The battle for Rio's soul

The Brazilian city has a reputation as one of the world's most tolerant places. But the growing power of evangelicals is putting the rights of its minorities at risk. Tom Phillips reports
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The Independent US

One by one, the worshippers trickle into a small, improvised hall tucked away on the third floor of an inconspicuous concrete building. They hug. Several of the men kiss. Others stop to pick up the free condoms. By 7.30pm, 20 worshippers have gathered for the weekly culto (service), among them, a transvestite in startling pink pedal-pushers. It's not the usual evangelical congregation. But then, the ICM is Rio de Janeiro's only gay ("inclusive" is the term its worshippers prefer) evangelical church.

"There's only one person here who isn't homosexual," says one worshipper, Derbio Santos Silva, as the church's three-man choir - "the spice girls," jokes one of the congregation - warms up for the service. Behind them, the lyrics to each hymn flash up on two television screens; thick white lettering set against a bright pink background.

It is here in the district of Lapa, in places like the ICM, that Rio de Janeiro's tolerance shows its most flamboyant face. Three nights a week, the area's crumbling colonial streets are transformed into an open-air nightclub where Brazilians of all classes, backgrounds and sexualities converge to see in the early hours against a deafening backdrop of samba, hip-hop and funk, an electronic music cultivated in the city's hilltop shantytowns. In Lapa, anything goes.

Yet a series of recent bills put forwards to the state legislature - among them a bill to outlaw sex changes - by an influential evangelical politician have underlined a fierce tug-of-war between two dramatically opposed visions of Rio: the tolerant, liberal, beach paradise and the draconian, traditionalist city.

Some now believe that Rio's gay and transgender communities may be merely the first targets of a "cleansing mission" undertaken by ultra-conservative sections of the bancada evangelica (evangelical lobby).

When a project to offer state-funded psychological help to homosexuals wanting to "convert" themselves to heterosexuality was put forward to Rio's Assembly last year, Claudio Nascimento, a sociologist and leading gay rights campaigner, told The Independent: "This is not just an offence to gays but to all citizens who will not tolerate discrimination. Today it's us, but tomorrow who knows?".

To these more radical sections of the evangelical church, future targets are not hard to come across in the notoriously hedonistic Rio de Janeiro: for many evangelicals, anything that steps outside the strict doctrines prescribed by the Church is deemed a sin or even "demonic" behaviour. That includes anything from the use of alcohol, drugs or the "lance-perfume" solvent synonymous with Brazil's carnival to sex outside marriage, promiscuity or the scantily clad samba dancers who parade through Rio's sambodromo each year.

Rio's samba schools frequently incur the wrath of the city's conservative politicians with displays of nudity in the carnival processions that are broadcast across the world. A recent attempt to facilitate abortion in Brazil by giving women the right to a termination in rape cases without registering the crime with the police was also strongly attacked by sections of the evangelical lobby.

Hanah Suzart, the president of the city's transvestites' association, is on the front line of this dispute, a battle over the soul of Brazil's former capital. "Rio de Janeiro is much more conservative than places like Minas Gerais or parts of the north-east. People say it is one of the world's most tolerant cities but in lots of ways it is the opposite," she says in a cramped office - where leopard-skin throws drape over the furniture - on the fourth floor of a tower block in central Rio.

For Suzart, these repeated attacks on the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community represent a worrying move away from Rio's open-minded traditions. Gays and transvestites, she believes, could just be the first targets. Rio, one of the world's most financially unequal cities, is often referred to as the cidade partida or divided city. Yet the new proposals highlight a different schism within what cariocas also call, proudly. the cidade maravilhosa "marvellous city".

Suzart's story is common to many of Rio's estimated 4,000 transvestites, and highlights this battle for Rio's identity. Born in the Madureira district to Rio's north, the activist worked for a period at a private school in Copacabana during which time she assumed her feminine identity. When she did so, her boss gave her an ultimatum: change back or get out. She left. Without work, Suzart took the only path available to most Brazilian transvestites: she began to sell her body from apartments in Rio's glitzy south zone.

Rio's transvestites are constantly haunted by violence and abuse. Suzart says that wealthy "playboys" have been known to shoot rubber bullets and throw paint at her colleagues. Two years ago, while working in the Flamengo beach district, she was stabbed in the neck by a client.

"He called, came up to my room and announced the robbery," she remembers. "But the police didn't seem to care. They took his word against mine. The same guy went on to rob 18 other transvestites."

Campaigners such as Suzart see several controversial laws put to Rio's legislature by the evangelical pastor Edino Fonseca as contributing to these levels of intolerance. His proposal to help homosexuals "convert" fell at the final hurdle, but that hasn't stopped him from infuriating the transgender community with a plan to outlaw neocolpovulvoplastia and neofaloplastia (sex change operations). Fonseca is among a group of religious leaders and evangelical politicians viewed as the prime enemies of the liberal Rio so treasured by the hundreds of transvestites who travel to the city each year in search of work and acceptance. In this year's pau-de-sebo (slippery stick) awards, Brazil's biggest gay rights group, the Grupo Gay da Bahia, hit out at figures within the religious community, including Rio's evangelical governor, Rosinha Matheus, who has opposed civil unions between gay couples, and Rio's Catholic cardinal, Dom Eusebio Oscar Scheid. Cardinal Scheid said last year that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had "attitudes that are not logical within our faith. His relationship with gays [for example]. Who was it who approved all of that? Lula is not Catholic but chaotic," he said.

"People say Rio is some kind of paradise for gays," says Suzart, a curvaceous blonde, who was the first Brazilian transvestite legally to change her name. "It isn't." One only has to walk down the street with her to realise this.

"Most of the time, I do my shopping in the middle of the night, at a 24-hour supermarket. It's less hassle that way," she explains as we pass in front of the Lapa viaduct. Hardly a person passes by without staring or pointing.

"There's so much prejudice, even among those men who sleep with transvestis. Sometimes I'll see the same man who has been in bed with me, letting me fuck him, swearing at me in the street with his mates, shouting, 'This race deserves to die.' If you're gay, you can hide behind a suit. Nobody would know if President Lula was gay, unless they actually shared a bed with him.

"But with us, there is no way of hiding it. You walk into a shop and suddenly everyone is overcome with the elbow virus: 'Look it's a veado [poof]'!"

On the face of it, Rio is one of the world's most gay-friendly cities. Neon-lit nightclubs with names like Le Boy and Blue Angel are scattered along Copacabana's bustling streets. The gay community even has its own stretch of Ipanema beach, where rainbow flags hang high above the scorching sand. An estimated 800,000 revellers paraded through the streets during this year's Gay Pride March.

Yet there is another side to this divided city. Rio has the second highest rate of homophobic crimes in Brazil after the northeastern state of Pernambuco, according to the Centre for the Study of Violence and Discrimination against Homosexuals. A recent study by the Candido Mendes university and Arco Iris, a gay rights group, said that 60 per cent of Rio's homosexual population has experienced some kind of harassment because of their sexuality. Of the gay men interviewed, 16.6 per cent admitted to having suffered physical violence, of them, 42.3 per cent were transvestites.

Edino Fonseca denies his projects are homophobic or that they contribute to this prejudice. For him, outlawing sex changes is simply common sense. "Transgenital surgery is not a treatment for transexualism - its effect is merely to please the patient without curing them of this mental pathology," he explains in the bill's introduction.

Yet to his critics, the project represents a renewed attack on Rio's status as a liberal, progressive city; an attempt by its powerful evangelical coalitions to remold it in a new, "civilised" shape. Brazil's evangelical church has exploded in size in the past decade, growing from 13.5 million people (9.1 per cent) to 26.2 million (15.5 per cent), giving it unprecedented political power. Many parts within this church consider homosexuality a demonic act, while one church, the Igreja Universal, promotes televised exorcisms in which demons are expelled from desperate sinners: usually drug addicts, alcoholics and, of course, lesbians and gays.

"It becomes complicated for us when people like Fonseca are constantly trying to undo our work," says Suzart, who has given workshops to Rio's military police about gay rights.

"It's absurd. I believe Edino Fonseca must have a huge problem with his own sexuality. Why waste his time trying to prohibit something like this that has absolutely nothing to do with him?"

At the end of the service at the ICM, the congregation gathers round to discuss extracts from the Bible before leaving to hand out leaflets nearby explaining the scriptures most commonly used to attack the GLBT community. "In no moment does the Bible mention that it is better [for a couple] to be man and woman," reads one. "It says it is best to be two people, people that love each other."

"Our biggest problem is attracting gays who are hidden away within the existing evangelical church and don't want to come out," says Derbio Santos Silva. "How do you teach someone who has learnt since they were a child that being homosexual is a sin, that it is OK? But we're an embryo still. And I am sure of one thing. God loves us, and he loves us just as we are."

At her apartment down the road from the ICM, Suzart remembers the funeral of another transvestite, run over the previous week as she prostituted herself at the traffic lights in Lapa.

"Her father, who before wanted nothing to do with her, showed up out of the blue and suddenly started demanding her documents and possessions. 'Where are her jewels? She must have had something,' he said. So we told him to get a piece of paper to write down everything she had and he started writing. 'She had the night; the road to walk in. She had the day. And she had debt: debt with the woman who sold snacks on the street corner; debt with the old lady who rented her a room. Debt with the bicha [shirt-lifter] who sold knickers.' It's a lonely path," says Suzart, tears clearly visible in her eyes.

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