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What Did I Do to You?

“What did I do to you?” Those were among the last words uttered by Adriano Oca, a gay man. He was stabbed to death on July 5 in the impoverished outskirts of the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

September 29, 2015
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Every 28 hours, an LGBT person is killed in Brazil .

Four out of every 5 trans people killed in the world are from Brazil. Just this year, there have been numerous instances of violence, the circumstances of which remain unpleasantly familiar: Veronica, a trans woman badly beaten and disfigured by prison guards; Laura Vermont, murdered at the hands of the police; Viviany, stabbed in the street after staging a protest at the Gay Pride Parade against homo- and transphobia.

It is accurate to say that the situation for LGBT people in Brazil is horrifying. The violence has become an epidemic.

How to control workers who live in desperation?

This situation is partially due to the fact that Brazil, despite its economic growth, remains a semi-colony of imperialist giants like the United States. In semi-colonies, class conflict is more acute, as conditions for working people are often more precarious. In Rio de Janeiro, it is completely normal for a worker to commute two hours to work on trains whose cars are so crowded that the doors are unable to close. For the past year, the subcontracted workers of the State University of Rio de Janeiro–a venerated academic institution–have received their salaries more than a month late, but are still forced to work. Just this month they have only received half of their salary. These are but a few of the many examples of how precarious life can be for Brazilian workers.

In Brazil, the bourgeoisie cannot control workers on their own; they have less money to co-opt movements and to minimally ameliorate conditions for workers. Therefore, they rely more heavily on state repression and the church (with its power and resources) to control workers. The bourgeoisie relies on the church to take up workers’ time and to convince workers that their suffering serves an end beyond the profit of the wealthy and the perpetuation of capitalism. The strength of the church and its influence on the government in semi-colonial countries makes pro-choice legislation and pro-LGBT legislation much more difficult to pass.

The “Worker’s Party” That Auctions Off Lgbt People, Women, and Worker’s Rights

Even purportedly progressive parties such at the Worker’s Party (PT or Partido dos Trabalhadores in Portuguese) make alliances with the religious right in order to ensure their own political clout. In this role, the PT attempts to reconcile the working class with the bourgeoisie, guaranteeing massive profits for the wealthy. During times of economic prosperity, such as the years of the Lula presidency, the PT made some concessions to the working class–but even these efforts were little more than paltry gestures. In those years, while the bourgeoisie brought in record profits, the PT was able to provide minimal assistance programs and expand the public education system (while also expanding the private education system even more). While the PT has provided some semblance of public assistance to workers during their years in political power, the leaders–and specifically the president–have not only failed to advance rights for LGBT people, but have in fact halted what might have otherwise been progressive measures for LGBT Brazilians.

The PT markets itself as the non-homophobic party, while auctioning off the rights of LGBT people in order to maintain their position in the government. President Dilma is in favor of passing a law criminalizing homophobia, and she vetoed an “anti-homophobia kit” for schools that would include information about LGBT people. While she made her facebook profile a rainbow when marriage equality was passed in the US, she allowed Marcos Feliciano, a public figure who has never been shy about his homophobic and racist opinions, take up the post of “Director of Human Rights.” Feliciano and his “human rights” commission went on to propose a “Gay Cure” law, going against the decision of the General Psychology Council to prohibit professionals from offering conversion therapy. Feliciano and his Human Rights Commission proposed to change this rule so that it was allowed- a proposal that did not go through thanks to mass protests in June of 2013.

Far before the economic crisis, the PT has profited from the deliberate degradation of LGBT people’s rights for the sake of maintaining the party’s power. During the economic crisis, the PT has sought to make the workers pay to repair, or least buffer the damage done to, the economy by implementing austerity measures–and, in doing so, demonstrating that it is not a party that represents the interests of oppressed people or workers. Rather, the PT has consistently demonstrated that in order to fortify its own political influence and maintain the profits of the wealthy, the party will sacrifice the rights and livelihoods of oppressed people and workers. In return, workers are breaking with the PT and many are seeking other political options. The most viable option that appears to them is the religious right–an openly homophobic and transphobic institution. During last year’s election, the PT capitalized on the right’s homophobia by positioning President Dilma as a defender LGBT rights, even making rainbow Dilma stickers. However, we know that neither the religious right that hates us, nor the PT, who will abandon our rights in favor of monetary and political gain, can defend LGBT people’s rights.

The Need for an Anti-Capitalist LGBT Movement

It is necessary to build a third left alternative for the workers who are breaking with the PT. They need to know that it is possible to go to the left of Dilma and the PT. In order for this left alternative to be a real alternative, it must be anti-capitalist and completely divorced from the interests and money of the wealthy. It must be anti-capitalist because there is no such thing as equality in capitalism. There is nothing here for us LGBT people in this system; for gender nonconforming people it means the most precarious jobs, it means discrimination at home, at school, and at work–and for far too many Brazilians, the system ultimately, and necessarily, ends in death. Capitalism means working in telemarketing because no one wants to look at a gender-nonconforming person. For trans women it means being forced into prostitution because you have no other way to make a living.

This movement cannot be a reformist LGBT movement with a list of victories we can check off on the way to our liberation. Some see our rights as a ladder, in which each law that passes brings us closer to liberation for LGBT people. This is acutely untrue. This is evident in the United States, which passed a marriage equality law this year, but has also seen the greatest number of murders of trans black and brown people in recent history. Laws, however much we fight for them, and however progressive they may be, cannot guarantee equality or safety in a system built on inequality, where the wealthy few profit off the labor of many and maintain their power by dividing the working class with horrible prejudices such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. Capitalism as a system requires homophobia and transphobia to propagate itself. We, the working class, do not.

Capitalism uses sexism, heterosexism, and homo- and transphobia to bring in huge profits for the bourgeoisie. It argues that gender roles are the teleological ends of some “natural” process; it contends, furthermore, that sex, sexuality, gender presentation, and desire are tied to good Christian morals and are therefore unquestionable. The state argues that there exists some biological truth predicating that women must function in subservient domestic positions, washing clothes, making food, taking care of the children–and of course this benefits the state itself. Foisting domestic labor onto specific classes of oppressed people means that the state need not take up responsibility for these tasks. The state does not need to provide public laundry services and the employer does not need to have a day care center for all employees if there remains a notion of biological and moral truth stating that women fill these roles “naturally”. Even with women working outside the home, we have seen it to be the case that most women now work “double shifts”- a woman must now fulfill her domestic roles within the home as well as her professional roles outside of the home. The idea that women are biologically fated and morally obligated to fill the roles is a central pillar of modern society, especially in semi-colonial countries–and a misconception from which both the state and private employers benefit.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people question this pillar by demonstrating that there is nothing biological about heteosexuality and a woman’s role in society. That in fact, in a couple of two men, there isn’t a woman who is “biologically” inclined to fill in the role of the state. Trans people demonstrate that in fact, your body does not dictate your role in society, or even your gender!

Capitalism uses biological notions of sex and gender to profit and to maintain itself, while also dividing the working class. The homo- and transphobia espoused by church leaders and politicians, and the intolerances we see propagated in entertainment media, create deep divisions in the working class. Parents become disconnected from their children, youth from their neighborhoods, and workers from other workers at their workplace. How can the working class unite to overthrow the wealthy who exploit them while some heterosexual workers oppress other workers? For example, at the University of Sao Paulo, during the 116-day worker’s strike, one of the trans men was experiencing transphobic statements from many of the other workers and tensions were escalating. The strike committee decided to have an activity in the middle of the strike, to discuss homophobia, transphobia and sexism, making those same workers who had previously been transphobic reflect on and retract their previous statements. In this example, the divisions imposed by the oppressive system we lived in reared their head, but due to intense discussion and a common struggle in the strike, they were addressed and dealt with without resorting to the violence that the phobias of the state necessitate.

A United Working Class against All Forms of Oppression and Exploitation

This demonstrates the necessity of LGBT people being on the front lines of discussing and addressing transphobia and homophobia in their workplaces and schools. Although certainly no LGBT person is a stranger to the homophobia of workers- from being discriminated at a store, to being discriminated at a school by a teacher or at a hospital by a nurse- our primary organizing strategy cannot be to hide ourselves away in closed groups. Closed groups serve a therapeutic purpose, helping us discuss and have our experiences heard and reflected in the experiences of others. Yet, the focus of our militant and revolutionary energy cannot be in the closed groups. We want a society in which everyone stops being homophobic! We want a society in which no one will be forced into homelessness for being LGBT. To get there, LGBT people cannot be hidden away in closed groups, but on the front lines of discussions and actions.

It is also necessary that all leftist groups combat homophobia and transphobia in all of the spaces that they exist. This means heterosexual and cis people taking this struggle to their workplaces, their unions. The fight against homophobia is not only the struggle of LGBT people, but of everyone on the left who seeks a united working class against all forms of oppression and exploitation.

It is the the interest of our bosses to keep us divided so they can continue to exploit and oppress workers- both those who are LGBT and those who are not. It is in the interest of capitalism to keep us in rigid gender roles and in the sexual misery of capitalist society that does not allow society to explore and imagine their sexuality due not only to bourgeois morality, but also due to a lack of time in a society of round-the-clock labor.

It is with these politics and this spirit that the Revolutionary Movement of Workers in Brazil organized a conference with 400 women and LGBT people in attendance to discuss and begin to construct the kind of movement that Brazil urgently needs.

We must build an anti-capitalist movement with workers at the center that fights against all forms of oppression. We must build a movement to liberate all of society from the shackles of exploitation, as well as of oppression.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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