BOSTON (Reuters) - A multi-coloured gay pride flag hangs in a corner of a bare room in an abandoned Sao Paulo art deco building that was once the headquarters of Brazil’s social security agency.
The room is home to several members of Brazil’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community seeking refuge from discrimination and hate crimes against LGBT people.
They were invited to join some 300 squatters who have been living in the building for several months in an occupation organised by Front in the Fight for Housing, an activist group promoting rights of some 400,000 people without decent housing in Sao Paulo.
“The occupation is a space where we can feel safe,” Rodrigo, a tall shaven-headed gay man says as he strokes his black beard. “In the LGBT movement, we just want to live our lives and that means not having to be afraid of who is behind you.”
Brazil has one of the world’s highest rates of LGBT hate crimes, despite a reputation for sexual tolerance. The country recognised same-sex marriage in 2013 and hosts some of the world’s largest gay pride festivals.
Human rights groups including Amnesty International say homophobic violence is endemic in Brazil, where there were 326 murders in the community in 2014.
Some Evangelical pastors, who are becoming increasingly popular in Brazil, have adopted overtly homophobic rhetoric.
Luciana Jesus Silva, a bisexual woman and organizer of the occupation, asked the FLM to offer space to LGBT people after she learned that one of her gay friends had been hospitalized after a hate attack only to have his mother throw him out of the house, saying he was the work of the devil.
“We who are the most marginalized and repressed by society have to stand together,” said Silva, 45, a mother of four.
More than two dozen LGBT people have joined the occupation, though many more come.
The occupation of several buildings in central Sao Paulo has lasted several months because of a Brazilian law that makes it hard to evict squatters. The Front in the Fight for Housing offers families an escape from violence-plagued slums that ring the metropolis.
Rodrigo lounges on a mattress with Wam, 24, and Teflon, 19, whose colourful turban and brightly patterned clothing strike a contrast with the drab abandoned apartment.
They stage an impromptu fashion display. He strikes a pose, with his arms languidly outstretched like the wings of a crane, his legs crossed. Makeup and clothes are an act of defiance for some LGBT people.
Jorge, 31, teaches drawing to the children in a vacant apartment. Gaby, 18, cooks dinner in a large communal pot from which residents are served. With scant furniture in the building, some eat standing up or sitting on the floor.
In the evening, Rodrigo and his friends head to Arouche square in downtown Sao Paulo, a gathering point for the LGBT community.
Gaby does her makeup in the dimly lit room before going out. Rodrigo, Teflon and Fernando don high heels and flowing robes, their appearance turning heads on the graffiti-marred streets.
The small square, marked by a lamppost adorned with a gay-pride flag, is a place to make friends, share experiences and discuss gay rights.
“It’s not my fault that I live in a society with an empty heart and mind,” laments Fernanda, a 20-year-old black transgender woman.
She says her appearance makes finding a job almost impossible.
“It’s harder being trans than being gay because if you’re gay you still have a masculine appearance,” she says. “My appearance is my own creation.”
Reporting by Nacho Doce; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Jim Finkle