An openly gay congressman in Brazil says he has received death threats and that he has left the country and given up his third term in office because he fears for his life.
Jean Wyllys, a champion of LGBT rights and a critic of newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro, also told the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo that he faced a deluge of false accusations on social media and an increasingly hostile environment for LGBT people in Brazil.
“For the future of this cause, I need to be alive,” Wyllys said in an interview published Thursday. “I do not want to be a martyr. I want to live.”
He declined to reveal where he is currently but said he plans to study, write and work on a doctorate. Wyllys, who was re-elected in October, would have been sworn in for his third term as Rio de Janeiro congressman in February.
David Miranda, a Rio de Janeiro councilman from the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party that Wyllys belonged to, will fill the vacant spot. Miranda is the partner of Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald.
“One LGBT comes out but another comes in,” Miranda tweeted Thursday.
Wyllys told the newspaper he had been physically harassed and that he realized the gravity of the death threats against him after Marielle Franco, a lesbian Rio councilwoman and human rights advocate, was shot and killed in March 2018. After her death, Wyllys said he began traveling with a security detail.
“How will I live four years of my life in an armored car and under escort?” he asked Folha.
Wyllys’ departure is likely to heighten existing concerns among Brazilians that the election of far-right populist Bolsonaro has stoked homophobic violence. LGBT people in Brazil have been targets of rampant prejudice and sometimes violent or deadly attacks for years, and many view the rise of the far right as a threat to their safety, as NPR’s Philip Reeves reports.
On his first day in office, Bolsonaro’s government, which accuses the gay rights movement of undermining family values, effectively removed the LGBT community from the list of groups covered by the country’s human rights ministry.
Wyllys had frequently clashed with Bolsonaro when the two served as colleagues in Brazil’s Congress, even spitting at him during a 2016 hearing to impeach then-President Dilma Rousseff.
Wyllys said his decision to leave was motivated not by Bolsonaro’s rise to the presidency, but rather by the violent climate against the LGBT community in the wake of last year’s polarizing presidential election. “In one week, three lesbian couples were attacked,” he told Folha. “One of them was executed. Violence against LGBTs in Brazil has grown frightening.”
Bolsonaro’s administration has not responded to Wyllys’ departure, but a couple of celebratory tweets posted Thursday by the president and his son Carlos Bolsonaro were interpreted on social media as a comment on Wyllys. But Bolsonaro later clarified that a tweet reading “Great day!” with a thumbs up emoji was not a reference to Wyllys.
Last year, Wyllys said his name had been falsely linked with pedophilia, and he released a video that appeared to show doctored photos of his supporters holding up signs with statements that supported the sexual exploitation of children.
“I saw my reputation destroyed by lies, and I, powerless, unable to do anything,” he told Folha this week. “People have no idea what it’s like to be the target.”
He said leaving his friends, family and supporters in Brazil was a difficult decision that “involved a lot of pain.”
Wyllys, a professor who grew up in poverty in the northeastern state of Bahia, became the country’s first congressman to campaign on an LGBT-rights platform, The Guardian reports. But he had captured the national spotlight years earlier, drawing both praise and criticism as the first openly gay participant of the reality TV show Big Brother Brasil, which he won in 2005.
He called working toward the legalization of same-sex marriage in Brazil in 2013 one of the highlights of his political career.
“I’m very proud of what I did,” he said. “During these eight years, I faced all this with great dignity. But I’m human and I reached my limit.”