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LGBTQ Brazilians on edge after self-described 'homophobic' lawmaker elected president

Far-right Brazilian Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who once said he’d be “incapable of loving a homosexual son," will be sworn in as Brazil's president on Jan. 1.
Image: Second round of the presidential election in Brazil
Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro waves to supporters after casting his vote in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 28, 2018.Ricardo Moraes / Reuters

OLINDA, BRAZIL — Far-right Brazilian lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro, the so-called Trump of the Tropics, was elected president of the world’s fourth-largest democracy on Sunday. Once considered unelectable due, in part, to his long history of offensive comments — he implied women who are raped “deserve it” and has said he’d be “incapable of loving a homosexual son” — the 63-year-old former military captain proved his detractors wrong.

While many of the Latin American country’s marginalized communities have questioned what Bolsonaro’s leadership could mean for them, Brazil’s LGBTQ population is particularly concerned.

“This is a major worry for us,” Rivania Rodrigues, a member of the Pernambuco LGBTQ Forum, told NBC News. “This is not just a question of partisan politics: It’s a question of survival."

Rodrigues said since Bolsonaro started leading in the presidential polls, people have become more emboldened in terms of publicly expressing anti-gay views. “There’s always someone shouting from a car, 'You are all going to die now,’” she said.


Toni Reis, president of Brazil’s National LGBTQ Alliance, which boasts 650 members across the country, had a more measured response to Bolsonaro's victory.

“To the extent possible, we will try to have a dialogue with this government,” Reis told NBC News.

People pose in front of a billboard in Portuguese that reads "Not Him," in reference to presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, during the Gay Pride Parade in Niteroi, Brazil, on Sept. 23, 2018.Silvia Izquierdo / AP

While he said the prospect of negotiating with Bolsonaro, who has been openly hostile to the gay community for decades, may be a challenge, he said his organization accepts the election result as part of the democratic process. Bolsonaro, who has been compared to Philippines' strongman Rodrigo Duterte, defeated his Workers’ Party rival Fernando Haddad by double digits.

Reis said a national Datafolha poll released on the eve of the presidential election gave him hope: “We are really happy to see that 75 percent of Brazilians believe society should accept homosexuals,” he said.


Before Bolsonaro threw his hat into the presidential ring, he had a reputation for racist, sexist and homophobic remarks. In his decades as a Congressman, he has been particularly vocal about his distaste for gays: He has said that he would rather his son die in an accident than be gay; has advocated that parents should beat being gay out of their children; and in 2013 proclaimed, “Yes, I am homophobic — and very proud of it.”

Nonetheless, a national survey found that nearly a third of Brazil’s LGBTQ community supported the controversial candidate. Tiago Pavinatto, a 34-year-old gay attorney in Brazil, spoke to Bloomberg News about his support of Bolsonaro. In his interview, he pointed out that those tracking LGBTQ murders in the country have seen found a steady increase since 2000.

“Militants talk about the large number of gays killed in Brazil, but who was in charge of the country for 14 years?” Pavinatto asked. The answer to his question, of course, is the Workers’ Party, which was defeated by Bolsonaro on Sunday.

While Bolsonaro has vowed to be tough on crime, LGBTQ advocates are not convinced he will be their protector. In the few weeks between the first round of presidential elections on Oct. 7 and his victory on Sunday, Bolsonaro has been at the hub of several controversies and, according to Brazilian news reports, served as inspiration for violence against LGBTQ people, social justice activists and journalists.

A transgender woman was knifed to death in the northeastern state of Sergipe a week before Sunday’s runoff election, and a drag queen was murdered in the center of São Paulo on October 16. The attackers invoked Bolsonaro´s name during both assaults, according to local news reports.

“It’s as if the gates of hell have been opened — as if hunting season had been declared,” Beto de Jesus, an LGBTQ activist and founder of São Paulo’s massive annual gay pride parade, told The Guardian of what he sees as a new era of anti-LGBTQ brutality. “It’s barbarism.”


Bolsonaro has frequently cast aspersions on democratic institutions and argued that if Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship made any mistake, it was that it didn't go far enough in killing communists who threatened the nation. In a speech last week in São Paulo that critics called downright fascist, Bolsonaro doubled down on these sentiments to thousands of his supporters.

“Those red good-for-nothings will be banished from the homeland,” he said of his Workers’ Party rivals. “It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history.”

Nonetheless, Reis cautioned that campaigning rhetoric is one thing while government action is another.

“We’re going to have a formal dialogue [with the Bolsonaro government],” Reis said confidently. “We are in a democratic country, and we have serious institutions in our country.”

Pointing to Brazil’s constitutional guarantee that everyone is equal before the law, Reis affirmed that the LGBTQ community would “use all available strategies to keep from taking any steps backwards.”

Brazil’s LGBTQ community has made a number of gains over the past two decades: same-sex marriage has been legal since 2011, transgender people can use their chosen names on government IDs, the public health system offers specialized care for trans people, and gay couples have the same rights to a partner’s pension upon death as heterosexual couples.

Although two Supreme Court justices will complete their terms during Bolsonaro’s mandate, Reis said that the court would still likely be favorable to LGBTQ issues. However, Bolsonaro has proposed adding 10 more justices to the 11-member court.


While Bolsonaro’s election has unsettled many LGBTQ people in Brazil, the Datafolha survey results on LGBTQ acceptance and two newly elected progressive “collective candidacies” have provided a counterbalance of hope for the community.

Juntas, or Together, won a seat in the legislature of the northeastern state of Pernambuco on October 7. The five-member slate includes a transgender woman and offers a progressive agenda. The other collective, a nine-person slate dubbed the “Activist Caucus,” which includes both a transgender and bisexual member, won a seat in the São Paulo legislature. Both collectives belong to the progressive Socialism and Liberty party and are in favor of LGBTQ equality.

“We don’t believe that half of Brazil’s population is fascist,” Carol Vergolino, a member of the Juntas collective, told NBC News. “A lot of people don’t have the right information.”

Vergolino said the dissemination of misleading information and fear-mongering through social networks like WhatsApp and Facebook by groups associated with the Bolsonaro campaign played a significant role in the far-right lawmaker’s election.

One of the key polarizing issues concerned educational materials about gender identity that were proposed for classrooms. Opponents of the materials claimed they would promote homosexuality and promiscuity in the classroom, and Bolsonaro described the materials as a “gay kit.”

Echoing Vergolino, Erika Hilton, the transgender member of the so-called Activist Caucus, said many Bolsonaro voters were “manipulated” by misleading information and do not agree with some of his extreme rhetoric about gay people.

“They follow the wave that looks like salvation, but really it’s the brink of collapse,” she said, claiming Bolsonaro's plans will likely worsen crime, violence and inequality.

Vergolino said to prevent a rollback in rights for Brazil’s most marginalized citizens, progressives must “resist without hate” but “with love.”