The Rise Of Brazil's Guardians Of The Altar

Social conservatives have taken control of Brazil’s Congress and are trying to reverse marriage equality and other progressive victories. BuzzFeed News’ Lester Feder reports from Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on April 11, 2015, at 12:42 p.m. ET

BRASILIA — A group of hard-faced young men marched military style through a cheering crowd, giving straight-armed salutes. “Thank the Lord, we are here today ready for battle, and determined to serve you — We are Gladiators of the Altar,” they declared, in a video that went viral in February.

The video wasn’t a clip from an army training exercise or propaganda for some sort of militia. According to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which posted the video, the Gladiators of the Altar program essentially amounts to a Bible study class for at-risk young men. The video, posted in February by a Universal Church in the northern coastal city of Fortaleza, got around one million views in the 24 hours before the church took it offline, following widespread uproar.

The video caught fire in part because it embodied the ideological battle now playing out in Brazil’s capital. Backed by the country’s rapidly growing evangelical population, a large number of religious conservatives won election in October as part of a broad conservative coalition that now controls Congress. They have taken office bent on reversing recent gains for LGBT rights, including a 2013 decision by a judicial panel that established marriage equality nationwide. Progressives have struggled to draw public attention to the implications of the vote, in part because even President Dilma Rousseff — who supports LGBT rights — courted evangelical support for her reelection.

“The photo is shocking,” wrote Brazil’s only out gay member of Congress and best-known progressive standard bearer, Jean Wyllys, in a long comment on an Instagram post of the Gladiators. The threat of “religious fundamentalism” has gone ignored as Brazil’s major parties have scrambled for the votes of conservative evangelicals who now make up more than 20% of the population, he wrote. This “Christian fundamentalism” is every bit as dangerous as “Islamic fundamentalism” in the Middle East, and now threatens “individual liberty, sexual diversity, and secular culture” in Brazil, he said.

“When will we wake up to the true nature of the monster emerging from the lake,” he asked.

The Gladiators’ militaristic march became such a lightening rod partly because the Universal Church already casts a large shadow over Brazilian politics. Founded 37 years ago and headquartered in São Paulo, it is one of South America’s fastest growing denominations and now claims well over 8 million adherents in Brazil and millions more in countries including Argentina, Angola, and the United States. Its founder and patriarch, Edir Macedo, subscribes to a kind of “prosperity theology” that suggests the faithful are rewarded with wealth and encourages believers to give large gifts to the church. He has amassed a personal fortune estimated to be more than $1 billion while head of this growing religious empire. Much of that comes from his ownership of Brazil’s second largest television network, Rede Record.

Rumors persist that he controls the Brazilian Republican Party, a small party created in 2005 under the leadership of his nephew, Senator and Universal Church bishop Marcelo Bezerra Crivelli. The party, however, officially maintains it is independent and secular. (Through a spokesperson, Macedo declined to be interviewed for this story.)

The Brazilian Republican Party won 21 seats in last October’s election, almost all of whom are reportedly Universal Church members. They are among the more than 80 evangelicals elected to Congress, a gain of around a dozen over the previous congress. An informal grouping known as the “Evangelical Bloc” now forms the backbone of a newly emboldened social conservative faction.

“I think we have the most conservative congress yet,” said Deputy Alan Rick, a freshman from the Republican Party who was tapped to lead a 330-member “Family Front.” In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Rick said that the Front was organized in part to block a nondiscrimination law known as the law to “criminalize homophobia.” This law was a long-standing priority for LGBT rights advocates because Brazil has one of the highest reported rates of anti-LGBT hate crimes in the world. (The human rights arm of the Organization of American States counted 347 assaults or murders of LGBT people in Brazil in the one year period ending March 31 of 2014 alone.) The Front also hoped to pass its own legislation giving protections to fetuses from the moment of conception, potentially expanding Brazilian law that limits abortion only to cases involving rape or if it is the only way to save the mother’s life.

“When will we wake up to the true nature of the monster emerging from the lake?”

Many progressives are stunned to find a Congress that not only has a larger number of social conservatives, but also has stronger factions allied with the military, police, and cattle-ranching interests — a conservative coalition known as the “BBB Bloc” for bibles, bullets, and bulls. This majority is painful for them because widespread 2013 protests against economic inequality had raised hopes for a progressive election wave. But this failed to materialize, and the progressive favorite for president, environmentalist Marina Silva, finished third after she backtracked on support for LGBT rights and made other other concessions to the right to appeal to evangelicals and other conservatives.

Warning cries from progressives about the threat to LGBT and women’s rights have fallen on deaf ears, in part because of a sprawling corruption scandal involving the state oil company, Petrobras, that threatens to bring down the Rousseff government.

In March, investigators named 49 politicians suspected in a kickback-for-contracts scheme. Rousseff, who oversaw the company for many years as a member of the board of directors and as minister of energy, was not named and has denied any knowledge of wrongdoing while she ran the company. But there have been large-scale protests calling for her impeachment.

One of those named by investigators is Eduardo Cunha, the president of Congress’s lower chamber, the House of Deputies. Cunha has still managed to eclipse Rousseff as the most powerful politician in Brasilia. In one emblematic episode, he got Rousseff’s administration to oust the education minister and then announced his firing from the House floor before the administration had time to prepare a formal announcement.

Cunha is an evangelical who thumbed his nose at progressives when he took office by proposing bills to create a “Hetero Pride Day” and to criminalize “heterophobia.” He also told abortion rights supporters they would “have to go over my dead body to vote” on legislation to decriminalize the procedure. Brazilian political observers routinely compare him to House of Cards’s Frank Underwood, a comparison Cunha told one newspaper he dislikes because Underwood “is a thief, gay, and a cuckold.”

Through a spokesperson, Cunha declined to speak with BuzzFeed News.

Social conservative lawmakers said they were feeling bullish under his leadership.

Marco Feliciano is a megachurch leader and gospel singer who was elected to the House from São Paulo state in 2010 and won reelection in 2014 with the highest number of votes of any evangelical member of Congress. In his words, Cunha “is a political genius.” Feliciano is known as one of the most bombastic of Congress’s social conservatives. In 2013, after winning the chairmanship of the House human rights committee, he tried to advance a bill reversing a ban on mental health professionals practising “conversion therapy” to make gay people straight. When the outcry against his chairmanship began in the spring of 2013, Feliciano said even members of his own party wanted him to step down, but Cunha told him to hang on.

“You’ll get a political gain out of this,” Feliciano said Cunha told him. “You’ll be a symbol to any Christian running for office.”

The proposal that most worries social progressives in Cunha’s Congress is a new family code. The bill’s opponents view it primarily as a way to undermine a 2013 decision by a judicial panel that established marriage equality nationwide. If the bill passes, “the LGBT family will lose the legal protection of the state,” said Wyllys, the out deputy.

Wyllys and many others on the left complain that churches have an unfair advantage in the political arena: their earnings are tax exempt, even when they come from church-owned businesses that have nothing to do with worship. Many deputies are also stars of religious broadcasting or well known gospel singers, and their publicity gives them a leg up.

The chairman of the committee writing the family law, Sostenes Cavalcante, is a prime example of what they complain about. His third largest source of campaign funds is one of Brazil’s wealthiest and politically influential religious leaders, Pastor Silas Malafaia of the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church in Rio de Janeiro.

Cavalacante could not be reached for comment after several attempts by BuzzFeed News. Campaign financial records, show Malafaia contributed $31,000 to Cavalcante’s campaign via his Gospel Central publishing company in 2014 with an additional $17,000 via Malafaia’s brother. Malafaia’s endorsement alone carries tremendous weight: when he tweeted a demand that Marina Silva retract LGBT rights language from her presidential platform last August or lose his potential support, she cut it immediately.

During an interview at his church in the western part of Rio de Janeiro, Malafaia disputed that he and other evangelicals were using the political arena to go after LGBT people. They are simply fighting back against a movement he said wanted to send them to jail for practicing their religion.

“Gay activism is the most intolerant movement of postmodernity,” Malafaia said.

Malafaia, also a licensed psychologist, said he’s faced four unsuccessful suits by LGBT activists trying to have his license revoked, and said the anti-homophobia law was simply an attempt to “censor” churches.

“Soon they will make a law to forbid us to preach in our churches against practices we don’t believe in,” Malafaia said. Recent proposals in Brasilia such as a bill to allow minors a path to legal gender reassignment, he argued that evangelicals were fighting against “the state overruling the family,” a kind of “cultural Marxism” that will “destroy family and society and civilization.”

The only thing that’s changed in this Congress, Malafaia said, is that “Congress represents people’s ideology and thinking.”

“Gay activism is the most intolerant movement of postmodernity"

At base, Malafaia argued, Brazilian politics are changing in line with Brazil’s population. Census data shows that evangelical protestants now account for more than 22% of Brazil’s population, up from around 10% in 1991. (About one-third of these belong to Malafaia’s denomination, the Assemblies of God.) The rate of growth is staggering that many demographers believe that a country that was more than 90% Catholic in 1970 could soon be majority evangelical. This could lead to a continuing decline in support for marriage equality; polling data shows that only 25 percent of Brazilian protestants support marriage equality as opposed to 51 percent of Catholics.

“That’s where our power comes from,” Malafaia said. “We are more than 50 million — 50 million evangelicals who go to church.” And unlike other politicians, he said, “evangelicals do not separate the church and practical life.”

His opponents see something much more sinister: an alliance between social conservatives and those who are nostalgic for Brazil’s dictatorship, which only fell in the 1980s. For them, the most emblematic evangelical leader is Deputy Jair Bolsonaro, who infamously said in 2011 that he would rather one of his sons “died in an accident” than to be gay. Bolsonaro also recently proposed a bill that would name the waters off the Brazilian coast the “President Medici Sea” after Brazil’s former dictator.

“We live a crisis moment in Brazil,” said Erika Kokay, a deputy who represents Brasilia in Congress and is a progressive stalwart on the Human Rights Committee. “The fundamentalist bloc is making arrangements with other conservative blocs in Congress … That’s a fascist logic.”

Alexandre Orrico and Olivia Florencia contributed to this report.

Boost For LGBT Rights In Peru As Leading Politician Comes Out

"I'm gay, and proud to be so," says Carlos Bruce.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on May 25, 2014, at 12:13 p.m. ET

The front page of one of Peru's major newspapers blared the headline: "I'm gay, and proud to be so."

It was a quote from an interview with Carlos Bruce, a former cabinet minister, one-time serious contender for the vice presidency, and now one of Peru's most popular members of Congress. His sexual orientation had long been widely discussed, and for years he'd answered direct questions about it by saying: "I don't discuss my personal life."

Bruce's abrupt change in strategy last week signals just how much the politics of LGBT rights are changing in Peru, which has lagged far behind while many other countries in South America have become world leaders on the issue. Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil have all established marriage equality since 2010. This week, one of Brazil's top bishops said that "same-sex couples need legal support" and endorsed civil unions. Meanwhile, Peru's cardinal has denounced a civil union proposal Bruce introduced last September as a "caricature of marriage that will later destroy it."

Bruce came out just as his civil union proposal has become one of the most fiercely debated subjects in Peruvian politics. The bill still seems likely to fail — recent polls show between 61 and 73 percent of Peruvians oppose it — but the fact that he no longer believes coming out is political suicide suggests a cultural shift may be taking place that is even more significant than a change in partnership law.

"Carlos Bruce is one of the most beloved members of Congress in Peru," said George Liendo, of the Lima-based sexual rights organization Promsex, noting that Bruce won loyalty from many through his role in helping get Peruvians into homes when he was housing secretary. "The fact that a person like him says he is gay and is proud to be so, ultimately changes the negative connotation of homosexuality."

Bruce hadn't exactly gone to great lengths to hide being gay before coming out. His evasion of questions about his sexuality, he says, was a pretty obvious non-denial denial.

"That was a way of saying yes, but I don't want to speak about it," Bruce said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed. "Everybody knew."

And he has mostly been unmoved when the media or his political opponents tried to make an issue of it. Politicians have called him the equivalent of "faggot" on the campaign trail, national comedy shows have mocked him as the "godfather" of effeminate homosexuals, and Cardinal Cipriani accused him of using his office to "justify" his sexual orientation when he introduced the civil union bill last year.

But until this week, he felt the cost of acknowledging it would be too high. "If I can imagine a politician saying he's openly gay, for sure he [would lose] 80% of his voters," Bruce told BuzzFeed in a 2012 interview. Even if he kept his seat in Congress, it would mean writing off another bid for national office, he said.

Now he believes it might even help him if he makes another run.

"Maybe it can be a good thing for higher public office," Bruce said. "One thing that everybody is saying here — even the people who are against me — 'I don't like this guy but I have to say he has courage'."

Such as the many tweets like this one that appeared after the story ran last Sunday:

“People are calling him a faggot, but they wish they had the balls to make such a confession in this very prejudiced country.”

He’s gotten praise from the press too, such as this editorial cartoon published the day after the news broke. "Is it a bird? Is it a plane?” “No, it’s Bruce.”

It isn't all praise, of course. In the hours after the news broke, there was a flood of homophobic comments on social media, which Peruvian outlets rushed to
compile
 and republish. But for the most part, the attacks hurled at Bruce in the political arena have been noticeably oblique. Instead of suggesting he's not fit to serve because he's gay, his opponents have accused him of an unethical conflict of interest in promoting LGBT rights legislation without disclosing that he would benefit.

"We haven't elected congressmen to legislate in their own interest, but rather for the good of the majority of the population," said Congressman Julio Rosas, an evangelical pastor who is leading opposition to the civil union bill. Rosas, who believes that homosexuality is an illness that can be cured, also said Bruce would be welcome in his church.

"Every Christian church takes in all people without discrimination, whether they be homosexuals, lesbians, or transsexuals, and all are welcome because Jesus came to save the sinner," Rosas said.

Others have suggested that his decision to come out was a "desperate" political move to save the civil union proposal from defeat, a charge Bruce laughed off in a television interview on the day the El Comercio interview was published.

"I'm not desperate about anything," Bruce said on the news program Cuarto Poder, pointing out that given the majority opposition to the civil union proposal, the disclosure will probably hurt him at the polls. "What I wanted to do is open a little the debate on what it means to be gay or not. If this disqualifies someone from being a good public servant or not. … Someone's sexual orientation doesn't qualify them as a good person or a bad person."

He also rebutted the conflict of interest charge, saying that is only a concern when a politician has a financial stake in a government decision. But, he said, "When we're talking about human rights, there is no [such thing] as conflict of interest."

Bruce leaves Peru at the end of this week for a two-week visit to Australia, where he may finally get a break from the media spotlight. "The worst thing about coming out is all the interviews you have to do," he joked.

The debate over the civil union bill will largely be on hold until he returns. After several delays, the congressional committee with jurisdiction over the bill is expected to begin work on it sometime in June. But the organizers of the coalition supporting the bill, known as Unión Civil ¡Ya! (Civil Unions Now!) is concerned that committee leadership is still trying to duck the issue. They are rallying for a march on June 6 under the hashtag #DebateAhora (#DebateNow).

The coalition already brought more than 10,000 supporters to the streets in April, but opponents of the bill have marched in even larger numbers, and earlier this month presented more than one million signatures on a petition opposing the legislation.

Even if the bill does get a hearing, it could be threatened by a counter proposal endorsed by Rosas and other conservatives, which would essentially allow two unmarried people to establish contracts protecting shared property, but would exclude them from any family rights. This is not acceptable to LGBT rights activists, but it is another sign of how far the debate has moved — it is very similar to a proposal Bruce himself unsuccessfully put forward in 2012.

Though now out, Bruce continues to walk a fine line, going to great lengths to emphasize that the bill does not give same-sex couples completely equal rights. The full name of the proposal is "Non-Matrimonial Civil Unions," and the proposal would not allow for same-sex couples to adopt. He says this is because the science is "inconclusive" as to whether it harms a child to be raised by two parents of the same sex, though he himself is a father.

"That's what the studies are available right now said to us," Bruce said. "If we include that gay parents can adopt kids, we have to justify it... If they're conclusive in the coming year, maybe we will change this."

Bruce said that when he decided to put forward the bill, his main goal was to get anti-LGBT politicians to show their true face. "If they're going to be homophobic, let them be homophobic. I was not positive that it was going to have too much possibility [of passing]," he said.

But things are changing fast. "Now I think it could happen," Bruce said. "All the conservatives are very afraid."

The Congressman, The Cardinal, And The Peruvian Closet

Carlos Bruce, a Peruvian congressman, is leading a major campaign for civil unions in one of South America's most religious countries. The church has put his sexuality at the center of the debate — not that he seems to mind.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 7, 2013, at 8:35 a.m. ET

Bar Picas is a glass and wood cube in Lima's Barranco district that sits in the shadow of a picturesque church with a roof that is slowly collapsing. After he had the bar up and running, its owner, Carlos Bruce, approached the Archdiocese of Lima with a proposal to restore the church and rent it for 10 years as a multiuse space.

They said no.

Perhaps they suspected Bruce would turn the church into a bar like Picas, which hosts regular "fashion shows" featuring muscled boys in boxer shorts and girls in bikinis. Or maybe it was because Bruce was already on adversarial terms with the head of the country's Catholic Church, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani.

Nightclubs are just a side business for Bruce; his main occupation is politics. Since 2006, he has been a member of the Peruvian Congress. He had a serious shot at becoming the country's vice president when former President Alejandro Toledo asked him to be his running mate in his failed bid to recapture the office in 2011.

Bruce has showed no fear in baiting the Catholic Church in one of the Latin American countries where it has the most political power, and not only by trying to rent one of its churches. Over the past few years, he has emerged as the leading advocate of LGBT rights in the Peruvian Congress. After unsuccessfully championing protections for LGBT people in hate crimes legislation and a failed proposal to create a new kind of contract to allow same-sex couples to secure their joint property, Bruce introduced a bill to allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions in September.

Cardinal Cipriani went nuclear.

"It doesn't seem to me that we have named congressmen in order to justify their own [sexual] preference," Cipriani said during a Sept. 14 television appearance.

Rumors that Bruce — who is divorced and has two adult sons — is gay have circulated for years among both his enemies and his allies. But this is the first time any public figure had so directly said it on the record.

Cipriani's remarks set off a media storm. The front page of the tabloid La Razón blared, "Cipriani pulls Bruce out of the closet." Social media went into a frenzy, circulating a picture of the congressman at his bar with a group of men who look as though they were dressed for a leather party.

A popular comedy show also featured a skit in which an actor portraying Bruce addresses a group of effeminate sailors who refer to him as their "godfather."

At first, Bruce responded angrily to what he termed "personal attacks." He announced his "irrevocable" resignation from La Razón, where he had been a columnist, and said the cardinal's words were "beneath him."

"I will not fall to the level to which the cardinal has descended," he said on RPP Television. His reaction seemed to suggest he thought he was fighting for his political life.

But as Cipriani's statement faded from the news — helped by the fact that the Peruvian church became embroiled in a child sex-abuse scandal — Bruce's public response appeared to grow more confident. Last week, he even crowned the winner of the Miss Amazonas drag beauty pageant in the Amazonian city of Iquitos, which he described as part of his nationwide campaign to promote the civil union bill.

Bruce has managed to carve out a space in Peruvian political life that would have been close to unthinkable in the United States 20 or 30 years ago, when gay rights were as controversial a subject in the U.S. as they are in Peru today. (Congressman Barney Frank would be the closest analog before he came out in 1987, but even he was leery of taking the lead on LGBT rights legislation when closeted.) Bruce believes that being identified as gay would be political suicide, and yet he does very little to dispel the impression that he is. And he has been unafraid to lead on LGBT rights despite its potential to keep him from ever climbing to higher office.

When asked directly whether he is gay, Bruce has a standard answer. "My official response is, 'I don't speak about my personal life,'" Bruce told BuzzFeed during a conversation in the Peruvian capitol building in Lima last year.

There's a big political difference between supporting LGBT rights proposals and being openly gay in today's Peru, he explained.

"If I can imagine a politician saying he's openly gay, for sure he [would lose] 80% of his voters," Bruce said.

Bruce can afford to tackle the issue because his popularity runs deep. He had the second-largest vote total of any member of Congress when he was elected to his first five-year term in 2006, and his tenure in Toledo's cabinet made him a household name.

BuzzFeed/J. Lester Feder

Bruce hadn't set out to be a politician. He was trained as an economist and made his fortune in the seafood business. He began his political career while president of the country's exporters' association. During the 2000 election, many business interests turned against then-President Alberto Fujimori, who had fought ruthlessly against the Shining Path guerrillas during the country's civil war in the 1990s and was then running for a third term in violation of the constitution.

Bruce offered his support to Toledo — Fujimori's leading opponent — and ultimately ran his campaign. Their relationship became even closer after Fujimori recaptured the presidency in a questionable election: Toledo and his team had to go into hiding after the government blamed them for a bombing that occurred during an anti-Fujimori protest. After a week of secretly camping out at the Park Hotel near the U.S. Embassy, it was decided that Bruce would take the risk of leaving the hotel to be the spokesman for the Toledo camp.

Facing widening corruption charges, Fujimori fled to Japan before later being extradited and imprisoned in Peru. Toledo won the election that followed. When he entered office in 2001, he named Bruce to head the Ministry of the Presidency, a position that put him in charge of overseeing all Peru's regional governments and was one of the most powerful agencies in the country. When democratic reforms did away with the agency, Bruce became the first minister of housing.

That's where he won popular affection. He went on television to publicize a program subsidizing the purchase of homes accompanied by the program's mascot, who dressed in a costume like Bob the Builder's and was known as "T-Chito," a play on words: "Chito" is sort of the Peruvian equivalent of "homie," and "techito" means "little roof."

That's the name that stuck to Bruce. Even today, when he walks around Lima, strangers call out to him, "Hey, Techito!"

He rode that popularity into Congress from a district in Lima, a city that remains a center of Catholic and evangelical organizing. Though a handful of jurisdictions have local laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, reports of anti-gay hate crimes are frequent (and often horrific) and opposition to LGBT rights is widespread. A 2011 proposal from Lima Mayor Suzana Villarán for an ordinance to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation helped prompt a recall election that she only narrowly survived and cost her party many seats on the city council.

Christians in Lima "do not agree with a mayor that participates in marches of transvestites and sissies [maricas], a pro-lesbian, pro-gay mayor," one of the recall leaders said in a November 2012 interview. "Thanks to … evangelical churches' pro-life and pro-family movements, everything has headed towards [her recall]."

Yet when Bruce's opponents have tried to make an issue of his sexual orientation, it has backfired.

On Jan. 17, 2011 it was reported that Luis Castañeda Lossio, a presidential candidate from Solidaridad Nacional, a center-right party, called Bruce "una loca" during a press conference, a phrase that literally means "crazy" but is used like "faggot." The press pounced, eagerly reporting on the comments and Bruce's denunciation of Castañeda's comments as "homophobic."

It wasn't entirely clear if Castaneda intended the epithet, however. It came while he was responding to a statement Bruce had made that Castañeda was nervous about his standing in the polls. The full quote was, "Esa es una loca — es una loca afirmación," which could be translated, "That is a crazy — that is a crazy assertion." Whether he meant to impugn Bruce's sexuality depends on whether the pause in phrasing was intentional.

Despite the ambiguity, Castañeda came out looking the worse for it, publically criticized for violating decorum and repeatedly forced to deny that he ever called Bruce a "loca" in the first place. Bruce, on the other hand, remained unconcerned about how discussion of his sexuality might affect the campaign — in fact, the encounter may have emboldened him. Just over a week later, the Peruvian equivalent of the "It Gets Better" Campaign, Todo Mejora, posted a video from Bruce in which he seemed to be daring his critics to bring up his sexuality again.

Addressing his remarks to a young gay person who is being bullied, Bruce said that "Many bad people sometimes [spread hatred] against people who are different." But, he said, raising his eyebrows, "I know businessmen, politicians, that are gays. And they are successful people and are very respectable people."

The bullies, he said, are the ones who can't get jobs in later life. But the kids who are bullied wind up more successful and happier than the bullies. "My advice," he said, "is to laugh" at the insults.

Despite the controversy following Bruce's introduction of the civil union bill, it seems like it has a more serious shot of passage than any other recent major LGBT rights legislation. Or, at least, advocates appear to be mounting a better-organized campaign around the bill than they've managed to do around other initiatives in the past.

The Peruvian LGBT rights movement is beset by division, in part because there are many different groups run mostly by volunteers. They disagree on priorities and strategy; there are divisions between, gay, lesbian, and trans interests; and class issues often trump LGBT-specific concerns in their politics.

Peru's oldest gay rights group, the Movimiento Homosexual de Lima, spurned Bruce's ticket in 2011 to endorse the ultimate winner of the presidential race, Ollanta Humala, even though Humala voiced strong opposition to same-sex marriage following a special breakfast meeting with Cardinal Cipriani. Humala's policies were more progressive, explained MHOL's Veronica Ferrari, and, "MHOL is basically of the left."

For the civil union effort, Bruce is collaborating with MHOL, along with the most professional NGO in the LGBTI rights world, the Center for the Promotion and Defense of Sexual and Reproductive Rights, which is known as PROMSEX. A small, relatively new organization, the Secular and Humanist Society of Perú, is also a key player because its founder, the British-educated Lima native Helmut Kessel, has advised Bruce on LGBT issues since his vice presidential campaign and has been instrumental in strategizing behind the scenes.

Congress isn't due to take up the civil union measure until March, but the campaign for its passage is already in full gear. They face an uphill fight — a September poll found 65% of Peruvians opposed to the bill, and 45% said they agreed with a statement by Pope Francis that gays and lesbians are "socially wounded."

The measure's backers have started a social media campaign similar to the one mounted by the Human Rights Campaign before the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings on same-sex marriage in June, having supporters change their avatars to an adaptation of the Peruvian flag that looks like an equals sign.

In late September, the coalition also pulled together an impressive list of almost 200 public figures as signatories for a declaration calling for the law's passage. The list, published in El Commercio, was headed by Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa and include the names of 17 members of Congress, plus Bruce. Another important signatory was Diego García Sayán, president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has two cases in the works that could lead to a ruling that same-sex marriage is a right under international law throughout the Americas.

The civil union campaigners launched their latest initiative this week. They purchased billboards around Lima featuring "Imaginary Couples" — famous straight people posing as same-sex couples alongside the moto, "To love is not a crime." Participants include Congressman Kenji Fujimori (Keiko's brother and Alberto's son) paired with retired footballer Miguel "El Conejo" Rebosio, and comedian Jorge Benavides with boxer Juan Zegarra. The campaign has gone viral under the hashtag #parejasimginarias, and spawned a parallel meme, #parejasreales, featuring actual same-sex couples.

They're keeping their feet on the gas despite the controversy over Bruce's sexuality. In fact, this has proved a boon, said George Liendo of PROMSEX.

"It hasn't [damaged] the image of Congressman Bruce, but rather I think it made it stronger," Liendo said. "If characters didn't exist like the cardinal, members of congress from Opus Dei, or evangelical members of Congress ... with their extremist commentaries like 'homosexuals are sick," "they're damaged goods" … the media debate would not exist."

And since the dust-up over Cipriani's comments, Bruce hasn't seemed all that eager to keep questions of his sexuality out of the media; perhaps he is beginning to think it's to his advantage, as well. At times, he has seemed to actively court the controversy.

In early October, Bruce participated in a segment of a Peruvian news program called "In Private," devoted to the personal lives of public figures. The host, Mónica Delta, broached the topic of his sexual orientation by saying, "I have read or heard that you've said that it doesn't bother you to be called gay."

"Indeed," Bruce confirmed. "Sometimes they direct insults at me or believe they are insulting me by saying, 'You are gay.' But I am here to tell you I don't take that as an insult."

"If you were [gay], would you say it?" Delta gently pressed.

"I think that's an intimate part of a person's life," Bruce said. But he added, "What I would never do is say I am something that I'm not."

"And what is it that you are not?" Delta asked.

"Well, I am not a very disorganized person," Bruce said.

J. Lester Feder is a foreign correspondent for BuzzFeed and 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. He is Diego García Sayán.

Copyright © 2020 J. Lester Feder
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