When it comes to LGBT rights, Brazil is as ambivalent as it is on everything else. The country has openly gay artists; it’s home to one of the largest Gay Pride parades in the world; gay marriage is legally recognized. There is even a fairly bankable gay tourism, though it did take a hit as grim stories about open warfare in the streets have gone back on the news.
But step beyond the high-profile events and the killing LGBT people is as Brazilian as clichés of football and beach sambas. Hate crimes are a homegrown, well-honed Brazilian tradition. You don’t need to look far to find evidence of it: it is one of the most violent states in the world for LGBT people, with the number of crimes rising. To these statistics, the Brazilian authorities offer not much more than a polite shrug and a reminder it could be much worse.
Some victims, like the trans woman Dandara dos Santos, who was filmed by her attackers begging for her for life before being killed, become international news. The majority don’t.
Like every other minority in Brazil, LGBT people live in the in-between space of acceptance and exclusion. Often, one has the impression that there is a certain air of corruption to LGBT life; just as you might know that the son of a friend does drugs in his leisure time, you might also learn that he is a homosexual. You can be gay, but only in the privacy of your own home, in the place where Brazilians learned to tolerate other dirty things. You can marry your spouse, but not hold their hand in public. It’s a balance that those form a more middle class, whiter, background can manage. Others can’t.
The problem is that increasingly, ambiguity seems to have taken a turn for the worst. In the last month, Brazil has twice shown that the omens are not favourable in regards to LGBT rights. The first blow came in mid-September when an LGBT exhibit closed its doors early after right-wing protesters smeared it by saying it was promoting pedophilia—an accusation that is more foghorn than dog whistle. More bad news followed the week after, when a judge allowed for conversion therapy to be used, overturning a ban from 1999.
Understanding what is behind this pushback against LGBT advances starts with understanding the country’s right. After four consecutive defeats on a Presidential level, the Brazilian right-wing parties had shifted into a much more aggressive beast. It had successfully associated social justice rhetoric with the corruption of the Worker’s Party. The new right is largely made up of middle-class people who, influenced by foreign politicians such as Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, rediscovered dictatorship-era speeches. Their main representative is the truculent congressman and presidential hopeful Jair Bolsonaro, who praised the words of Rousseff’s torturer in Congress.
One of Bolsonaro’s main targets is sexual minorities. “If I see these artists from the queer museum,” Bolsonaro declared. “I would have them shot.” His fans delighted at the promise of violence. Many believe that their “family values” are threatened by a new wave of twisted sexualities. This is not a coincidence. Hating the poor is not a winning pitch for a country such as Brazil, but hating a minority that many churches deemed sinful is another thing altogether.
Bolsonaro is one in a long line of aggressive right-wing politicians that has never vanished because the root of the problem has never been addressed: a macho culture that joins with a very conservative ruling class that sees in enforcing these lines an opportunity to quash dissent eventually, help them reverse the redistributional policies of the left.
But why this resurgence now? All one has to do is follow the money. The current Brazilian Congress is one of the most conservative since the return of democracy; it is ruled by the Bible, Beef and Bullets caucuses, all of which have a lot of interest to keep the rightwards shift of the country. The Bible caucus, in particular, is crucial: it includes many politicians with ties to religious institutions, such as the Universal Church, a large and lucrative evangelical branch. There was a belief from the Worker’s Party that the delicate balance of power could only have been kept with their help, and that the worst of their bigotry could be kept at bay with a complicated (and at times illicit) system of trade; this worked fine for some issues such as welfare; on gay rights, however, the Worker’s Party giveth and the Worker’s Party taketh away.
Under this scenario, Brazilian LGBT people find themselves with very few friends. The Brazilian left has been reduced to a few radicals with very little pull and one ambiguously corrupt former president, who intends to run not only for ideological reasons, but also ostensibly to avoid jail. Lula is one of the few people who fully understand the politics of Brazil. Right now, he must be aware that he is partly kept afloat by being more open to social justice rhetoric, but he’s also a creature of habit and guile. There is very little reason not to believe that he won’t revert back to his old ways should he return to power.
This is the problem that Brazilian LGBT people must face: their biggest potential heroes have proven time and again that they are willing to negotiate their survival, but venturing into the unknown has the potential risks losing what little progress has been gained. In the meantime, million of innocent Brazilians live with the creeping horror of knowing that their friends, neighbours and families might vote to put the bullet in the chamber of a gun pointed toward them.