In March of last year, a video from Fortaleza in north-eastern Brazil went viral. It features 42-year-old trans woman Dandara dos Santos stripped, covered in blood, and begging for her life as a gang of men laugh and jeer. They taunt her, kick her, punch her. They beat her with shoes and a wooden plank, and tell her they “will kill the faggot”. They throw her into a wheelchair, undressed and bloodied, and they take her off to be shot. Because they were brazen enough to post the video, Dandara’s murderers did face justice — a rarity in a country which last year saw an LGBT person murdered every 23 hours for who they are.
Despite a flourishing LGBT community (São Paulo hosts the largest pride parade in the world) and a progressive image on the world stage, Brazil has a strong and often violent conservative tradition, nurtured through decades of authoritarian, fiercely anti-communist military rule. It’s this murderous regime that formed presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro, who served in the military for seventeen years and gradually gained popularity on the right with those who lamented Brazil’s transition to democracy, and it’s this hardline conservatism and nostalgia for that “period of glory” which has informed his reactionary politics ever since. His running mate — a retired army general — has talked casually of military coups if the government fails to do its job, and Bolsonaro himself said in 2008 that “the error of the dictatorship was to torture but not to kill”.
Bolsonaro in his own words
“I would be incapable of loving a gay son”
“Most homosexuals are murdered by their respective pimps at hours when good citizens are already asleep”
“If I see two men kissing in the street, I will beat them”
“I’m pro-torture, you know that. And the people are too.”
“[Black Brazilians] get nothing done. I think they aren’t even good for breeding anymore.”
This kind of rhetoric should inspire fear across Brazil, but for minorities and women he poses a particular threat. He is on the record saying “there is no such thing as this secular state. The state is Christian and the minority will have to change, if they can.” He has said he believes women should receive lower salaries because they get pregnant, and said Brazilian Congresswoman Maria do Rosário was “not worth raping; she is very ugly”. He and the party supporting him are divisive reactionaries who stoke political violence against their opponents. These reactionaries now hold the very fabric of Brazil’s young democracy.
That violent rhetoric has found its way into government, and now risks cementing itself under what’s almost certain to be an authoritarian, illiberal, and unabashedly antidemocratic regime. When asked what he’d do with the national congress if elected president in 1999, he even went as far as to say “there is not the least doubt! I would organise a coup on the same day, the same day!” And all of that’s to say nothing about his views on climate change, on indigenous rights, or on guns.
And yet, he won.
The race closely mirrors a story with which most of us are by now all too familiar — anti-establishment feeling is at an all-time high in Brazil, and into this antipathy strides a bombastic “outsider”, offering radical change and bold leadership. The country is still reeling from the Operation Car Wash scandal: an investigation which unearthed a vast conspiracy among major businesses, politicians, and high ranking officials, even including former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, involving over $3 billion in bribes. Huge infrastructure and investment projects which were involved have now collapsed, and the rise of the once-booming economy now doesn’t seem so guaranteed. Crime in Brazil — already amongst the highest in the world — is also rising, and many Brazilians feel the country is in decline. Bolsonaro’s pro-gun, pro-military strongman rhetoric, hardline support of violent policing, and “drain the swamp” style promises have won him support from young and old voters alike concerned primarily with security and corruption, and given that his opponent is from da Silva’s party, he has the upper hand promising to address those issues. Like Duterte in the Philippines or Orbán in Hungary, Bolsonaro painted a picture of a moral breakdown in society, led by a westward-looking, liberal elite more concerned with the rights of minorities than maintaining law and order. And like the Philippines and Hungary, it worked.
Even his victory in the first round of elections sent shockwaves through Brazil. LGBT activists have reported an alarming surge in violence carried out by emboldened Bolsonaro supporters, with many queer people being attacked in places which have previously been safe. Just over two weeks after the vote, in an area near some of São Paulo’s most well-known LGBT venues, 25-year-old trans woman Jessica Gonzaga was stabbed to death. Witnesses reported shouts of “Bolsonaro!” and “Faggots must die!”. “It’s as if the gates of hell have been opened”, said São Paulo Pride founder Beto de Jesus. “As if hunting season had been declared. It’s barbarism.”
We’ve seen this pattern before. In Russia, hate crimes spiked after the “anti-propaganda” laws, and far-right gangs continue to attack people they suspect to be LGBT with impunity. In Poland too, elections of a conservative, far-right candidate emboldened violent gangs who feel that they have the people on their side.
As Brazil wakes up to confirmation that they live in a country with a “proud homophobe” for a president-elect, LGBT Brazilians will be wondering how just much worse things will become, and how many more bigots will feel vindicated and justified in committing yet more violence. They’ll be waking up to the chilling realisation that their fellow citizens looked at their options, and decided to vote for the candidate who thinks of them as defective, and as inferior human beings. They’ll be trying to work out whether it’s safe for them to stay in the country. And as they realise that these emboldened attackers are their neighbours and countrymen, many of them will be wondering whether they were ever safe in the first place.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons