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World

Under Bolsonaro, Same-Sex Couples In Brazil Fear They'll Lose The Right To Marry

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A new president is about to take office in Brazil. Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain with extreme right-wing views, will be sworn in January 1. NPR's Philip Reeves reports his record for homophobia has triggered a surge of same-sex marriages in the city of Sao Paulo.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The new year was going to be very special for Lucas Nascimento and his partner. They were to marry in April. Then Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil, and the young men changed their plans.

LUCAS NASCIMENTO: We're going to marry today because we want security.

REEVES: We are in a room full of LGBT couples. They are getting ready to be brides and grooms at a mass wedding ceremony. Nascimento is having his face powdered by a volunteer makeup artist. His partner, Felipe Lima, is sitting beside him looking nervous. Same-sex marriages became legal in Brazil in 2013. Nascimento is worried this law could be overturned once Bolsonaro takes power.

NASCIMENTO: It's just because this we're going to marry today - more faster than we want because we don't know what's going to happen.

REEVES: Despite the rush, this day's still special says Nascimento, who's 22 and a blogger.

NASCIMENTO: We're very happy because it's a dream. We want to mark this moment.

REEVES: This mass wedding ceremony is organized by a group called Casa Um. Casa Um runs a shelter here in Sao Paulo for LGBT victims of abuse. The organization is covering the wedding costs of low-income LGBT couples who want to marry as soon as possible. That includes fees at the registrar's office that actually legally marries them.

CLARA CORREA: First of all, I think it's love, you know, and second, it's because of Bolsonaro.

REEVES: Clara Correa and her partner are one of 38 couples at this ceremony.

CORREA: We're thinking to leave the country because we were scared. Then I say no. We fought so much. Why don't fight right now and fight with love?

REEVES: Correa is dressed for this occasion in black pants and suspenders and a polka-dot bow tie. Her partner, Fernanda Spinelli, is wearing a flowing white secondhand wedding dress supplied free by Casa Um.

FERNANDA SPINELLI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Spinelli thinks marrying sooner rather than later is the best decision she's taken. Brazil's a religious and conservative country. These two haven't told their parents about their marriage. We will, says Correa, eventually.

CORREA: Oh, I guess next year (laughter). You know, we have Christmas, family meetings. I don't want to cause any trouble.

REEVES: Jair Bolsonaro once said he'd rather have a dead son than a gay son. He's called himself a proud homophobe. He no longer talks like that. These days, Bolsonaro says he's not against gays. He's against what he calls gender ideology. Bolsonaro recently signed a pledge to a Catholic group saying he'll defend marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Yet there's no concrete evidence he plans to ban same-sex marriages or that he has enough political clout in Congress to do so. Brazil's LGBT population remains fearful. Last month, the number of same-sex marriages in Brazil was up by 65 percent on the same time last year.

SHEYLLI CALEFFE: We're worried about marriage because this is a right, and we had a lot of time to get this right. And now it's important to keep it.

REEVES: Sheylli Caleffe is one of the organizers of this mass wedding ceremony. Fear is part of life for many here. Last year, 387 LGBT-plus people were killed in hate crimes in Brazil according to Grupo Gay da Bahia, an organization that tracks these. Caleffe says homophobia is growing even worse.

CALEFFE: We have more violence in the streets now. In the Internet, it's very, very hard. There's a lot of haters.

REEVES: The couples arrive for the mass wedding ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN'S "WEDDING MARCH")

REEVES: It's in a small hall within the shelter run by Casa Um, the organizers. The couples walk to the front two-by-two and kiss for the cameras. There's an address by transgender actor and activist Renata Carvalho, who talks of this as a celebration of love for every identity and orientation. The couples exchange rings and whisper personal vows. This mass wedding ceremony is a political act, a gesture of defiance. It's also intimate and highly emotional. Organizers pass round paper tissues to mop up the tears. Finally, the couples step into the sunshine beneath showers of rice confetti.

SPINELLI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "I'm trembling," says Fernanda Spinelli, "that was the most beautiful thing." Above her polka-dot bow tie, Clara Correa, her partner, is beaming.

CORREA: I don't know. I'm speechless right now because it was so many emotions.

REEVES: She says she feels love and also a strange sense of freedom.

CORREA: The freedom that feels amazing.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Sao Paulo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.