SÃO PAULO ― Millions of Brazilians sent a defiant message to right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro on Sunday, at the country’s first Pride parade since the ardent homophobe took office in January: They won’t go back into the closet, no matter how hard he tries to roll back the rights they’ve gained.
Bolsonaro, who won Brazil’s presidential election last October, once said that he’d rather have a dead son than a gay one and, at another point in his past, compared same-sex marriage to pedophilia. As president, he has made homophobic jokes during state visits to other countries and gleefully celebrated an openly gay congressman’s decision to flee the country amid death threats from Bolsonaro supporters. His government has implemented or attempted to enact a slew of anti-LGBTQ policies from the very beginning.
That such a figure now occupies the Palácio do Planalto, Brazil’s version of the White House, cast a long shadow over the annual Pride festivities here last weekend, 50 years after the Stonewall Riots in New York City, which inspired this year’s theme. And it inspired Brazilians, even those who have celebrated Pride from its beginning, to turn out in force.
“It’s really important to be here, to show our presence. We are not dead,” said Wanderley Sanches, a 64-year-old man who has attended every Pride parade in São Paulo since the first edition in 1997. “The whole world is going backward, and in Brazil we see a lot of mindless violence. We must resist.”
Sunday afternoon, more than 3 million people swarmed the Avenida Paulista ― a wide boulevard that runs through central São Paulo and is a popular protest venue ― for Sunday’s parade, which organizers said was not meant to confront Bolsonaro directly, especially because polls showed that he won substantial support from LGBTQ Brazilians in last year’s elections.
“This is not the official stance of the parade,” said Claudia Regina Garcia, president of APOLGBT, the non-profit group that organizes the event. “We represent the whole community. It’s ironic, but last year many LGBT voted for him.”
Overall, the parade took on the air of celebration rather than protest ― the very act of being there was the message many participants hoped to send. And despite Bolsonaro’s blatant homophobia, there was reason to cheer. This month, Brazil’s Supreme Court voted to criminalize homophobia, a move that activists had long sought in the hopes of limiting anti-LGBTQ violence in a country some human rights observers regard as one of the deadliest in the world for queer people.
At times and in pockets, though, the mood shifted and an openly adversarial tone against the president emerged. Some LGBTQ organizations and political groups spent days before the parade organizing direct actions against Bolsonaro and his policies.
It was important, they said, to confront a president whose anti-gay rhetoric has inspired fear in the LGBTQ community that Brazil, which had more than 400 officially recorded murders of LGBTQ people last year and where activists say the real numbers are even higher, could become even deadlier for queer people.
“Brazil has one of the highest rates of murder of LGBT people, and the president and his supporters’ positions encourage all kinds of attacks against us,” said Matheus Gonçalves, 24, one of the leaders of a LGBT group against Bolsonaro.
Early in the morning, activists and politicians standing aboard trios elétricos ― flatbed trucks with powerful sound systems mounted on the back ― blasted Bolsonaro. They denounced his government for stripping official protections from LGBTQ people and targeting schools for teaching “gender ideology” and LGBTQ acceptance.
“This is the most important [Pride] parade in history,” Marta Suplicy, a former senator and mayor of São Paulo, told the crowd.
Federal congresswoman Sâmia Bomfim, of the leftist Socialism and Freedom Party (or PSOL), led the hordes in rounds of strident boos against the president. And her colleague David Miranda, also of PSOL, said the parade was a vital response “when one has such a homophobe as president.” (Bolsonaro had, the week prior, referred to Miranda, who is openly gay, as a “girl” in a rant against him and his partner, journalist Glenn Greenwald.)
It was inevitable that the parade would turn its attention toward the president, said James Green, the director of the Brazil Initiative at Brown University in Rhode Island. And even if it hadn’t, Pride stood as a rebuke to Bolsonaro simply by existing.
“The parade is really a moment of affirmation and celebration for most people, but it is de facto, in my mind, a confrontation with the policies of Bolsonaro,” Green, who attended the parade, told HuffPost.
To some on Avenida Paulista, the Pride parade fostered a sense of belonging inside a community fighting to preserve and advance the rights they have gained over the last decade, but now see under threat.
“I’m absolutely in love with it. Now I definitely feel part of this community,” said Rosi Mendes, a 26-year-old lesbian who had never attended the parade. “The sheer amount of people here today is in itself a big act of resistance against the government.”
Security was a primary concern among activists, who had feared the potential for violent acts against the LGBTQ community on Sunday. Police, however, reported no violent incidents. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, refrained from any sort of response that mirrored his reaction during Carnival, when he tweeted a video of two partygoers performing a golden shower atop a bus stop in order to push his homophobic views.
The party and the protests stretched past sundown, and it was already dark when an attendee dressed in drag made clear the point of the proceedings.
“Fuck Bolsonaro,” she began to chant. The crowd around her soon joined in.