RIO DE JANEIRO — The police riot troopers stood shoulder-to-shoulder along the cobblestone sidewalk of sandy Copacabana, their shields streaked with the morning's rain. Decked out in helmets and full body armor, they had come prepared to take the building by force.
Across from the police, a line of activists had linked arms, forming a human barrier at the building’s front gate. A rainbow banner with the words “Cure your Prejudice” (Cure O Seu Preconceito” in Portuguese) hung above their heads on the building that was the focus of the police operation.
Inside, 49-year-old trans activist and house matriarch Indianare Siqueira paced the second floor, calming the building’s residents in one breath and screaming down to the police in another. “You’re not going to invade!” she belted from the balcony.
Casa Nem, a prominent shelter and support center for Rio de Janeiro’s LGBTQ population, was about to have its residents thrown into the street once again.
Eviction and relocation are part of the group's history. The house’s practice of occupying abandoned buildings around Rio had already seen it change locations three times since it was founded in 2016. Once evicted from one location, residents would scatter, some returning home to the households they had fled, others finding temporary housing, and still others staying wherever they could. All would anxiously await the shelter’s return.
But this time was different. Casa Nem had been using its current squat, a long-abandoned six-story building in Copacabana, to shelter more than 60 residents during the pandemic, even delegating an entire floor to COVID-19 isolation.
This time, eviction would mean throwing dozens of gay and trans residents into the streets, exposing them to infection just as Brazil passed the 115,000 coronavirus death mark. The South American nation is one of the worst-affected in the world by the coronavirus pandemic.
Removed residents would also have to contend with a more familiar danger: the country's record violence against members of the LGBTQ community.
In the absence of sound government data, Grupo Gay da Bahia, a non-profit, uses media reports to track incidents of such attacks. In 2019, the group counted 297 murders and 32 suicides amongst members of the LBGTQ community, or one violent death every 26 hours. Brazilian trans people as a subgroup are worse off still: a 2018 cross-national survey by European Transgender Organization ranked Brazil as the single most violent country in the world for trans people. Brazil’s own statistics and geography institute (IBGE) places the average life expectancy for trans women and men at 35 years old, compared to 75 years old for Brazilians as a whole.
To make matters worse, a far-right wave had swept over Rio and the country at large since Casa Nem’s founding. Ultraconservative leaders had risen at the city, state, and national level, including an evangelical bishop for mayor, a governor who had risen to power vowing to shoot criminals in the head, and President Jair Bolsonaro, who accused a rival in 2018 of creating a “gay kit” to indoctrinate school children.
So when a state judge issued the repossession order for Casa Nem’s Copacabana space — first scheduled for July 2020, the month that had tallied the single highest number of COVID-19 deaths in Brazil — it seemed like the political moment had reached a climax.
Siqueira was unfazed. “Once governments are elected,” she told VICE World News months later, “it doesn’t matter if they are from the right or the far right or the left or the center. They are public agents. They have to work for the people, regardless of who voted for them or not.”
She had amassed armies of allies at the city and state level — the sum of decades combating HIV/AIDS and fighting for LGBTQ rights across the political spectrum — recruiting them to help delay the eviction since the order’s first issuance. And that morning in August, they showed up in droves.
Just feet away from the human wall of activists stood crowds of press, lawyers from the state Public Defender’s Office and the Brazilian Bar Association, the head of the city’s Office of Sexual Diversity, and most importantly, the state governor’s trans son, Erick Witzel.
Witzel, a longtime friend of Casa Nem and an aid at the city’s sexual diversity office, had visited the house repeatedly over the past months, cooperating and organizing with Casa Nem to distribute face masks (residents had sewn thousands between May and June) and food parcels. With police on the verge of violence, he called his father.
Then-Governor Wilson Witzel — currently suspended amid an unrelated corruption investigation — listened. He had a special aid contact the Public Defender’s Office, informing them of a nearby public school that could be used as temporary shelter until a formal, long-term home could be found. The eviction would move ahead, but residents would be given 48 hours to relocate without violent removal from the police standing outside.
Over the following hours, Siqueira would negotiate from the balcony, yelling down to the sidewalk and “making sure the deal was signed in front of the cameras.” By the end of the day, she had guaranteed her residents a peaceful move to the school. Two weeks later, Casa Nem would move to its new home; the state had found them a spot in the quiet neighborhood of Flamengo, good for five years.
And not a minute too soon. If relationships between Rio's LGBTQ youth and family members were tense even before the pandemic, months of quarantine have now pushed them to their limit.
“The pandemic forced us to be around each other,” said Kellvn, a 27-year-old gay rapper from the favela of Gardênia Azul. “Seeing my dad 24 hours a day, we started to have a lot of conflict.”
House caretaker Alixia Liannessy, who had come to work at Casa Nem after leaving a city government shelter inspired by Casa Nem (“it didn't feel like a home like Casa Nem does,” she said), estimated that the need for LGBTQ shelters in Rio had doubled during the pandemic.
“They already lived in a violent situation before the pandemic, but they weren’t forced to spend so much time together with their families,” said Siqueira. “With the pandemic, many of those who had left home had to go back.”
“When you’re isolated with people with that kind of transphobia for months at a time, it’s different,” said Rebecca Gotto, a 34-year-old trans actress from Rio’s outer Baixada region. Gotto, who had stayed with Casa Nem on and off over several years, came back after her family became unbearable.
18-year-old Samire Delano, who had fled home months earlier, said that with his high school classes suspended, physical abuse at home had reached a tipping point. His stepfather, who he said had tried to strangle him in 2017, had become an even greater risk. “I had to be in the same house with him every day. Literally 24 hours. I couldn’t leave my room.”
Economic woes have compounded the problem. Gotto said that most of her theater performances had been canceled in 2020. Part of the renewed tension with her family had arisen because the pandemic had left her unemployed.
Kellvn, who had lost a series of work opportunities in 2020 due to the pandemic, including an invitation to a music festival in Mozambique, said job troubles had worsened his relationship at home. “Before, I was just gay. Now, I’m gay and out of work.”
Sex work is off the table too, said 19-year-old Lorenna Villela. A self-employed trans sex worker since she was 14, Villela stopped for fear of coronavirus infection. Now, she hopes to pivot to beauty salon work full time. “I already know how to do everything. I’ve done it before. I just need an opportunity,” said Villela. “But job interviews are so hard right now.”
Against all this, the new location, a yellow two-story building covered in wall art and patrolled by a pack of mischievous dogs, has proven a godsend. The house’s mix of camaraderie and self-care might be providing residents with exactly what they were missing at home.
“I had a lot of problems with myself, with depression,” said Villela, who had lost her mother in 2020 and spent weeks living on the street. “Casa Nem helped me a lot.”
Delano, who happily reported he had seen the house psychologist earlier that day, said he would use the next few months to work on his photography and video editing — he’s got multiple instagram pages and a youtube channel — before heading back to school next year. In the long term, he said he hopes to live in the U.S. or Canada. “I want to save up money and travel. Brazil is such a violent country. For everyone.”
“During the pandemic, expulsion and violence against the LGBTQ population really did grow,” said Siqueira, adding that she had noticed several new trans shelters that had popped up around Brazil during the pandemic. Aside from being evidence of this rising trend in violence, she said, their founding is a positive development.
“It’s something good that has come out of something bad. Like the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Something bad, but it brought to light all of the LGBTQ civil rights that have been disrespected. Such is life. From war, peace. Death as a source of life.”