The 2016 Summer Olympics will take place in Brazil this month against the backdrop of rampant anti-LGBT violence.
Grupo Gay da Bahia, an advocacy group in northeastern Brazil, notes that 326 LGBT Brazilians were reported killed in 2014.
The organization said in a June 29 press release that 19 LGBT people in the state of Bahia were killed “in situations” with “obvious homophobic overtones” in the first six months of this year. Grupo Gay da Bahia has previously said that an LGBT person is murdered in Brazil every 27 hours.
A report the Human Rights Campaign issued ahead of the Olympics indicates that 41 percent of the LGBT Brazilians who were reported killed in 2014 were transgender. The majority of these victims were poor trans Brazilians of African descent who face rampant discrimination in employment, housing and health care because of their gender identity, race and economic status.
The government of then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2004 launched an initiative to combat homophobia in Brazil, which is Latin America’s largest and most populous country.
The state of Rio de Janeiro in which the Olympics will take place had a similar initiative — known as Rio Without Homophobia or Rio Sem Homofobia in Portuguese — in place. Grupo Dignidade and dozens of other Brazilian advocacy groups criticized Congressman Ezequiel Teixeira, who is an Evangelical pastor, in February for cutting the program’s funding after Gov. Luiz Fernando Pezão appointed him to oversee it.
The decision forced Rio Without Homophobia to fire 80 percent of its staff.
“A program of this magnitude, with so much social recognition, cannot cease to exist,” they said in a letter to Rio de Janeiro Gov. Luiz Fernando Pezão, Rio Without Homophobia Coordinator Cláudio Nascimento Silva and the head of the state’s Department of Social Welfare and Human Rights.
Pezão dismissed Teixeira in February after he described homosexuality as a disease and spoke in support of so-called conversion therapy. The state of Rio de Janeiro subsequently restored most of Rio Without Homophobia’s funding that allowed it to rehire most of the staff that Teixeira had fired.
Country champions LGBT rights abroad
Brazil in 2003 introduced the first gay rights resolution at the U.N.
The country in 2014 co-sponsored a resolution against anti-LGBT violence and discrimination that the U.N. Human Rights Council approved. The U.N. Human Rights Council in June approved a second resolution co-sponsored by Brazil that created the organization’s first-ever position to combat violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity around the world.
Jean de Wyllys became the first openly gay person elected to the Brazilian Congress in 2010. Same-sex couples have been able to legally marry across the country since 2013.
President Dilma Rousseff, who was suspended in May after the Brazilian Senate voted to impeach her, vetoed a 2011 bill opposed by Evangelical lawmakers that would have allowed the distribution of LGBT-specific materials in the country’s public schools.
Rousseff in 2013 opposed a measure that would have added sexual orientation to the country’s hate crimes law. Activists say she took this position in response to pressure that she faced from powerful Evangelical members of the Brazilian Congress.
“In other spheres we seem very open,” Gabriel Alves de Faria, a gay man from the state of Espírito Santo who previously worked at the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, told the Washington Blade on Tuesday during an interview from the French city of Toulouse where he currently lives with his boyfriend. “The reality inside is not exactly that.”
Lucas Paoli Itaborahy, the Brazil project manager of Micro Rainbow International, a European Union-funded organization that seeks to combat poverty among LGBT Brazilians, acknowledged to the Blade on Tuesday during an interview from Rio de Janeiro that violence is a serious problem in his country.
He stressed that advocates remain concerned about Rousseff’s impeachment and interim President Michel Temer’s government ahead of the Olympics. Brazil’s economic crisis and concerns over Zika also threaten to overshadow the games.
“Brazil is facing a very severe economic crisis and also facing a coup against democracy, that leads to a deep political instability,” K.K. Verdade, executive director of the Rio de Janeiro-based ELAS Brazilian Women’s Fund, told the Blade on Tuesday. “The first rights that are threatened by a coup against democracy were human rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights.”
Alves told the Blade that Rousseff’s impeachment and corruption among Brazilian lawmakers is receiving more attention in France than the Olympics.
“When the attention is focused on something else, vulnerable groups receive even less attention,” he said.
The games will open in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, nearly two and a half years after the 2014 Winter Olympics took place in Sochi, Russia.
Russia’s LGBT rights record — which includes a 2013 law that bans the promotion of so-called gay propaganda to minors — overshadowed the games. The International Olympic Committee subsequently amended the Olympic Charter’s nondiscrimination clause to include sexual orientation and added an anti-discrimination provision to its host city contract.
The IOC did not return the Blade’s request for comment about anti-LGBT violence in Brazil.
Brazil ‘facing lots of problems’
British diver Tom Daley, who is engaged to Dustin Lance Black, and more than 40 openly LGBT athletes are expected to compete in the Olympics. Lea T, a trans Brazilian model, will also take part in the games’ opening ceremony.
“She’s going to be representing LGBT or trans people, which is nice,” Alves told the Blade.
Micro Rainbow International and Rede Cidadã, a Brazilian organization with offices across the country, earlier this year trained more than 20 companies that are working directly with Olympics organizers on how to become more LGBT-inclusive. Itaborahy told the Blade that 16 people who took part in a job-training program are now working at hotels, restaurants and other businesses during the games.
“It was really a joint effort,” he said.
The LGBT Sports Committee of Brazil, TransRevolucão and more than half a dozen other advocacy groups will operate Pride House Rio during the games.
Pride House Rio will officially open on Friday before the Olympics opening ceremony. It will feature sporting matches, cultural activities, workshops on human rights, performances and other events that are scheduled to take place throughout the games.
“Pride House Rio is going to celebrate LGBTI Pride during the Olympic games,” says Pride House Rio on its Facebook page.
Alves is among those who expressed optimism that Brazilians themselves will benefit from the Olympics.
“Hopefully we’re going to deliver it well . . . and that people will get to know more about my country and also break a bit of the stereotypes that they have,” he told the Blade.
Itaborahy said that a lot of tourists have already arrived in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the Olympics.
“It’s crowded and packed everywhere, so these things might have positive impacts on our economy, especially because we are going through a very harsh and severe economic crisis and political crisis,” he told the Blade.
Itaborahy, like Alves, remains concerned that Rousseff’s impeachment and corruption scandals will overshadow the games.
“Rio is hosting one of the biggest events in the world, but at the same time we are facing lots of problems here,” said Itaborahy. “We are happy and excited, but at the same time it’s a bit delicate to host such an event while there are so many social, economic and political issues at stake right now.”
Verdade remains adamant that the IOC should not have awarded the games to Brazil.
“We are facing an economic crisis and there’s a lack of money for basic social policies as health and education,” she told the Blade.
Members of Amnesty International last week organized a protest against police violence in Rio de Janeiro. They placed 40 body bags — which represent the number of people killed by law enforcement in the city in May — in front of the offices of the local Olympic organizing committee.
Verdade also expressed concern that Brazilian police and soldiers will subject human rights advocates to additional “repression” during the games.
“Because of the Olympics the army is in the streets,” she said. “The repression against human rights activists is getting stronger each day.”
The Brazilian government did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment.