On March 19, President Barack Obama flew to Brazil to kick off a three-country tour of Latin America. His five-day visit to El Salvador, Brazil and Chile—countries in a region often called “America’s backyard”—presented an opportunity to redefine America’s historically thorny foreign policy towards Latin America.
Obama’s trip to South America is widely considered a nod towards Latin America’s growing power. Brazil, in particular, now the world’s eighth-largest economy, is frequently lauded for its dramatic economic progress. “More than half of this nation is now considered middle class,” Obama noted in an address to the Brazilian people at Rio de Janeiro’s Teatro Municipal on March 20. “Millions have been lifted from poverty.” In a speech delivered in Brasília the day before, Obama extolled Brazil for its remarkable economic growth rate and its transition from dictatorship to open democracy. Thomas Shannon, the US ambassador to Brazil, echoed this view, stating, “Brazil is no longer an emerging country. It has emerged.”
However, as newly elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff noted while welcoming Obama to Brazil, “We still face enormous challenges.” One such challenge is the alarming and infrequently discussed rise in attacks on and murders of LGBT Brazilians. According to the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, Brazil suffers from the highest rate of transphobic violence in the world, and is cited as the “world’s deadliest place to be transgender.” Last year, at least 250 LGBT people were murdered in Brazil.
On March 2, 2011, a surveillance camera in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte captured the brutal murder of Priscila Brandão, a 22-year-old transvestite shot while walking down the street. Authorities, citing in the rise in violence against transgender people in Brazil, believed the murder to be a hate crime, as opposed to a random act of violence.
Human rights organizations globally condemned Brandão’s murder, but her case is just one of many homophobic and transphobic hate crimes that have been piling up over the years in Brazil. According to the Brazilian gay rights group Grupo Gay da Bahia, between 1980 and 2009 over 3,100 homosexuals were murdered in cold-blooded hate crimes in the country.
According to a recently released Amnesty International report on homophobic violence, “the Latin-American Center on Sexuality and Human Rights has identified that the states of Parana and Bahia have the two highest numbers of crimes against homosexuals in the country and at least 15 people were killed in each Brazilian state in 2009, simply for being members of the LGBT community.”
In June of last year, São Paolo hosted the largest gay pride parade in the world, with over 3 million attendees. But despite this huge public gathering, Brazil lags behind its neighbor to the southwest, Argentina, when it comes to recognizing gay rights.
The Pan American Health Organization wrote in its 2008 Campaign Against Homophobia report that “within Latin America, Argentina enjoys a reputation of greater tolerance towards sexual diversity,” and on July 15, 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage. While Argentine proponents of the measure openly clashed against members of the Roman Catholic Church who stridently opposed it, the senate ultimately voted in favor of the measure. Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, claimed that the passing of same-sex marriages “reflects the socially liberal culture in Argentina today,” and Nestor Kirchner, former president of Argentina and husband of current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was vocal in his support of the bill, adding “Argentina must leave discriminatory and Dark Age visions behind.” (The progressive nature of Argentina should not be overstated, though—reproductive rights in both Brazil and Argentina remain extremely restricted.)
Brazilian policymakers have not remained entirely silent on gay rights. On June 4, 2010, then–President Ignácio Lula da Silva signed a decree that a National Day Against Homophobia be commemorated annually on May 17 in Brazil, paying homage to the date in 1990 when the World Health Organization officially removed homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases.
In July 2010 the United Nations, led by the Obama administration, granted “consultative status” to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Brazil was one of the UN member states to vote in favor of the decision. “We celebrate this decision,” said Toni Reis, the president of the Brazilian LGBT group, Associação Brasileira de Lésbicas, Gays, Bissexuais, Travestis e Transexuais. “It is crucial that LGBT NGOs have the opportunity to participate in the UN human rights debate.”
In their highly anticipated meeting on March 19, President Obama and Brazilian President Rousseff integrated LGBT initiatives into their agenda and agreed to establish a “special rapporteur” for LGBT human rights at the Organization of American States. A statement released by the White House read, “They agreed to cooperate in advancing democracy, human rights and freedom for all people bilaterally and through the United Nations…promoting respect for the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals through the establishment of a Special Rapporteur at the OAS.”
Rousseff and Obama’s dual call to action may be a positive force for change in the midst of Brazil’s grim barrage of hate crimes. However, as the volume of crimes makes clear, actions will need to speak louder than words. We will have to wait and see whether, as OAS promises, antiviolence measures will speak louder than homophobic rhetoric and crimes against LGBT Brazilians.