October 13, 2008
The Left plays the homophobia card in São Paulo
Posted by: Kevin
In the most important election taking place in Brazil this year, the mayoral election in the country's largest city (and my current home) São Paulo, a desperate opponent who once fashioned herself the great champion of the city's gay community is now using blatant gay-baiting in desperation.
It is a sad and hypocritical plunge into dangerous territory for President Lula da Silva's Worker's Party (or PT, its Brazilian acronym) in a city that remains a springboard to national politics. And the barrage of television and radio ads blatantly questioning the sexuality of incumbent Mayor Gilberto Kassab comes at a time when vicious anti-gay attacks and murders have been taking place. And given the current state of politics in the city, the use of blatant gay-baiting by the PT is fanning the very flames of hate that has cost the lives of several innocent people in and around a neighborhood that gave Kassab his largest margin of victory in the first round of voting on October 5th.
The history which brought us here makes this turn of events even more galling for the city's gay residents. The PT candidate, former mayor Marta Suplicy, was elected in 2000 as the first candidate for major office in Brazil who openly campaigned for the support of gay and lesbian voters. She marched in the city's world-record-setting gay pride parades, helping add to the momentum of the event as it became the largest annual gay pride event in the world and a major focus for the whole country's gay population.
However, her management of the city was widely seen as a disaster, racking up a huge debt and tying traffic up in knots with badly planned public works and out-of-kilter priorities that seemed designed to favor her base of supporters rather than the whole city. In turn, she was soundly bounced from office in 2004 by the center-right opposition party, led by José Serra, the likely center-right presidential candidate in the race to succeed Lula in 2010.
Serra was elected governor of São Paulo state in 2006, and his vice-mayor, Gilberto Kassab of the conservative party, the Democratas (DEM), assumed office. Kassab is a life-long bachelor, and is a very popular mayor. He has spearheaded several popular projects, including the Cidade Limpa law which banned all billboards and public advertisement displays inside the city limits and restored a sense of pride and conservation in the city's eclectic architecture. He also restored São Paulo's finances, and has backed a revival of the city's old downtown, which was a sad hellhole for more than a decade. Crime is way down in the city and continuing to drop. The city's health services are being reformed to improve efficiency, and public works priorities seem more sane and less erratically political. And in a marked symbol of the city's growing pride in itself, a major TV campaign promoting the city as a tourist destination was launched on CNN International earlier this year.
To his credit, Kassab's government signed a landmark cooperative agreement one year ago with the state government which would join public defenders in both jurisdictions to provide more resources to citizens who seek redress for any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation. It was perhaps the most significant move by any executive branch in the country in recent memory to more concretely safeguard the rights of gay citizens in Brazil in the most meaningful way. And despite some initial criticism (including from me) during the spate of anti-gay murders last year, the state and municipal police forces managed to apprehend every one of the perpetrators of these crimes and put them behind bars.
In the first round of voting, Kassab leaped into the top position, eliminating a fellow center-right opponent and a scattering of minor candidates. His approval rating tops 60%. Marta Suplicy came in second place, and a picture emerged of a city sharply divided between the bairros of the city center (Kassab) and those in the poor periphery (Marta). Marta is polling as much as 17 points behind Kassab in the latest published surveys. Her only hope of squeaking to victory is to manage an enormous turnout in the periphery, and cut into his support in some parts of the city center.
And alas, she is playing the gay card as a key element of her strategy in the second round. As the two candidates participated in a tense debate on the Bandeirantes TV network last night, Marta's campaign launched a TV and radio ad campaign which asked voters about what they "don't know about Kassab." The screen has a pixelated black-and-white picture of Kassab's face, and it asks a number of questions about him, the last of which is: "Is he married? Does he have children?" And the tone is clearly meant to suggest the mayor is gay, and that it's a dirty, shameful thing that should disqualify him as mayor. And quite rightly, Kassab has filed five separate motions with the electoral commission to force Marta and the PT to take the ads off the air.
This comes only a year after a wave of anti-gay attacks and murders hit the Jardins neighborhood in the city center, in and around where many gay residents and gay hangouts are concentrated. (I've written on this anti-gay crime wave extensively here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.) Jardim Paulista is, ironically, the bairro where Kassab won his biggest margin of victory anywhere in the city in the October 5 first round (and I'm proud to add, it's where I live and work). And the attackers in nearly all of the murders and beatings have been skinheads and self-described "punks" who purposely come into this neighborhood from the poorer periphery neighborhoods, the very areas to which Marta is directing her gay-baiting message, and where Marta won every bairro in the first round.
So the so-called champion of São Paulo's gays is now throwing us to the wolves in a desperate ploy for the votes of the homophobic periphery. She is intentionally dividing the city along lines that have flared with murderous violence for years. And she and the PT have the gall to still claim the mantle of being the protector of gay Brazilians. Que merda essa.
While I cannot vote in Brazil, I am giving all I have to volunteer and agitate for Kassab's re-election. In this case, to say this election is a matter of life and death for the gays of São Paulo is no exaggeration.
UPDATE: This has exploded into a major story on the front pages of all the city's newspapers and websites, with near universal condemnation for what Marta's campaign is doing. This is a huge relief, but alas the journalists of this city are not from the periphery and, in turn, are often seen as only a partial voice of the full electorate. It is very heartening, however, to hear that highly respected political analyst Alberto Carlos Almeida told the Estado de São Paulo newspaper that Marta has "committed a fatal error that will mark her entire career" with the ad campaign. And columnist Ricardo Noblat, who blogs for the #1 newspaper in all of Brazil, O Globo, wrote today that her ad campaign "is indeed bigoted, and is indeed sexist. As it would be similarly sexist and bigoted to run an ad insinuating that Marta cheated on her first husband [Senator Eduardo Suplicy] before she left him." Even her own (second) husband, Luis Favre, has posted on his own blog that personal lives should be off the table in this election. (And then defended her campaign in the very next post. Bizarre.)
But at an editorial meeting today with the #1 newspaper in the city, Folha de São Paulo, Marta spoke out of three different sides of her mouth, and deepened the controversy by repeating the charge, then saying she's the real victim, and then denying she even knew about the ad to begin with (my translation from Folha's report):
"I am someone who is against bigotry. You will never hear a single prejudiced word from my mouth. [...] But I think that you're interpreting this all too much," Marta said, when questioned as to whether the content of the ad wasn't invasive and prejudiced.
The candidate denied that the ad made insinuations about the mayor's life. "For me it's just as important is he's married, widowed or single. People have to know." [...]
"I think people ought to know about the candidate. My whole life, the person with the most invaded privacy has been me. For this reason I'm against it," affirmed the PT candidate, who said that the TV ad was the responsibility of the marketing director for her campaign. "The decision is with the marketing director [...] I didn't even see the ad."
This has now become, perhaps, an even more profound decision for São Paulo's voters over what kind of city this will be going forward. Not just a question of economics, public works or taxation -- but about the very soul of this city. Will division, resentments and hatred win, or will São Paulo take another step forward among the major cities of the world and toss this kind of manipulative politics into the trash?
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