democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Time to shut them up? Hate speech spouted by Brazilian politicians threatens LGBT population

Disseminated by allies of the 'Bolsonaro Squad', hate speech is increasingly used to legitimize physical and institutional violence against minorities.

Marilia Heloisa Fraga Arantes
Marilia Arantes
14 August 2020
Jair Bolsonaro during a meeting at the Commission on Human Rights and Participatory Legislation, which debated a proposal to punish discrimination against homosexuals
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Márcia Kalume/Agência Senado

This issue precedes the shameful comments made by conservative politicians after transgender actor Thammy Miranda starred in a Father's Day commercial earlier this month. And if nothing is done, extreme cases like the exile of congressman Jean Wyllys in 2018, following threats related to his sexuality, could become commonplace.

These two events, among the long list of other similar cases in recent years, highlight how the spread of hate speech by Brazilian legislators has already crossed the line of emotional and psychological threats. Disseminated by politicians, hate speech is increasingly used to legitimize physical and institutional violence against minorities.

It is no longer about inflammatory speech and tweets, but about targeted violence.

Hate speech is one of the tools used for solidifying homophobia, which increases pre-existing inequalities and threatens social cohesion, leading to hate crimes. Violence that targets minorities affects the psychological well-being of individuals, creates a limiting fear that violates freedom of movement and expression and clears the way for physical violence.

More importantly, hate speech should not be mistaken for freedom of expression. The first is an act that devalues ​​the victim without expressing an opinion, but rather inciting hatred. It is speech aimed at individuals and groups belonging to marginalized communities. In short, it is not a matter of language, but of communication: it goes beyond the symbolic value of words, promoting the exchange and understanding of an idea or ideology.

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The right to free speech is often used by politicians as a justification for hate speech. But speech that promotes violence should not be masked by euphemisms. Freedom of expression is, in fact, a fundamental right, but hate speech is abuse of these rights. Freedom of speech guarantees the right of individuals to share critical opinions, while hate speech is harmful and limits the basic expression of individuals. Freedom of expression promotes dialogue and diversity; hate speech hurts bodies and minds.

Ideological beliefs based on hatred, such as that of certain Brazilian congressmembers and even of President Jair Bolsonaro, normalize and legitimize these practices. Social media increase the repercussion of hate speech, but the dissemination of this practice among politicians is an aggravating factor.

In fact, civil society is a powerful source of these discourses – countless YouTube channels and Twitter profiles spread hatred and violence against minorities through their content. But in the context of political institutions, even more attention is needed. When in positions of legitimacy – such as that of congressmembers – it becomes easier to propagate speech that power hatred.

As a sign of the times, politicians have found on the internet and social media a platform for the massive dissemination of hatred.

Examples date from the recent aforementioned case of Thammy Miranda. Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro – son of President Bolsonaro – is a prominent figure among other infamous hate-speakers. On Twitter, Eduardo wrote: “A woman as a poster boy for Father’s Day. Next we’ll have a man for Mother’s Day”. He ended his tweet by labelling the commercial as "behavior that is completely contrary to Brazilian values”.

This stance preaches hatred and confusion regarding the identity of transgender individuals. And this is far from being the first time that Eduardo Bolsonaro has used his visibility as a politician to preach hatred and prejudice against the LGBT community. Eduardo was elected under a conservative agenda and, like his father, routinely spreads homophobic and hateful speeches against members of the LGBT community. On a TV show in 2019, he compared same-sex unions to the love for dogs, claiming that this kind of relationship is not capable of producing a family.

Non-LGBT congressmembers must also legislate to combat hate speech

One ally of the ‘Bolsonaro Squad’ is the evangelical pastor and Congressman Marcos Feliciano, who was convicted of homophobia by the public prosecutor's office in 2013 after he declared that “the rottenness of homosexual feelings leads to hate, crime and rejection”. In 2019, when the Supreme Court voted to criminalize homophobia, Feliciano stated that this type of action “threatens the freedom of expression of the churches”.

Eduardo Bolsonaro and Marcos Feliciano are not isolated cases in the Brazilian Congress. They are prominent examples among members of the “conservative renovation”: a movement of politicians who rose to power with an extreme liberal agenda and “conservative values”.

In this case, their visibility is used in defense of values such as the protection of the “good citizen” and for the propagation of hegemonic views of masculinity and heteronormativity.

The discourse of political leaders against the LGBT population seeks to create panic against homosexuals, inciting their voters to reproduce this type of violence. Eduardo Bolsonaro and Marcos Feliciano strengthen popular hatred by creating fear among their supporters. A common note in their speeches is the representation of the LGBT population as a threat to society and their Christian values.

Politicians are representatives of the entire people of a nation – including sexual minorities – and cannot legitimize hatred. Indeed, for some of the situations exposed above, judicial measures were taken, as was the case involving Feliciano, and even Jair Bolsonaro, the author of memorable homophobic statements, was convicted and sentenced to pay fines in 2015, when he was still a congressman. However, much of what they say on social media goes unpunished, while hate crimes increase in the streets, inflamed by hate speech.

Justice may counter the effects of hate speech, but it is not enough to contain the spread of hatred. Although the number of conservative politicians grew after the 2018 elections, the number of LGBT congressmembers in Brazil also increased, revealing the demand for political representation of the LGBT population.

However, LGBT congressmembers cannot fight the battle alone: political allies are indispensable for the containment of hatred. Non-LGBT congressmembers must also legislate to combat hate speech and must appeal to other powers and civil society to put such laws into practice. An agenda for LGBT rights is an agenda in defense of basic rights for all.

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