Just how many people know of Brazilian Supergay Jean Wyllys? In 2005, 50 million Brazilians voted for him to win the popular reality TV show Gran Hermano, Brazil's version of Big Brother. That's only 13 million short of the number of Americans who voted for Obama during our national presidential election.
Instead of opting to monetize his instant fame, Jean used his influence to become Brazils's first openly gay member of Parliament. He's now being called South America's Harvey Milk as he fights for LGBT rights in Brazil's conservative Congress.
We visited Jean in his Copacabana apartment in Rio de Janeiro as part of our global mission to find the Supergays. With the help of a translator, we enjoyed an afternoon discussing Brazilian politics, gay life, and coming out.
What's your coming-out story?
The first time I ever heard a homophobic insult, I was 6 years old. I went to buy bread at a local bakery and, when ordering, I spoke politely and formally, when I heard an older man say, "Either you are educated or you are a faggot!" I had no idea what he meant, but I understood, by his tone and by the way that people responded, that it was a very negative thing. Ten years later I came out and told my family that I was gay.
The history of every homosexual is both similar and, at the same time, different; each of us carries a personal story with its own unique features. Coming out refers to an experience that we homosexuals all live through.
In school I did not like soccer. I preferred playing with the girls, and I spent most of my time drawing and reading. I was bullied. I lost two very dear and close friends who were victims to homophobic hate crimes. One of them was stabbed to death repeatedly with a screwdriver.
What was it like for you to appear on Big Brother?
Big Brother is an entertainment program for the Brazilian family. My participation was the first time there was a positive representation of homosexuality on Brazilian prime-time TV. People liked me in the program, especially gay activists, because my presence fueled the LGBT movement.
People identified with me not only because I am gay. I am a teacher, a feminist, and a journalist. I am not the stereotypical, cartoonish gay caricature.
What made you run for Congress?
I ran for Congress because of my dedication to the fight for human rights in general, but undeniably because of the existent gap in the Brazilian LGBT movement. As a journalist I was already well-known in the country for writing in one of the nation's largest newspapers. I wanted to use my fame from Big Brother to further something that I have been doing my whole life: working for LGBT rights through communication, education, and advocacy.
What's going on with gay marriage in Brazil?
Our judiciary branch recognizes stable unions and civil unions can be converted to marriages on a case-by-case basis, but it is not a widespread law. In order to recognize same-sex union by law, one must hire a lawyer, appeal to the court, and await a hearing.
I have a constitutional amendment proposal that will guarantee civil marriage for same-sex couples, as it is guaranteed to different-sex couples, without having to go through all of this ordeal. This is the beginning of the battle in the legislative branch. The amendment has not yet been placed on the agenda for a vote, as we still don't have the necessary amount of signatures to do so.
I have started a campaign for the right to equal marriage equality in Brazil and have gathered the support from several celebrities in the music, television, and artistic spheres. This, I believe, will open the discussion in our society and convince more members of Parliament not only to sign the constitutional amendment proposal, helping us to achieve the 171 signatures of the 513 members of parliament we need, but also to vote favorably on it.
How gay-friendly is Brazil?
It is difficult to define Brazil. While we have the reputation of being a sexually liberated and racially mixed tropical paradise, Brazil still struggles with prejudice, racism, and homophobia. During Carnaval people throw away their inhibitions for a period.
But we have a very powerful religious, conservative force: the fundamentalist evangelical Christians. Through television and radio they militantly proselytize and engage the population. This force threatens democracy and diversity.
Just recently a member of the evangelical Christian front presented a bill to implement treatment to cure homosexuality. This is absolutely ludicrous, as these therapies focus on psychological and physical torture. I have spoken against this proposal along with the Brazilian Federal Council of Psychology, but because I'm the only homosexual in the House of Representatives defending this among the various fundamentalists, there is a possibility that this law will pass.
What are your hopes for your country?
I love Brazil -- the nation and its people. We are a very young country, with a young democracy that has lived through 21 years of military dictatorship. We have inherited many issues during that period in our history, but, as Brazilians, we know that each tomorrow can bring a better day.
I know that the battle to end homophobia in Brazil will be a hard one, but I also believe that once we learn to deconstruct the internal homophobia that is present in a lot of the members of the LGBT community, we will learn to live more freely. This is my hope for the Brazilian LGBT community: that we all embrace who we truly are, without fear, and learn to live fully and freely.
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Just how gay is Rio de Janeiro? Watch this video about our visit to Brazil and clips from our interview with Jean: