Bruno Capinan is a Brazilian-born singer, songwriter and performer living in Toronto. His most recent album, Divina Graça, was released in 2016. He wrote this article along with Christopher Frey, a Toronto-based journalist.
One morning in 1979, during the latter years of Brazil’s military dictatorship, the people of São Paulo awoke to find the heads of the city’s statues and monuments covered with trash bags and tied off at the neck. The work had been carried out overnight by the three-person artist collective 3NÓS3 (3 We 3), and their targets included, most provocatively of all, the Monument to Independence in Ipiranga Park, located on the site where Brazil’s independence from Portugal was first declared in 1822. Called Ensacamento, or “bagging,” the action powerfully addressed both the regime’s oppressive censorship and its habit of disappearing political opponents.
Images depicting the action were recently on display at Toronto’s Scrap Metal Gallery as part of a posthumous exhibition devoted to one of the artists behind 3NÓS3, Hudinilson Jr. Sadly, the symbolism invoked by the gesture would seem all too appropriate were it to reappear today, as Brazil stands on the cusp of electing as its next president a man who openly celebrates the period of the dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 as some sort of golden age for the South American country, and who allows that the regime’s chief mistake was that it did not kill, rather than merely torture, more of its opponents.
If you’ve paid any attention at all to the Brazilian presidential campaign you’ve by now heard of Jair Bolsonaro. During most of his 27 years as a hard-right federal congressman representing a district in Rio de Janeiro, he has been a peripheral figure with almost no legislative accomplishments to his name. Most of his energies have gone into red-baiting, defending the memory of the dictatorship and maligning Brazil’s most marginalized groups, from women and low-income blacks to, perhaps most violently and consistently, LGBT people. He has said that he’d rather his son die in a car crash than come out as gay. In 2010 he suggested that homosexuality could be cured with some form of physical punishment. He has promised to repeal hate-crime laws. Many of his pronouncements are downright bizarre, such as his claim to the Brazilian edition of the newspaper El País that homosexuality is largely a product of peer pressure and drug use.
Running for president has done nothing to moderate his views; rather, he has only doubled-down, noticing that his vile resentments enjoy a shocking level of public support. For many Brazilians living through Mr. Bolsonaro’s ascendance over these past few months, the ensacamento by 3NÓS3 articulates all too powerfully what the toxic atmosphere of violence, abuse and intimidation he has engendered feels like – being inexorably suffocated, while democracy is kidnapped by populist rage. Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters have physically assaulted and threatened journalists, women’s-rights activists and LGBT people. One reporter who was attacked, in the northeastern city of Recife, told The Guardian, “There is a flowering of hate that I have never seen before.” Rather than cool tempers, Mr. Bolsonaro has instead inflamed them, saying he can’t control what supporters do in his name, and insisting that he, of all people, is the real victim. In the first round of voting on Oct. 7, Mr. Bolsonaro won 46 per cent of the vote, nearly capturing the presidency outright. On Sunday, he is almost certain to win in a run-off against his closest rival, Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers' Party (PT).
It was because of people such as Mr. Bolsonaro, as well as members of my own family, that I left Brazil in order to live in freedom. Ever since I was a small child growing up in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil’s third-largest city, my parents insisted there was something “wrong” with me. At six years old I was subjected to a parade of medical specialists, including a cardiologist, in an attempt to diagnose and treat me. Throughout my school years I was bullied for not conforming to macho stereotype. At 12, the principal of my school suggested to my parents that I receive hormone treatments because my voice was “too effeminate.” It was around this time that my father began confronting me, saying such stupid things as that I shouldn’t talk with my hands so much, or that I shouldn’t lick a spoon, “Because a man isn’t supposed to lick a spoon.”
When I was 18, while leaving a screening at Salvador’s LGBT film festival, I was stopped by police along with other gay men. The officers lined us up against a wall, violently touched our bodies and called us degrading names. Two of the men stood up to the police’s abuse and were arrested. It was then that I started planning my escape from Brazil.
After visiting Toronto in the early 2000s and falling in love with the city, I applied for permanent residency; it was granted in 2008 on humanitarian grounds. When I moved here, the city gave me the freedom to realize my dream of a career in music while being true to who I am. Toronto is hardly perfect; this year alone I’ve been the target of a homophobic slur on the street three times, but I have rarely felt unsafe. After releasing three solo albums, I am now fortunate to have a growing audience in Brazil and play there frequently. Relocating to Canada has been one of the unlikelier routes to having a musical career in my home country.
When I was in Brazil last month performing some concerts, I learned that my father would be voting for Jair Bolsonaro. My three siblings and I decided to stage an intervention of sorts, agreeing we would all write to him on the same day, at the same time, explaining why he shouldn’t vote for him. I pointed out how Mr. Bolsonaro had already created a climate where it is okay to physically attack gay people, that he’s given people permission to be proud of their hate. None of us changed his mind. He was among those Brazilians who cast votes for Mr. Bolsonaro in the first round. And he will vote for Mr. Bolsonaro again on Sunday. I have been forced to finally accept that there is no point in having a relationship with him, given how he can enthusiastically support someone who does not respect his own son’s right to exist. I e-mailed to say I cannot talk to him ever again. Ours is hardly the only family in Brazil that has been divided in this way.
Because I’ve recently become better known for my music in Brazil, I now receive messages every day from both friends and strangers who are gay describing the threats of abuse that they face. These days, it is possible to hear young men chanting on the subways of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, “Faggots, get ready, because Bolsonaro is going to kill you.” A friend seen holding his boyfriend’s hand on Avenida Paulista, supposedly Sao Paulo’s most cosmopolitan street, was told by someone, “Your days are numbered. Because on Monday, Oct. 29, this is all going to end, and Bolsonaro is going to get rid of you.”
It’s like we’ve all been forced back in time. During the PT’s recent period in power, from Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva’s election as president in 2002 until his successor’s Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, the situation for Brazil’s LGBT people improved somewhat; laws were passed outlawing discrimination and hate crimes against gays, lesbians and trans people; same-sex civil unions were recognized. But that hasn’t stopped people like me from being killed in shocking numbers. In 2017, before Mr. Bolsonaro had much traction in the polls, the violent deaths of LGBT people in Brazil hit an all-time high, with 387 murders and 58 suicides – a rise of 30 per cent over the previous year, according to watchdog group Grupo Gay de Bahia. On a more personal level, I have been forced to relive all the trauma I had to experience as a gay person growing up there. I’m afraid we are just seeing a truer reflection of what Brazil really is.
Brazil’s is a young democracy, barely three decades old, already compromised by endemic levels of corruption among its elected officials, businesspeople and even the courts. These are the conditions that have made the rise of a demagogue like Mr. Bolsonaro possible. But unlike in the United States or Canada, institutions that might otherwise constrain or check a leader’s power, and defend citizens’ rights, are still fragile.
What’s happening in Brazil has made me feel even more privileged to be a Canadian, where I can live safe in the knowledge that my rights are non-negotiable. Unfortunately, many other Brazilians residing in Canada do not feel the same way. According to figures from Brazil’s electoral commission, Brazilians living here voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Bolsanaro in the first round. The hypocrisy of some of my fellow Brazilian-Canadians is appalling. How is it they can benefit from living in the open, pluralistic society we have here, and yet vote for a man who idealizes dictatorship and violently threatens fundamental rights? As Canada prepares to remember, on Nov. 11, the sacrifices of its soldiers who fought to protect our democratic rights, I strongly urge Brazilians to reflect on the consequences of giving up on democracy.