Photos by Caroline Lima
SAO PAULO – Maju Giorgi always saw herself as a liberal, committed to diversity and the rights of others. Yet, when her son André told her he was gay at age 14, “the ground opened beneath me,” she said. “I was afraid.”
André has been beaten up twice so far – an all-too-common experience in Brazil where LGBTQ rights groups are warning against a rise in hate crimes and violence, fueled by right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro’s openly homophobic rhetoric.
In the eight years since André came out, Maju, 53, has turned her fear into action. She has organized thousands of mothers throughout the country, forming the group “Mothers of Diversity” to combat prejudice and violence.
“I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through,” Maju said.
While Brazil has high violent crime rates in general, the country is one of the most dangerous in the world for LGBTQ people who also face homophobic violence. Last year, 420 gay or trans people died by homicide or suicide in Brazil, according to the rights group Grupo Gay da Bahia.
André was first attacked while walking along a beach in Brazil’s northeast with his boyfriend. Five men began heckling them and then charged them physically. The second attack was worse. Two years ago, as André was waiting alone for an Uber on one of the main avenues in Sao Paulo, some men targeted him and beat him severely before André managed to escape.
Still, André – and Maju – are among the lucky ones. Some mothers in the group, like Angelica Ivo, have lost their children. Her 14-year-old son, Alexandre, was beaten and strangled to death by skinheads who thought he was gay.
The suspects were not prosecuted due to a lack of evidence.
André didn’t want to press charges against his attackers because he had little faith they would be convicted, his mother said.
“It’s turning grief into a fight. This is what these mothers are doing,” Maju said. “They are with us because they don’t want other mothers to suffer what they have suffered.”
Only last month, Brazil’s Supreme Court voted to criminalize homophobia and transphobia after years of lobbying from rights group, finally making violence against LGBTQ people a crime. Acts of homophobia and transphobia will be handled under current anti-discrimination laws until the country’s parliament passes legislation dealing specifically with LGBTQ protection.
But the Supreme Court decision does not spell the end of the road for Mothers of Diversity. The group wants to make Brazil a more inclusive place and that change, they believe, begins at home, where mothers can help create safe and accepting spaces for children. And what started with just one woman is now an army of around 2,000 mothers engaged in 27 groups throughout the country.
“The mission of each newcomer is to find another one, so our voices grow,” Maju said.
Mothers of Diversity have also created support groups where mothers and other family members can talk about their fear for their loved ones.
“My son would say he was going out at night, and I would walk around the block until he left,” Maju said. “I was going crazy. I had to protect him.”
While the group has focused on mothers, fathers are slowly starting to come, in part because of a concerted outreach from the group. Maju considered changing the name to “Parents of Diversity” to be more inclusive to the newer members. But for now, she is keeping the name as is.
In a country where mothers are considered almost “sacred,” retaining the maternal designation is a strategic decision that will help the group with its lobbying and educational work, she said.
“You need to fight prejudice in school to avoid truancy. And there is no other way to fight this except through education,” she said.
Last year, the City Council of Sao Paulo honored Maju with the “Salva de Prata,” an award given to those who significantly impact the city.
“My job today is diplomacy,” she said. “So that all these mothers, together, have a voice.”
When André first came out, “I told him not to worry. I went to my mother’s home and told everyone ‘my son is gay and no prejudice will be tolerated.’”
At first, her husband found it difficult.
“He would say, ‘there’s no need to tell everyone, right?’ But eventually, this passed, and today they have a very close relationship,” Maju said.
Maju describes herself as a pragmatic activist and she emphasizes that while she may be on the left side of the political spectrum, her group is not partisan. She believes this is a fundamental starting point when you’re talking to someone who thinks differently and you’re trying to open their mind.
Members of the LGBTQ movement criticized Maju after she spoke to a member of Bolsonaro’s government. “I’ll talk to anyone,” she said. “If we have a party affiliation, we can’t reach everyone.”
Maju is passionate about debating those with opposing views. “This is one of our most important tasks because talking to a convert is ridiculous. It’s convenient, easy and something anyone can do ... you will always be applauded when everybody agrees with you. The challenge today is to make yourself heard by someone who just wants to attack you.”