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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

"Heal your prejudice": A small LGBT Gaul in Brazil takes action against a 'double' pandemic

The COVID-19 threat in Brazil goes beyond just the virus, especially if you are a queer. As a result, a Rio LGBTQ group has isolated itself from the world.

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A self-imposed confinement. This is how Casa de Nem, an improvised shelter for victims of LGBTQ violence and homeless people, is facing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The six-story building, a few blocks from Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, is home to some 50 people, who only go out on the streets under "exceptional circumstances" and receive food donations. This is a measure they have taken because as a marginalized group, the risks they face if they contract COVID-19 are much greater than the rest of the population. 

"Based on the experience we had during the AIDS epidemic, when we were accused of being the vector of the virus and left to die, we are now protecting the community," Siqueira, 49, a transgender sex worker and activist who runs Casa Nem, told AP.

Since the organization took over this abandoned building four years ago, they have worked to make it a safe space, especially at a time when the Brazilian state has openly declared itself an enemy of LGBTQ people with the rise of evangelicals and their increasing role in Brazil's political life and moral judgments. 

They are hiding to not get sick, but also to avoid being considered the cause of the pandemic, while taking extreme measures to prevent any of their residents from getting sick. Anyone who arrives at Casa Nem seeking shelter must isolate themselves on one floor of the building and undergo a quarantine before they can join the community. 

Meanwhile, those who feel safe, within the four walls, entertain themselves by chatting and developing activities to alleviate the aftermath of the confinement, even though they are eager to return to the streets. 

"We have increased our activities to help our psychological state," said Micaelo Lopes, a 22-year-old transgender man. "It's a very tense moment where we're waiting to see what will happen next, without really knowing."

Others are not so lucky and are forced to go out to work knowing that they face more than one threat, not just the viral one.

"I'm scared. I know I'm at risk," said Alicia Larubia, a 25-year-old transsexual prostitute who waits on a street corner for a client to arrive while pondering the uncertainties of her future.

After a month confined to her home, living off the help of her family, Larubia had to return to sex work, as "the need spoke louder (than the pandemic)," but her dream is to work in a beauty parlor.

According to Brazil's National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals, ANTRA, 90% of the people they represent are engaged in sex work because of discrimination in the job market and lack of opportunities. More than half have not received help from the Bolsonaro government during the pandemic - worth about US$150. 

For Richard Alexandre, who lives at Casa Nem with his partner, Lia Mercy, a transgender woman and dancer, there are worse things than the COVID-19.

"They can invent an injection for the coronavirus. But there is no vaccine against homophobia, transphobia and oppression," he concluded. 

Brazil is the country hardest-hit by the pandemic on the entire South American continent, with nearly two million cases and more than 72,000 deaths. Just last Sunday, it registered 24,831 infections and 631 deaths due to the virus, and Rio de Janeiro is one of the epicenters of the tragedy.

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