By Yann Hatchuel and Gwen Aviles
David Sender and Leandro Stecca have been in a relationship for the past seven years, and though they planned on eventually tying the knot, the two men wanted to take their time before getting married.
“Leandro proposed to me a year and a half ago, but we didn’t want to rush it,” Sender, a psychiatrist based in the Brazilian city of Juiz de Fora, told NBC News.
Their leisurely wedding planning came to a halt, however, shortly before far-right Brazilian Congressman Jair Bolsonaro — once considered unelectable due, in part, to his long history of offensive comments — was elected on Oct. 28. The former military captain, who officially takes office on Jan. 1, has been unequivocal when it comes to his views on homosexuality. He has attributed homosexuality to drug use, compared same-sex marriage to pedophilia, advocated that parents beat being gay out of their children and once said he’d rather his son die in an accident than be gay. In 2013, he even admitted, “Yes, I am homophobic — and very proud of it.”
“When we starting seeing that he was polling well during the elections, that his numbers kept going up, I told David we should start our marriage process,” Stecca recalled. “There was almost like an alert throughout the LGBT media in Brazil suggesting to same-sex couples who wanted to get married, to do so by the end of the year.”
This alert began after Maria Berenice Dias, a Brazilian judge and the president of the Brazilian Bar Association’s Commission on Sexual Diversity, advised gay couples to get married because there was a risk that their rights could be taken away.
Julio Moreira, director of Grupo Arco-Iris, one of the oldest LGBTQ organizations in Brazil, acknowledged that gay couples rushing to get married before the end of the year have a “valid concern.” Same-sex marriage in Brazil, which has been legal since 2013, is based on a “juridical understanding” by the country’s Supreme Court, which interprets the Brazilian Constitution when it “isn’t explicit about a certain topic,” Moreira explained. In other words, there are no approved federal laws that recognize same-sex marriage as a right.
Just two weeks before being elected president, Bolsonaro signed a document in partnership with the conservative Catholic organization Voto Católico Brasil promising his commitment “to defend and promote the true meaning of matrimony: the union between a man and a woman.” Many have interpreted this as a sign that preventing same-sex marriages may be among his priorities while in office.
And it’s not just marriage rights that LGBTQ Brazilians worry about — it’s also safety. According to the investigative journalism group Agencia Publica, Bolsonaro supporters have been responsible for at least 50 politically motivated attacks since early October, just before the first round of presidential voting. The group found that many of these assaults were targeted at the LGBTQ community: Three separate incidents reportedly involved the stabbings of transgender women by men shouting Bolsonaro’s name. Bolsonaro has condemned via Twitter “anybody who practices violence against those who didn’t vote for me.”
The earliest Sender, 31, and Stecca, 43, could plan their wedding was for Jan. 5, but many other gay couples have already gotten married, fearful of what may come once Bolsonaro officially takes office. Brazil saw a 36 percent jump in same-sex marriages in October compared to September, according to ARPEN, the Brazilian notary association, and that percentage is expected to grow even higher by the end of the year.
“Every weekend there are different same-sex weddings just here in Juiz de Fora,” Stecca said of the small city in southeastern Brazil. “So you can only imagine what’s like all over Brazil.”
São Paulo residents Gabriela Souza and Mariana Lemos have been dating for almost three years. The two women, both 34, planned to wed in late 2019 or 2020 but rushed to get married on Dec. 8 following the election of Bolsonaro. Moving their wedding date, however, was a burden for both their finances and their families.
It was “a cost that wasn’t expected during this particular moment of our lives,” Lemos lamented.
Souza added that her parents, who live far away, were not able to attend her wedding. “They wanted it postponed, so they could be present,” Souza said. “I had to explain that I could not postpone the date.”
While fear of losing recently gained gay rights looms ahead of Bolsonaro’s inauguration and violence against LGBTQ people has been on the rise, a silver lining has been the country-wide campaign to help same-sex couples tie the knot before the New Year.
“It started when a photographer in Rio de Janeiro posted that he’d photograph same-sex weddings for free until the end of the year,” Caique Paz, a corporate event planner based in São Paulo, told NBC News.
While he had never planned a wedding before, Paz said he was inspired by the photographer’s generosity and wanted to do his part. The seasoned event planner shared a post on his Facebook page volunteering to help gay couples in Brazil find wedding locations, caterers and other vendors for their ceremonies. His post quickly went viral, and he received messages from service providers all over Brazil offering to help.
In addition to connecting vendors with gay couples rushing to get married, Paz planned a group wedding for four same-sex couples at a wedding venue in São Paulo on Dec. 16.
“All of the services at the wedding were provided by volunteers. We had a band, an orchestra during the ceremony, photographers,” Paz said. “It was all free, they had no costs. We were able to help them at this moment that’s so important in their lives.”
The ceremony planned by Paz and 30 other volunteers was not the only group wedding in São Paulo last weekend. Nearly 40 couples got married at Casa1, an LGBTQ youth center in downtown São Paulo, on Saturday. The NGO raised nearly $12,000 to cover expenses in order to hold the ceremony “in the face of the political situation” facing Brazil.
Luana Hansen, 37, got married to Glaucia Figueiredo, 29, in response to the perceived threat from the incoming president.
“We’re combining our desire to love with our desire for revolution,” Hansen said. “We don’t know what Bolsonaro may do.”
While David Sender said Bolsonaro “took something very sacred out of the wedding for us,” he said the nationwide marriage campaign that Bolsonaro sparked has been heartwarming.
His husband-to-be, Leandro Stecca agreed. “It was so nice seeing this network that’s growing between people who are willing to help one another,” he said.
Associated Press contributed.