When The Far Right Took Over Brazil, Its Only LGBTQ Congressman Fled For His Life

Jean Wyllys left Brazil amid death threats from backers of authoritarian President Jair Bolsonaro. Now, he's a "living representative" of Bolsonaro's oppression.

For Jean Wyllys, peace comes only at night, in the darkness, when he can close his eyes and drift into a world he has left behind.

Perhaps he’ll dream of Bahia, the northeastern Brazilian state where he was born and raised. Or of Rio de Janeiro, the ”Cidade Maravilhosa” that he adopted as his own. Some nights, he’ll think of his mother or his friends; others, of his months-old nephew he can’t wait to help raise.

Jean Wyllys poses for a portrait while in Brussels. 
Jean Wyllys poses for a portrait while in Brussels. 

Maybe his mind will wander to Brasília, and the Brazilian Congress, where he made history as one of his country’s first openly gay federal legislators and became a fierce advocate for the people who grew up like him: gay in a country still struggling to accept LGBTQ people; multiracial in a nation where racism is an oft-ignored fact of life; poor in one of the world’s most unequal places; gay, half-black and impoverished in a Brazil where any one of those qualities is often deadly.

Then his eyes will open, and Wyllys will jolt back to a harsh reality. He does not know where he is.

But he is not in Brazil. And he may never be again.

The causes and the fights I stand for, they will be better if I’m alive. Jean Wyllys

In January, weeks after far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took control of the world’s fourth-largest democracy, Wyllys suddenly announced his intention to leave the country. He had just won reelection in October, alongside a number of LGBTQ lawmakers who’d take seats in Brasília even as Bolsonaro, a racist, sexist and homophobic authoritarian with a penchant for praising Brazil’s erstwhile military dictatorship, assumed the presidency.

Wyllys’ presence was an assurance that there would be steely resistance to Brazil’s sudden lurch to the far right. His decision to flee was a gut-punch to a splintered leftist movement and to already-marginalized communities that feared what Bolsonaro and his rabid, right-wing supporters might do to them and Brazil’s democratic institutions.  

Bolsonaro had promised to cleanse the country of people like Wyllys, and threatened leftists with two choices: “Leave, or go to jail.

But Wyllys worried there was a third option. He and Bolsonaro shared a history of disdain for each other: In 2016, Wyllys spat in Bolsonaro’s face on the floor of Congress, and Bolsonaro supporters have long targeted Wyllys with death threats and promises of violence. The menace and the vitriol were easier to dismiss before Bolsonaro’s victory. Now, the fear that the new president or his supporters could target or even kill him paralyzed Wyllys each day.  

So he abandoned his seat in Congress and fled Brazil. In January, Wyllys became the country’s most prominent political exile since its return to democratic rule three decades ago.

“The causes and the fights I stand for, they will be better if I’m alive,” Wyllys said during an interview last month.

The Face Of Everything He Hates

Brazil’s LGBTQ movements have spent the last decade making social and legal advances. The Supreme Court expanded most legal protections to cover LGBTQ people in 2011 and granted marriage rights in 2013, and openly gay Brazilians have become more visible in politics, music and culture. By 2017, nearly three-quarters of Brazilians said they supported LGBTQ equality, one of the highest levels of support recorded across Latin America.

Wyllys was a marker of that progress. A journalist and university professor, he rose to fame when he won Brazil’s version of “Big Brother” in 2005, making him one of the country’s most prominent openly gay men. He won a seat in Congress five years later and became Brazil’s second openly gay federal deputy, then cruised to reelection in 2014.

A giant rainbow flag during a Pride parade at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 30, 2018.
A giant rainbow flag during a Pride parade at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 30, 2018.

But the country that elected Wyllys also remained one of the deadliest in the world for people who identify as LGBTQ, and violence against gay people accelerated (along with overall homicide figures) in the years leading up to the 2018 election. There were 420 recorded murders of LGBTQ people in 2018, more than triple the number from just seven years prior. The actual number of hate crimes was likely far higher, according to activists and researchers.

Bolsonaro ― a man who once said that he would rather have a dead son than a gay one and that he’d punch two men if he saw them kissing on the street ― won his election last October.

When I landed in Rio de Janeiro the next month, he was preparing to take control, and the fear that ultimately drove Wyllys to flee Brazil had already established deep roots in the nation’s LGBTQ community.

David Miranda, an openly gay man who served on the Rio City Council until this year, told me he felt afraid, particularly as the father of two children. 

“I think it’s going to be even more violent,” he said. “People feel more openly now that they’ll be able to do anything they want and get away with it. And they have a president who is a voice for them.”

I was the face of the empowerment of the LGBTQ community. What bothered [Bolsonaro] the most was that, for the first time, there was an openly gay congressman who had the exact same powers and rights as a congressman as he did Jean Wyllys

For many LGBTQ Brazilians, daily life continued largely as normal after Bolsonaro’s election, but behind the scenes, many were making preparations for the worst. There was extra police protection at LGBTQ pride events. Miranda and his partner, American-born journalist Glenn Greenwald, sped up the process of adopting their children and began preparing to officially wed before the new year — and Bolsonaro’s presidency — arrived.

Before Miranda assumed Wyllys’ seat in Congress when Wyllys resigned in January, bodyguards escorted him to and from his office at Rio City Hall each day.

Alongside those fears, though, was a desire to fight. Rather than hide in the shadows, LGBTQ Brazilians like Miranda resolved to seize their country back from the bigot in the presidential palace.

“It will be hard, and we have to know this,” Liniker, a black, transgender pop-jazz singer who has become a prominent face of Brazil’s burgeoning LGBTQ music scene, told me before a November concert in São Paulo. “But we are not alone, and I am not alone. We’re telling a true story about love and fights and rights. And there’s not any guy or any president that can keep us from this.”

“We are here,” she said. “And we will be here, too.”

Jean Wyllys speaks during a rally of Brazilian leftist parties at Circo Voador in Rio de Janeiro on April 2, 2018.
Jean Wyllys speaks during a rally of Brazilian leftist parties at Circo Voador in Rio de Janeiro on April 2, 2018.

Few people in the LGBTQ community or any other have more direct experience fighting Bolsonaro than Wyllys.

“I was the face of the empowerment of the LGBTQ community,” Wyllys told me. “What bothered [Bolsonaro] the most was that, for the first time, there was an openly gay congressman who had the exact same powers and rights as a congressman as he did.”

The pair of lawmakers share a deep personal history fueled by animosity for, and face-to-face conflict with, one another. The spitting incident, which earned both of them official censures, came after Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, dedicated his vote in favor of then-President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment to the military official who oversaw the dictatorship-era torture program to which she’d been subjected.

Wyllys has publicly derided Bolsonaro as a homophobic bigot, spoken out against him and the policies he favors in the Brazilian and international press, and throughout 2018, was among the earliest and most vocal Brazilians to warn that Bolsonaro could win the presidency, even as domestic and global audiences dismissed him as a radical neophyte with little chance.

In Rio, I made repeated efforts to reach Wyllys ― who better to discuss Bolsonaro’s victory with than his polar opposite?

By then, however, Wyllys had largely removed himself from public view. He had always faced threats from conservative Brazilians who opposed his socialist views, his defense of Rousseff and the leftist Workers’ Party, and his sexuality. But during the 2018 election cycle, during which Bolsonaro supporters deluged WhatsApp groups and other social networks with propaganda and blatantly false accusations, Wyllys became a favorite target.

Online mobs swarmed him and other LGBTQ-friendly politicians with accusations that they promoted gay pedophilia. Death threats were the norm, and they began to spread from WhatsApp or email onto the streets ― in public interactions as Wyllys walked around Rio.

Wyllys holed himself up at home or in his office. He made few public appearances and rarely traveled without security. Often, he was unsure if he could trust his assigned bodyguards, and he became more and more selective about where, and when, he could travel in public. Casual nights out to eat became almost impossible. The basic task of finding a restaurant or bar that was discreet and safe enough to meet with friends or political connections became overwhelming.

Though I didn’t know it as I kept trying to reach him, Wyllys had already contemplated a future outside of Brazil. Elsewhere, he could leave behind the fear and the threats and regain the voice he’d once used to push back against the forces that wanted to silence him before they accomplished the feat.

Maybe to keep fighting for his version of Brazil, Jean Wyllys had to leave it.

Killed Physically, Or Emotionally

The thought first crept into his mind nearly a year before he actually left.

On the night of March 14, 2018, rifle-wielding assassins brutally murdered Rio city councilwoman Marielle Franco as she left an event in the city.

Like Wyllys, Franco was a member of the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party (or PSOL); like Wyllys, she was black and queer. Born in one of Rio’s largest favelas, Franco had emerged as a symbol of everything the city’s corrupt establishment had oppressed and made it her mission to tear down the system’s structures, piece by piece.

One of her chief targets was Rio’s deadly police forces and, in particular, the extrajudicial militias often made up of current and former police officers that patrolled certain neighborhoods and killed with near-total impunity.

A man rides past a graffiti in tribute of late councilwoman Marielle Franco, murdered in Rio de Janeiro in 2018.
A man rides past a graffiti in tribute of late councilwoman Marielle Franco, murdered in Rio de Janeiro in 2018.

Franco’s murder rocked Brazil. But if her killers ― early on, the primary suspects were militia members, professional police, or both ― had hoped to silence her, they accomplished the opposite. Little known outside Rio before her murder, Franco became a global symbol of the oppression and violence black, LGBTQ and poor Brazilians face each day. Franco’s murder inspired global protests; in her absence, other women from similar backgrounds ran for office and won.

Inside the tight-knit community of the Rio branch of PSOL, though, it also left a hole that seemed impossible to fill. Miranda, a close friend of Franco and her partner, Mônica, struggled to choke out words through the tears that soaked his cheeks as he spoke of what Franco meant to him, and to Brazil.

The military dictatorship Bolsonaro has routinely praised created thousands of leftist exiles. Now, Bolsonaro had produced another.

“There’s no words that can describe the pain,” Miranda said. “The missing her, what she could become, everything that she could accomplish here, and just the void that there is in this place now.”

“Even though they killed her body, her voice is never going to be silenced,” he said. “But I’d rather have her here.”

Wyllys also considered Franco a close friend. And as it became clearer through months of investigations that her killers had indeed been tied to Rio’s deadly militias, any lingering doubt about the gravity of the death threats he’d received vanished. (After he spat in Bolsonaro’s face in 2016, Wyllys said, the militias had been a main source of threats against him.)

Then Bolsonaro won. The fear that someone would attack him “was killing me inside,” Wyllys said. “If I wasn’t killed physically, by someone who’d kill a gay man with impunity, then they could kill me emotionally. So the idea of leaving the government began to enter my mind.”

He called a reporter from the nation’s largest newspaper. He planned to resign immediately. He had to leave.

“I want to take care of myself and stay alive,” he told the paper, Folha de São Paulo.

The news rocketed around the world already on alert about Bolsonaro’s place among a global crop of right-wing, anti-democratic leaders. But the newly minted authoritarian greeted Wyllys’ departure with an appalling glee.

“Great day!” Bolsonaro tweeted. He added a thumbs-up emoji.

The military dictatorship Bolsonaro has routinely praised created thousands of leftist exiles, all of them driven from the country either by official decrees or sheer terror.

Now, Bolsonaro had produced another.

 ‘We Don’t Need More Marielles’

Not everyone cheered Wyllys’ decision. Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a former Army general who has emerged as an unlikely (if unconvincing and often impotent) moderating force within Bolsonaro’s government, called threats against lawmakers like Wyllys “crimes against democracy.”

“He should have believed in our law, our policy and our police,” Mourão said at an April event in Washington, D.C. “We could protect him.”

Bolsonaro, Mourão insisted, was committed to representing all Brazilians.

Wyllys and his allies abroad heard occasional criticism of the decision from some on his own side of the political spectrum, too. There are lawmakers facing similar threats who haven’t chosen to leave. And what about the millions of LGBTQ people, black Brazilians and leftists who can’t escape Bolsonaro’s wrath? Hasn’t Wyllys abandoned them?

“We don’t need more martyrs. We don’t need more Marielle Francos,” said James Green, the director of the Brazil Initiative at Brown University and a close confidante of Wyllys. “We need people who are alive and well and can speak out against the current government.”

Wyllys' exile has made him 'a living representative of the kinds of repression' Bolsonaro’s government has carried out against the country’s most marginalized people.

More recent developments appear to have bolstered that view: In March, two months after Wyllys left, police arrested two militia members for murdering Franco. One of them had eyebrow-raising links to Bolsonaro, whose eldest son, Flávio, is currently facing investigative scrutiny over his potential ties to Rio’s deadly militias.

When I asked Wyllys if he believed Mourão, he scoffed.  

“No,” he said.

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has governed largely as he said he would during a campaign fueled by violent and incendiary rhetoric: His government has been haphazard and disorganized in every pursuit, except when it comes to further oppressing the most vulnerable Brazilians.

Bolsonaro has stripped protections from LGBTQ and indigenous peoples and tried to expand the authority of police to kill with impunity, with disastrous returns. Attacks on indigenous people have spiked. In Rio de Janeiro, police have killed in unprecedented numbers, even for one of the globe’s deadliest forces; their most common targets are poor, black Brazilians. LGBTQ people have reported anecdotal increases in violence, and Bolsonaro’s band of ultra-conservative and often paranoid ministerial appointments have targeted schools and professors for supposedly “indoctrinating” students with “left-wing ideologies” that include, apparently, LGBTQ equality.

Jean Wyllys, center, at a conference titled "Why exile from Brazil today?" at the Casa do Alentejo in Lisbon on Feb. 27, 2019
Jean Wyllys, center, at a conference titled "Why exile from Brazil today?" at the Casa do Alentejo in Lisbon on Feb. 27, 2019.

That has given Wyllys an important role outside the country: His exile, Green said, has made him “a living representative of the kinds of repression” Bolsonaro’s government has carried out against the country’s most marginalized people.

In the months since he left, Wyllys has given lectures across Europe about the dangers Bolsonaro poses to Brazil’s democracy. The country’s elections were heavily influenced, according to researchers, by waves of fake news that spread across WhatsApp, Gab and other social networks, most of it targeting leftists like Wyllys.

So Wyllys is seeking grant assistance to help him enroll in a European university, where he plans to study the role social networks have played in providing platforms for the sort of online mobs that threatened him on the web and in person, and how companies like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have bolstered far-right movements and undermined democracies worldwide.

Time away from his native country has not dimmed his pride in it; rather, it has provided the sort of lens on Brazil he’s never had before.

“It’s like looking at Brazil like an aquarium,” he said. “It gives me both clarity and perspective, it gives me more power to intervene. And I see Brazil as falling down an abyss.”

The passionate rhetoric that once defined him returns, on occasion.

“If you ask me, right now, ‘Is it a fascist government?’ I’d say no,” Wyllys said. “But there are a lot of fascist policies.”

He pointed to efforts to limit protests outside the presidential palace. Attacks on journalists and threats against the press. A security state with more power to kill young, black men. And attacks on LGBTQ people, who are “always a target” for fascist regimes, he said. It’s not just Bolsonaro, but the people he has appointed and empowered.

“The whole government is headed in the direction of becoming fascists,” Wyllys said.

He paused.

“Lots of people can’t do what I did. They can’t leave the country. They’re threatened. The way to protect these people is to raise our voice and speak on their behalf,” he said. “But if I were in Brazil, I’d be fearful for my life. And I would certainly not be as outspoken as I am right now.”

‘I’m Still Very Hurt’

The morning we spoke, Jean Wyllys had awoken from whatever Brazil he was dreaming of and found himself in Providence, Rhode Island, though it might have taken him a moment to realize it. The last two months had taken him to Spain, Portugal and Germany, and he’d begun the first of three stops of a month-long tour of the United States.

Rhode Island to New York, New York to D.C. Then back to Europe for a conference in Brussels. It’s a whirlwind, and the anxiety hasn’t yet subsided.

Approaching strangers can fill Wyllys with dread about whether they intend to do him harm. Trust is hard to dig out from within whatever recesses he’s buried it. The attacks haven’t stopped: Bolsonaro’s ambassador to the United Nations challenged his decision to leave and his opposition to the Brazilian president during a March event in Geneva. The month prior in Portugal, two protesters from a right-wing party tried to pelt Wyllys with eggs as he gave a speech.

Every time I realize I’m not with my friends, with my family in Brazil, I cry. Jean Wyllys

Even in the relaxed moments, Wyllys is not where he wants to be. Each day away from Brazil means an unfamiliar language and a foreign culture, food he’s not accustomed to and new social norms that require quick acclimation. Refuge from the stress of daily life is another hotel room in a city that isn’t his own. He admits begrudgingly that he didn’t know it’d be this hard to find peace even thousands of miles from a Brazil where peace doesn’t exist.

“I haven’t been able to build a routine or a stable day-to-day life,” he said. “I still have open wounds. I’m still very hurt.”

Jean Wyllys poses for a photo in Brussels on May 9, 2019.  
Jean Wyllys poses for a photo in Brussels on May 9, 2019.  

The sharp-witted congressman with the booming voice ― surprisingly emphatic coming from the five-and-a-half-foot Wyllys ― still emerges in fits and starts. The impassioned tone returns occasionally, when he or the person he’s talking to hits on a particular point or when he lands a rhetorical punch just so.

But he’s different now than during the few previous times I’ve interviewed him or seen him speak. Fatigue blankets his face. His voice is quieter. Wyllys is beat down, never more than when he remembers he’s not home, that he can’t be.

“Every time I realize I’m not with my friends, with my family in Brazil, I cry,” Wyllys said.

He’s crying now.

He’s trying, he says, to suppress the pain, to focus on the fights he knows he needs to wage for Brazilians, for Brazil.

“I know I’ll have to face it,” he said.

The worst part is the uncertainty. Will this last months or years? Forever? His nephew is a year old. How many birthdays will he miss? His mother is aging. Will he see her again before she dies?

He wants to go back. But when? Will Brazil, his Brazil, ever be safe for him again?

It’s easiest to measure the dictatorships of the past, and even the nascent authoritarian regimes of our present, in the quantifiable: the number of lives they take, or attempt to. The people they disappear. The children they separate. The anti-democratic laws they implement, or the sympathizers they put into power or help give rise to elsewhere.

But what about the souls they drain, the minds they blur, the presents and futures they forever alter, even if they don’t silence or murder them completely? The psychological damage they cause, to the people who flee out of fear, or to those who can’t, who are forced to live every day paralyzed?

Jean Wyllys is alive and fighting. But he knows that he has only traded, as he says, “one form of insecurity for another.” His freedom to live has come with an immeasurable price: His freedom to live at home. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story referred to Wyllys as Brazil’s first openly gay federal congressman. He was the second, and the first to win reelection.