Latin America & Caribbean

Brazil gay rights progress highlights deep divisions

People wave Gay movement flags, left and right, and a Brazilian one, centre, during a march against homophobia in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, 18 May 2011 Image copyright AP
Image caption Gay rights campaigners say homophobia is a serious problem across Brazil

Upwards of a million people are expected to party under the rainbow flag in Brazil's biggest city, Sao Paulo, on Sunday in the 15th Gay Pride March.

Participants have a lot to celebrate, including a ruling in May by the Supreme Court that recognised the rights of same-sex couples regarding their rights to visit each other in hospital and jointly own property in the same way married couples do.

But despite the partying set to take place in Brazil's cosmopolitan metropolis, the march has not been without controversy.

Leaflets given out by City Hall advised participants to avoid "scandalous" clothes - a move criticised by the march's organisers who said they were not consulted.

Life cut short

Homophobia is a problem across Brazil, often in the smaller towns and cities. In some instances this manifests itself in violence.

According to gay rights campaigners, there were 260 murders of gays, lesbians or transvestites in Brazil last year. They estimate there have been 65 killings so far this year.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Angelica Ivo is determined to see justice done for her son Alexandre

Someone who experienced Brazil's homophobia is Angelica Ivo from Sao Goncalo, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro.

In June last year, her 14-year-old son, Alexandre, was beaten and strangled to death by skinheads who suspected him of being gay after seeing him at a party.

The suspects have not been prosecuted due to a lack of evidence.

"They didn't know my son, they had only seen him at the party. He hadn't had any sexual experiences yet, either with boys or girls. He was just starting his life.

"He never fought with anyone, and hated violence. I can't understand how anyone could have such hate inside themselves that they could do this," says Ms Ivo.

She says will continue to fight for justice for her son.

"Brazil is a very hypocritical society, it pretends to be tolerant but it isn't. We have the best carnival in the world and it appears that everyone lives together harmoniously, yet gay couples still can't kiss in public," Ms Ivo says.

"Every time we have a march to promote tolerance, the Church groups organise an even bigger one in the name of the family."

Ms Ivo recently presented a petition to Brazil's Senate asking for the approval of a law that would criminalise homophobia.

Although a law from 1989 forbids prejudice on the grounds of race, colour, religion, or national origin, there is no legislation relating to homophobic crimes.

"If this law already existed, many crimes would not have been committed," says Ms Ivo.

Kit controversy

Activists can point to some changes in recent months.

As well as the court ruling granting more rights for same-sex couples, an awareness campaign in Rio called "Rio Sem Homofobia" (Rio without homophobia), was launched by city authorities in May.

"Things have got a bit better, with gays and lesbians more visible than before, and some changes in the law. But change needs to start in schools, training teachers as well as children," says Jandira Queiroz of Rio's Sexual Policy Watch.

Image copyright AP
Image caption President Dilma Rousseff decided the anti-homophobia kits were not appropriate

"This is a very conservative country, and still a very macho society... If you go to the countryside, you will find even more machismo. It is common to hear people say it is better your son was dead than gay."

In a sign of sensitivity over the issue, President Dilma Rousseff decided not to go ahead with planned "anti-homophobia kits", sex education films supposed to combat homophobia.

She said the material did not give an objective view of homosexuality.

At the time, President Rousseff said the government would defend education and the fight against homophobia.

"However, the government cannot allow any group to make propaganda relating to sexual orientation. We cannot interfere in people's private lives," she said.

Ms Rousseff's decision came after Church groups and their allies in Congress protested and threatened to block any forthcoming legislation unless the education packs were pulled.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Those opposed to same-sex civil unions insist their stance is not homophobic

Federal deputy Anthony Garotinho said that the films focused on sexual orientation without tackling prejudice.

"Public money should be used to to combat homophobia and not stimulate sexual options," said Mr Garotinho, one of the leaders of the evangelical bloc in Congress.

State representative and evangelical singer Mara Lima, a vocal opponent of the kits, commented after the decision: "This is a victory for the family."

The popular media also reflects the divisions of opinion in Brazil.

Former international footballer Edmundo caused a stir when he told O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper, in response to speculation that his son may be gay: "No-one wants to have a homosexual son."

He later explained that this was because of the prejudice they could suffer.

While transsexual and homosexual contestants have appeared on Big Brother, television debates about homophobia have also featured far-right commentator and Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who has compared gay marriage to legalising paedophilia.

With "Straight Pride" trending this past week on Twitter in Brazil, Sunday's partygoers have as much to mull over as to celebrate.

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