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stephanie nolen

Brazilian Socialist Party presidential candidate Marina Silva is feeling the heat for a recent flip-flop in her position on gay rights.ERALDO PERES/The Associated Press

Gay rights are back up for debate in Brazil's upcoming national elections: A pair of alleged hate crimes put the topic in the news, while the personal religious convictions of a leading presidential candidate are also creating controversy.

Last week, the body of 18-year-old Joao Donati was found in a field near the bar where he worked in the city of Inhumas in the centre of the country. The openly gay teenager had been beaten and asphyxiated with plastic bags and Popsicle wrappers shoved in his mouth. Police said robbery was not the motive, and his death would be investigated as a homophobic murder, but then declared it a "crime of passion" and arrested a 20-year-old man who reportedly said he had had sex with Joao and then killed him because out of anxiety.

Gay-rights groups decried that move, insisting that Mr. Donati's murder was hate-based. But Brazil's hate-crimes law does not cover gay and transgender rights – if it did, Mr. Donati's killer would face stricter punishment – and police might take the investigation more seriously than they do a lover's quarrel between gay men. A national rights group recorded 338 murders of gays, lesbians and transgender people in 2012, but because they are not officially hate crimes, the government keeps no statistics.

Also last week, a wedding hall in the southern state of Rio Grande de Sul that was set to host a group wedding of 29 couples, including a lesbian pair, was burned to the ground days before the ceremony. Police acknowledged that the reason for the arson seemed to be an attempt to stop the gay couple from marrying.

Mr. Donati's murder sparked small demonstrations in cities around the country, where activists demanded the expansion of the hate-crimes law.

Against this backdrop, candidates in the presidential race are under renewed scrutiny for their positions on gay rights.

Marina Silva, who is in a neck-and-neck race with President Dilma Rousseff, is a devout member of a church which calls homosexuality unnatural and a sin – but had said that she would not alter existing legislation. Gays and lesbians have the right to marry through a Supreme Court decision from 2011, but activists want the law amended to make marriage between two people, not a man and a woman.

Ms. Silva delighted activists and liberals who had been wary of her religious convictions when she last week unveiled a comprehensive platform for gay rights, including enshrining equal marriage in the constitution. But a day later, after being sharply criticized by a powerful evangelical leader on Twitter, she reversed course and said the wrong document had been released, and that she would protect the existing civil unions. The new platform removes support for the hate-crimes law.

In a survey conducted by the state's Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics last month, 53 per cent of people said they opposed gay marriage. More men than women oppose (58 per cent versus 49) while opposition is steepest among those over age 55.

Ms. Silva came in for heavy criticism for the flip-flop, but Ms. Rousseff has yet to release a written position paper on gay and transgender rights, nor has the distant-third contender, Aecio Neves. Ms. Rousseff has said that she supports the hate-crimes law.

In a small bright spot, Corinthians, one of Brazil's most popular football clubs, which has a fan base hundreds of thousands strong drawn mostly from blue-collar Sao Paulo, this week released a "manifesto" promising to end homophobia in its match environments. "Bicha" – or "faggot" in Portuguese – is a standard epithet directed at opposing players taking corner kicks at Brazilian games. Corinthians says neither that nor any other homophobic chant or song will be permitted at its games – a move greeted enthusiastically by activists.