For his first two weeks in Brazil’s Congress in February, David Miranda, 34, was too scared to take the microphone. Far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro, known for homophobic and racist outbursts and policy pledges had just assumed the presidency. Violence against LGBTQ people in Brazil was at near-record levels. Miranda, a gay black man, was feeling the pressure. “I was shaking,” he tells TIME. “That place is not built for people like us.”
Miranda, who grew up in the mostly black Rio de Janeiro favela of Jacarezinho, stands out among Brazil’s members of congress—three-quarters of whom are white, compared with just 44% of the broader population. Miranda’s mother died when he was five and he moved in with his aunt before leaving home at 13, wanting “to get to know the world.” He worked shining shoes and cleaning buildings for six years.
His life changed, he says, one day in 2005, when he was playing volleyball on Ipanema beach and accidentally knocked over an American tourist’s drink. That tourist was attorney Glenn Greenwald, better known today for his journalism. Miranda and Greenwald got to talking, fell in love and moved in together after just five days. “We’ve been together constantly since,” Miranda says. Greenwald, now 52, helped support Miranda going back to school. In 2014 he graduated from ESPM, a publicity and marketing school in Rio de Janeiro. Miranda splits his time between Brasília and his home in Rio with Greenwald, their two adopted sons, aged 9 and 11, and 25 rescue dogs.
Miranda first got involved with politics in 2013, when he, Greenwald and a team at The Guardian worked with National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to publish evidence of mass surveillance programs by the U.S. and the U.K. British police arrested Miranda as he was changing planes at Heathrow Airport en route to Rio and he was held for nine hours under the U.K.’s terrorism act. “After that I was forced onto the front line,” he says. Miranda started participating in domestic politics. In 2015, he helped open a youth club, where teenagers could hold movie nights, organize protests, and discuss issues like racism and women’s rights.
In 2016, he was elected to Rio de Janeiro’s city government. He and fellow Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) member Marielle Franco—a black, gay, single mother—became the first out LGBTQ councillors in the city’s history. The two also became close friends, helping each other pass progressive reforms such as Miranda’s law allowing transgender people to use their preferred name on city government documents. Miranda had been planning to spend the weekend with Franco, he says, when the 38-year-old activist and her driver were shot and killed last March. They were on the way home from an event where Franco, had delivered a speech about black women’s empowerment.
Franco’s death sent shockwaves through Brazilian politics and through the LGBTQ community, sparking protests in cities around the world. A year after her death, investigators finally arrested two former police officers they believe shot Franco. But for Miranda, “it’s not enough to know who pulled the trigger. We need to know who ordered her death.” He and other activists believe she was assassinated because she spoke out against paramilitary gangs that use violence and extortion to control some Rio neighborhoods, and, Miranda says, do the bidding of officials and politicians. Miranda says he doesn’t trust the police to catch whoever ordered the killing and has appealed to the Organization of American States and the U.N., who have both pressured the Brazilian government to do more.
“People always say Marielle became much more influential in her death, but if she was alive today I assure you she would be just as great,” Miranda says. “She had such a bright future. I need to take everything she did and keep going forward.”
Despite his determination to change things, Miranda’s entrance into Congress was bittersweet. He took over a seat after his friend Jean Wyllys, another black and out member of PSOL, decided to flee the country in January after receiving death threats. Miranda had run on the same party list as Wyllys in 2018 and was elected in a kind of under-study system. Since taking over, he says he has also received “hundreds” of death threats, which he reported to the police. He has hired security for his family.
But he’s also received thousands of messages of support from underrepresented communities in need of protection in today’s Brazil. Bolsonaro won October’s election having declared himself a “proud homophobe,” insisted women don’t deserve to be paid as much as men, promised to scrap legal and cultural protections for minorities, and praised police brutality in favelas. “So many LGBT families who want to adopt kids are coming to me. They’re [looking for a way] to rush the process because they’re afraid that Bolsonaro, with a pen and a piece of paper, could revoke these rights that we’ve fought for.”
When Miranda finally grabbed the microphone on the floor of the lower house on Feb. 27, he called out his fellow Congressmen for forgetting the poorest Brazilians, and criticized Bolsonaro’s government for failing to end the endemic corruption he had railed against on the campaign trail. Miranda plans to work on programs to keep a check on corruption, and on ways to stop police violence and protect the salaries of working class people. His first project is a bill to create compulsory education on LGBTQ issues for teachers and politicians. But he adds, “I want to be a tool for democracy. People who don’t have a voice should use me for whatever cause they want.”
Bolsonaro’s win, he says, wasn’t all bad for Brazil. “People are really paying attention to politics now, and that’s something money can’t buy,” he says. He compares Brazil’s renewed interest in social issues to the rise in the U.S. of progressive candidates like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in the midterm elections under President Donald Trump.
Miranda believes Bolsonaro’s conservative ideas don’t necessarily have broader support in Brazilian society, arguing the politician’s success owed more to his drive against corruption in the aftermath of the world’s largest government graft investigation in Brazil. “What he represents, in a way, is hope for change.” Miranda’s daunting task is to shape that drive for change into something that doesn’t hurt vulnerable Brazilians.
Correction, May 16 The original version of this story misstated the name of David Miranda’s colleague who left his seat in Brazil’s congress. It is Jean Wyllys, not Jean Wylls.