Less than 60 days before the World Cup begins, a Brazilian apparel company is selling t-shirts that use a gay slur to refer to certain soccer players.
Though some of them are benign — one refers to Italian striker Mario Balotelli as a “loser” and another pokes fun at the French by reminding them that former star Zinedine Zidane is “over” — others are hardly so. One of the shirts says plainly that “C. Ronaldo is gay,” referring to Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo. Another calls Argentina legend Diego Maradona a “maricon,” a slang Portuguese and Spanish term for “faggot.”
Sergio K, the company responsible for the shirts, maintains that the shirts are “irreverent” and “inoffensive,” according to GayStarNews.
Sergio Kamalakian, the owner and designer for the company selling the shirts, told a Sao Paulo newspaper that he was “open-minded” and denied being homophobic. Some of his best customers, he said, according to a translation, are gay. The shirts, he said, were merely a way for Brazilian fans to cheer for their team without wearing the official World Cup uniform.
The shirts caused controversy on Twitter and Facebook and sparked petitions from two LGBT groups in Brazil calling on customers to boycott the Brazilian designer. But after the controversy, Sergio K said, sales only went up on his web site and in stores. The shirts are now sold out, the company told Folha de Sao Paulo, a Brazilian newspaper.
Just as another World Cup-themed t-shirt recently drew attention to issues around the hypersexualization of Brazilian women, these shirts could shine a light on larger issues facing Brazil’s LGBT community.
Recent and future World Cup and Olympic hosts like Russia and Qatar have drawn worldwide criticism for their policies toward LGBT people — Russia, which will host the 2018 World Cup, was slammed for passing an anti-gay law just before it hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host, has faced calls to reverse its ban on homosexuality. Brazil is nowhere near as bad as those countries — in fact, the country legalized same-sex marriage in May 2013, and Brazilian states have passed laws legalizing gay adoption and banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Still, issues remain, the most glaring of which is the violence LGBT Brazilians face on a daily basis. According to one Brazilian gay rights group, 44 percent of the world’s anti-LGBT violence happens in the country, and the web site LGBTQ Nation said in December that at least 292 LGBT people were murdered in Brazil in 2013 alone. Violence against the LGBT community is only getting worse: in 2011, there was an average of one gay person killed every 36 hours in the country. In the early part of 2012, the rate was down to one every 24 hours (if the 292 murders in 2013 is the final number, the rate was about one every 30 hours).
Some Brazilian lawmakers attempted to curb the violence by making homophobia a crime, but it in December, the legislature killed non-discrimination legislation that would have made it illegal to incite violence on the basis of sexual orientation.
Violence isn’t the only form of discrimination. Conservative members of Brazil’s legislature last year tried to overturn a the country’s ban on ex-gay therapy, the policy (still favored by some conservatives in the United States) that attempts to “cure” homosexuality. Brazil’s legislative human rights committee approved legislation overturning the ban in June, but leaders abandoned it amid public pressure before it could receive a full legislative vote.
I’ve written before about how apparel companies like Nike have used sports fashion to promote inclusivity and acceptance for LGBT communities. Unfortunately, this company has chosen to do the opposite. That these shirts are on sale, and that they have sold so well despite the negative messages they convey, doesn’t just send a poor message to LGBT fans who will come to Brazil for the World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. It should also highlight the fact that as far as Brazil has come on LGBT rights in recent years, it still has a long way to go to make the equality, acceptance, and safety of its LGBT people a realized fact of life.