From reports of violent gangs wreaking havoc in São Paulo to celebratory pictures of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is a country of contrasts. Despite the country being officially Catholic, Lyndon Barnett discovers that Brazil’s attitude towards homosexuality is by and large accepting.

In May this year, Brazil hosted the country’s first National Conference of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transvestites, and Transsexuals, an event made all the more special because it was decreed by the President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and paid for by the Government.

In what has now become an image of hope and inspiration for Brazil’s gay population, Lula was photographed holding the pride flag.

This means a great deal. The conference gave us a lot of visibility, said Jose (name substituted). The President is very outspoken about homophobia, hate crimes and equality in Brazil.

The conference established a nationwide campaign entitled Brazil Without Homophobia that will educate the population about homosexuality and create a culture of understanding.

In recent years the international media have covered stories focusing on homophobia-motivated murders. Presumably it is such incidents that may have inspired Lula to host the conference. Jose believes such coverage needs to be placed in context.

I believe they are homophobic attacks. However, Brazil is a violent society, where there are thousands of murders each year. Most of the attacks would have been on street workers who are the most vulnerable.

The conference is not the first time the Brazilian Government has spoken in favour of gay rights. In 2003 the Government proposed to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights the Brazilian Resolution, which included such paragraphs as, Calls upon all States to promote and protect the human rights of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation.

After much diplomatic manoeuvring and proposed amendments, the Commission decided to defer discussions. To date, the Resolution has not been placed back on the agenda, effectively rendering the 2003 decision a defeat for enshrining gay and lesbian rights with the UN.

According to Jose, Brazil is very accepting of diversity.

Brazil is a Catholic country but it is very liberal, open-minded. People don’t go to church as much, he said.

Jose cites the statistics that, for a population of 200 million people, fewer than one million gathered to see the Pope on his recent visit. Yet three million people watched the 2008 Pride Parade in São Paulo.

Brazil is more tolerant because we have Carnival that celebrates inclusiveness. Our society is made up of Portuguese, indigenous peoples, black slaves and waves of European settlers. We are used to being accepting of differences, Jose said.

In Brazil soap operas can be viewed as social barometers. Since the 1990s these programs began to feature gay characters. As the media depicted gays and lesbians, so too did society’s perceptions shift.

As a consequence the gay and lesbian population currently enjoys a raft of equality laws including adoption rights, de facto rights, migration rights and social benefits.

There has been a bill before the Brazilian Parliament on same-sex civil unions since 1995. While it has been debated many times it has never been put to a vote.

Jose believes that the main reason for the delay in the vote is that, should the bill be defeated, it will be infinitely more difficult to pass legislation at a later date. The parliamentarians in favour of the bill are waiting until they have the guaranteed numbers.

Jose has been in Sydney for five years now.

I enjoy the people, the quality of life. Sydney is very cosmopolitan.

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