Reports suggest that local police are well aware of the problem but choose not to intervene
Maria admits that in the beginning “she was against going” and only went along to accompany her boyfriend. “But when I entered the toilets and saw condoms, paper towels even sperm on the floor, I was revolted. You can pick-up diseases there. Families use those toilets...and I heard that people with Aids go there.”
It can be said that for this 26 year-old woman, as well as for her friends, AIDS is transmitted by visual contact. Or as one of them says “by sweat.” Maria and her friends, primarily agricultural workers and labourers, generally only high-school educated, with rough rural features, state their convictions without fear. For them the right term is “abomination.”
"God created woman for man,” Maria says with a shy smile, eyes fixed on her boyfriend. When asked if she had ever considered that one day she might give birth to a homosexual son, she shakes her head, confused. "If he takes after his father, he won't be for sure.” Her boyfriend blurts out even more bluntly “to be sincere, it would be better to drown him in the river.” It was in a winter's night, at the end of 2004.
The car was parked in a remote area, lights out, outside the city limits. A sudden burst of lights and engine sounds shook the occupants. Shadows looked into the interior. Then as suddenly as they had appeared they left. Perplexed, the man and woman inside took time to shake off the fear.
The clandestine romance had almost taken a bad turn. But it was not this kind of clandestine romance the others were looking for. It was the love that dares not speak its name
as Oscar Wilde wrote almost a century ago, that they were looking for.
More precisely, they were looking for gay couples engaging in casual pick-ups and encounters, such as those that take place in a rest area off the IP5, a freeway close to the city of Viseu. The same rest area featured in a news report in October, and was referred to as an area for “male prostitution.”
Following the report, the mayor of Viseu, Mr. Fernando Ruas, announced his intention of asking for reinforced patrolling by police (an intention that he now says was never followed up on because he has “total tolerance for this sexual option” and condemns “that which came out in the media as persecution of homosexuals).”
Carlos (not his real name) used to frequent the IP5 rest area, until one winter night when “I was in the car with a friend, when we were surrounded by lots of cars, which blocking our exit.”Male shadows surrounded us, while inside the cars, notes Carlos 'were girls watching'.
With no escape possible, he locks the car doors. "There we were, very quiet, scared to death, not understanding what was going on.” The men, about 20 or 30 in all, started kicking the car.
“They were shouting insults ‘faggots, sons of bitches, etc.,’ they urinated on my car, scratched it...threatened us with violence shouting out 'faggots must die. We will run them out of town".
Throughout the whole 45 minutes of the incident, Carlos called the GNR (Guarda Nacional Republicana - the police force that patrols rural areas). “I told them there were individuals threatening me and scratching my car, but they didn’t react" Then, continues Carlos “they let us go.” “I went to the police station, where I was well received, saying that a lot of people had made the same complaint.”
But, he assures us; they advised him to 'wait' before registering a complaint, “because I ‘had 6 months to decide whether to press charges.’” Thinking back he thinks its strange, but followed the advice, as when according to his story, he was aproached by the same attacking individuals, in the town center of Viseu on a Saturday in January.
"They said 'you went and complained, there will a reckoning.’ They threatened me with violence and I went to a police station with them following me all the way.” Once again he dropped the complaint. "I'm still thinking about going foward with the matter because they are violent and are constantly threatening retaliation.” Accounts, like the one by Carlos, are not difficult to find in the city of Viseu.
There are even horror stories: a gay man was burnt with cigarette butts while another had a gun pointed to his head. But no victims have come forth to confirm them these that overshadow the one told by Carlos are not assumed by anyone.
Is it because they are just legend or because shame and fear make the victims to afraid to come forward? What is known is that actual complaints registered with the police, with the characteristics of the one described, number only 4. In the GNR, the rural police force that is responsible for the IP5 rest area, no complaints have been registered.
In fact, lieutenant Ferreira, commander of the post, guarantees that the militia group in question, has never been identified. In spite of the various accounts, including the one coming from the vigilante group itself, attesting that it “patrols” the resting area are almost daily. "What do you want me to say? the lieutenant asks. "Our vehicles are easily identified, people can run away..."
As for the advice given to Carlos, he seems troubled: “it seems strange.” More strange, it seems that the local police have failed twice to identify the aggressors. One of the complaints, relating to an incident in December, according to commissar Lopes Ferreira, “has gone on to the courts.” The other 3, made by the same person, are still under investigation.
The person who made those complaints is not allowed to speak to the press due to silence imposed by the judge. But before the court order to not talk to the media, “seeing that the police did nothing” decided to call SIC (one of the 4 national TV stations).
In the coverage, aired in mid-February, after 2 attacks against him, 30 year old Manuel, recounted how on the night of 11 February, after having parked his car, in the center of the city of Viseu, next to the Court House, found himself, along with 2 friends who were with him “surrounded by cars, which blocked my exit.”
The individuals then bashed his car, made threats and insulted them. "There were some 20 to 30 people surrounding us. I called the police twice. After the second call, half an hour after the first call, I was hysterical. I could only shout 'do you want me to die?'"
“A little bit later, in the security of the four walls of my home, during dinner with friends, Manuel, in a perfect imitation of Herman Jose's Nelo (a character sketch of a Portuguese comedian), makes an hilarious version of the drama: 'it's today. We won't make it past today!’”
It was only when Manuel decided to take down the number plates of the attacker's cars when these individuals backed away and left. He went straight to the police station. “The other gang members still behind me. I arrive, honk the horn of
my car, not one policeman appears.”
“I go in and what do I see? Three agents calmly reading the newspaper.'what is it?' they said." Ashamed to have to assume his homosexuality, Manuel hesitates. "they asked me three times what I'd been called...and I, very softly said ‘faggot.’" Not feeling well, he asked to be taken to the hospital seeing that the aggressors were still outside. "The policemen left with me and did not even bother to identify them.” Only by Manuel's third encounter with the group, after the television broadcast, did the police promptly answer his call for help, identifying 5 men and 2 women.
But before that, as Manuel tells us, he was once again threatened: "what lovely news in SIC! You're going to die today?”
The visibility of the case sparked various protests, mainly from groups linked to the defense of homosexual rights, such as ILGA-Portugal
and OPUS GAY
. On March 22nd, the association Olho Vivo
and Panteras Rosa/Frente de Combate à Homofobia
(Alert Eye and Pink Roses/League Against Homophobia) gave a press conference in the city of Viseu, accusing local authorities of not having done all that is in their power to fight against these attacks on homosexuals.
The statement of the local police comander - "these situations find those who seek them" - gives reason to suspect the tacit support of the police for the aggressors. Aggressors whose existence seems to be tolerated by police forces. On March 23rd, Lusa news agency quoted the local commander, as saying that "the existence of a thirty-member gang cannot be confirmed.”
The Civil Governor, in a press release the same day, spoke of "a so-called gang
which is said to have been persecuting recently citizens of a ‘certain sexual tendency.’” He further stated that "In the city of Viseu, fortunately, there exists a climate which permits citizens to live a tranquil and normal life, with the minute exception of an even smaller dimension.”
Whatever a gang is, or whatever concept is implicit in the idea, these Viseu residents met with Diaria de Noticias
on a cold March 22nd night in a remote zone, making a point to show up as a group.
"We either speak as one or not at all.” Even though less than 10 of them guarantee that "there often more than 40 of us," assume themselves as a collective with a common goal: "Clean this shit" The "shit" being "the faggots" who "make us sick.”
"They should all die," they repeat. "A man who has relations with another man does not deserve to live.” Nonetheless, they note that "we never threatened anyone with death, contrary to what that liar said on SIC" and "we have nothing against homosexuals".
They only want to "end with the filth in the IP5" where one of them was allegedly
harassed. "I went to the toilet, a guy came up to me and put his hand in my thing. I beat him up right away.” That is where the militia spirit came to be, fed with coffee shop talk. " We started going there every day.” That is how it was born, 6 months ago, this peculiar form of entertainment. The 'anti-homosexual brigade'
as one of the more outgoing ones called it, whose father piped in in mid-conversation to add "Of course I know what my son does.” It's no exception: "our families know and support us, they only tell us to be careful.”
Judging by what they say there families are not the only ones who support them.
Certain that the majority of citizens from the city of Viseu agree with them, they insist they have the support of the police.
"They are tired of knowing what we are up to. We were identified many times, they've searched our cars… some of them tell us that they can do nothing about it (the cruising behaviour off the IP5), we can and do.”
Convinced of the mandate, Maria's boyfriend makes it clear: "We have the right and the power to act in the place of the police.” One of her friends laughs "there are so many people we have got to, the police have no idea how many.
These 'people' include the man in the center of all the media coverage, his witnesses and whoever supports him. All those present aren’t worrying about the upcoming trial. "It will all come to nothing. It's our word against theirs. And if he knows how to lie, so do we.” The worst, they regret, “was that we didn't beat him up.” As they do to all who resist them. “If they turn on us, we beat them up.”
Encouraged by the tale, they tell more stories. The favorite one, because of the moral, is the one about the middle-aged man “who we made undress and walk around naked, from one side of the IP5 park to the other.” At the end of the lesson, when they gave him his clothes back 'he thanked us. Said that he had a wife and children and that what he came there to do was shameful'. The eyes of the justice keepers shine brighter in triumph. “He said we should do the same to all. You see?”
Reporting by Fernanda Cancio & Paula Cardoso Almeida