In Brazil, AIDS Activism Led to Political Connections

Published: January 30, 2014

 Many have touted Brazil as a global success story in L.G.B.T. rights, but the situation is murkier than that. Yes, the victories are dramatic. The country has legalized same-sex marriage, extended access to sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy in its public health system, started a national plan across federal ministries to combat homophobia, and led international discussions on sexual orientation, gender identity and human rights.

As elsewhere in the Latin America, these achievements must be viewed in light of the region’s political transitions from authoritarianism to formal democracy beginning in the 1980s. Since the first Brazilian gay liberation groups entered the public stage in 1978, activists have formed alliances with political leaders, particularly but not exclusively with the ruling Workers Party. A key ally in this history has been the country’s national S.T.D./AIDS program, created in 1985.
But the influence of conservative religious politicians and activists is growing. To see Brazil simply as a success story risks undermining its progress.
AIDS activism and public policy in Brazil was strongly influenced by the progressive health care reform movement that won a fundamental right to health care in the country’s 1988 constitution and a universal health care system – at a time when international agencies pressed for austerity. Similarly informed by the tenets of social medicine, the S.T.D./AIDS program embraced civic participation, universal access, and a broad reading of health policy that encompassed combating homophobia and social stigma as a key to prevention. 
During the 1990s, partially funded by World Bank loans, the program worked with nongovernmental organizations to fuel the L.G.B.T. movement, which ultimately diversified across regional, racial and class lines. For example, financing from the public-private partnership facilitated the country’s first autonomous organizations of “travestis” and transsexuals and their eventual coalescence into a national trans network. By 2007, about 1,500 nongovernmental organizations were implementing projects with various populations, with some funding from the national S.T.D./AIDS program.
Although these achievements are undeniably important, their implementation has often been undermined by bureaucratic inertia, institutionalized homophobia, and a lack of state capacity or political will. Moreover, recent decisions by Dilma Rousseff’s administration suggest a possible rollback. Last June, for example, the administration succumbed to pressure from the evangelical caucus in the federal congress, pulling an AIDS prevention campaign intended to reach sex workers (merely the latest instance of such censorship), and firing the head of the national S.T.D./AIDS program.
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