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Brazil LGBTQ activists, HIV/AIDS service providers fear Bolsonaro reelection

Presidential election to take place in October

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Anti-Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro flyers on Paulista Avenue in São Paulo, on March 13, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

(Editor’s note: Two sources quoted in this story — Fernanda Fonseca and Beto de Jesus — shared their personal views on the subject. Their remarks do not represent the views of AIDS Healthcare Foundation.)

SALVADOR, Brazil — Fernanda Fonseca was the coordinator of the Brazilian Health Ministry’s program to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, syphilis and viral hepatitis B in 2019 when she attended the International AIDS Society’s Conference on HIV Science in Mexico City.

Fonseca, who attended the conference in her personal capacity, made a presentation that focused on the issue. Her husband, who at the time coordinated the Brazilian Health Ministry’s viral hepatitis program, also traveled to Mexico City.

One of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s sons soon posted to Twitter a picture of a doctored presentation “about trans community rights, and LGBT community rights” that an unnamed “couple” had made at the conference. The “couple” who Bolsonaro’s son targeted was Fonseca and her husband.

“He was like, this is what the government is standing for,” Fonseca told the Washington Blade on March 16 during an interview at a coffee shop in Salvador, a city in northeastern Brazil that is the capital of Bahia state.

Bolsonaro took office as Brazil’s president on Jan. 1, 2019, after he defeated then-São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad in the second round of the country’s presidential election that took place the previous October.

Fonseca noted one of the first things Bolsonaro did as president was to remove HIV from the name of the Health Ministry department that specifically fights HIV/AIDS in Brazil.

It was previously the Department of Vigilance, Prevention and Control of Sexually Transmitted Infections, HIV/AIDS and Viral Hepatitis. It is now called the Department of Chronic Conditions and Sexually Transmitted Infections.

Bolsonaro fired the department’s director, Adele Benzaken, after he took office. Fonseca said her position was also eliminated without her knowledge while she was on maternity leave.

Fonseca eventually resigned. She now works for AIDS Healthcare Foundation Brazil as its country medical program director.

“They destroyed my department,” she said. “When I came back (from maternity leave), no one was answering my calls.”

Fonseca is one of the many HIV/AIDS service providers and LGBTQ activists with whom the Blade spoke in Brazil — Salvador, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro — from March 12-21. They all sharply criticized Bolsonaro and expressed concern over what may happen in Brazil if he wins re-election later this year.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation Brazil Medical Program Director Fernanda Fonseca. (Photo courtesy of Fernanda Fonseca)

Bolsonaro is a former Brazilian Army captain who represented Rio de Janeiro in the country’s Congress from 1991-2018.

Fonseca told the Blade that Bolsonaro has banned the Health Ministry from buying lubricants, while adding he “wanted to shut down everything related to HIV.”

“It’s very specific. It’s very homophobic,” she said. “I don’t know who informs him.”

AIDS Healthcare Foundation Brazil Program Manager Beto de Jesus during a March 14 interview at his office near São Paulo’s Praça da Republica noted Bolsonaro has suggested COVID-19 vaccines can cause AIDS.

“To him, the question of AIDS is connected to faggots,” said De Jesus.

São Paulo’s Municipal Health Secretary distributes free condoms on the city’s subway system. The Brazilian Health Ministry has donated to AIDS Healthcare Foundation antitretroviral drugs that it provides to Venezuelan migrants who receive care at their clinics in Colombia.

Free condoms at a São Paulo subway station on May 13, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Antiretroviral drugs at AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s clinic in Bogotá, Colombia, the Brazilian Ministry of Health has donated. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Bolsonaro, among many things, has encouraged fathers to beat their sons if they think they are gay. (His son, Rio Municipal Councilman Carlos Bolsonaro, is reportedly gay.)

Jair Bolsonaro in March 2019 during a press conference with then-President Trump in the White House Rose Garden stressed his “respect of traditional family values” — he’s twice divorced and married his third wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, in 2017 — and opposition to “gender ideology.”

A report that Human Rights Watch released earlier this month notes Bolsonaro “has a long history of mischaracterizing and vocally opposing gender and sexuality education, including on the grounds that it constitutes ‘early sexualization’.” Bolsonaro has supported legislation that would limit LGBTQ-specific curricula in the country’s schools, even after the Brazilian Supreme Court struck down local and state laws on the issue.

Jair Bolsonaro was not president when Rio Municipal Councilwoman Marielle Franco, a bisexual woman of African descent, and her driver, Anderson Gomes, were murdered in Rio’s Lapa neighborhood on March 14, 2018.

Ronnie Lessa, one of the two former police officers who has been arrested in connection with the murders, lived in the same large condominium in Rio’s exclusive Barra da Tijuca neighborhood in which Jair Bolsonaro lives. Franco’s widow, Rio Municipal Councilwoman Mônica Benício, on March 19 said this fact is “just a coincidence.”

Benício during the interview that took place at a coffee shop in downtown Rio stressed Jair Bolsonaro’s rhetoric against LGBTQ Brazilians, women and other groups was “known” before he became president. Benício also acknowledged it resonates with a segment of Brazilian society.

“It is an absolutely despicable posture and incompatible with a posture of the president of the republic,” said Benício.

A Brazilian television station on March 14, 2022, reports on the fourth anniversary of Rio Municipal Councilwoman Marielle Franco‘s murder. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Two Brazilian LGBTQ rights groups — Aliança Nacional LGBTI and Grupo Gay da Bahia — in a report they released on May 10 notes 300 LGBTQ Brazilians “suffered violent deaths” because they were murdered or died by suicide. The organizations specifically note Salvador is the most dangerous state capital for LGBTQ people.

The report notes 28 percent of the murder victims were killed with knives, machetes, scissors, hoes and other weapons. One of them was stabbed 95 times.

“The cruelty of how many of these executions were committed demonstrates the extreme hatred of the criminals, who are not content with killing, disfigure the victim washing their murderous homophobia in the spilled blood,” said Aliança Nacional LGBTI President Toni Reis in the report’s introduction.

Grupo Gay da Bahia President Marcelo Cerqueira on March 15 told the Blade during an interview in Salvador that race, poverty, class, machismo and family structures all contribute to the area’s high rate of violence against LGBTQ people.

“There are many relationships with asymmetrical power dynamics,” he noted.

A samba troupe performs in the Pelourinho neighborhood of Salvador, Brazil, on March 15, 2022. A report that two Brazilian advocacy groups released earlier this month notes Salvador is the most violent Brazilian state capital for LGBTQ people. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Keila Simpson is the president of Associaçao Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais (National Association of Travestis and Transsexuals), a Brazilian transgender rights group known by the acronym ANTRA.

She noted to the Blade on March 16 during an interview at her office in Salvador’s Pelourinho neighborhood that the Supreme Court in 2018 ruled trans Brazilians can legally change their name and gender without medical intervention or a judicial order. Simpson said trans Brazilians nevertheless continue to suffer from discrimination, a lack of formal employment and educational opportunities and police violence because of their gender identity. She also added efforts to combat violence against LGBTQ Brazilians have become even more difficult because Bolsonaro is “propagating violence against LGBTQ people every day.”

“It increases the possibility of people who are already violent by nature to continue committing violence,” said Simpson.

Associaçao Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais (ANTRA) President Keila Simpson at her office in Salvador, Brazil, on March 16, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Mariah Rafaela Silva, a trans woman of indigenous descent who works with the Washington-based International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights, agreed when she and her colleague, Isaac Porto, spoke with the Blade at a restaurant in Rio’s Ipanema neighborhood on March 21.

“If I would choose a word to define Bolsonaro it would be danger,” said Silva. “He represents a danger to the environment. He represents a danger to diversity. He represents a danger to Black people. He represents a danger to indigenous people.”

Mariah Rafaela Silva, right, and Isaac Porto in Rio de Janeiro on March 21, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Rio de Janeiro (State) Legislative Assemblywoman Renata Souza is a Black feminist who grew up with Franco in Maré, a favela that is close to Rio’s Galeão International Airport, and worked with her for 12 years.

Souza in March traveled to D.C. and met with Serra Sippel, chief global advocacy officer for Fòs Feminista, a global women’s rights group, White House Gender Policy Council Senior Advisor Rachel Vogelstein and other officials and women’s rights activists. Souza on Tuesday noted to the Blade that she also denounced Franco’s murder, the “escalation of police violence and Black genocide in Brazil’s peripheries and favelas” and called for international observers in the country for the presidential election when she spoke at the Organization of American States and to members of Congress.

“President Bolsonaro is the expression of a capitalist political project that serves private national and international interests related to the military-industrial complex, religious fundamentalism, agribusiness and the predatory exploitation of natural resources,” said Souza. “This project’s social base comes from the formation of an ideal of barbarism through the use of violence as language and hate as a fuel that spreads a misogynist, racist and fundamentalist culture, discriminatory customs and policies that predatory to nature and to being human.”

Rio de Janeiro (State) Legislative Assemblywoman Renata Souza, right, meets with Justin Hansford, the executive director of Howard University’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, in D.C. in March 2021. (Photo courtesy of Serra Sippel)

The first round of Brazil’s presidential election will take place on Oct. 2.

Polls indicate Bolsonaro is trailing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro has already sought to discredit the country’s electoral system, even though a group of more than 20 would-be hackers who gathered in the Brazilian capital of Brasília last week failed to infiltrate it.

Da Silva, who was Brazil’s president from 2003-2010, is a member of the country’s Workers’ Party.

Sergio Moro, a judge who Jair Bolsonaro later tapped as his government’s Justice and Public Security Minister, in 2017 sentenced Da Silva to 9 1/2 years in prison after his conviction on money laundering and corruption charges that stemmed from Operation Car Wash. The Supreme Court in November 2019 ordered Da Silva’s release.

Marina Reidel, a trans woman who is the director of the country’s Women, Family and Human Rights Department, on Monday told the Blade to email a request for comment on Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-LGBTQ record to a spokesperson. The Blade has yet to receive a response.

Julian Rodrigues, who was the coordinator of the Workers’ Party’s National Working Group from 2006-2012, on Tuesday from São Paulo noted Da Silva in 2004 created the Health Ministry’s “Brazil without Homophobia” campaign that he described as a “pioneering program for LGBT rights.” Rodrigues also highlighted Da Silva created the Culture Ministry’s Diversity Secretariat that, among other things, funded community centers and sought to make police officers and other law enforcement officials more LGBTQ-friendly.

Simpson noted the Health Ministry when Da Silva and President Dilma Rousseff were in office funded projects that specifically helped sex workers and other vulnerable groups.

Rousseff was in office in 2013 when the Supreme Court extended marriage rights to same-sex couples across the country. Michel Temer was Brazil’s president in 2018 when the Supreme Court issued its trans rights decision.

The Supreme Court on May 24, 2019, issued a ruling that criminalized homophobia and transphobia. Bolsonaro, who took office less than five months earlier, condemned the decision.

The Supreme Court in May 2020 struck down the country’s ban on men who have sex with men from donating blood. Brazil in 1999 became the first country in the world to ban so-called conversion therapy.

Pride flags fly over Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro on March 20, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Rodrigues described Bolsonaro and his administration as “an extreme right-wing, authoritarian and fascist government that uses racial prejudice, gender prejudice and prejudice against LGBTs as engines to mobilize its conservative and reactionary social base.”

“It is a very dangerous government for Brazil’s democratic freedoms,” Rodrigues told the Blade. “The entire Brazilian LGBT movement is fighting ardently to defeat the Bolsonaro government and elect Lula, a progressive president who is committed to the rights of LGBTQ people and all Brazilian people.”

A gay man who was on Rio’s Ipanema Beach with his husband on March 20 told the Blade they support Jair Bolsonaro because they feel he has fought corruption in Brazil. They did, however, add that Jair Bolsonaro “should keep his mouth shut.”

Fonseca said her father voted for Bolsonaro in 2018 because he “hated” Da Silva.

“We don’t live in a democratic state anymore,” said Fonseca, who noted the Supreme Court eventually absolved Da Silva. “We can’t trust the police force. We can’t trust the legal system.”

“People who think like him now they believe they can say that, they have the right to say homophobic things, racist things. They can because our president says them, so it’s ok,” added Fonseca. “We need to remember that it’s not ok. I don’t think they are the majority, So I think when we have a leader again that is strong, we are going back on track.”

Cerqueira echoed Fonseca.

“(Bolsonaro) managed to energize prejudiced people who were not vocal before,” Cerqueira told the Blade on March 15 during an interview in Salvador. “People were afraid to say that I was racist, that I was homophobic, that I was prejudiced. Nowadays everybody wants to be homophobic.”

An anti-Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro t-shirt for sale in a market in Rio de Janeiro, on March 19, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Porto noted conservatives continue to dominate the country’s Congress and Brazilians who are Black and/or LGBTQ lack political power. He told the Blade the situation in a post-Bolsonaro Brazil is “going to be complicated”

“Brazilian society has not changed,” said Porto. “There is a movement of people who are organized and recognize themselves as equal.”

“There’s a lot of damage that we have to repair,” added Silva.

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South America

Chilean capital Pride parade participants, activists attacked

Men wearing hoodies disrupted June 29 event in Santiago

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A group of hooded men attacked participants in the Chilean capital's annual Pride parade on June 29, 2024. (Photo courtesy of the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation)

A group of hooded men on June 29 attacked LGBTQ activists and others who participated in the Chilean capital’s annual Pride parade.

Witnesses said the men punched and kicked activists and parade participants, threatened them with a skateboard, threw stones and paint at floats and damaged parade infrastructure. The men also broke a truck’s headlight.

The Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation, a Chilean LGBTQ rights group known by the acronym Movilh, strongly condemned the acts of violence, calling them deliberate attempts to disrupt a peaceful and safe demonstration.

“Vandalism that seeks to transgress the peaceful trajectory of our demonstrations and that is only useful to the interests of the homo/transphobic sectors,” denounced Movilh.

The attack occurred when the hooded men tried to break through the security fence protecting the participants and the truck that was at the beginning of the parade.

“As we do every year, we fence the truck with our volunteers to prevent anyone from being run over or hurt by the wheels,” said Movilh. “The hooded men approached the fence to break it, hitting our volunteers and people outside of our organization with their feet and fists who, in an act of solidarity, tried to dissuade them.”

The motives behind this attack seem to be related to previous calls on social networks to boycott the event, although the organizers stressed that violent acts are alien to the parade’s inclusive and celebratory purpose.

Movilh spokesperson Javiera Zúñiga told the Washington Blade that “after the attack that we faced during the Pride March, we published in our social networks the few images that were available from that moment.” 

“What we are basically asking is that anyone who has seen something and can recognize any of the aggressors write to our email or (contact us) through our social networks so that we can file complaints and do whatever is necessary to find those responsible.”

Zúñiga stated that “not only was there aggression against people, but there was also damage to private property because they broke one of the truck’s headlights.”

“So for these two reasons we are looking for anyone who may have information to contact us,” she said.

The incident has generated widespread condemnation within the LGBTQ community and outside of it. They say it highlights the need to protect human rights and diversity and promote respect for them.

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Chilean lawmakers reject proposed nondiscrimination law reforms amid tense anti-LGBTQ debate

Statute named after gay man who was killed in 2012

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Transgender Chilean Congresswoman Emilia Schneider, center, speaks to reporters on June 4, 2024, after the country's Chamber of Deputies rejected proposed reforms to the country's Anti-Discrimination Law. (Photo courtesy of Emilia Schneider)

A political earthquake took place in Chile on Tuesday when the Chamber of Deputies rejected proposed reforms to the country’s nondiscrimination law.

The proposed reforms’ objective is “to strengthen the prevention of discrimination and to promote and guarantee in a better way the principle of equality.” Lawmakers in 2012 approved the law, also called the Zamudio Law, named in honor of Daniel Zamudio, a gay 24-year-old man who lost his life after a group of neo-Nazis attacked him in San Borja Park in Santiago, the country’s capital.

Lawmakers by a 69-63 vote margin rejected the proposed reform that President Gabriel Boric’s government introduced. Thirteen deputies abstained.

The Chilean Senate has already approved the proposal. A commission of lawmakers from both chambers of Congress will now consider it.

Most ruling party members supported the bill, while the opposition rejected it as a block.

Congressman Cristóbal Urruticoechea, who is close Republican Party ally, defended his vote against the bill. 

“Of course we must respect the deviation of others, but it does not have to be an obligation to applaud them or to tell our children that there are more than two types of sexes, because that is not discrimination,” he said.

Emilia Schneider, the country’s first transgender congresswoman, said “unfortunately the majority of the House (of Deputies) has rejected the protection of victims of discrimination.” 

“This is not understandable, it is unacceptable and we are here with a group of civil society organizations to call upon the majority of parliamentarians to reconsider so that we can fix this disaster in the mixed commission,” she said. “We have been waiting a long time for a reform to the Anti-Discrimination Law. We have been waiting a long time for an institutional framework that promotes equality and inclusion in our country because today lives continue to be lost due to discrimination and we cannot continue to tolerate that.” 

“Unfortunately, today the Chamber of Deputies is once again turning its back on the citizenry,” added Schneider.    

Rolando Jiménez, director of the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation, the country’s main queer organization known by the acronym Movilh, in a statement said “today we went back to the past, to the 90s, to the darkest moments for LGBTIQ+ people and discriminated sectors.” 

“Far-right congressmen went to the extreme of describing LGBTIQ+ people as deviants during the debate in the Chamber,” he said. “We are in the presence of the worst legislative scenario for nondiscrimination of which we have ever had record. It is, by all accounts, a civilizational setback.”

María José Cumplido, the executive director of Fundación Iguales, another Chilean advocacy group, told the Washington Blade that “lies were installed” during the debate.

“This is not a bad law,” she said. “It is a law that follows international standards that prevent discrimination and that improves people’s quality of life.”

“We have been talking about security and discrimination for years, it is a security problem that hundreds and thousands of people live with,” added Cumplido. “We want this project to continue advancing so that the State can prevent discrimination and that people can choose their life projects in freedom.” 

‘We will continue the fight’

The proposed reform’s rejection represents a significant setback in the fight for nondiscrimination and equal rights in Chile. 

The proposal sought to establish an anti-discrimination institutional framework, as well as to broaden the possibilities of compensation for victims of discrimination. It also sought to raise the maximum fines for discriminatory acts and to strengthen the State’s anti-discrimination policies.

“We will not lower our flags,” said Jiménez. “We will continue the fight in the Joint Commission.” 

Movilh has urged LGBTQ Chileans and families to protest against the vote during the annual Santiago Pride march that will take place on June 29.

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La Pesada Subversiva battles anti-LGBTQ digital violence in Bolivia

Santa Cruz-based collective is trans, feminist, and sexually diverse

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Members of La Pesada Subversiva in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. (Photo courtesy of La Pesada Subversiva)

In Bolivia, the collective La Pesada Subversiva faced an onslaught of digital violence they could have never imagined after showcasing their LGBTQ artwork. Thanks to Hivos’ Digital Defenders Partnership, they received critical support and training to protect themselves, and now have tools to fight against online aggression.

La Pesada Subversiva (The Subversive Troublemakers), a trans, feminist, and sexually diverse collective in Bolivia, has emerged as a form of resistance to patriarchy and gender-based violence. Founded in 2018 in Santa Cruz, one of Bolivia’s most conservative regions, the collective uses various art forms — audiovisual, writing, street happenings, and social media content — to express their views in demonstrations, protests, and the virtual realm.

Cristian Egüez (he/him), one of the founders, explains, “In this region, far-right and ultra-religious narratives are prevalent, pushed by very conservative authorities. In such a tough context, collectives are needed with the courage to confront them and maintain a critical approach to the violence that occurs.” 

Pride Month and ensuing violence

The Altillo Benni Museum, the largest in the city, commemorated Pride Month for the first time on June 1, 2022. They opened an LGBTQ art exhibition called “Revolución Orgullo” or “Pride Revolution” led by La Pesada Subversiva. The collective’s groundbreaking LGBTQ art exhibition faced vehement opposition.

“We adorned the museum facade with trans and LGBTIQ+ flags,” Egüez recounts, “but it lasted less than a day because a group of neighbors came to protest violently and aggressively.” 

Despite this, the exhibition attracted over 400 visitors, demonstrating growing public support for their cause. 

Confronting online harassment

To the collective’s surprise, the museum’s director defended the exhibition, stating that no artwork would be removed, and the exhibition would remain until the end of the month. But then an unimaginable wave of digital violence hit them. Egüez recalls the aftermath: “The event left us emotionally devastated. Throughout that year, every day, we had to endure threats and harassment online.” 

Alejandra Menacho (she/her), another founder of La Pesada Subversiva, shares her experience, saying, “They threatened to rape me, to teach me how to be a woman. It overwhelmed us; it started to really hurt because we felt … everything we said or did was being surveilled.” The collective faced constant harassment on social media, with anti-rights groups monitoring their activities and scaring them with false threats.

Seeking protection from the Digital Defenders Partnership

As the onslaught escalated, the collective sought refuge and support. They applied for a grant from the DDP to get digital protection and security. With DDP’s assistance, they underwent comprehensive training in digital security measures, enabling them to protect their online presence effectively. The members learned to protect themselves and their accounts, not to publish certain things, and to be cautious about disclosing their whereabouts. DDP’s training gave them a comprehensive understanding of digital security tools and provided clear guidelines for dealing with future incidents and how to report them. 

In addition to these digital security skills, they learned physical self-defense techniques, blending martial arts with a feminist approach. 

“This has strengthened us immensely. Now we understand digital security holistically and are always safeguarding our networks,” Menacho emphasizes. 

Members of La Pesada Subversiva in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. (Photo courtesy of La Pesada Subversiva)

The ongoing struggle of online resilience

Despite the challenges, La Pesada Subversiva remains steadfast in their mission. 

“Digital security must be integrated across the board; it’s not something you attend a workshop for and forget. It must be practiced continually,” Egüez asserts. 

For Menacho, even though she has experienced a lot of frustration and anger, learning to combine these digital tools with psychology and art has helped her express themselves and achieve emotional balance. 

“Because we are rebellious, we want to do these things. Also, because we don’t want these injustices to continue in Santa Cruz. That’s why we keep coming back and reinventing ourselves,” Menacho said. 

La Pesada Subversiva’s journey exemplifies the resilience and determination of marginalized communities in the face of adversity. Through collective empowerment and solidarity, they navigate the complexities of digital violence, emerging stronger and more united in their pursuit of equality and justice. 

The Digital Defenders Partnership (DDP), managed by Hivos, is an emergency grant mechanism for digital activists under threat launched by the Freedom Online Coalition in 2012. It provides a holistic response to digital threats and creates resilient and sustainable networks of support to human rights defenders.

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