Anti-LGBT+ abuse stokes mental health struggles in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

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Growing up in an evangelical Christian family in Brazil, life was pretty tough for Ariel Nobre. Designated female at birth, the 31-year-old transgender man was sent to a gay conversion therapy centre when he was just 18.

“They wanted to cure me”, Nobre told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I stayed there six months. After I left, I had my first kiss with a woman at 19. Then I quit the church completely.”

Nobre moved to Rio de Janeiro to go to university, and later to Sao Paulo. At 27, he began to openly identify as transgender, a difficult experience in a conservative country, where gender roles are strictly enforced, and anti-LGBT+ violence is common.

One night, Nobre was verbally attacked by two men yelling homophobic slurs.

Seeing little hope for a better future, Nobre made a desperate decision.

“I had no prospects for life, for work, for love”, he said. “That’s why I chose to kill myself”.

Nobre’s experience is a familiar one to LGBT+ activists in Brazil, where the election last year of far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, stoked fears of a more hostile environment for gay and transgender people.

There are no official figures on suicides among LGBT+ Brazilians, but according to watchdog group, Grupo Gay da Bahia, which monitors local obituaries and social media pages, about 100 gay and trans people took their own lives in Brazil last year, an almost fourfold increase on cases documented in 2016.

After gun crime, suicide has become the second-leading cause of death among LGBT+ Brazilians, according to the group.

While Grupo Gay da Bahia’s access to data may be limited, local experts say the issue is real for LGBT+ people in Brazil.

“There’s a lot of suicidal thinking”, Pedro Paulo Bicalho, an adviser at Brazil’s Federal Council for Psychology (CFP), who often speaks about gay and trans rights, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Not just the final suicide, the loss of life, but mainly the ideation, the desire to take one’s life, to kill oneself because of the way our own society sees the LGBT+ population”.

Nobre was one of the lucky ones – he survived his ordeal, and has since become an artist, filmmaker, and transgender activist.

“At the very last second (before he attempted suicide) I remembered to write my final words:

‘I need to tell you that I love you.’ And from then on, I just never stopped writing those words. I write them every day”.

Nobre began writing the phrase on walls, on random objects, on his own body. Eventually it morphed into a photography project, a documentary film, and a multimedia campaign, to raise awareness about suicide among trans men.

According to advocacy group, Transrespect Versus Transphobia Worldwide, 167 trans people were killed in Brazil between October 2017 and September last year, a figure higher than anywhere else in the world.

“Something that I always hear from trans organizations is that trans women are very vulnerable to being killed, but trans men are extremely vulnerable to suicide”, said Ana Flavia Andrade, campaigns manager at LGBT+ rights group, All Out.

“Among LGBT people, they’re the group that has the highest rates of suicide”.

According to a 2015 study from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, nearly 86 percent of trans men surveyed had thought about or attempted suicide at least once in their life.

For Nobre, the disturbing trend is a product of the extreme social isolation that trans men face in their daily lives.

“Trans people are systematically excluded from spaces of love, spaces of desire, spaces of communion, spaces of work, from sacred spaces”, Nobre said. “That drains your energy”.

Meanwhile, conversion therapy centres like the one Nobre attended as a teenager, though banned by the CFP, continue to operate across the country.

“The existence of those clinics has produced a great deal of suffering, a whole series of violations”, said the CFP’s Bicalho.

“We’re talking about a phenomenon that involves practices of torture which just shouldn’t be in any way be legitimized in this country”.

The election of far-right President Bolsonaro has raised concerns of a rollback of rights and protections for Brazil’s LGBT+ community.

Bolsonaro, who once said he would rather his son “died in an accident” than bring home a boyfriend, swiftly removed LGBT+ issues from the human rights ministry’s mandate, when he came to power in January.

He also appointed Damares Alves, a conservative evangelical pastor, as the new minister of women, family, and human rights.

On her first day in office, Alves declared that under the new government “girls will be princesses and boys will be princes”, in a swipe at what she called “ideological indoctrination”.

Rights campaigners say these types of comments add further weight to the fiercely anti-LGBT+ propaganda perpetuated by Brazil’s powerful evangelical churches.

“That extremism contributes to this heavy feeling that you’re not safe, and you’re not loved, and you’re not valid”, said All Out’s Andrade.

“I think that definitely leads to high rates of suicide, high rates of homicide, and … horrible, cruel crimes”.

Following Bolsonaro’s election, openly gay congressman, Jean Wyllys, a former winner of the Big Brother TV show, gave up his seat, citing threats of violence made against him.

Ahead of an expected Supreme Court ruling on whether homophobic and transphobic attacks should be criminalised, All Out asked its Brazilian members to submit stories of abuse.

The accounts were then anonymously published on its website to highlight the rampant anti-LGBT+ violence in Brazil.

Within 24 hours, they had more than 600 responses: a gay man held at gunpoint for kissing his boyfriend; a trans woman hospitalised after being beaten on the street; a lesbian woman who had panic attacks after her mother threatened to kill her.

Andrade of All Out says that life for young LGBT+ Brazilians growing up in the Bolsonaro era will become even tougher.

“You kind of build bubbles of safety and security and little armors that you protect yourself with”, she said.

“But if it’s a kid, they’re just so young, they don’t even have time to build those armours…It’s just not enough time”.

Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib -Thomson Reuters Foundation

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