Rio protesters oppose tax-funded ‘cure’ for gays

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Protesters have descended on Rio’s legislative assembly opposing state proposals offering to bankroll the psychological "conversion" of homosexuals.

The controversial plans, which suggest using public funds to treat the "illness", have already been approved by three committees despite widespread condemnation. The act will be voted on today by state deputies.

"This is not just an offence to gays but to all citizens who will not tolerate discrimination," said Claudio Nascimento, president of the gay rights group Arco-Iris (Rainbow). "Today it’s us, but tomorrow who knows?" Nascimento was joined at the demonstration by all walks of Rio society. Further protests are expected.

Rio’s evangelical politicians are the target of much of the demonstrators’ wrath. Edino Fonseca, who drafted the plans in September 2003, is a member of the enormous Assembleia de Deus (God’s Assembly) church.
Brazil’s evangelicals have become immensely powerful in the past decade, setting up churches in many of the city’s 600 slums. Evangelical politicians enjoy huge power in these poorer districts of Rio, often urging their electorates not to vote for other, "demonic" parties.

More liberal members of the city’s political elite fear many of the evangelical rulers are seeking to impose draconian laws, starting with Rio’s gay community.

"Nobody is prevented from looking for a psycho-whatever to help them do this, but those who do are mostly coerced by religion," said Jane Pantel, co-secretary of Latin American international gay and lesbian association. Mr Nascimento said: "We will not stand for the mixing of politics and religion."

But despite the controversy, Mr Fonseca is adamant that the proposal will become law. "There exist people who want a new direction – an exit from homosexuality to heterosexuality. Those who opt for this don’t have any support," he said.

He proposes a support programme for people "who opt voluntarily to change from homosexuality to heterosexuality".

Rio is known for being one of South America’s most gay-tolerant cities and the city’s Copacabana and Ipanema neighbourhoods are home to many gay clubs. With names like Le Boy and La Girl plastered over their entrances in neon lights they are as conspicuous as the scantily clad ‘Barbies’ and muscle-bound men who sun themselves under Ipanema beach’s giant rainbow flag.

Equality laws in Rio are also some of Brazil’s most advanced. In May 2002 heavy fines were introduced for those guilty of anti-gay prejudice.

The city’s governors can close down hotels, clubs and restaurants found to be discriminating against gays. Same-sex relationships are legally recognised if considered "stable unions" by the government.

Brazil’s Medical Council in 1985 scrapped a law that classified homosexuality as an illness.

But as the swelling group of protesters outside Rio’s Assembly shows many fear this could be about to change.

"We have an image of being a liberal country of carnival and tolerance. But there are continuing underlying negative attitudes towards homosexuals that are deeply ingrained," Mr Nascimento said.