The Fight to Protect LGBT Brazilians From Violence

02/29/2016 02:23 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2017

Rio sem Homofobia (Rio without Homophobia), a widely praised anti-homophobia organization run by the state of Rio de Janeiro has found itself in the middle of a political firestorm as it struggles for survival.

The government program is on the brink of financial collapse after being starved of funds by the former Secretary of State for Human Rights Ezequiel Teixeira, an evangelical pastor known for his fierce opposition to gay rights. Last month, it was forced to fire 75% of its staff and suspend almost all of its services.

However, last week, Teixeira was fired by the governor of Rio for declaring his support for gay "cures" and comparing homosexuality to diseases such as aids and cancer in an interview with the Brazilian newspaper, O Globo. Following his dismissal, a nationwide social media campaign backed by several celebrities has spread to encourage Teixeira's successor to save the celebrated program from financial collapse.

The controversy has shone a spotlight on deeply divided attitudes towards LGBT people in Brazil. The country won plaudits for legalizing gay marriage in 2013, and is home to the largest gay pride parade in the world. However, attacks on transgender people remain shockingly high and the most conservative congress in recent memory threatens to undo Brazil's progress towards LGBT equality.

As a gay man living in Rio, I have witnessed these conflicting attitudes towards homosexuality. The city, with its beautiful beaches and glittering nightlife, provides unique spaces for people to express their sexuality; and during Carnival, gays and lesbians kiss openly on the streets while hordes of revelers dress in drag. However, I am also regularly confronted by stories of homophobic and transphobic abuse, particularly in the city's favelas and poor suburbs far from the glamorous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana.

The most powerful force against LGBT rights is now the evangelical church, which has used its increasing political clout to block, and in some cases reverse, policies promoting equality. Although Brazil is still primarily a catholic country, the number of evangelicals has grown rapidly, from just 5% of the population in 1970 to 22% in 2014, and are set to become a majority by the middle of the century.

Although there are many contenders, the most controversial embodiment of the burgeoning political influence of these churches is the head of the lower house of congress, Eduardo Cunha, a fundamentalist evangelical. After declaring that the country was "under attack by gays, abortionists and pot smokers", he has blocked all moves to ban discrimination against LGBT people and instead advocated criminalizing "heterophobia".

The threat to the security and wellbeing of LGBT people lies not just in the halls of congress, but also much closer to home. A recent report showed that in 2014, the number of homophobic and transphobic murders in the country was nearly one a day. In the state of Rio alone, 22 people were murdered in 2014 for being LGBT, of which half were gay men and half were transgender.

The high levels of abuse against LGBT people highlights the importance of organizations such as Rio without Homophobia, which works to combat violence and discrimination, and has been used as a blueprint for anti-homophobia initiatives in other parts of Brazil. A recent project trained the police force, which has often been accused of perpetrating homophobic abuse, to attend to the needs of the LGBT population.

A street demonstration to rescue Rio without Homophobia has been scheduled for later this week. The demands of the organizers include reopening the program, expanding it to new areas, and changing its name to Rio without LGBTphobia to make it more inclusive to transgender people.

While Rio tries to market itself as a capital of gay tourism to boost the city's coffers, it is failing to protect its own LGBT citizens from violence. Rio must continue to invest in programs to make the whole city -- and not just the wealthy neighborhoods beloved by tourists -- a safe and welcoming place for all gender identities and sexualities.