Just as the coronavirus pandemic is hitting Brazil particularly hard, journalist Glenn Greenwald is sitting at his desk in his small office in the posh neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro with one of his many dogs on his lap. It’s a serene scene belying the situation of his adopted country, where he has lived since moving from New York to be with his husband, David Miranda, a federal member of the Brazilian Congress representing the city. The couple is raising two kids.
Just outside the book and trophy lined office, which overlooks a pool, the compound is surrounded by walls topped by razor wire. Armed guards and cameras keep watchful eye on the surrounding streets while packs of friendly dogs frolic in the yard. The tree-lined neighborhood is not far from the gay ‘hood, Ipanema, where Greenwald, a New York attorney vacationing in the city, met Miranda on the beach in 2005. Miranda was playing pick-up volleyball when he knocked over Greenwald’s drink.
The security system is necessitated by his ongoing battle with the government of Jair Bolsonaro, which has made him public enemy number one not just for his LGBTQ advocacy but for his crusading journalism that aims to expose the corruption of the government and the mistreatment of the country’s minority groups, especially the transgender community.
Earlier this year, he was charged with cybercrimes for publishing articles about leaked cell phone messages that exposed questionable ethics of key members of the Brazilian judiciary. The charges were later dismissed but he is living under the constant threat of indictment and imprisonment.
Greenwald’s journalism is no idle threat to the rich and powerful in Brazil, let alone America. After all, he won a Pulitzer for his role in publishing sensitive military security documents that were leaked to him by Edward Snowden. The former contractor with the National Security Agency is now living in sanctuary in Russia under the protection of Vladimir Putin to avoid facing espionage charges in the United States.
Greenwald has also been a passionate defender of Chelsea Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for providing sensitive information to WikiLeaks. President Barack Obama commuted the sentence to the seven years Manning had already served as he left office. The site would go on to assist President Donald Trump in 2016 by leaking emails potentially damaging to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton.
Always the contrarian, passionate about taking on powerful interests and questioning the status quo, Greenwald recently had a falling out with the online leftist publication he created, The Intercept, over an article he wrote questioning Joe Biden’s ethics. He said they wanted to censor him; they said he couldn’t prove his allegations.
Greenwald made time for LGBTQ Nation before racing off to a tennis match at nearby courts and as he was finishing up a book about his travails with the Bolsonaro government and its crackdown on the country’s burgeoning LGBTQ community.
This must be a hard time for you and your family.
The last nine months have been intense, exhilarating, and draining in my career as a journalist, being charged with 126 felonies. I was really looking forward to this election year to devote my focus to politics, but being criminally charged certainly set that back. The outcome is still murky despite the favorable filings.
How are you dealing with this injustice?
I’m writing a book about my experience, and not just about my experience, but how it illustrates where we are at in Brazil and why what Bolsonaro is trying to do is significant to the world right now.
Are the reactionary politics of Trump and Bolsonaro spreading worldwide?
You can’t look at any country in isolation because all politics have become globalized. For instance, the Bolsonaro movement has become obsessed with Fox News, and they talk frequently about ultra-nationalist movements like that of Marine Le Pen in France to the forces behind Brexit to the hard-right in Israel. Basically, what we are seeing is an international trend showing that the supreme ideology we all thought we were going to settle on, liberal democracy, neoliberal capitalism, with some soft spots, is not guaranteed.
The idea of having the CIA celebrate Pride day, putting women on the board of Raytheon, that sort of thing, incorporating social liberal values into militarism and corporatism, has failed hundreds of millions of people and they are extremely angry and they are running into the arms of whatever demagogues are promising to burn the entire system down because coastal elite liberalism is out of touch with lots of people who have lost jobs and economic security. The elites are doing really well but people who are not are angry and they are having their voices heard by doing things like voting for Trump or Brexit or Bolsonaro.
But there has always been a substantial right-wing minority in Brazil and elsewhere. Isn’t this just a temporary setback?
People have started coming out of the closet as Bolsonaro supporters, sorta like how some guys come out as gay. They are like, Well, I’m a little bi-curious, but before long they are full-on Bolsonaro supporters. This has included a lot of our friends who are working-class or Black or gay or all three. These are childhood friends of David with zero animosity to LGBTQ or racial minorities.
The answer is that they were not voting for this monster because of his raging animus toward LGBTQ. In fact, they are voting for him despite that. They were voting for him because, the political system, left and right, had failed them. That’s how people who voted for Obama ended up somehow voting for Donald Trump. We have to come to terms with a lot of undercurrents that are leading people to embrace authoritarians, monsters, tyrants, and haters otherwise we are just going to keep having more of them.
We did a photoshoot at the gay beach in Rio earlier and asked the boys on the beach about Bolsonaro. Few of them saw him as a threat, they commented that he was just a blowhard and they just ignored his rhetoric and that it didn’t affect their lives.
I don’t blame you for doing that photoshoot, I’m just a little mad you didn’t invite me.
That’s really ignorant. You can go back to Jews in Weimar Germany in 1935 by which point they were having store windows smashed by fantastical Nazis. Some still insisted Hitler was just a clown, just using rhetoric to rile up people. These were usually wealthier Jews, enmeshed in German society, and privileged. They could not imagine they’d have to give that up.
We have the same apathy here. It’s actually not that hard to imagine a Brazil dictatorship, just look back 35 years ago when half the population here was still alive, including Bolsonaro. It’s a comforting illusion that we can’t go back to that; sometimes I allow myself to believe that. The problem is that things can unravel really quickly especially when you have a movement as he leads and which is determined to make that happen.
That “it can’t happen here” mentality is a lot more appropriate in the U.S. where you have very old entrenched institutions, such as the Supreme Court, the media, and citizenship inculcated over centuries to safeguard democratic values. So Trump is much less capable of making full-scale entrenchments into pillars of democratic institutions than Bolsonaro, who is much better positioned. Also, Trump may actually have made democracy stronger because these institutions and citizens are more engaged than ever. Brazil is much more fragile.
One awful trend happening worldwide, but particularly in the U.S. and Brazil is extreme violence against transgender people.
The demands for change, characterized by people who have been previously exploited such as the transgender community, claiming or demanding a place at the table typically means that people already at the table engage in a backlash against the newly arrived claimants with violence, resentments, with bigotry. This is part of the general dynamic we always see everywhere.
But the violence against transgender people in Brazil is I think by far the highest of anywhere in the world. It’s not that the state is murdering trans people, but what is absolutely the case is that the rhetoric that emanates from Bolsonaro and from his family is stirring up this kind of primal rage against LGBTQ people.
Remember he based his campaign on a lie, the lie that that gays have this tool kit that is designed to teach young school kids how to be gay so that there is a new pool of homosexuals that adults can have sex with all the time. This triggers the most instinctual fear of parents that their children can be victims of molestation and they falsely identify the LGBTQ community as the cause.
The reason the trans bathroom issue resonates with people is that it’s been deliberately presented like child sexual abuse, these men pretending to women, hiding in the bathroom, ready to rape young girls. Bolsonaro exploited this fear in the way only a skilled demagogue can, and in unleashing primal fears, the result of this unleashing is violence.
What’s the way to deal with this?
Brazil culturally is two decades behind the U.S. in terms of its evolution – and Bolsonaro has caused an even-bigger setback; maybe it’s now three decades behind. It reminds me as a gay man of when I came of age, the era of Reagan and Jerry Falwell and AIDS, and sodomy laws, the climate was just incredibly repressive. To the extent that homosexuality was talked about at all, it was linked to a fatal disease or talked about as a threat to children. Much of the opposition to us was the idea that gay men are pedophiles. That’s very much in the air for us here now in Brazil.
But since everything is now global, we have advantages here today that we didn’t back when I was coming of age in the U.S. On social media and TV, there are celebrities who are openly gay, the biggest being Pabllo Vittar, a drag queen and singer whose public appearances are as a woman and as a very sensual gay man.
It’s one reason David and I have become such objects of intense primal hatred, and why we have turned this house into an armed bunker. We have very deliberately become a visible same-sex couple with two kids which we do on purpose to show gay kids growing up in difficult circumstances, especially in the interior of the country. Kids are getting kicked out of the house for being gay or trans and they end up suicidal or on the streets. It’s just so terrible.
The message you internalize is that your life is destined to be filled with loneliness and depression, an incomplete, broken life. So part of why we live our lives so publicly and put our children out there, which is not a great idea generally, is that we want to be the role models we wished we had as kids.
This is the role Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, have played in the U.S. In addition to being a very able political leader and thinker, he’s a role model for so many young people who can now point to a credible presidential candidate who is just like they are.
It’s amazing that in the U.S., where the culture war largely has been won not for trans people but for gay men and women, that Pete can run for president and being gay is barely an impediment. In fact, it might have been an advantage, not in a general election but certainly in the Democratic primaries. We take it for granted but it’s an amazing thing. Gay kids can now take same-sex partners to the prom at sixteen, not just in urban areas but in cities too. These are truly radical changes in the U.S. that can be emulated here eventually.
What did you think of Pete’s campaign?
Ideologically, I loathe his politics, I just don’t have high regard for establishment Democratic Party politicians. I am also a bit hesitant, having just declared the culture war over [laughs], when the example or proof is this person running as an aggressively normalized gay man, the kind of gay man who is a soldier, who worked at McKinsey [McKinsey & Company offers strategic advice to governments and corporations], the medium-sized town mayor who is married.
And loves dogs, like you…
I’m not sure it necessarily creates the space for queer culture that I regard as so valuable.
Wait a minute! Pete made a point of kissing Chasten on the stage, of never downplaying who he is, and remember he was talking to mainstream Americans who still may not fully understand gay life. I was so impressed with his ability to use religion to start conversations with ordinary people, rather than simply rejecting it.
I couldn’t agree more. He’s probably the most talented American politician since Obama.
He’s reflecting the success and the mainstreaming of the movement. It’s just that he’s not at all rough around the edges, and I love the edges. He’s just not very challenging politically.
You are saying his politics are too moderate?
The turning point for me on this issue of the mainstream of the movement was San Francisco’s gay pride parade a few years back. For years it was the heart and soul of where you could be whoever you are without bourgeois limits and judgments, but before long it was run by bankers and corporate types. Chelsea Manning was named grand marshall of the parade but once it got up to the corporate level, the sponsors freaked out, releasing a statement denouncing Chelsea Manning as a criminal. I mean it sounded like a statement from the FBI, but it was the San Francisco Pride parade! If there is no room for radicalism at San Francisco’s Pride parade, then where is there room? This is what’s happened to gay politics, and Pete is part of that.
I’m not blaming Pete, he didn’t have all the experiences I’ve had, he didn’t grow up with that ’80s sense of isolation and alienation that makes you want to change the world. I’m not saying he’s had it easy, he came out late, but it’s just different when born in a culture that’s overtly hostile to you and people like you. The more gay culture is accepted, the less radical it becomes.
I don’t think he’s sold out at all, he’s just the byproduct of the trajectory he chose, going to Harvard and working for McKinsey and serving in Kabul, that’s just not where my politics are.
So that brings us back to the boys on the beach, how do you deal with the majority of our community who just don’t share your politics and never will? Why should young guys have to be as political as the older generations? Isn’t that a sign of success?
Part of the battle was to let gay people live without having to battle; that was the battle. And to some degree, in some parts of the U.S., we have fulfilled that mission. And again I’m consciously separating gay men from trans people who still have to battle really hard. In Brazil, things are very different, too.
The first week after Bolsonaro’s election, I had appointments with a radiologist and a dermatologist, both obviously very flamboyant, very gay. They recognized me from TV so they started to talk about politics. They admitted to me that they had voted for Bolsonaro, and that was infuriating because they were identifying not as gay men but as wealthy doctors living in Zona Azul who want the riffraff swept off the streets, and the narrowness and self-serving nature of that attitude. To the extent that there is anything real about your sense of security you owe that to so many people who were not nearly as selfish as you and there is a huge number of people who don’t have that sense of security because of the money you have or the professional status you claim.
There are many people who are directly threatened by Bolsonaro and to be so cavalier about the danger these people are in was nauseating to me. I could barely make it through the appointment. They didn’t do their research. They should have known I’d be repulsed.
You question the Democratic Party establishment, you are not a fan of mainstream politics, seeing both parties in the U.S. as something of a bad choice. How did your coming out process inform your politics?
It was an incremental process, and first was coming out to myself. That first realization that you are different from other people was, for me, a terrifying experience. There is trauma associated with it, realizing at 11 or 12, that you are different, that other people think who you are is wrong. I thought there was something I had to hide because it was shameful. This is a terrible thing to think of yourself, that you have to hide and pray that it goes away. It is something humans are not equipped to process at that age. The defense mechanism you have to adopt, the way you see yourself, that endures forever–or at least until you do a lot of therapy and revisit those early experiences in a really deep way.
As I grew up, that translated for me into a kind of anger toward society for making me feel that way. I’m grateful for that process, as painful as it was because what it ended up making me do was question the validity of that societal judgment against me and others like me.
In my adolescence, when you start rebelling against authority, you ask: What is the validity of this judgment? What right do you have to have decided that this part of me is bad and wrong? That started the warring against authority, and once I left home and got safely away from where I grew up in Florida, found friends, and started going to gay bars, I started feeling comfortable myself.
To this day that process informs my politics: distrust authority, question people’s right to impose judgment and ask whether orthodoxies and consensus really make sense at all.
Joe DeCola and David Parker contributed to this article
Photos by Bel Corção