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A lightning rod for attacks by Brazil's right wing

A lightning rod for attacks by Brazil's right wing
Jean Wyllys, Brazil's first openly gay member of Congress, speaks to reporters in Brasilia, the nation's capital, in 2013. (Globo)

Jean Wyllys, the only openly gay member of Brazil's Congress, has been an outspoken campaigner for progressive causes since his election in 2010.

Now in his second term, the 41-year-old Rio de Janeiro representative has pushed legislation to decriminalize marijuana, legalize abortion and introduce same-sex civil partnerships, as well as campaigning for issues including religious tolerance and transgender rights.

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In so doing, Wyllys, a member of the Socialism and Liberty Party, which holds five seats in Congress, has met with intense hostility from a vocal right wing, including homophobic slurs and even death threats.

Recently, Wyllys faced the start of a formal process designed to remove him from office, the latest in a string of attempts to discredit the politician who has been called a "one-man caucus" for progressive causes.

The vitriolic exchanges taking place between Wyllys and his detractors are emblematic of an increasingly tense, confrontational atmosphere in Brazilian politics. Congressional sessions are frequently marred by squabbling and spats, pitting right-wingers against President Dilma Rousseff's weakened center-left Workers' Party government, the Socialism and Liberty Party and other left-wing parties.

In the midst of it all, Wyllys has become a lightning rod for the rancor of the congressional right.

Who is Jean Wyllys?

Wyllys was born in the city of Alagoinhas, Bahia, in Brazil's northeast, a region he describes as "one of the poorest, most neglected and discriminated-against regions in the country." Wyllys' mother worked as a laundress and later a domestic servant; his father was an auto painter.

Openly gay in a country with a tiny number of visibly gay public figures, Wyllys realized there was something different about him at the age of 6, when people began to call him names.

Now, he has been voted the most popular member of Congress three times in a poll run by Congress in Focus, an independent website reporting on Brazil's day-to-day parliamentary politics.

Why is he a figure of scorn for right-wingers?

The onetime university professor and journalist is a tireless critic of the insertion of fundamentalist Christianity into Brazilian politics. His own politicization began as an altar boy in his local Catholic church, where he came into contact with liberation theology. He now practices the Umbanda faith, an Afro-Brazilian religion.

His minority faith, combined with his status as an openly gay, left-wing public figure from humble origins, puts him on a collision course with the right, Wyllys says.

The heat rises in Congress

Recent congressional debates in Brazil have seen growing levels of confrontation, often deteriorating into argument, insults and shouting.

In an angry exchange in October, during a congressional hearing on cybercrime, right-wing congressman Laerte Bessa tossed a glass of water at a lawyer taking part in the hearing, and congressman Jair Bolsonaro almost came to blows with Communist Party member Orlando Silva in the House during a debate on calls for the impeachment of Rousseff.

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Speaking before a packed session recently, congressman João Rodrigues of the Social Democratic Party called Wyllys' objection to a proposed relaxation of gun control laws an apologia for criminals. Referring to Wyllys' proposed legislation to legalize cannabis, Rodrigues implied that Wyllys might be in league with drug traffickers and bandidos, and, pointing at Wyllys, roared, "This is no congressman: This is the scum of Brazilian politics."

In an on-the-spot retort shared more than 200,000 times on YouTube, Wyllys replied that he refused to be intimidated by "thieves," referring to a 2009 corruption case brought against Rodrigues, and by "fascists."

Wyllys on the right

Speaking in an interview at his modest apartment in the Copacabana neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Wyllys said the right "has started to abandon democratic politics in order to flirt with fascist groups."

"These are groups that have taken to the streets to demand the return of the military dictatorship, the end of political parties, the eradication of the left and of the Workers' Party. They attack the agendas of the gay, feminist and black movements in the most virulent manner possible. If that's not fascism," he asked, "what do we call it?"

What do analysts and commentators say about Wyllys?

Speaking at a debate in Rio at the beginning of November, philosopher Marcia Tiburi praised Wyllys' strength and endurance in the "insane" atmosphere of Congress. "He's a hero."

The polemical right-wing columnist Reinaldo Azevedo, writing in his blog on the site of newsweekly Veja in October, called Wyllys a "troglodyte," labeling him authoritarian, ignorant, hypocritical and truculent. "Since Jean Wyllys is gay," wrote Azevedo, "he believes he can pose as a victim and go around intimidating people."

What next for Wyllys?

After Wyllys' altercation with Rodrigues, the latter's party, the Social Democratic Party, initiated a formal process to remove Wyllys from Congress for a "lack of parliamentary decorum," along with Chico Alencar, the leader of Socialism and Liberty Party.

"The majority of members of Congress can't bear to see an admitted homosexual in the seat of the republic's authority, enjoying the same powers as them," Wyllys has written of the move against him.

Rigby is a special correspondent.

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