Legal Rights but Social Prejudice for Brazil’s LGBT Community

In the past few years, Brazil has seen dramatic transformations in providing equal rights to the LGBT community. It began in 2011, when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples, and in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal, and that public notaries could not refuse to to perform weddings. Likewise, Brazil’s health-care system provides free sex-change operations as a “basic right” for those who wish to undergo physical gender reassignment in ways that more closely align with who they feel they are as people. From a legal standpoint, Brazil has proven quite progressive not just for Latin America, but for the world more generally, when it comes to LGBT rights.

However, as is the case with abortion, providing legal rights does not always translate into real equality or justice in society, and social prejudices continue to be a major issue, and even the next “frontier,” for LGBT rights in Brazil. Another reminder of this fact emerged in a recent study that found nearly 20% of Brazilian businesses would not hire somebody who identified as gay/homosexual. Seven percent of respondents said they would refuse to hire a gay/lesbian individual outright, while another 11% said they would only hire “if the candidate would never reach a visible position” in the company, i.e., they would never hire a gay man or lesbian to work as a manager, director, CEO, etc. One can look at this in another way – that 80% did not refuse to hire somebody who was LGBT – but the fact that nearly 20% would not is still troubling; just imagine if 20% refused to hire an ethnic minority. Additionally, the fear of having members of the LGBT community in “visible” positions suggests the fear, real or imagined, that society more generally would reject the presence of individuals from the LGBT community; even if it is imagined, the refusal and prejudice perpetuate stigmas that limit social rights.

Transgenders have it particularly difficult. The report highlights the case of Raira Pereira dos Santos, who was an effeminate, gay man who ultimately adopted a feminine identity to match who she felt she was as a person. Even with an education and job experience, she was rejected from jobs for who she was; the only option available ended up being working in a call-center, because “on the telephone nobody sees you. The voice can fool [clients]. But if the job demands physical presence, the boss rejects the gay” applicant. And this prejudice is very real, and has very real consequences on people. As dos Santos says, “If you are gay, you can pretend to be hetero[sexual], but when you let your hair grow and assume your feminine identity, the prejudice increases.” Even those who get hired face prejudice in the workplace, as in the case of Fabio Steiner, who was promised a 6,000 reais (~USD$3,000) salary, but who received only 1000 reais, with the other 5000 going to company to “administer him.”

Thus, even while legal protections remain, there is still a long way to go in the fight for social equality for Brazil’s LGBT community. That is why, even when the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies (which has a very small but vocal number of evangelicals who oppose gay rights) hosts the XII LGBT Seminar of Congress, an act as simple as a kiss between two women who are married and love each other is an important act in fighting for social acceptance. Gay rights have been largely institutionalized in Brazil’s legal system, but that was a first step, and the struggle for social equality continues.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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