SAO PAULO, Brazil — Rafael Gomes Leopoldo was walking to work the morning after the first round of Brazil’s presidential election this month, listening to music and scrolling through his phone, when two men attacked him from behind and pinned him against a bridge railing above one of the city’s busiest highways. Gomes could hear the buzz of cars streaming below as the men tried to lift his legs up and push him over the edge. He was certain he was about to die.
At first Gomes, a 28-year-old gay call-center operator who lives in a shantytown outside Sao Paulo, thought he was being mugged, and his arms rose in automatic surrender. But he quickly realized this was a different kind of attack, he said.
“Come January, I’ll have the pleasure of killing f-----s like you,” he recalled one of the assailants saying. Both wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the face of the man expected to win a runoff vote Sunday and become Brazil’s next president in the new year: Jair Bolsonaro. Unable to heave Gomes over the railing, the men eventually gave up and left him winded on the sidewalk.
Bolsonaro, who is leading by a wide margin in polls, has said that he would rather have a dead son than a gay one and that homosexuality is a result of a lack of beatings. A recent string of attacks on gay, lesbian and transgender people by his supporters has shocked many here and sparked fears that homophobic violence will increase — and go unpunished — during his presidency.
Now, LGBT people are also finding themselves the targets of political aggression and harassment. Since the days before the first round of voting on Oct. 7, Bolsonaro supporters have been responsible for at least 50 politically motivated attacks, many of them targeting the LGBT community, according to the investigative journalism group Agencia Publica.
Within the past three weeks, three transgender women have been killed in separate attacks — stabbed to death by men shouting Bolsonaro’s name.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Bolsonaro tweeted that he didn’t want the vote “of anybody who practices violence against those who didn’t vote for me.” But critics say that by espousing hateful language about minorities and gay people, Bolsonaro is actually inspiring such acts.
Bolsonaro is “breaking that understanding that we don’t attack people, we don’t discriminate against them,” said Klayton Fausto, a 38-year-old gay hairdresser who was assaulted two weeks ago on his way home from meeting his boyfriend.
Beatriz Machado, 32, a psychologist who works at a center that focuses on racism and trauma, said she’s seen a rise in the number of LGBT women coming to the center for help dealing with harassment connected to the election. “We are thinking of starting support groups. People are scared,” she said. She now thinks twice before showing her girlfriend affection in public.
For many, the attacks mark a step backward for the LGBT community, which won the right to marry in Brazil in 2013.
“For 30 years of my life, I didn’t want to be here. Now I’ve learned to live. I can’t pretend to be someone else today,” said Ca Jota, a black lesbian and an art teacher. On the night before the first-round vote, she said, she was standing on a train platform when a Bolsonaro supporter stared her down, sat next to her and loudly played audio messages of people saying they would kill gay people and lesbians if he was elected. She called friends and asked them to meet her at the next stop.
“It was more than fear,” she said. “I panicked. My way of life is being criminalized.”