Brazil – April 29, 2019. The month of April was marked by several protests and political activities in Brazil against the country’s former military dictatorship. These protests occurred because the 55th anniversary of the coup that established a dictatorship in the country, from 1964 to 1985, was in April 2019.
These protests were motivated because Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, had determined that the Ministry of Defense would honor the 55th anniversary of the coup. In 2011, the former President Dilma Rousseff had forbidden the Army to make commemorations on that date.
In fact,this is the first time since the re-democratization of Brazil that a president has publicly and openly defended the military dictatorship. On the day of the impeachment vote against Dilma, Bolsonaro declared that his vote was in honor of Carlos Brilhante Ustra, known in Brazil as the greatest torturer under the military dictatorship.
Many efforts were made to erase the political censorship and torture to which people who organized to oppose the military regime were subjected from Brazilian memory. However, little is discussed about what kind of relationship the Brazilian dictatorship had with the LGBTI + population – especially with Black LGBTI+ persons. Thus, it is essential to ask what the effects of the authoritarianism of the military dictatorship on the LGBTI + black community were, and to what extent the regime created and deepened the violent way in which the Brazilian State treats these lives today.
Violence against LGBTI+ persons in the Brazilian dictatorship
In 2012, a National Truth Commission (Comissão Nacional da Verdade) was installed in Brazil, with the objective of bringing the human rights violations carried out by agents of the State in repressing all those who were considered opponents of the regime out of hiding, as well as to push the State to assume responsibility for these violations. In 2014, this Commission published a report which sought to publicize the violations that have occurred against LGBTI+ persons.
The attempt to tell an untold story of a dictatorship that tried to erase its tracks makes it extremely difficult to assess the extent of this violence, especially when it comes to the LGBTI+ Afro community. However, efforts must be made to overcome the scarcity of official records.
It is important to note that, in the military regime’s view, there was no distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity. All LGBTI+ persons were considered “homosexuals” and were seen as a homogeneous mass. This is another difficulty, because the official records themselves treated those who identified themselves as trans persons or “travestis” as homosexuals, for example. Travesti is a gender identity that exists in some Latin American countries like Brazil that describes people assigned male at birth who take on a feminine gender role and gender expression, sometimes through the use of feminizing body modifications such as hormone replacement therapy, breast implants, and silicone injections.
As the National Truth Commission report points out, there has not been a formalized state policy to exterminate the LGBTI+ population nor to criminalize these persons. However, the ideology that justified the coup and the disenfranchisement of democratic rights and other kinds of violence was permeated by conservative values and an lgbt-phobic perspective, which considered sexual diversity and diverse gender identity to be subversive. This association of LGBTI+ with subversion was used to justify the repression that were perpetrated against them. Therefore, it was possible to see the growth of a vision of the State that saw LGBTI+ as harmful, dangerous as well as contrary to family, morality and good manners. This legitimized violence against this population.
In São Paulo, for example, the Joint Ordinance nº 390/76 authorized the arrest of those who identified themselves as “travestis” that were found in the central region of the city for interrogations, determining that the police records of the travestis should contain “pictures of the perverts, so that the judges can assess their degree of dangerousness.”
In 1987, in the transition between the military regime and democracy, São Paulo was also the scene of a police operation that became known as “Operation Tarantula.” This operation sought to arrest the travestis in the main prostitution points of the city. It was presented as an effort by the police to reduce the number of cases of AIDS. More than 300 travestis were detained.
São Paulo is an example of how the military government adopted persecution techniques, with special attention to travestis, in order to sanitize the public space through their extermination, considering them as dangerous in the most diverse senses.
Given the violence against them, travestis had to find strategies to survive. The black travesti Weluma Brum said that she was once stopped by the police while she was a prostitute in Rio de Janeiro. Four policemen beat her, gave her electric shocks, and then forced her to have oral sex with them. Later, she discovered a common strategy among travestis to avoid arbitrary arrests: “We cut ourselves with razor, so the cops would not arrest us, look, I still have scars.
The travesti Thina Rodrigues, from the city of Fortaleza, capital of Ceará, says she was arrested for being a travesti and would always hide herself, not expressing her gender identity in order to prevent to be arrested again: “At the time, the Secretary of Public Security said that Fortaleza should clean its dirt. In the eyes of society, homosexuals, travestis, lesbians, prostitutes, and homeless people were all delinquents who damaged the image of Fortaleza and had to be taken from Duque de Caxias, Fortaleza downtown.”
According to the sexologist Armando Januário, many of them were tortured, taken to beaches where they were thrown in the sea, or had their belongings taken by the police and were only released if they used man’s clothing. This meant that many of them were detained only because their existence defied the norm of gender: a norm that is cis, heterosexual, masculine, and white.
In addition to the Black population, the indigenous population was also severely affected. During the dictatorship, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI, for its initials in Portuguese) maintained two detention centers for indigenous persons considered to be “offenders” in Minas Gerais. More than 100 persons of different ethnic groups were taken to these centers. The detention centers were known as the Krenak Reformatory and the Guarani Farm. There are a large number of allegations of human rights violations in both places, such as the widespread practice of torture. Some documents mention the use of “inappropriate sexual relations” and “pederasty” as the reasons for the arrests, as well as drugs, prostitution, and vagrancy, among others.
Moreover, the Black intellectual Lélia Gonzalez said that systematic police repression imposed a psychological submission through fear, intending to prevent any form of unity and organization of the group that suffered repression. Any and all means that could perpetuate internal division within the LGBTI community were used. This generalized repression contributed to the fact that an organized political movement among the LGBTI+ population only began to exist in the late 1970s, because there was a repression aimed at preventing LGBTI+ persons from organizing.
What remains today
Although it is extremely important give visibility to the violence and the strategies of survival during the period of the military dictatorship, thinking about their effects on the Afro LGBTI+ population is not enough. It is not enough to ask what happened to this population during that period and to identify what kind of specific violence was perpetrated against them. It is essential to investigate the legacy of the military dictatorship and its effects on how Brazilian State currently deals with the lives of black LGBTI + persons. In other words, it is necessary to determine what remains of this authoritarianism.
Currently, Brazilian police are extremely violent towards LGBTI+ people. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear reports, especially from Black LGBTI+ people, who have been physically attacked by police officers or have been mocked by them. To this day, the police control who has the right to be on the street, especially trans women and travestis.
Sexual repression and repression committed by the police that was common during the military dictatorship still exists today. The fact that there has been no break with this way of dealing with LGBTI + persons in Brazil helps to explain how the growth of a powerful conservative movement in the country in recent years has been possible. Additionally, it helps to explain why Brazil is such a dangerous place for these people.
When Jair Bolsonaro, supported by several Brazilians, calls for the military coup to be celebrated and denies that there was a dictatorship in Brazil, he denies the possibility of breaking with a past that has perpetuated hierarchies that determine that gay, lesbian, bisexual, travestis, trans persons and other sexual dissidents are in positions of political and social disadvantage to this day. This is especially true for Black LGBTI+ persons. More than that, it is celebrated and demanded that the State has the right to exterminate lives considered as undesirable.
We must be on alert for the increasing attempts to attack LGBTI+ lives. We can not tolerate the State celebrating torture and political persecution. Knowing the past and breaking with what remains is fundamental to create possibilities of a dignified existence for the Afro LGBTI+ population in Brazil.