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Organising in the face of homophobia and transphobia in Brazil

Iran Giusti, Victoria, André and Rodrigo outside Casa 1, in Sao Paulo, 7 February 2017 (photo courtesy of Mathilde Dorcadie)

Helping young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) people in conflict with their families is the task that journalist and activist Iran Giusti has set himself, by opening the doors of Casa 1, a shelter and dialogue centre in downtown São Paulo.

With no public funding, but with the support of his network and the financial contributions of over a thousand donors, the young man plans to set up a project to support individuals and raise awareness in the community.

Brazil holds the unenviable record of having the highest number of homophobic and transphobic murders in the world. In 2016, according to Grupo Gay da Bahia (The Gay Group of Bahia, or GGB), there were 343 homophobic murders, nearly one a day.

Rede Trans Brasil (the Trans Brazil Network) says 144 transsexuals were murdered in the same year, not to mention the countless attacks meted out daily against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, which often begin within the family circle.

“One day my mother’s boyfriend hit me, and I had to leave to stop the situation getting worse, to protect my mother, brothers and sisters,” says 21-year-old Rodrigo, who came to live at Casa 1 just a few days before his interview with Equal Times.

Thousands of young people are in an insecure situation, says Iran, thrown out of their family home with no-one to turn to. When they are minors, they can be taken care of by children’s social care services. The authorities only intervene when cases become extreme, once people are really destitute, on the streets, and even being exploited.

And often they only deal with the symptoms, such as drug dependency or psychiatric illnesses. According to Marcos Vieira Garci, a social psychology researcher at the University of São Carlos in Brazil, between 20 and 30 per cent of the world’s homeless people have been thrown out of their homes after being rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation.

It is to avoid these extremes that the project was created. It was the result of Iran’s own experience: “I sheltered a young gay man for a few days, and I talked to him a lot about my personal experience and my activism. Later he wrote to me to say that it had helped restore his confidence. So then I offered my sofa to other young people in difficulty, by putting an ad on Facebook. I got more than 50 requests in two hours. I have been an activist for LGBT rights for ten years, so I was aware of the problem, but not the extent of it.” After a few months, Iran’s apartment was not enough to meet demand.

“My mother thinks I am a evil person”

Casa 1 opened in January and can take up to ten people, for a renewable three month period. In a large communal room, two rows of beds have been set up, and there is a small living room with a television and wifi.

“All the furniture has been given to us, there was a huge wave of solidarity. We have all the necessary comforts, with a kitchen, laundry room and bathroom,” says André. Dani is standing in the middle of a pile of clothes, sorting out the donations. This transsexual woman, who has lived on the streets for a long time, was taken on as a ‘nanny’.

“She’s a bit like a mum to us. She organises the shopping and teaches us lots of things, like cooking. And Iran’s our dad” jokes André.

As well as providing shelter, it is a place for mutual support. Each housemate is closely followed by the team of volunteers. They help them to prepare their curriculum vitae, with the administrative steps for applying to the university, and with applying for grants, giving support on a case by case basis.

Twenty four year old Wesley has begun hormone treatment to change gender. “It’s incredible, I get so much support here. Everyone already calls me Victoria. My mother has disowned me. She is a practising evangelist and thinks I’m an evil person.” Victoria, who speaks several foreign languages, dreams of studying international relations.

Before launching into the project, the organisers thought about creating a viable economic model. To achieve this, they began a participatory fund-raising drive and managed to collect a total of 112,000 reals (US$ 36,000) to pay one year’s rent and have something put by.

“But our aim is to set up a cultural centre on the ground floor, to generate our own resources so that the house can be run independently. We want to show that it can work and inspire other initiatives elsewhere in Brazil,” explains Iran.

The project has only just begun, but its creators are already looking ahead to greater things. “We called it Casa 1 because we hope to open a Casa 2, perhaps for women at risk,” confides Iran.

In the neighbourhood, the house’s bright colours and its offices that open out onto the street are very welcoming. Passersby who used to avoid this old building that housed a bar, a squat, and was used for drug trafficking, now stop to take a look at the display of art work, see friends in the house, or check out the library.

“We wanted to bring some colour to the neighbourhood, and to win the confidence of the neighbours and local traders,” enthuses Iran.

“We are going to organise activities with them, such as crochet courses for the elderly. It is important to engage in dialogue and encourage diversity. We mustn’t hide. The shelters run by the local authorities are always in isolated spots, out of sight from society.”

Iran believes that being open is one way to help combat homophobia. “It is at least as important as helping a young gay or transsexual person. What would be the point in taking pains to develop their professional skills if the local traders don’t want to hire them out of prejudice?”

This story has been translated from French.

(c) Equal Times 2017


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