'They kill with so much hate': Anti-LGBT violence soars in Brazil

Despite its pink reputation for hosting the world's largest Pride festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil has seen an alarming spike in violent homophobic and transphobic assaults over the last decade, according to human rights groups.

Amid rise of far right, attacks reveal bigotry against sexual diversity

'You deserve to die,' attackers taunted Sao Paulo model Viviany Beleboni while beating and slashing her because she is transgender. Beleboni, here in her downtown apartment, now takes medication for anxiety and depression, and she rarely walks alone after dark. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

A light scar remains where the knife entered, nearly imperceptible now in the dimness of Viviany Beleboni's Sao Paulo apartment. Laser treatments have helped it fade.

The attack happened late one night last year. The 27-year-old transgender model was three blocks from her downtown apartment.

"It was people saying they belong to God," she says.

"Tranny," she remembers the assailants taunting. "You gay. You're making a mockery of God. You deserve to die."

They beat her and smashed her phone. She felt the slash of a blade on her left forearm before they fled, leaving her to bleed.

"I started to have a panic attack," says Beleboni.
Mariana Dentos, 20, right, hugs her girlfriend Giuliana at the LGBT-friendly Shopping Frei Caneca in Sao Paulo. 'We get a lot of looks. It's not so accepted,' Dentos says of their relationship. 'But compared to other states here in Brazil, I think Sao Paulo is better for LGBT people.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Then, last month, just weeks after this year's Pride Parade came another attack. Five men surrounded her, calling her an abomination.

"They told me to watch out what I'm doing. That I was not a person from God. That I had to go back to being a man," she says. Kicks and punches flew at her face. The assailants told her they knew where she lived.

"The next time, it wouldn't just be fists," she recalls them warning. "It would be bullets."

Beleboni still takes medication for anxiety and depression. She rarely walks alone after dark.

Pink reputation is misleading

This, she says, is what it feels like nowadays to live as an openly transgender person in Brazil.

Despite its pink reputation for hosting the world's largest Pride festival in Sao Paulo, the nation long known for the glittering camp of its Carnaval celebrations has seen an alarming spike in violent homophobic and transphobic assaults over the last decade, according to human rights groups.

In absolute numbers, there is no deadlier place in the world to be an LGBT person than Brazil, according to Transgender Europe, which tracks hate crimes targeting gender-diverse populations. The group logged 845 reported murders of LGBT people in Brazil — a country of some 200 million — from 2008 to April 2016. Mexico, with a population of about 122 million, is second on the list, with 247.

Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, logged 326 murders of LGBT people in 2014.

The NGO Grupo Gay de Bahia says 1,600 LGBT people have been murdered in Brazil since 2011.

Same-sex marriage proposals at Olympics

Against a backdrop of global tolerance and unity around this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro — including at least two highly public same-sex marriage proposals following Olympic competitions — the alleged hate crimes are a jarring reminder of deep-rooted bigotry against sexual diversity in Brazil.

Much of it has coincided with what Sonia Correa, a sexual policy researcher with the Brazilian AIDS group ABIA, calls "the conservative restoration" that appears to be giving way to a more radicalized far-right movement.

Brazil legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 and same-sex adoption in 2010. But analysts note that the progressive policies have been met with a hard pushback from groups believing the shift from traditional social mores has gone too far.

"Actors who have always vociferated against homosexuality now feel more at ease to act and speak," says Correa.
Congressman Jair Bolsonaro holds a Brazilian flag during a protest against President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia on March 13. The anti-gay presidential candidate, who approves of torture and has endorsed beating children believed to be gay as a means of turning them heterosexual, has gained in popularity. (Reuters)

The anti-gay presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who approves of torture and endorsed beating children believed to be gay as a means of turning them heterosexual, has gained in popularity. The conservative congressman polled in fourth place in April, according to Foreign Policy.

A congressional bench known as the "BBB" faction — so called because the conservative legislators are primarily concerned with "beef, bullets and the Bible" — is made up of increasingly powerful politicians representing interests from pro-firearms groups, the farm lobby and evangelical Christians.

Gay-rights opponents gain influence

Evangelical movements are on a steady rise in Brazil, accounting for more than one-fifth of the population in 2010, according to the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística and Fundacao Getulio Vargas.

Televangelists and religious leaders vocal about their opposition to gay-rights legislation are also commanding some political influence, with ties to politicians who filled more than 60 Congressional seats in 2012, according to a report in Americas Quarterly.

Correa notes that people belonging to right-wing groups have made troubling comments commending the "barbaric murder" of Diego Machado, the 29-year-old gay architecture student whose body was found last month. It was reportedly dumped on the banks of Guanabara Bay, naked below the waist. Machado's head had been bashed in.

Also in early July, college professor Andrew Colares, 24, was found dead with deep gashes on his neck, surrounded by broken glass, with toothpicks inserted in his eyes, according to reports.

In June, another 24-year-old gay man, Wellington Mendonca, was found dead in a field near a Rio highway. Several rocks were found near his bloodied body, raising suspicions he had been stoned to death.

In Sao Paulo, Beleboni says she isn't afraid of dying, only of what her assailants might do to torture her.

"They kill with so much hate," she says. "Unfortunately, we live in a country where religion ends up disseminating that we are demons."
Max Matos, a Sao Paulo surgeon, enjoys a coffee at the LGBT-friendly Shopping Frei Canecaa. He says he keeps a security guard posted outside his hospital door due to threats. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Max Matos, an openly gay surgeon in Sao Paulo state, regularly keeps a security guard posted outside his hospital door due to threats from patients.

"Sometimes they want prescriptions, but they're lying. When I refuse, they threaten me," he says. "They say things like 'faggot.' Usual things."

Still, Matos and his friend Marlon Villa Nova, having coffee at the LGBT-friendly Shopping Frei Caneca (nicknamed "Shopping Gay Caneca"), say Sao Paulo feels safer for gay people than Rio.

This, despite Villa Nova mentioning his cousin was recently punched by an unknown assailant while walking home from a gay club.

'We just want to love'

"If you go, for example, to [the gay street in Rio], Farme de Amoedo, you never see gay guys kissing or holding hands. Even the gay guys don't do that," Villa Nova says. "Yes, it's famous because of Carnaval, but if you think everything is so free, it's not like that."

As for Beleboni, who says she often suffers panic attacks, her dream is for all Brazilians to view her not as a trans woman, but as a typical Brazilian.

"I just want people to see the truth, that we're normal people," she says. "People who believe anything different are the ones who are really sick. We just want to love and love each other."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong