Controversial plans to offer state help to Rio de Janeiro’s gays have stunned Brazil.
Proposals put to Rio’s Legislative Assembly by state deputy Edino Fonseca suggest providing psychological support to would-be heterosexuals.
Gay rights campaigners have reacted angrily and have pledged to stage a protest against the proposals at a debate on laws relating to homosexual civil unions on Monday.
The politician proposing the “support” initiative is a pastor from the Assembléia de Deus movement, a massive evangelical church with significant political clout.
Fonseca says: “Homosexuality is not a one-way street. Every option in life has an exit and a return.”
The pastor who is also Deputy for the political party, Prona (Partido de Reedificação da Ordem Nacional) in Rio de Janeiro, believes nobody is born homosexual.
“In the course of life, one decides. My project is to orientate those people who are suffering some kind of existential crisis so that they receive some kind of support. It’s a social problem,” he said.
He proposes to “create a support program within the scope of the state of Rio de Janeiro for people who opt voluntarily to change … from homosexuality to heterosexuality."
Political colleagues and gay rights campaigners alike have denounced the idea.
Carlos Minc – author of several of Brazil’s laws promoting gay rights and a member of President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s PT Workers’ party wants to have the proposed bill scrapped on grounds they are unconstitutional.
“Rio is the pioneer of the most advanced laws in relation to homosexuality and I don’t believe that a project such as this will be approved," he said.
"It is unconstitutional because it intends to interfere in people’s sexuality."
Brazil’s biggest homosexual rights group, Gays, Lésbicas e Sympatizantes, will protest outside Rio’s Legislative Assembly on Monday to demand its Chamber of Deputies votes immediately on Brazil’s same sex union law.
"This is an issue that has been stalled over and over again at the final hurdle," a representative said, adding: "We will also be using the demonstration to protest against Fonseca’s proposals."
Many of Fonseca’s opponents have attacked his ideas on homosexuality on grounds they take a simplistic attitude towards a complex issue.
“I find his ideas utterly inappropriate," said Jane Pantel, co-secretary of the International Gay and Lesbian Association in Latin America.
"If I want to change my sexuality, I can’t just press a button. Nobody is prevented from looking for a psycho-whatever to help them do this, but those who do are generally coerced into it by religion.
“The laws of the National Council of Psychiatry and Psychology forbid this attitude, so this proposal will not be passed,” she said.
Brazil’s Federal Medical Council abolished a resolution that treated homosexuality as an illness in 1985, and in 1993 the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the International Code of Illness.
Rozângela Justino, a 41-year old Rio psychologist, has drawn up a petition against the 1985 legislative block that also serves to prohibit psychiatrists acting in any way that might modify an individual’s sexual orientation.
“There is no consensus amongst psychologists. For me, homosexuality is a form of behaviour that you acquire and it can be given up,” she said.
Diva Lucia Conde of the Grupo Lésbico da Bahia is opposed to Justino’s moves.
“We must not consider [homosexuality] an evil or an illness that needs treating. It is unacceptable that such a position be taken,” she said.
Briton, David Harrad, who runs the gay rights group Dignidade with his Brazilian partner, agrees.
“The intention is to convert homosexuals, which strikes me as being very suspect. This is certainly something that is in line with the philosophy of certain sections of the evangelical church,” he said.
Rio’s equality laws are some of the most advanced in Brazil.
Since May 2002, the south-eastern state has been able to impose stiff fines against persons or institutions found guilty of anti-gay prejudice.
Its governors also have the power to close hotels, restaurants and nightclubs that continually discriminate against gays. Same-sex relationships – considered “stable unions” by the government – have been legally recognised since June 2000.
But despite these progressions, hostility towards gays continues to exist in Brazil.
“We have an image of being a liberal country; the country of carnival and tolerance. But at the same time we see advances in some areas, there continue to be underlying negative attitudes towards homosexuality that are deeply ingrained,” Cláudio Nascimento of the Brazilian Association of Gays, Lesbians and Transvestites said.
British campaigner Peter Tatchell goes further.
“In some countries, such as Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia and Brazil, right-wing death squads target gay people for assassination in what they call ‘social cleansing’ campaigns,” he said.
Public responses to Mr Fonseca’s proposals show many underlying difficulties associated with being a homosexual in Brazil.
One gay man speaking anonymously because he has yet to come out said: "If I had the power to choose, I wouldn’t be gay. It’s not that I don’t like being gay, but it is a question of simplicity in Brazil.
"If you build up a stable relationship here it can be a Herculean task to have your rights legally recognised: particular problems are pensions and the division of property in the case of separation or death," he said.
Fonseca says his proposals have been misunderstood.
"I didn’t expect this would cause so many repercussions,” he said this week.
“There exist people who want a new direction; an exit from homosexuality to heterosexuality. Those who opt for this don’t have any support. From the field of medicine, homosexuality is not considered an illness.
He says the resolution barring psychologists from giving any kind of counselling to people who find themselves in a crisis because of their sexuality is to blame.
"This is absurd in a free country," says Fonseca.
"I don’t have anything against those who opt for homosexuality. They deserve the maximum respect and I believe that those who discriminate against homosexuals should be violently punished.
“But those who close doors on others because of their sexual choice should be severely punished by the state," he said.