Why Brazil's homosexuals find asylum in the US

Rio, a magnet for gay tourists, is also tolerant of anti-homosexual violence. A top judge met activists on Friday.

Flavio Alves has become the third Brazilian homosexual in the past five years to receive political asylum in the United States on grounds he would be persecuted in his native country.

Two weeks ago the former Rio resident convinced a New York immigration judge that his life would be in danger if he returned to Rio - a city that is both an international magnet for homosexual men and a danger zone for many living here. Mr. Alves is the 10th Brazilian homosexual to receive asylum in the US, Canada, Australia, or the United Kingdom, according to Atob, a Rio gay-rights group.

Last Friday the president (chief justice) of Brazil's Supreme Court of Justice met with representatives of Brazil's homosexuals for the first time, they said. President Celso de Mello reportedly said he favors a "spousal rights" bill for homosexual couples that is coming up soon in Brazil's Congress, and he opposes a present Brazilian law that calls for jailing homosexuals discovered in the military.

Alves, a former sonar operator in the Brazilian Navy, said he received numerous death threats after writing a book last year about homosexuals in the Brazilian armed forces. Under the US Refugee Act, applicants for political asylum must prove they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or sexual orientation.

Here gay-bashing is common by gangs of young toughs who prowl gay bars as did the two men who recently picked up and killed Matthew Shepard, an openly gay university student, near Laramie, Wyo.

In Rio, however, there are also antihomosexual hit squads with names like Al Koran and Black Horsemen that have appeared over the past several years. They typically shoot down transvestite prostitutes soliciting customers on city streets, according to press reports.

Police not only fail to stop the killings, but also occasionally participate in them without any fear of legal repercussions, gay-rights groups say

"In our macho culture, there is an understanding among police and judges that violence and murder of homosexuals does not deserve serious attention," says Congressman Fernando Gabeira. "They believe that violence is the natural outcome of being gay."

Their fear is well founded, according to the Gay Group of Bahia (GGB), the nation's oldest gay-rights group, calculating that more than 1,500 homosexual men, transvestites, and lesbians have been murdered in Brazil since 1980. The GGB counts 112 homosexuals assassinated in 1997 and 78 murdered so far this year, the majority being gay men.

The GGB statistics, which are based on newspaper reports, are the nation's only recorded information on such violence. Many of the suspected killers are young male prostitutes.

For Raimundo Pereira, an Atob gay-rights activist, it is easy to explain the Brazilian paradox of tolerance of homosexuality but violence against those who are openly gay. "When gays are portrayed as clowns on television, everybody thinks it's funny and wonderful," he says. "But when they simply walk down the street arm in arm or demand their rights, people want to stone them."

As a result, Mr. Pereira says, visitors will rarely see gay men showing affection on the street in Rio, as they might in more tolerant cities such as San Francisco.

Pereira and other local gay leaders point out that, in the world's largest Roman Catholic population (about 120 million in a total 160 million), many priests preach homosexuality as abnormal and a threat to family values.

Last month Marcelo Rossi, the nation's most popular TV priest, told a national audience on a Sunday variety show that "a lot of ideas will change the day homosexuality is proven to be an illness."

Gay activists argue that society's social stigma is not the only reason that the overwhelming majority of Brazil's estimated 15 million homosexuals remain in the closet, or won't join the gay-rights movement, which remains weak for lack of membership. They also cite a lack of repressive laws to rally around.

Most homosexual acts in Brazil were decriminalized in 1823, in contrast with the US, where sodomy laws remain in 18 states. For Congressman Gabeira, violence against homosexuals in Brazil will continue until the government "makes the issue a priority and creates a new situation."

THAT is already occurring, says Ivair dos Santos, a federal human rights official. He says he has scheduled several meetings with gay-rights representatives to discuss solutions. "We take violence against homosexuals very seriously but also realize that we live in a conservative society where gay discrimination is a delicate matter," he says.

In the meantime, a local Rio politician plans to create the nation's first 24-hour hot line for victims of gay-bashing, and Pereira and many of his 300 colleagues at Atob are taking karate lessons

"We don't want to fight," says Pereira. "But we must learn to defend ourselves."

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