The colourful culture of Latin America may give the impression that it is an ideal spot for members of the LGBT community to be themselves in a safe environment. However, Rosemary Haughey discovers that the gay friendly laws are not reflected in society.

Suggestions that there could be any sort of homophobic discrimination in Latin America may be greeted with bemused expressions.  People think of the vibrant culture, the music filled carnival and the energetic attitudes of its inhabitants.  Maybe it’s these things that give the impression Latin America is the perfect environment for members of the LGBT community.

In Brazil, on paper, you’d be right. After the end of the military dictatorship in 1985 and the creation of the new constitution in 1988, the list of rights for LGBT people expanded vastly.  In 2011 the Supreme Federal Court granted same sex couples the same 112 legal rights as other married couples and same sex marriage has been legal since 2013.

Constitutionally Brazil seems like a place where gay people thrive and live a safe life, which is why the case studies and investigations carried out by LGBT groups in Brazil provide results that would shock many.

The numerous cases of vicious attacks and murders of gay people all over South America have gone relatively unreported.  It is only when statistics are put together by different LGBT groups that the real numbers come to light.

The biggest LGBT group in Brazil, Gay Group of Bahia, has said that there has been 216 murders of gay people in Brazil so far this year.

Maria Guilhermina Cunha Salasario, the vice president of the Brazilian Association of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transvestites and Transsexuals says that growing up gay in Brazil is no picnic.

“There is a high level of hatred and homophobia in Brazil that goes unreported, it often ends in violent acts against gay people” Cunha Salasari says.

Marcello Luiz Santos, 21, moved to Ireland from the North East of Brazil in November of last year for this reason.

“My village was very small, only 50 families live there. I only became openly gay one year before I moved to Ireland and that was only because I moved to Sao Paulo to do a Costume Design course.

There were never frequent acts of violence towards gay people where I came from but when I was a child a gay person was murdered in our village and that was enough to frighten me.”

Marcello says he felt immediate relief as soon as he touched down in Ireland and it wasn’t long before he found the perfect partner.

“Obviously when I got here I missed my family and I wondered if I had made a mistake.  However I was working with my brother one day and his college friends stopped to talk to us and Colm was among them.  We’ll be together one year on St Stephen’s Day. I didn’t come here to find the man of my dreams but it happened anyway.”

Marcello stresses that although Brazil may seem gay-friendly on paper, this is not reflected in society.

“Brazil is the country where most homophobic attacks take place but homophobia cannot be decriminalised.  In the past they used to institutionalise children whose parents suspected that they might be gay. They would show images of Satan eating homosexuals. It would traumatise them into silence.”

Although the Brazilian government is adamant that there is no relation between church and state, Marcello says this is not true.

“They’re not separated, the people high up in the government are either catholic or evangelical and it’s reflected in the way the country is run. Ideally there would be proper laws and perhaps decriminalisation of homophobia but it’s not going to happen with the government we have now.”

Marcello suggests that the gay pride parades that take place around the country could be turned into a platform to protest about homophobic attacks rather than just be a spectacle. 

“Brazilian people like to party, we’re very outgoing people and we like to enjoy ourselves at the parades and Carnival, but I think they could be put to better use.  They could be turned into a protest so that we actually have something to bring to the table. It would give them a cause.”

The Sao Paulo Gay Pride Parade is the world’s largest LGBT Pride celebration with an average of 4 million people attending every year.  According to BrazilTravel.com the aim of these parades is “to occupy public spaces to encourage an effective exchange of experiences and boost the self-esteem of homosexuals”.

Brazil has been rated as one of the countries with the highest number of gay people killed. “Epidemic of Hate” a report published in 1996 by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, showed that at least 1,200 gays, lesbians and transsexuals were killed in Brazil alone in a decade.

It is widely publicised that any public displays of homophobia or issues of homophobia in the workplace will not be tolerated and brings serious repercussions.

The National Secretariat of Human Rights have said that there were 337 complaints relating to homophobia from January to April this year, that’s the equivalent of 2 per day. These numbers only come from the reported cases of corse.

“The LGBT debate and the fight against homophobia cannot be a moral or religious matter, it has to be a political issue.”

Surveys carried out by loveseesnoborders.org stated that a large number of hate crimes are committed by police officers, thus elevating the number of people unwilling to report a crime.

“It’s true there are a lot of attacks from the police. I know of a case where a gay couple got attacked in a nightclub and when they went to the station to report it the guards just looked at their watch and told them to go and enjoy the last half hour of the night,” explains Marcello.

Charlemagne Fonseca, president of the Brazilian Associate on Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transvestites and Transsexuals said one of their main demands was that the government produces official data on violations against gay people, which would be facilitated by the criminalisation of homophobia.

“The LGBT debate and the fight against homophobia cannot be a moral or religious matter, it has to be a political issue.”