The Irish safe haven for LGBT Brazilians

Brendan Fernando Kelly Palenque

Total Irish Population statistic from Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI Family Values poll. Credit: Brendan Fernando Kelly Palenque

On a busy day in Parnell street, a lost Giovanni Vieira de Lima checked Google Maps on his phone.

Thugs purposefully elbow into him, causing him to drop his phone – shattering its screen.

De Lima is a gay immigrant from Brazil and he said that racist situations such as these are not uncommon in Ireland. Despite this, life is better for him here than in Brazil.

“It’s easier to suffer with xenophobia than homophobia,” he says. Growing up in a rural town in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, being openly gay was not an option for him.

For this reason, de Lima and many other LGBT+, or queer, Brazilians moved to Ireland. Thirty per cent of Brazilians in Ireland are LGBT+, according to a survey done by the Brazilian Left Front (BLF), a social justice organisation of Brazilian citizens in Ireland.

Census figures from the Central Statistics Office show that there were 13,640 Brazilians in Ireland in 2016. Thus, the BLF survey would suggest that there are over 4,000 queer Brazilians in Ireland.

However, BLF said that it can be difficult getting more centre-right politically minded people to respond to their initiatives, so the data may not be entirely accurate. They were also unable to confirm how many people took the survey.

De Lima explained that it’s a lot harder being gay in rural Brazil than in the big cities – you have to be very careful to make sure you “don’t act too gay”. While his family knows he’s gay, he doesn’t have a good relationship with his father. He added that in his opinion, things were getting better in Brazil.

This sentiment was not shared by other LGBT+ Brazilians. Volmar Oliveira – a gay immigrant from the state of Rio Grande do Sul – believes that Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, is dangerous.

He describes him as a populist who says exactly what people want to hear. “It’s not that people are more homophobic – it’s that they don’t hide it now,” he says.

According to Jessica Tenorio, the Brazilian right-wing are trying to justify their demonisation of queer people by saying it’s to protect children. She fears they’re using the queer community as a scapegoat to distract from the real issues.

“We [LGBT+ people] are the bait in the hook… the water is getting polluted in the lake but they’re saying: ‘look at the bait’,” she says.

Tenorio is an intersex woman who works with ABRAI, the Brazilian Intersex Association. Intersex people have reproductive anatomy which doesn’t fit in with the typical definitions of male or female.

She’s been living in Ireland for three years now and is an activist for intersex people both in Brazil and Ireland. Tenorio grew up during the military dictatorship in Brazil and, like many intersex people, didn’t find out she was intersex until she was older.

“When I was like 16 or 17, I looked like I was 12. You can imagine it made me really easy to be bullied,” she says.

Tenorio wants to bring awareness to intersex people and stop the genital mutilation of intersex children – which is still legal in Ireland and Brazil. Intersex children as young as two-years-old often receive cosmetic “corrective” surgery to give their genitals a more “normal” appearance.

She thinks that many LGBT+ Brazilians come to Ireland because it’s one of the safest English-speaking countries for queer people. She also notes that Ireland has an easier visa process than many countries.

Oliveira came to Ireland two years ago for work and he describes Ireland as a broadly accepting place. He mentions how there are very few queer spaces in Ireland compared to Brazil.

“This is a good sign because you can be gay in any pub [in Ireland]. You have a few traditional pubs like the George and Panti bar… but in Brazil you can find much more places because you have to go to a gay place,” he said.

His mother is happy that he came to Ireland, as Brazil is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for queer people. According to Gay Community News, Brazil has the highest trans and gender non-conforming murder rate in the world, with 179 murders in 2017.

This kind of violence against trans people in Ireland is rare. Tenorio recalled when a taxi driver in Ireland once assumed she was a sex worker and asked her for sex.

Oliveira explained that violence against transgender people in Brazil differs between social classes. The trans people he knew from lower classes have all died, but the ones who are from a higher class are able to survive thanks to their resources.

Back in March 2018, city councillor for Rio de Janeiro Marielle Franco was murdered. Franco was a lesbian activist who was a member of the socialist party and died after being shot at nine times. In January of this year, The Guardian reported that Brazil’s only openly gay congressman, Jean Wyllys, left the country after receiving death threats.

With Bolsonaro’s recent election, Ireland may be seeing more Brazilian LGBT+ immigrants. “Only this year, I have one friend that is a transman who came here. I have one gay friend who is coming at the end of the year… I have another friend who is LGBTI who is coming,” Tenorio said.

While the xenophobia that de Lima faced is clearly despicable, a shattered phone screen is a small price to pay to flee from the violence in Brazil. Ireland has provided many queer Brazilians with safety, security and serenity.

Brendan Fernando Kelly Palenque

Image credit: Brendan Fernando Kelly Palenque