This October, Brazilians went to the polls to choose a new president in the most polarized election since the end of military rule in 1985. In a highly fragmented election between 13 candidates, Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), a right-wing retired captain known for his homophobic, racist and misogynist remarks, surprised Brazil by defeating Fernando Haddad, the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores — PT) candidate in the second run. After being victim of a controversial knife attack on September 6, Bolsonaro saw his support in the polls skyrocket, gaining the official backing of many conservative groups, from agrobusiness and gun lobbies to military and evangelical anti-abortion and anti-LGBT+ churches. His rhetoric was characterized by a combination of arguments against a supposed Communist/leftist threat that would turn Brazil into a “new Venezuela” and a radical moral discourse that blamed PT and other liberal/progressive groups — particularly feminist and LGBT+ activists and academics — for “destroying the family,” for giving rights to “degenerates” and for promoting so-called “gender ideology,” an accusation leveled at those fighting for gender equality and questioning the gender binary.
Bolsonaro and his supporters did not spare teachers, professors and other academics and intellectuals from his criticism, blaming them for “indoctrinating” students with leftist ideas and spreading “immoral concepts.” The day after his victory, the PSL’s newly-elected state representative of the state of Santa Catarina in the south of Brazil encouraged students to tape and record teachers’ and professors’ “leftist remarks.” In the same week, some representatives in Congress tried to pass a bill, “Non-partisan Schools” (Escola sem Partido), which would suspend and sanction teachers and professors who reportedly practice “political and ideological indoctrination” or promote “religious, ideological and/or political-partisan propaganda.” A similar bill was approved in the State of Alagoas in northeast Brazil but it is currently under judicial review in the Supreme Court.
These events have left many reflecting on the conservative moral agenda that characterized Bolsanaro’s election as well as the possible consequences of his victory on democracy and the rule of law in Brazil. I write from the standpoint of someone who was a victim of threats by Bolsonaro’s supporters. I am a professor of sociology at the Federal University of Pernambuco in northeast Brazil and have been working with issues of gender, sexuality, social movements and human rights over the past decade. In my own research about the struggles for legal recognition of same-sex unions in Brazil and South Africa and, more recently, on political candidacies of LGBT+ people in Brazil, I have examined the radicalization of the conservative moral agenda and the centrality of gender and LGBT rights within it. I suspected, as many of my colleagues in the field did, that our work would be the target of a conservative backlash but I never imagined that the attack would be as fast, strong and personal as it was. In an anonymous letter, I was accused of being “the leader of an army of faggots, trannies, feminazis, prostitutes and all the kinds of degenerates who are against the family,” of disseminating the “gender ideology” and of being a threat to “the good Christian moral values.” The letter stated that I, along with other colleagues researching sensitive issues like the use of recreational drugs, would be banned from the university in 2019. Some of my students investigating issues of gender and sexuality were also threatened. The attacks on my students and I took up almost half of the letter, demonstrating the centrality of gender and sexuality in Bolsonaro’s moral agenda.
The 2014 Election and the rise of the Right
In order to understand the rise of the conservative moral agenda in Brazil, it is necessary to look back at the 2014 election. The then president, Dilma Rousseff (PT), was re-elected by a small margin of less than two percent against Aécio Neves of the Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), in a very contentious run-off. Neves contested the results, accusing Rousseff and her party of using bribes to fund her campaign. In the same election, Brazilians chose one of the most conservative Congresses since 1964, the year of the military coup d’état. Agrobusiness, pro-gun lobbyists and evangelical Christian groups formed a pluri-partisan conservative front in opposition to the Rousseff government. In 2015, Eduardo Cunha, a right-wing evangelical Christian, was elected speaker of the chamber of deputies, using his power to block any bill in the interest of the Executive.
Throughout 2015, protests, organized by mainly right-wing groups, erupted in cities across Brazil, with demonstrators demanding Rousseff’s impeachment. Further fueling these protests was an economic crisis marked by increasing inflation rates and unemployment. In December 2015, Cunha accepted one of the many impeachment requests on the grounds that the Rousseff government had manipulated national budget figures to avoid public deficits. However, the alleged manipulation largely took place in the Cardoso (1995-2002) and Lula da Silva (2003-2010) administrations. For this reason, PT and other leftist parties blamed Cunha of using a technicality to unfairly remove Rousseff from power.
In 2016, Brazil’s streets were filled with pro- and anti-impeachment demonstrations, resulting in polarization between the left and the right. Misogynist arguments were largely used by right-wing groups to disqualify Rousseff, portraying her as a short-tempered woman unfit for presidency. In April 2016, the Chamber of Deputies voted to begin impeachment proceedings in a plenary sitting filled with references to God, family, and in the case of the then Rio de Janeiro’s state deputy, Jair Bolsonaro, to Carlos Brilhante Ulstra, the colonel who tortured Rousseff in prison during military rule. Even at that time some deputies mentioned the need to save children from “gender ideology.” In August 2016, the Senate confirmed the decision to impeach Rousseff, swearing in Vice President Michel Temer to replace her.
Temer’s government was formed by a broad coalition of center and right-wing parties, including many of the deputies and senators representing conservative lobbies. Together, they put forward an anti-labor and pro-austerity agenda, approving many laws, such as the labor reform which reduced worker’s rights and a constitutional amendment establishing a 20-year limit in national spending. Temer’s administration has also changed some of PT’s human rights policies, including those directed toward women, afro-descendants and LGBT+ communities, resulting in a reduction or discontinuation in funding for these groups.
Gender and sexuality as moral panic
In 2017, Brazil experienced the rise of a moral agenda in civil society. Religious — mainly evangelical — and right-wing groups such as the conservative and libertarian Free Brazil Movement (MBL) engaged in the struggle against feminist and LGBT+ groups who were seen as “immoral” and promoting “leftist ideologies.” In September 2017, the “Queer Museum” exhibition in Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil was censored after fierce opposition from these groups. In November 2017, they also launched a moral crusade against a conference attended by the American philosopher Judith Butler in São Paulo. With placards stating: “Burn the witch” and “Stop gender ideology,” conservative activists tried to stop Butler’s speech, which in the end took place amid heavy security. When leaving São Paulo, Butler and her partner were then verbally assaulted in the airport by some opponents of her conference who accused her of promoting pedophilia and transgender gender identity among children.
In this way, gender and LGBT+ rights have been viewed as the common enemy, allowing conservatives to merge different social anxieties, from corruption and crime to “leftist indoctrination and indigenous rights. It is not a coincidence that Bolsonaro stressed his opposition to “gender ideology” in one of his few interviews on national TV before the September 6 attack. He did so by condemning the distribution, in public schools, of a book about sexual education which he claimed promoted homosexuality and premature sexuality in children. It was later shown that the book was never distributed to public schools — just one of the many fake news items fabricated by Bolsonaro’s campaigners and supporters to flood social media and shore up support for conservative groups, particularly neo-pentecostal evangelical churches. Bolsonaro’s campaign has used social media to reach out to his constituency, using his supporters to disseminate mainly anti-LGBT fake news in a manner similar to Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral strategy.
By placing gender and LGBT rights at the heart of its agenda, Bolsonaro’s campaign was able to forge a homogeneous “We,” thereby pitching good, righteous and devoted citizens in a moral struggle against the “Them,” the communists, PT-supporters, feminazis, and queer degenerates. Thus the 2018 election turned into a moral crusade against evil and Bolsonaro portrayed himself as the only one capable of saving Brazil from total collapse. Many of his supporters believe he has supernatural powers and refer to him as “The Legend.” These beliefs helped Bolsonaro grab votes from his contenders in the center and the right, resulting in a wide conservative political front against the main opposition candidate, Fernando Haddad.
The consequences of Bolsonaro’s victory on democracy in Brazil
Bolsonaro’s election represents a new phenomenon in Brazilian political history. For the first time a president was democratically elected with a political platform that clearly rejects some of the core fundaments of representative democracy. His statements in support of military rule, torture and extermination of political opponents, together with his disdain for human rights made a mockery of his so-called commitment to the rule of law. The use of intimidation, political persecution and hate speech by Bolsonaro and his supporters has created a toxic atmosphere of fear, threat and moral panic which has deepened political polarization and divided Brazilian society even further.
Bolsonaro will have the support of a large section of National Congress, with many representatives and senators supporting his authoritarian rhetoric. This means he could have enough votes to pass laws and even approve constitutional amendments, which need the vote of two-thirds of members of Senate and the Chamber of Deputies to pass. It also means that the judiciary would be the only institution that could balance presidential power and protect basic civil and political liberties, and Supreme Court judges have already stated that they will defend the constitution against possible attacks. Most Supreme Court judges have already taken a progressive position in cases involving affirmative action, same-sex unions, abortion of an anencephalic fetus, and indigenous land demarcation, suggesting they may resist authoritarian challenges from Bolsonaro and his supporters. Public prosecutors could also play an important role in protecting individual rights and holding state agents accountable. Their response to Bolsonaro’s attacks on fundamental democratic liberties will be a decisive test of the strength of the democratic institutions forged by the 1988 constitution.
When it comes to feminist and LGBT+ activists, the situation is more frightening. Since the election’s first round, there has been an escalation of verbal and physical violence against LGBT+ people in the country, particularly against transgender people. Academics and students working on issues of gender and sexuality are likely to experience threats and intimidation — such as happened to me — and might even be prevented from continuing their research, due to the lack of institutional and financial support. Furthermore, an empowered evangelical front both in Congress and the Executive will result in new laws and policies that either restrict or deny rights to LGBT+ people. In this sense, the increasing visibility around the globe of sexist and homophobic attacks in Brazil and a network of international supporters can be important tools for Brazilian feminist and LGBT+ activists to resist and survive the conservative backlash.
Gustavo Gomes da Costa is PhD in political science and professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil. He is also Affiliate researcher at the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom.