For LGBTQ+ Who Fled Bolsonaro’s Brazil, The Fear Of “Homophobe President” Winning Again
Portugal became a refuge for the Brazilian LGBTQ+ community who faced real danger following Jair Bolsonaro's victory four years ago. Some of those who left say that if Lula beats the right-wing incumbent in Sunday's presidential election, they would move back home.
LISBON — Nanny Aguiar sought in Lisbon the security that Jair Bolsonaro took away. Whenever she plays the violin or performs at Palácio do Grilo, in Xabregas, a neighborhood in the east of the city centre, Aguiar is reminded of everything she felt that October night five years ago. That night she lit candles in her house and made the decision to leave behind Recife the coastal Brazilian city where she was born 30 years earlier, and move to Lisbon.
That night of Oct. 22, 2018, Jair Bolsonaro emerged victorious in the presidential elections, with 64% of the votes in the second round. The life of Aguiar and Brazil’s entire LGBTQ+ community would never be the same.
Despite living in a different city, Aguiar never changed her polling station, in the extreme south of Recife, near her mother’s house away. “It was an excuse to spend another Sunday with her”, She says, laughing. “That day, I voted, had lunch with my mother and only came home that night.”
It was on the return journey, by car, that reality hit her. “This guy did not appear from nowhere in 2018, we had known for a long time who Bolsonaro was: a racist and homophobe. The problem is, he was a joke. No one ten years ago thought that someone like that could legitimately be in power.”
For nearly four years, the man residing in the presidential palace in Brasilia makes statements like “having a gay child is a lack of beating” or “I would be incapable of loving a homosexual child. I'd rather my child die in an accident.”
And now, with Bolsonaro seeking a second term in Sunday’s runoff against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian LGBTQ+ community — both those living at home and abroad — have something more at stake than others in the outcome.
A sinister atmosphere
Aguiar recounts how the area where she lived back in 2018 was one of the biggest neighborhoods of the trans community in Recife. On election night, at a square that served as a “community meeting point,” the usual revelry, color and unity gave way to a “morbid silence.”
All over the city, fireworks were fired and shots could be heard. In a “sinister atmosphere”, supporters of the new president took to the streets and many shouted, “Bolsonaro will kill faggots.”
“I was afraid,” confesses Aguiar.
At home, “I turned off the lights, remained silent, lit some candles to reflect, and it was that night when I decided to leave Brazil.” But still, the worst was yet to come.
When Aguiar’s partner, who identifies as a non-binary person, was the victim of an attempted gang rape near her home. “The place where we lived was no longer safe. Everyone knew me, knew that I was a dyke and that I lived on that street."
Escape for survival
In the past year, 316 LGBTQ+ people were killed in Brazil, according to data from the LGBTQ+ Death and Violence Observatory. ANTRA, the country's main trans association, reports that Brazil is the country where the most transsexuals are killed each year.
Violence has always been a problem permeating Brazilian society, and 316 deaths may seem like a residual number in a country of 212 million. But imagine being the target of death for something as basic as being who you are or loving who you love.
“It's not that more people have become homophobic. Those who have always been, felt justified in their violence against us because that's what they hear from the most powerful position in the country,” explains Aguiar.
With her partner, Aguiar decided to leave Brazil and seek safety in Lisbon, where she arrived in February 2019. Portugal is the most popular destination for those fleeing Bolsonaro’s regime “for bureaucratic reasons” since Brazilians do not need a visa to enter as tourists.
And they weren't the only ones. Immigration reports show a significant increase of Brazilians in Portugal after the election of Jair Bolsonaro. In 2018, there were 105,000, rising to 151,000 in 2019 and almost 184,000 in 2020.
Queer Tropical haven
It is impossible to quantify how many left the country out of fear of homophobia, but Queer Tropical, a collective that was born on election night in 2018 to help LGBTQ+ Brazilians come to Portugal, estimates it is in the thousands.
In Porto since 2009, already married to a Portuguese woman and with two children, Débora has always combined work with activism. She remembers that election night well, although the outcome was not a surprise: “Part of my family, white and right-wing, votes for Bolsonaro”.
“He aroused a feeling of identification in people. All had negative ideas about Haitian immigrants or poor people. They thought Bolsonaro will “get them in line” – and that is even stronger than him being racist and homophobic.”
Débora Ribeira, a 37-year-old Brazilian from Minas Gerais, began to receive “desperate” requests from several friends. They wanted to enter Portugal and showed photographs of the aggressions they had suffered on the street. “They went to the police, but they did nothing because there were no laws that penalized homophobia,” she says.
Ironically, the law that punishes “discrimination and prejudice related to sexual identity or orientation” was passed by the Brazilian Senate in 2019, during the term of Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazil, Sao Paulo: During a demonstration against the extreme right-wing presidential candidate Bolsonaro, a woman holds up a picture of Bolsonaro with the inscription ''Vomito''.
But the reality is different.
A study conducted by journalists in 2020 shows that 50% of LGBTQ+ respondents were victims of aggression on the very day of Jair Bolsonaro's election. More than 90% said that violence increased after his election.
Emmelin de Oliveira, a researcher of International and European Law at Nova School of Law has followed up with requests for refugee status from LGBTQ+ Brazilians who have faced violence.
Requests are denied, for various reasons, including a political question: “When a state grants a refugee status, the state says that the country of origin is unable or unwilling to protect that group. It is a political statement,” concludes the researcher.
Black and gay
On the night that Jair Bolsonaro won, Débora decided to act and created a Facebook group to give advice on legal migration to all who felt threatened. In a few hours, her post reached 6,000 comments and 2,000 requests to join the group.
With 18 Brazilians, from Porto and Lisbon, she began to provide counseling: “Many wanted to know about documentation issues, others about how HIV treatment works in Portugal, for example.”
It is impossible for Débora to forget one of the first stories she dealt with: a couple of two men, on the beach, accompanied by their three-year-old daughter, attacked by a group with glass bottles.
Today, Aguiar continues to perform as a violinist with a group of Brazilian immigrant women at Palácio do Grilo, in a show of music, dance, and movement.
Delso Batista, 37, a psychologist and one of the main members of Queer Tropical in Lisbon, felt all the challenges of being a Brazilian, black, gay man in the city.
“Being gay and black in Brazil is a statement that puts your life at risk. I even got punched on the street out of nothing for being gay. I lost friends when I came out of the closet”, recalls Batista. “You avoid talking about it. Even in relationships, you do it all hidden, and that conditioned my self-esteem. There is a constant fear of marginalization and being the target of violence.”
Different kind of prejudice
In Lisbon, Delso completed a master's degree in psychology and managed to become a Portuguese citizen. Although there is a “social pact” to accept homosexuality in Portugal, there is still no shortage of prejudice in this country as well.
“Even in relationships with white, gay, and European men, who downgrade me for being black,” he said. “If in Brazil I was afraid of being gay, in Portugal I am afraid of being black. In Brazil, being black, looking everywhere, you see people like you. At school, there was more aggression and bullying because of being the effeminate boy, not because of being black.”
Later, he got a job as a psychologist. “First I had to be in the company for three months without earning anything, from the experience. Then I started earning the minimum wage, back then around €400, while paying a room of €300,” says Delso. “It took me a long time to earn the same as my Portuguese colleagues.”
For these Brazilians living far from home, all eyes Sunday will be on the election results. Aguiar will be watching “with fear and hope … If Lula wins, I'm thinking about going back to Brazil, but first I want to see how the first 100 days of the new government go."
No one wants to be forced to stay away from their home, but sometimes you feel you don’t have a choice.
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