Sexuality Policy Watch

Human Rights, Gender and Sexuality: A Minister Who Does Not Play Around

By Rajnia de Vito and Marco Aurélio Prado

In a political scene that is thoroughly saturated with sex and gender tropes and memes, Damares Alves, head of the new Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, is an icon and spokesperson for the new government’s sexual politics.[i] “Terribly Christian”, as she called herself on January 2nd, the new Minister was  a pastor at the Lagoinha Baptist Church in Belo Horizonte (MG) , belonged to the Jocum Brasil evangelization movement, having founded the Atini NGO dedicated to the eradication of infanticide in indigenous communities [ii] and is a founder of ANAJURE (the National Association of Evangelical Jurists), which is the Brazilian counterpart of the transnational Alliance Defending  Freedom (ADF). Her nomination as the  new Minister pays Bolsonaro’s debt for the massive vote he received from conservative religious communities, especially Evangelical, who gave him 70 percent of their votes (read here).

Damares gained her post by winning a runoff of names recommended by the evangelical congressional caucus, many of whom were much better known than she was (as is the case of her former boss). Before becoming Minister, she served for a long time as a parliamentary aide in Congress for Senator and pastor Magno Malta (PR/ES), a leading voice in the battles against homosexuality, gender and abortion rights. Magno Malta was not re-elected in 2018, however.

The restructured Ministry reflects the demands of the religious dogmatism that brought her to power. The strongest sign of this is the inclusion of the term “family” in the new ministry’s name and in its declared areas of priority action. It is significant, however, that “women” remains as a  keyword in the new Ministry’s nomenclature. Damares, as she herself says, works hard. She is surrounded by a very plural group of women: evangelicals, Catholics, blacks, indigenous and even members of the Workers’ Party. And despite the homophobic and transphobic discourses of her boss, she has maintained, up until now, the Directory for the Promotion of LGBT rights. But beyond this, Alves represents and embodies the antigender offensive comprehensively.

Although the Ministry appears to be the place where religious dogmatism is at its most dense in the new government, JMB downplayed its importance in a recent speech saying, “I want to make it very clear that in any decision I make, I listen to any minister in the area. I don’t make decisions on my own, because I might be wrong. I have to take responsibility. […] Even Damares, who is a minister of not much importance, matters.”

This comment does not seem to have shaken the Minister. Since she has taken up her new duties, Damares  has been gallantly piloting the Ministry as a strategic platform for implementing a general and unrestricted  conservative re-constrcution of  Brazilian  human rights policy.  In her inaugural speech, she recommended that boys should wear blue and girls pink. At the end of January, she made the UN Human Rights Council a pulpit from which to defend the right to life from conception on, reiterating her position in the 63rd Section of the Commission on the Status of Women in March (when she met with the delegate of the Holy See). Damares expressed herself even more forcefully on the subject in the speech she made at the meeting of the High Authorities of Human Rights of Mercosur in May.

Though gender and abortion features high in her agenda, its is productive to begin this overview with a wider look at the human rights agenda of JMB’s government, of which Damares is the designated spokesperson. A central element of this agenda is a constant discursive association between human rights, crime and corruption. In her first address to the Federal Chamber of Deputies on April 10th, at the Commission on Human and Minority Rights, the Minister said: “Bolsonaro calls upon society for a rereading of human rights. There has been a misconception in Brazil that human rights are an NGO defending bandits in the jailhouse.” These words served to reinforce the widely disseminated perspective, long defended by the Brazilian right, that human rights threaten “good citizens” (or “well behaving  humans”), an interpretation that gained enormous popularity in 2018. As Isabela Oliveira Kalil remarks in her study of JMB’s constituency, the “good citizen” is not only the victim of “bandits defended by human rights activism”,  he/she is a polysemous figure who broadly struggles against corruption, “communism”, “gender ideology”, the Workers’ Party, and affirmative action measures that supposedly break with the principles of merit. This is supposedly the person who fights those who abuse their privileges, who do not fulfill their duties and are against the family, the fatherland and god.

In addition to reiterating the semantic association between human rights and “bandits”, Damares has also publicly claimed that there are strong links between human rights and corruption. She has established an Internal Control Special Advisory in her ministry, promoted a debate on corruption in the Annual Training Plan of ministry employees and, above all, has accused of corruption the Amnesty Commission, created in 2001, and after that  rejected 90% of the requests for amnesty that have been made since January. In her speech at the meeting of the High Authorities on Human Rights of Mercosur (RAADH) on May 31, Damaris declared that “Finally, in light of its undeniable negative impact on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms, we are including the issue of corruption at the heart of the debate regarding the defense of human rights in Brazil.

By associating human rights, criminality, and corruption, Damares is not, as it might seem in a superficial reading, abandoning human rights discourse. Even though she is the minister of a government whose president has openly attacked  human rights and the UN, Damares has since January participated in all international and regional instances of implementation of the universal human rights regime where Brazil has a seat. The terminology of “rights” is always present in her speeches, which are very rarely religious. The turn that the government is taking is not one of repudiating human rights, but rather of “clearing them out”, freeing them from the issues and agents that “contaminates” them. This involves the conversion  of the language and parameters of human rights towards instruments that are almost exclusively geared towards the tutelage and protection of those who are “vulnerable”: embryos, sexually abused girls and boys, the elderly, indigenous peoples, quilombolas, young people who self-mutilate or commit suicide, people who are deaf, blind, or have other special needs, those who suffer from microcephaly, and drug users. Vulnerability and violence is the new focus of attention of Brazil’s national human rights policy, even when the Minister occasionally refers to social rights such as the right to housing or, more recently, to an employment program for trans- people.

This inflection is not trivial. It implies a substantive reinterpretation of the human rights paradigm emanating from the international standards of integrity and indivisibility adopted in Vienna in 1993. Although this paradigm contemplates the protection of bodies and subjects against violence in the context of vulnerability, it also ensures guarantees of freedom, political autonomy, and the personal rights of individuals to associate, express their opinions and world views, and decide for themselves what to do about their lives and bodies. These dimensions have been expurgated from the human rights rhetoric propagated by Damares. The paradigm on which the Brazilian human rights policy was based has been left behind and the engagement of the Brazilian State with the transnational systems of protection and promotion of human rights will be selective and, above all, instrumental. Although more research needs to be done in this respect, it is not an exaggeration to say that, from now on that Brazilian diplomatic action will seek to diffuse and install this mutilated version of human rights in international debates.

The LGBT rights politics

Regarding the LGBT right agenda that was housed in the former National Secretariat of Human Rights since 2004, the Directory for the Promotion of LGBT Rights has been maintained and is currently under the National Secretariat of Global Protection, headed by the  Evangelical pastor and National Treasure attorney Sergio Queiroz. Despite the homophobic and transphobic speeches and gestures of the president and of other authorities, the preservation of LGBT politics is not exactly a surprise considering that 30 percent of people who define themselves as gay, lesbian or transgender have voted for JMB. There are also gays elected for the São Paulo Municipal Council and State Assembly who campaigned for JMB and belong to his politcal party.

From a programmatic perspective, two lines of action inherited from previous governments are still  in progress: the periodic meetings of the National Council against LGBT Discrimination (CNDC LGBT) and an agreement with the European Community for a comparative study of policies for trans people in Portugal and Brazil. However, in May, the CNCD LGBT entered the list of civil society participation mechanisms suspended by a presidential decree and will no longer have meetings, which is also when the agreement with the European Community ends. Between January and May, the Council was engaged in internal lobbying efforts to ensure the maintenance of the annual version IV National LGBT Conference, defined by former president Michel Temer’s Administration, and after May to fight for its own survival. It was also announced a public-private partnership to promote human rights actions, whose priority would be to articulate employability policies for LGBT people, especially trans. However, resources or institutional structure for the implementation of this program have not yet been secured.

Whatever direction the formal “LGBT rights” policy takes, when one considers the broader logic of the “new” human rights policy what will happen in this area will also be selective. There are rumors, for example, that the LGBT CNDC would be recreated in a new format, with a smaller number of members, who will no longer be indicated by civil society, as in the past, but by the ministry itself. If this does happen, we can predict that there will be in the composition voices representing conservative Christian gay groups and LGBT personalities, politics and culture, who publicly support JMB. in other words, this will be a council of “respectable” and right-wing LGBT people, who will make a moral counterpoint to the “aberrant” sexuality figures evoked in JMB’s scandalous tweet on the “golden shower” scene.

These explicit morality politics does not mean, however, that violence and discrimination LGBT people are subjected to will be silenced or minimized in official government discourse. A very relevant fact of the period analyzed here was the judgment by the Supreme Court of two constitutional actions (from the beginning of the year 2010) that interrogate the state’s omission on homophobia and transphobia (and demand that these violations be equated with racism and its criminalization) The preliminary decision had already been favorable since May 23, in order to recommend to the legislature that measures be adopted in this regard and its final result confirmed it on June 13. Damares Alves has not only supported the decision, but has also committed to implementing it, stating that: “to say there is no violence is a joke. You just have to go on the streets and see. I wish we had a country where prejudice was not a problem. But this is not our reality. What is decided by the plenary has to be respected. Homophobia has to be combated, whether by law or other policies. And I say more, it is a priority of this government, especially in the case of female travesti”.

Above all, it is important to remember that this robust recognition of the vulnerability and violence LGBT people face, especially travestis, coexists with the systematic attack on “gender”. Since taking office, the minister has not only made cheap advertising of the “natural sexual difference.” In her first interview to newspaper Folha de São Paulo, she argued “gender ideologues” used the suffering of homosexuals to gain space and ground for their theses on gender and that this theory diffusion would be abolished from the Ministry’s agenda. In another recent interview for the blog of a well-known supporter of JMB, Damares was even more explicit: “There is a difference between “gender ideologists” and the LGBT movement. Ideologists used these movements to implant their own ideology. It comes with the premise that no one is born a man and no one is born a woman, but rather that it is a fruit of social construction[…] This is the ideology I dispute because it is not yet established, it has no scientific support.[…] And my fight is for the fear they will take this to the childhood[…] They called me homophobic because I was arguing against “gender ideology”, but they forgot I’m in love with homosexuals, lesbians and travestis“. Not unreasonably, the language deployed by Damares in her commentary on the Court’s decision was “woman travesti” and not simply travesti. Underlying this choice is the repudiation of “gender” as a sign of the instability of the sexual categories.

The preferential option for “women”

The same logic of “clearance” and selectivity can be identified in the public policy guidelines announced or implemented by the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights directed to women. This agenda is rooted on the Brazilian evangelical universe, where women have, in fact, taken a leading role and the churches support and finance projects directed at women: “female financial education”, “female entrepreneurship”, and the sheltering of women in situations of domestic and sexual violence (see here). But it also evokes the Vatican updates on the role of women, particularly the “feminine genius” from John Paul II’s encyclicals.

Transposed to state policy, this agenda recovers and promotes concepts that are feminist in origin, such as “empowerment”, coping with “violence against women,” and the repudiation of sexual abuse. On the other hand, it virulently attacks “gender” and repudiates everything that it sees as abominable in feminism. The right to abortion and gender-related themes in the school curriculum are major targets of this demonization.

Damares is fluent in employing the sort of language that doesn’t make immediate enemies of feminists, but targets those things which, according to a certain moral reading, exceeds the “limits” of “reasonableness” and “decency” and corrupts the “family social order”. This was clearly expressed in one of her first interviews with newspaper Folha de São Paulo: “There are feminist guidelines that I embrace. For example, equal wages for men and women and the fight against violence. If the feminists and I need to go out into the streets to fight for these things, I will. But we will do this without baring our breasts; without an indoctrination that seems to preach hatred towards men.

A closer reading of how this agenda is translated into effective action reveals how the “clearing away evil” strategy – already flagrant in LGBT politics – will resort more and more to the “moral degradation” that feminism supposedly promotes and also because, as Rosana Pinheiro-Machado and Matias Spektor argue, this tactic instigates a division that sustains the permanent state of war invoked by the JMB government.

This agenda and Damares’ personal charisma are very clearly targeted at a potential anti-feminist electorate.  Looking at the results of Datafolha’s research, which evaluated the perception of feminism in Brazil in April 2019, 63 percent of Brazilian women between the ages of 35 and 44 said they weren’t feminist, as well as 45 percent of the men aged 25-34 and 48 percent of evangelical Christians. This is a substantive potential base, especially among women, and should not be minimized. Moreover, it is not absurd to think that the ambiguity of selectively feminist discourses might be able to capture hearts and minds beyond these audiences.

Finally, as it is well known in her acceptance speech on January 3rd, Damares announced that “This is a  new era in Brazil: boys wear blue and girls wear pink”. This comment not only made headlines for the new Minister, but it also inaugurated her peculiar style of producing cacophony and diversion. Though her words appear ridiculous, stupid, and backward, they have been one of the main sources of fascination in the shambles of governance that is the JMB regime. Each new speech or public act by Damares generates greater visibility to what she has said in the past and an endless profusion of comments and jokes that circulate on social networks, capturing the attention and energy of who should be more attentive to what she does and not what she says. Unlike JMB, who almost never talks to the press, Damares is very fond of giving (often long) interviews, to the most diverse media sources, in which she responds to criticisms, including those that ridicule her. More recently, she has started to add comments that parody the jokes she has been subjected to.[iii] Each new interview thus produces a new bounty of reactions and distractions.

This smoke curtain obfuscates Damares’ personal charisma, her institutional political efficacy and, above all, her fierce commitment in implementing a national conservative agenda of the group that came to power with JMB. But also, that she uses uses the lingua franca and the repertoire of transnational anti-gender and anti-abortion offensives such as the Manif pour Tous in Paris (2013), the #ConMisHijosNoTeMetas campaigns, the anti gender attacks propagated by CitizenGo, the international arm of the ultra-conservative Spanish NGO Hazte Oír — which has organic links with the emerging Vox, Spanish extreme right political party — but also the visceral repudiation of  gender elaborated by Ratzinger’s papacy (see here and here) and reiterated by Pope Francis just recently. The jokes and laughter that Damares’ statements provoke prevent us from more clearly seeing the politics which her speeches and acts sustain and that have been tentatively outlined in this essay.

Translation: Thaddeus Blanchette

Image: Antigender demonstration Manif pour Tous, in France, 2013


[i] The new ministry has absorbed the former Secretariats of Human Rights, Policies for Women, and the Promotion of Racial Equality, while adding a new area of public policies focused on the family – “family” to be read in singular and traditional terms according to conservative ideology. The Ministry is currently structured with National Secretariat of Family, National Secretariat for the Promotion and Defense of the Right of the Elderly, National Secretariat of Youth, National Secretariat of the Rights of Children and Teenagers, National Secretariat of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, National Secretariat for Promotion of Racial Equality, National Secretariat of Global Protection (that entails the Directory of LGBT Rights and National Council for Facing up To Discrimination and for Protection of LGBT Rights) and National Secretariat of Women’s Policies.

[ii] According to El País, this is practiced by the Kamayura, Yanomami, Kajabi, Bororo, and Ticuna groups, among others, and is undertaken in four circumstances: lack of resources due to a large number of children or short intervals between pregnancies; children with motor or physical disabilities or who cannot breastfeed; sometimes due to sex, privileging male children; or entrenched beliefs, in the case of twins, albinos or if the mother dies during childbirth.

[iii] When she said, for example, in a long interview to BBC that she wants to marry and even cut her hair and joined Tinder for this purpose.

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