SAO PAULO – A couple of modern art exhibits and a play have become leading battlegrounds in a growing culture war in Brazil, a nation whose fame for barely there bikinis masks a rising trend of conservatism.
Protesters waved a Brazilian flag and shouted "No! No! Not our children!" to denounce an exhibit at Sao Paulo's Museum of Modern Art in which visitors, including a child, were invited to touch a nude man. A bank-backed cultural center bowed to pressure and cancelled a Queermuseu exhibit exploring sexual diversity — only to have prosecutors denounce the incident as censorship. And a play portraying Jesus as a transgender woman led protesters to leap on the stage. A judge ordered one performance halted, but was overruled by another court.
The outside world has long assumed Brazil is as wild as its famously minimal swimwear and the exuberant, anything-goes Carnival celebrations. But many within the nation have always seen those as exceptions.
"In Brazil, we have a very ugly habit of sweeping everything under the carpet," said Renata Carvalho, the actress who performs the one-woman show "The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven." ''This just sheds light on what people think. I think it's excellent that the masks are falling."
Brazil's conservatism has been bolstered by the rise of evangelicals, a heavy-voting group that now accounts for one in five people — up from one in 20 a few decades ago in what is still the world's most populous Catholic nation. Their fervor has been fed by a tidal wave of political corruption scandals that have led many Brazilians to believe the nation needs moral leadership.
Liberal activists have struggled to make Brazil a more open place for gays and women, and they gained some traction during the left-leaning Workers' Party governments that led Latin America's largest nation between 2003 and 2016. But conservatives are fighting back — aided in part by the fact that corruption scandals weakened the leftist movement.
Evangelical lawmakers in Congress are pushing to ban abortion in all cases. The Supreme Court has ruled that some public schools can teach religion. A judge has waved aside objections from the nation's top psychologists in ruling that homosexuality can be addressed with so-called conversion therapy and treated as an illness, though that was knocked down by higher courts.
The fight over art is the most visible battleground of late.
Conservative groups have launched campaigns against two art exhibits, "La Bete" at the Sao Paulo museum and the Queermuseu exhibit in the southern city of Porto Alegre.
Critics accused "La Bete" of promoting pedophilia, and protests erupted when a video circulated online of a child touching the nude performance artist's ankle and hand. On its Facebook page, the conservative Brazil Free Movement summed up many of the comments on social media in arguing that "left-wing artists" had gone too far and "were not prepared for the reality check confronting them."
Others have attacked the Queermuseu exhibit, which contained some sexually explicit artwork. The Santander Cultural center bowed to the pressure last month and shut the exhibit early, but there have been rumors it will be reopened elsewhere.
Amid reports it might go to Rio de Janeiro's Museum of Art, that city's mayor, Marcelo Crivella, a retired Pentecostal bishop, denounced the exhibit for promoting both pedophilia and bestiality and said in a video posted on Facebook that his city didn't want it. Sao Paulo's mayor has chimed in with a video of his own denouncing both exhibits.
"Silencing uncomfortable discussions means not facing the conflicts inherent in society," the museum shot back in a statement, although it has acquiesced to the mayor's wish.
The state prosecutor's office has asked that the Queermuseu exhibit be reopened, comparing its cancellation to Nazi Germany's censorship of "degenerate art."
There is a similar fight over the play in which Jesus is reimagined as a transgender woman who tells Biblical stories of tolerance.
"The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven" has been performed more than 60 times during a tour of Brazil, but conservatives have called it offensive to Christians and petitioned courts to ban its performances.
"The performance of this horrific spectacle is equal to the persecution suffered by Christians in the first centuries when they were thrown to wild animals in the arenas of Rome as a form of entertainment," said one such petition.
One judge granted an injunction, calling the play "disrespectful," ''aggressive" and "in bad taste." That decision has since been overturned on appeal and two other judges have rejected petitions for injunctions.
The contradictory judicial decisions reflect Brazil's mixed history on questions of gay and trans rights, said Omar Encarnacion, a professor of political studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
Since becoming independent, Brazil has never had an anti-gay law on the books, and many, even inside the gay community, consider it a bastion of tolerance, said Encarnacion, who studies LGBT movements. Still, as with so many social issues in Brazil, there are striking contradictions. While Sao Paulo boasts the largest gay pride parade in the world, Brazil also has some of Latin America's highest rates of violence against gay and transgender people.
The latest cultural clashes could help shape next year's election.
A recent poll found that Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right congressman who once said "having a gay son means you didn't spank him enough," is running second among prospective presidential candidates. In recent weeks, Bolsonaro has frequently weighed in on the latest controversies.
Speaking of the "La Bete" exhibit, Bolsonaro said: "I only have one thing to say to these kinds of people: Scoundrels. Scoundrels a thousand times over."
Sarah DiLorenzo on Twitter: twitter.com/sdilorenzo