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In Home of the Ultimate Party, Not All Are Welcome

January 29, 2006|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

CURITIBA, Brazil — The surgeons who put Nick Oliveira's face back together did an excellent job. Only a faint scar remains from the 27 stitches under his right eye, where the skin had split and a piece of cheekbone dangled after a gang of thugs beat his face to a bloody pulp.

But the psychological scars haven't healed as nicely. A year and a half after the attack, Oliveira ventures out at night only by taxi, and he keeps careful watch on his surroundings. He never wants to be a target again merely because of who he is: a gay man.

Brazil has long been famed as a mecca of sensuality and tolerance -- its European colonizers once said, "There is no sin south of the equator." Yet for all the bare flesh and the drag queens who strut their sequined stuff to wild applause during Carnaval, there remains a dark side for those who do not adhere to the heterosexual norm.

Physical assaults on homosexuals are commonplace in Latin America's largest nation. In 2004, according to statistics compiled by gay activists, there were 159 reported killings of gays and lesbians in Brazil -- an average of three a week. By contrast, the FBI recorded only one such homicide that same year in the United States.

The slayings and other attacks are the violent outgrowth of the discrimination homosexuals still face in a culture that remains deeply Roman Catholic and socially conservative, despite a licentious streak. Although a dynamic gay movement has made some inroads in the last 20 years, protection of homosexuals lags behind the advances won in the U.S. and other Western countries.

"To be gay or lesbian is still to be vulnerable, owing to the culture of homophobia that is very rooted in people's minds," said Marcelo Cerqueira, a prominent activist in Salvador, the capital of Bahia state.

The tide of anti-gay violence seems at odds with signs that society is actually becoming more accepting of homosexuality.

In Sao Paulo, last year's gay pride parade attracted more than a million people, making it one of the world's largest such celebrations of homosexual identity. Rio de Janeiro, that bastion of hedonism, is now an increasingly popular destination among gay travelers drawn by the city's lustrous beaches and its boisterous Carnaval parties.

Many of Brazil's best-known singers, in a land that worships its music, are openly gay or bisexual. And activists were elated last year when television audiences voted an outspokenly gay man the winner on "Big Brother Brasil," one of the country's most-watched reality programs.

The increased awareness can cut both ways, however.

"Many things in Brazilian society are contradictory," said James N. Green, a history professor at Brown University and author of "Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil." "I think that gay life, as it becomes more visible and more public, evokes anxiety among a lot of men and their notions of masculinity, and I think that's one explanation for gay bashing."

To American visitors, Brazilian men often appear more physically affectionate with one another than their counterparts in the U.S., and stories are legion of sexual experimentation and fluidity among Brazilians regardless of gender or orientation.

But machismo and traditional concepts of gender roles still run deep. A 2004 survey among young people in three major cities found that, among young men, 49% regarded gays as "sick" or "without shame."

"There are many blurred boundaries [of sexuality], but there's also a hyper-masculinity," Green said. "You could not explain all the pejorative and negative attitudes towards gay men, effeminate gay men, if you didn't have that. This is a hyper-masculine society -- soccer games are a perfect example."

With his lissome figure, slicked-down hair, and femininely graceful mannerisms, Sergio Machado, 27, knows he is far from the macho stereotype. Whenever he steps on a bus, strolls through the market or just goes for a walk, he can feel people staring.

Some are curious, others malevolent. In October, when he came out of a gay bar in his hometown of Curitiba and exchanged kisses with a friend, two young men nearby scowled and said loudly, "How disgusting."

A few minutes later, two other men -- tipped off, Machado believes, by the first pair -- tried to trip and punch him as he continued down the street. Luckily, he said, he was struck only lightly on the side of the mouth, and managed to flee.

Just a few weeks before, on Sept. 18, a young gay man was ambushed in Curitiba by a group of skinheads who allegedly shouted, "Gays must die!" as they stabbed him in the stomach with scissors. The 19-year-old survived; police arrested nearly a dozen members of a neo-Nazi gang in connection with the attack.

The swift response by authorities to the stabbing was an exception, brought about by public pressure from gay activists, say members of Grupo Dignidade, a gay-rights organization based in Curitiba.

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