Conversion therapy is still thriving in Brazil

The suicide of a lesbian influencer — who was a supporter of former right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro — has put the spotlight on so-called ‘cures for homosexuality’ that persist, even though they have been banned for more than two decades

Homosexualidad Brasil
Brazilian Héder Bello, a survivor of conversion therapy who is now researching the phenomenon, poses in a park in Rio de Janeiro on November 2.Leonardo Carrato
Naiara Galarraga Gortázar

For a third of his life — from the age of 14 to 27 — Héder Bello, now 37, lived in purgatory.

He was engaged in a fierce fight against himself, in an attempt to stop being homosexual. He tried with all his might to eradicate the attraction he felt for other boys, something that — for himself, his family and his community — made him the personification of sin, an abominable being. He suffered every imaginable form of the so-called “gay cure,” including exorcisms, fasting, self-flagellation, prayer sessions, religious retreats, Bible readings and so-called “therapy” sessions with Christian psychologists and Evangelical pastors.

During those infernal years, the sole purpose of his life — what guided his existence — was to stop being gay. He was studying Psychology at the Fluminense Federal University, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, when a Christian psychologist offered him the definitive path forward: electroshock treatment. This scared Bello so much that it marked a turning point in his life. Today, the survivor of brutal conversion therapy is now dedicated to researching and combating practices that have no scientific basis — a phenomenon that persists in his native Brazil.

Four Brazilian therapists have lost their license to practice in the last five years for offering supposed “gay cures,” according to the newspaper O Globo. These “therapies” have been prohibited by the Brazilian Council of Psychologists since 1999. Even further back, in 1990, the WHO eliminated homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses.

When the WHO made that historic decision, Bello was still a child growing up in an Evangelical Christian family in the rural area of Nova Friburgo, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. “I lived in an environment with many restrictions. Everything revolved around family, church and school,” Bello explains, in a video interview with EL PAÍS from the city of Rio, where he now lives. In his childhood universe, television, soap operas and everything outside the kingdom of God was considered diabolical. He grew up as a child dedicated to gospel music, without knowing who the TV star Xuxa was — the idol of Brazilian children of his generation, known as the “Queen of the Little Ones” — without sexual education, without knowing anyone from the LGBTQ+ community… and without even hearing the word “homosexual.”

As an adolescent, he left this bubble, when he entered public school. There, they called him “faggot” for the first time. He knew it was an insult, even though he didn’t understand it.

The recent suicide of a lesbian influencer and supporter of far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro has put the spotlight on conversion therapy. Weeks before her death, Karol Eller, 36, publicly announced that she was renouncing homosexuality after a religious retreat. “Family, triple your prayers for me. I renounced homosexual practice, vices and the desires of my flesh to live in Christ,” she proclaimed, in a message to her 700,000 followers. The entire Bolsonaro clan and the far right sent their condolences to the family. One of her best friends was the legislator who received the most votes in the last Brazilian elections: the ultra-conservative Nikolas Ferreira. The 27-year-old is so homophobic that he was fined for insulting the trans and left-wing deputy Duda Salabert in the Chamber of Deputies.

With the tragedy, these fake conversion therapies — advertised as being able to “correct” sexuality — returned to the headlines and talk shows in Brazil. If anyone believed that this practice was a thing of the past, they’ve been deceived, according to a forceful warning by Pedro Paulo Bicalho — president of the Federal Council of Psychology — made during an interview with Agência Brasil.

“Right now, while we’re doing this interview, many people are experiencing forms of incarceration to reverse their sexual orientation,” he said. “There are hundreds of Karol Ellers out there suffering grievances, psychological torture and confinement, for the simple reason that their sexual orientation is considered wrong. Unfortunately, [her case] isn’t an isolated one.”

Another trans deputy — Erika Hilton — has presented a bill for conversion therapy to be punished as torture, while the Congress of Brazil is preparing to vote on another proposal that would legalize this harmful practice.

Bello knows all about conversion therapy, from both personal experience and from his extensive research. “The retreat she [Eller] was treated at was very similar to one I attended as a teenager. And it wasn’t just specific to issues of homosexuality,” he explains. There are similarities between conversion therapy — designed to modify behaviors that fundamentalists consider to be sinful — and the Evangelical fight against premarital sex. The effects suffered by victims are numerous. “I think the worst thing is that you see yourself with hatred: you think you’re evil. And then, depression, anxiety, self-mutilation, eating disorders and suicide attempts can follow,” Bello notes.

He ultimately managed to reconcile with his sexual orientation and rebuild his life. Licensed as a psychologist, he now focuses his professional career on investigating and combating the countless procedures involved in the ordeal that he went through. He participated in the publication of a book by the College of Psychologists based on the testimonies of 32 victims of conversion therapy.

A sin for Evangelicals

Brazil has always been a conservative country. However, in recent decades, the achievements of progressives — such as the right to same-sex marriage and the right for same-sex couples to adopt — have coincided with the push made by the Evangelical churches, which continue to gain followers and power. If the estimates are true, by 2030, Evangelicals will surpass Catholics. In the Evangelical universe, “the discourse that homosexuality is a sin is hegemonic. Some churches — though not all of them — try to think of ‘cures’ [for homosexuality],” Bello explains. He does add that there are some progressive denominations that welcome the LGBTQ+ faithful.

The researcher also emphasizes that the blame is shared. “It’s not only the Evangelical and Catholic churches that carry out conversion therapy programs. There are many health professionals and education professionals [engaged in this]. Some families are victims, because they are blamed… but others seek out these procedures and force their children to undergo them.”

Brazilian fundamentalists haven’t given up on fighting against the official ban on conversion therapy. When Bello was still fighting against his homosexuality, religious extremists tried to use him to their advantage. “A Christian psychologist told me: ‘Look, it would be very interesting if you could study psychology and join the Council of Psychologists, to try to change things from within.’” He rejected the proposal, although this offer is commonly made.

“There are churches that sponsor students to study psychology, it’s a strategy,” he warns.

Five years ago, a defender of conversion therapy and a campaigner against homosexuality ran in the elections to preside over the College of Psychologists. He didn’t win, but he obtained about 5,000 votes, the Rio researcher recalls.

Ironically, as the years went by, Bello entered this organization on his own, given his professional work. However, he arrived with the mission of ensuring that “gay cures” or conversion therapies disappear and that professionals leave their religious beliefs out of their practice.

A recent directive from the College of Psychologists along these lines has caused a stir among fundamentalists. The right-wing Novo Party has appealed to the Supreme Court as a result. The striking thing is that this minor party doesn’t even belong to the far-right blocs in Congress, nor is it part of the powerful hardcore Evangelical lobby.

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