The End(s) of Activism? Sexual Rights and the Brazilian Workers Party

by Rafael De La Dehesa

Brazil has been hailed internationally in recent decades as a global leader in sexual rights. At the United Nations and the Organization of American States, the country has indeed led discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity. Many have touted its response to HIV/AIDS as a model for the Global South. International observers have praised its first woman president Dilma Rousseff (Workers Party, PT), elected in 2010, for her “commitment to gender equality.” A closer examination of domestic realities, however, presents a more ambiguous panorama, as an encroaching conservatism in matters of sexuality and gender imperils many earlier achievements.

The growing political weight of conservative Catholic and Protestant sectors in these areas became evident in the 2010 presidential race, when the issue of abortion took center-stage. Conservative pressure ultimately prompted Rousseff to issue an “Open Letter to the People of God,” promising to make the family the central focus of her administration and to steer clear of issues like abortion or relationship recognition for same-sex couples, leaving any action to the congress. Since the 1980s, evangelical churches in Brazil have created powerful electoral machines, and lawmakers have established evangelical caucuses at the federal, state, and municipal levels. More recently, religious conservatives have taken an ecumenical turn, establishing caucuses incorporating Catholics such as the Parliamentary Family and Pro-Life Caucus, which includes 167 deputies and twenty-six senators in the current legislature. In a deeply fragmented congress where coalitions are essential for getting anything done, these lawmakers have leveraged their influence by establishing an influential presence across party lines.

The record of the PT in sexual rights is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, the government has held three national conferences on women’s rights and two on LGBT rights, produced national plans enumerating policies in these areas, and created national advisory councils on Women’s and LGBT rights to oversee their implementation. More inured to the political pressures of conservative sectors, the country’s high courts have issued landmark rulings recognizing same-sex couples’ right to marry and permitting abortion in cases of anacephalic fetuses, (allowing a third exemption to criminalization, in addition to pregnancies resulting from rape, or those that pose a risk to the life of the mother). More often than not, however, public policies supportive of sexual rights remain on paper. And, somewhat surprisingly, given the historic relationship between the PT and significant sectors of the feminist and LGBT movements, a number of political and structural forces have aligned to put sexual rights activists largely on the defensive.

In the congress, religious conservatives have introduced numerous antiabortion bills that have absorbed feminists’ time and resources, and collected enough signatures to create a congressional inquiry commission to investigate international funding of feminist organizations in an effort to criminalize the movement. For a feminist movement that has long rallied around the banner of integral health, the significant weakening of the women’s health sector in the Health Ministry, with most of itsbudget focused on the so-called Stork Network for pre- and post-natal care, represents a significant step backward, once more reducing women’s health to their reproductive capacity.

Under conservative pressure, the Rousseff administration has censored sex education materials and HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns. Most recently, the dismissal of the Director of the Brazilian National STD/AIDS Program Dirceu Greco last June dramatically reflected this conservative turn. Health Minister Alexandre Padilha fired Greco after the release of an HIV/AIDS prevention campaign on social media sparked controversy. Produced in collaboration with sex workers, one poster read, “I’m happy being a prostitute,” eliciting calls for public hearings by evangelical lawmakers. Noting that the campaign did not go through the proper channels before its release, Padilha asserted that prevention materials should focus on healthcare (narrowly understood) and that this kind of campaign would not be produced as long as he remains minister. His statements flew against the historic foundations of the Brazilian response to AIDS, built on the principles of civil society participation and combating social stigma as key to prevention.

As religious conservative politicians have grown stronger, other factors have helped weaken sexual rights advocacy. Paradoxically, the ascent of the Workers Party has drawn many activists into the government and dampened their willingness to openly criticize it. The creation of women’s and LGBT councils at various levels of government has bureaucratized and encapsulated activism at a time when greater outspokenness is needed. Moreover, many organizations are facing financial crises and closing as a result of the administrative decentralization undertaken by the National STD/AIDS Program and many international foundations turning away from Brazil. Together, this perfect storm is revealing the precariousness of a model of close cooperation between government and activism built over the last three decades.

About the Author

Rafael de la Dehesa is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include social movements, gender and sexuality, and comparative politics of Latin America. He is the author of "Queering the Public Sphere in Mexico and Brazil: Sexual Rights Movements in Emerging Democracies." His current research explores sexual activists’ engagement with healthcare sectors.

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