All week, I'd been gathering material to write about Foxconn and high tech industries in Brazil, and then put everything on hold for the historic decision that came out of Brazil's Supreme Court today.
The STF ruled that gay couples have the same rights as straight couples, before the law as citizens and in terms of government, work, and legal benefits, including health insurance coverage, pensions, alimony, inheritances, property rights, health care proxy rights, and some say may even be argued to include the right to adoption. Previously, lower courts had issued mixed rulings about gay couples' rights, and the only way to try to exercise these types of rights was by going to court and trying your luck. The ruling comes after ten years of stalled legislation in Congress, and gay rights advocate legislators hailed the ruling but lamented the fact that the decision didn't come from those responsible for writing the nation's laws.
The ruling couldn't come at a better time. Not only have LBGT rights advocates been struggling with pushing legislation through Congress, but gay rights have become more of a visible issue, with reports of increased violence against gays and the continued persecution of and prejudice against LGBTs, even by politicians. Not only did the STF enshrine the legal principle that gay couples have equal rights, but also recognized the need for change in terms of how gays are treated in society as a whole, and many of the judges specifically cited discrimination as a basis for the ruling.
There were a couple other interesting things about the case. One of them is that the ruling was unanimous. One judge abstained, since he had worked with similar cases in the past, but all ten other judges ruled in favor. For a case of this magnitude that was opposed by many in Congress and by the Catholic Church, it was an unexpected surprise, just the cherry on top of a historic decision. The other interesting thing was that the case was brought by both the attorney general's office and by Sérgio Cabral, the governor of Rio state. This is particularly interesting because though Cabral is known for installing pacification units in favelas to try to reduce violence, he's not exactly a social reformer. I'd like to think he's altruistic, but I do wonder what his motivation was. I'd like to think it's because there are now enough openly gay constituents to throw their weight around, or it could be his close relationship to the president, who is in fact committed to social reform.
In the ruling, the judges cited a number of reasons for their decision, including the right to privacy, the freedom of expression, and even the right to pursue happiness. While some argued this type of decision should have come in the form of a law from Congress, it was hard to question the triumph of democratic principles. As usual, Minister Ellen Gracie was eloquent in her explanation:
"O reconhecimento hoje, pelo Tribunal, desses direitos, responde a pessoas que durante longo tempo foram humilhadas, cujos direitos foram ignorados, cuja dignidade foi ofendida, cuja identidade foi denegada e cuja liberdade foi oprimida. O Tribunal lhes restitui o respeito que merecem, reconhece seus direitos, restaura sua dignidade, afirma sua identidade e restaura a sua liberdade."
["Today, this court recognizes those rights which belong to people who for a long time were humiliated, whose rights were ignored, whose dignity was offended, and whose freedom was oppressed. This court restores them with the respect they deserve, recognizes their rights, restores their dignity, affirms their identity, and restores their freedom."']
There was the usual reaction from the Church and right wingers (Bolsonaro, the same controversial homophobic congressman I've written about, complained that after legalizing civil unions, they'd legalize pedophilia. He's really lovely, isn't he?), but otherwise the news seemed to reverberate without too much incident, at least for now. The only thing that seems to be confusing some is the difference between a civil union and marriage. The decision did not legalize gay marriage, but in Brazil, civil unions among straight couples are quite common, and are what we'd consider a common law marriage, but with certain rights guaranteed. So while it did not legalize marriage, it legalized something somewhat close to it. In a country where the Catholic Church still wields power, evangelical Christianity and its corresponding socially conservative values are on the rise, and abortion is still illegal, this kind of decision is truly momentous.
Perhaps one of the most important elements of the decision was the very definition of a civil union, called a "stable union." The court determined that such a relationship in fact applies to all women and men, regardless of whether they are in a same sex relationship, essentially redefining the Civil Code, which sets a legal precedent and also opens the door for similar decisions. In the code, the definition for a civil union is this:
"É reconhecida como entidade familiar a união estável entre o homem e a mulher, configurada na convivência pública, contínua e duradoura e estabelecida com o objetivo de constituição de família."
[Roughly: A civil union is recognized as a family entity between a man and a woman, who live together and have a stable, lasting relationship, and is established as constituting a family.]
That the decision officially recognized gay couples as families is one of the things that truly impacted the 60,000 gay couples in Brazil (though by the way, I think that number is conservative). Not only were they recognized as equals before the law, but they were recognized as equals as people, redefining the notion of what it means to be gay in Brazil. It's not just a victory for the Brazilian LGBT movement, but is also a victory for Brazilian democracy.