Backed by conservative evangelicals, Jair Bolsonaro seeks to “rescue our values.”
SAO PAULO, Brazil — In President Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, boys will be boys, and girls will be girls. And that’s an order.
Damares Alves, the evangelical pastor who serves as Bolsonaro’s minister of women and family, declared on her first day in office that in the new Brazil, “girls wear pink, and boys wear blue.”
“Girls will be princesses, and boys will be princes,” she added. “There will be no more ideological indoctrination of children and teenagers in Brazil.”
Bolsonaro’s minister of education, Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, shut down a section of the ministry devoted to diversity and human rights. He has said he is against the discussion of “gender theory” — which studies gender identity — in the classroom.
Bolsonaro, too, has left no question about where he stands on these issues.
“We will unite people, value the family, respect religions and our Judeo-Christian tradition, combat gender ideology and rescue our values,” Bolsonaro said at his New Year’s Day inauguration.
The administration’s actions are raising concerns among liberals, who are bracing for policies embraced by a president who once said he would prefer a dead son to a gay son. Last month, Jean Wyllys, Brazil’s only openly gay congressman, gave up his seat and fled the country amid death threats and hateful messages.
Over the past 10 years, Brazil’s LGBT population secured several civil rights victories in the courts, including same-sex marriage in 2013 and legal transgender name and gender changes in 2018. But as the LGBT community gained new rights, Brazil was growing more conservative. A third of the country is now evangelical, up from 15 percent in 2000, according to Datafolha, a local pollster.
This change has been reflected in Brazil’s increasingly powerful evangelical caucus, which now claims 1 in 6 members in Brazil’s lower house, making it the most conservative National Congress since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1984.
Under Bolsonaro, the new Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights declined to add the LGBT community as a group explicitly protected by its mandate. Last month, the health official who headed the nation’s HIV prevention task force was fired, apparently for authorizing a campaign aimed at educating transgender Brazilians.
Gender and sexuality have become a primary target for evangelical groups over the past decade. A question about trans culture on a high school standardized test, for example, drew widespread criticism from Brazil’s growing religious right, which argued that gender education had gone too far. In 2017, the government decided to withdraw mention of gender identity from curriculums. Some conservative politicians in state and city governments are now pushing for a ban on any discussion of gender diversity and sexual orientation in the classroom.
“Gender ideology is a field of study with no scientific backing that causes confusion for children in development because it negates the biological identity of the child and destroys distinctions between masculine and feminine. It is an extremely grave social experiment,” said Cleber Cabral Siedschlag, coordinator of Front for the Defense of the Christian Family, a conservative group against the teaching of liberal ideology in schools.
Beyond the classroom, LGBT groups worry that the election of Bolsonaro will give new life to bills calling for their rights to be revoked or curtailed. These proposals, until now, have languished in the National Congress.
One such bill seeks to define a family as a relationship between a man and woman, which the LGBT community fears could have implications for health care, adoption and welfare benefits. Evangelical backers of Bolsonaro also are pushing for a new airing of a bathroom law that would compel people to use the restrooms associated with their biological sex.
The bills face uphill battles given centrist and left-wing opposition, but critics say the new government’s aggressive stance is nevertheless fueling a toxic atmosphere for people in the LGBT community.
In recent years, killings of LGBT Brazilians have soared, a trend activists say is getting worse as homophobic rhetoric finds an official perch.
Hate crimes in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, peaked in the months leading up to October’s presidential election, as Bolsonaro, once a fringe politician, entered the mainstream. The city registered an average of 16 hate-crime cases a day in August, September and October, more than triple the daily average for the first half of the year, according to a tally of police reports obtained by the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper using freedom-of-information requests. Homophobic hate crimes in particular rose 75 percent during those months.
Last year, Bolsonaro said he rejected the votes of anyone who was violent. But experts monitoring hate crimes say they are becoming more frequent.
On Dec. 21, Anderson de Sousa Lima, 25, was walking down Avenida Paulista, the street that hosts Brazil’s largest annual pride parade, with his husband of three years, Plinio Lima. When a man behind them started shouting homophobic slurs, saying they should die, his husband confronted the man, he said.
The man stabbed Plinio with a Swiss army knife, he said.
He watched as Plinio stumbled backward, grabbed his hand and said, “I’ve been stabbed.” In moments, Plinio’s black shirt was soaked in blood, and he fell to the ground, where he bled to death in his husband’s arms.
“He took away his life, but my life ended. I don’t know what I will do without him,” said Lima, who said he had never suffered any aggression in the past. He blamed the current political climate, in part, for the attack.
“All it took was Bolsonaro to be voted into office for this to happen,” he said. “It’s not all his fault — people are born this way — but it created a revolt. Brazil was accepting things, but now I see the situation is getting worse.”
The climate for the LGBT community is so fearful that hundreds of couples, on the suggestion of the Brazilian Bar Association, have rushed to marry in the months since Bolsonaro’s victory in October, fearing the 2013 court decision that legalized same-sex marriage is at risk. Bolsonaro has called the decision “a blow to family unity and family values.”
In June 2018, Brazil’s courts ruled that transgender people could change their genders and names at registrar offices without undergoing physical exams — another hard-won victory for the LGBT community. But that, too, activists fear, could be under siege. That threat has led to a stampede of transgender Brazilians seeking to register their new names and genders.
Sol Rocha, a 25-year-old veterinarian and trans woman, has been doing odd jobs to save the $100 she’ll have to pay in fees to change her legal gender from male to female.
“For me, it’s very important to do this as quickly as possible, to get my documents as quickly as possible,” she said, “because I know that soon we won’t be able to do this.”