Brazilian openly-gay politician, Fabio Felix, used to feel comfortable holding his boyfriend’s hand and kissing him in public, but after the swearing in of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro nearly six months ago, he now sometimes thinks twice.
Brazil’s LGBT+ politicians have said they face a backlash and setbacks in their rights under the conservative government of Bolsonaro, who has declared himself a ‘proud’ homophobe and has openly made offensive comments about sexual minorities.
“Our president is against democracy, against diversity”, said Felix, a district congressman in Brasilia, with the leftist opposition Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL).
“All the time he uses the worst speech you can imagine. We are living difficult times. The environment is terrible … LGBT people have more fear”, he said, speaking on the sidelines of an event in Bogota, Colombia, hosted by the Victory Institute, a nonprofit which seeks to elect LGBT+ candidates.
The increasingly hostile environment LGBT+ politicians face in Brazil was such that Jean Wyllys, Brazil’s second openly gay congressman, decided to quit his third term in office in January due to death threats he said he received.
Felix said he also receives “hostile messages” on Facebook and Instagram, including messages like “we shouldn’t live”.
Bolsonaro, who once said he would rather his son “died in an accident” than bring home a boyfriend, swiftly removed LGBT+ issues from the human rights ministry’s mandate when he came to power in January.
He also appointed Damares Alves, a conservative evangelical pastor as the new minister of women, family, and human rights.
In April, a comment from Bolsonaro that Brazil must not become a “gay tourism paradise” also sparked concern among LGBT+ campaigners.
Bolsonaro told reporters Brazil should avoid being known as a gay destination because “we have families”.
Felix hopes several landmark cases before Brazil’s supreme court can help halt such a backlash.
In June, the court is expected to determine whether homophobia and transphobia should be considered criminal offenses, which could help put a stop to hate speech and slurs against LGBT+ people, he said.
The judges are also set to decide whether attacks against gay and trans people should be considered a form of racism, and therefore automatically punishable under Brazil’s constitution.
To counter the backlash Brazil’s LGBT+ politicians are forming new alliances with unions and other social movements, including those defending the rights of women, black and indigenous people.
They are also reaching out to Brazil’s powerful evangelical movement and the growing religious right to find common ground on issues, including the government’s planned cuts to spending on higher education.
The proposed cuts prompted tens of thousands of Brazilians to take to the streets in protest earlier this week.
Most evangelical groups are critical of gay rights, saying marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
“Despite President Bolsonaro, we have people trying to organise and fight back”, Felix told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We are trying to talk to all the people we can, even with people (with whom) we have no ideological alliance. And we are trying to isolate the radical right in Brazil … that’s our strategy right now”, he said.
Luis Abolafia, head of international programs at the Victory Institute, said exploiting differences among conservative religious groups is one way to fight back.
“The conservative religious group is presenting themselves as a solid block”, Abolafia said.
“But in reality it’s a coalition of different people with different agendas, and there are always going to be cracks in the wall that you can take advantage of”.
Katia Cunha, a lesbian state congresswoman in Brazil’s northeastern Pernambuco state, said she and other LGBT+ elected officials are also reaching out to evangelicals, as well as partnering with other human rights groups and grass-roots movements that promote LGBT+ rights.
“We can fight back with unity”, Cunha said.
“There are few evangelical progressives but you can speak to them about human rights in general. Human rights is a common issue”.
Her colleague, Robeyonce Lima, the first trans woman politician to be elected in Pernambuco, said she receives hate messages on social media, including ones saying, “you don’t belong in the assembly, it’s not right”.
Bolsonaro’s public slurs against the LGBT+ community have emboldened critics of minority rights, Lima said.
“Before people were embarrassed to be prejudiced in public, now the president has made it legitimate”, she said.
-Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota – Thomson Reuters Foundation