as well. A nationwide network of LGBT organizations found that in 2015, nearly one-quarter of Brazilian youth who identified as LGBT had been physically harassed in schools. And so in this year’s Carnivals, which historian and critic Luiz Antonio Simas describes to OZY as “a space of LGBT affirmation,” groups from communities up and down Brazil’s Atlantic coast repurposed pre-Lent celebrations and sharpened their political barbs with distinct messages of protest.
The backdrop to these growing threats is a Brazilian political environment moving ever rightward. Last year, the most conservative congress since the military dictatorship ended in 1985 impeached center-left president Dilma Rousseff for employing budgetary sleights-of-hand to conceal a looming deficit and replaced her with Michel Temer, who leans on right-wing lawmakers for support. These include a growing evangelical caucus, some of whom advocate government-funded psychiatric “cures” for homosexuality. The politician currently polling third in Brazil’s 2018 presidential race has said he would rather his son die than come out as gay.
At the local level, conservative politicians also are rising to positions of power. Rio de Janeiro’s new mayor, Marcelo Crivella, is a former evangelical bishop who once wrote that homosexuality is a “terrible evil.” Nélio Giorgini, the mayor’s sexual diversity coordinator, tells OZY that activist concerns about evangelical politicians and dangers to LGBT Brazilians are exaggerated. “I, a gay evangelical, spent the first month in office meeting with activists,” he says. Referencing his boss’ antigay comments in the past, Giorgini says, “We need to respect that people’s opinions change and humans advance.”
All the same, the LGBT community is gearing up to protest — and to protect. Anthropologist Mott opened this year’s gay Carnival parade in Salvador, Bahia, which is usually a jubilant affair, by saying, “Protect yourselves from violence. Don’t go to areas that don’t seem safe. And if you’re being attacked, run.” Rio’s leftist Commune That Gave Birth street band, or bloco, which sings about national politics, devoted their anthem to a call for LGBT people’s “right to exist.” In the northern Brazilian city of Fortaleza, theater director Luana Caiube organized a trans Carnival parade because “when the tide is going completely against us, we need to put our demands in public space.”
Even Rio’s traditionally tolerant enclaves have been rocked recently by violence. Homophobic graffiti have spread around the campus of the city’s Federal University, where a gay student named Diogo Machado received threatening emails and was found dead last July — beaten, naked and left at the edge of a bay that borders the campus. “In the last year, a right-wing youth group on campus has opened up space for homophobic comments you didn’t hear before,” says architecture student Dimmy Trindade, Machado’s roommate. Machado’s death remains unsolved, like those of most slain LGBT Brazilians, according to Mott.
Simas, the historian, says it’s important to remember that Carnival has its limits when it comes to changing social norms. “It’s common to hear conservative criticism of Carnival as an immoral festival,” he says. Rio’s new mayor was the first in 30 years not to attend its opening.
That’s why Fortaleza’s trans parade made a point to debut in a more conservative neighborhood, “away from those who already agree with us,” says drag performer Rodrigo Ferrera. “There were straight men and families who told me they were charmed by the parade, and that interaction is invaluable.” For Casa Nem’s director Siqueira, “Carnival should be one part of relentless year-round activism. We want to see real government measures to protect our safety. I was in the street at the Women’s Strike on March 8.”
Carnival activism already yielded a powerful return for trans model Rafaela Firmo. When she was put in the male category this year at a major costume competition in Rio, she responded by dressing as Trans Eve in an outfit of strategically placed shimmering green vines and delivering a protest speech. The presenter, a prominent television personality, apologetically announced that in the future, contestants would determine their gender category.
Later that night, while standing outside a Rio nightclub, Firmo and a friend, who is also transgender, were kicked and punched by a pair of drunken men. “This is why we protest, in all spaces,” Firmo tells OZY. “Without visibility, there is no acceptance.”