PARIS - Brazil’s first openly gay lawmaker, Jean Wyllys, who fled his country over mounting death threats after the election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, fears he won’t be returning home anytime soon.
In an interview with AFP in Paris, the 45-year-old politician and LGBT activist, who has been living in self-imposed exile in Europe since January, accused Bolsonaro of turning him “into a pariah in my own country.”
In recent months, he said: “I received death threats by telephone, on social media and on email. People also started threatening me on the street.”
Former army Capt. Bolsonaro, who has a history of making homophobic remarks — he once declared he would rather his son die than be gay — “made me a sort of enemy, not a political adversary but an enemy,” Wyllys added.
In January, the MP for the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), who was elected to a third term in 2018, announced that he would not be taking up his seat in Congress and was leaving Brazil for his own safety.
The tipping point for Wyllys was the murder of black, fellow LGBT activist and Rio councilor Marielle Franco, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in March 2018.
Two police officers are suspected of killing the 38-year-old, who had campaigned against police violence.
“After Marielle’s murder it became clear my life was in danger,” Wyllys said. “All public spaces became dangerous for me.”
The crusading politician, who clashed repeatedly with Bolsonaro when the latter was still an MP, believes he became a marked man after an altercation between the pair during the hearings that led to the impeachment of leftist ex-President Dilma Rousseff in 2016.
Wyllys spat in Bolsonaro’s face after Bolsonaro dedicated his impeachment vote to a torturer from Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.
After Bolsonaro’s election, the threats on his life intensified, said Wyllys.
He accused the president’s supporters of waging a “fake news smear campaign” against him, giving as an example claims that he was behind a move to equip schools with a “gay kit” that would “favor homosexuality” — referring to a 2011 plan to distribute material to combat homophobia that was abandoned in the face of conservative opposition.
Born in the northeastern state of Bahia to a car painter father and washerwoman mother, Wyllys became a household name in Brazil after winning the 2005 edition of the reality TV show “Big Brother Brasil.”
His victory was hailed as a turning point for gay rights in the socially conservative country but when the tide turned and Brazil lurched to the far-right he became a figure of hate for Bolsonaro’s supporters.
“I began living as if in a private prison, moving between an armored vehicle and my home, always accompanied by a police escort,” he told AFP.
For the past two months he has been living between Barcelona, Spain, and Berlin, but now intends to make the German capital his home.
“Berlin chose me,” he said, explaining that he had accepted an invitation from the Berlin-based Rosa Luxemburg Foundation — named after a Polish-born German revolutionary — and the Open Society Foundation — to study for a doctorate there.
But he does not plan on going quietly into academia.
Wyllys is determined to continue resisting Bolsonaro’s rule from a distance.
“You can do politics in other ways, outside of Congress, living free as I live today,” he said.
He is hopeful that if alleged links between Bolsonaro and Franco’s suspected killers were proved that it would “rouse Brazilians and bring down this government.”
One of the suspects is reported to have posted a photograph of himself alongside Bolsonaro on his Facebook account — since deleted — while the other lived in the same Rio residential complex as the president — a fact dismissed by the police as a “coincidence.
Wyllys sees the connections as proof that democracy in Brazil is under threat.
Asked how long he may remain in Europe, he said: “I will stay for the duration of this Brazilian night, which could be long.”