“More Love and More Desire”: A History of the Brazil Lesbian, Gay, and Transgendered Movement

For many LGBT activists, the 1969 Stonewall rebellion marked the beginning of a modern
international liberation movement. Diffusing outward from New York, so the prevalent notion
goes, homosexuals began to organize political movements to demand equal rights, inspired by
the militancy of U.S. queers. According to this widely held idea, the emergence of gay and lesbian
groups was slower in “Third World countries” because of authoritarian regimes, patriarchal social
structures, and backward societies.
Identity politics and the emphasis on coming out have become the models many activists expect
should be reproduced throughout the world. This notion has become conflated with Euro-American
(mostly gay, but sometimes lesbian) cultural representations. Disco music, gay pornography,
Hollywood representations of homosexuality, rainbow consumerism, and other manifestations of the
Euro-American gay and lesbian subcultures have slowly permeated Latin America, and other parts of
the world. E-mail and the Internet have added a new dimension to political organizing, permitting
many isolated lesbians and gay men access to others nationally and beyond. A world traveler visiting
a disco in Rio de Janeiro in 1974 or the 2001 LGBT Pride Parade of 200,000 in São Paulo might
conclude that the hegemony of U.S. gay
and lesbian culture has become complete.
When the term globalization proliferated
in the early 1990s, it was generally
expressed as a positive phenomenon that
meant the lessening of trade barriers, the
expansion of market possibilities, and the
unfettered exchange of products and ideas
fueled by the unlimited possibilities of
global communication and interaction. This
has happened to a great extent, especially
for those with access to the Internet and
other communication and media sources.
News, images, ideas, and connections have
accelerated at lightning speed with the
rapid dissemination of information, cultural
values, products, and politics. However, it is
not an equal two-way street, and the means
by which U.S. economic and cultural forces
dominate the process of globalization has
had a significant impact on shaping what
goes where and to whom and what is valued or cast aside.
One way that Brazilian LGBT activists and non-activists alike are interacting with waves of
cultural, economic, and ideological commodities undulating out of the United States and Europe is
by employing a strategy, codified by the Brazilian modernists in the 1920s and christened
antropofagia, or cultural cannibalism. This complex process of borrowing and reshaping Euro-
American and even African traditions over the last 500 years has created a propensity to digest what
seems edible, even substances that are arguably unhealthy, to create new hybrid forms as a means of
adaptation and resistance to the unilateral proliferation of all things Euro-American.
An obvious example is the appropriation of the term “gay” by Latin American activists, a cultural
process that some argue is merely a manifestation of cultural colonialism. In the late 1970s when the
emergent movement was attempting to discover its own language, the word ‘gay’ was roundly
rejected because many insisted it imitated the U.S. movement. In the late 1980s, the term was
widely embraced by male activists to refer to themselves. The men I interviewed for Beyond Carnival:
Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil universally stated they adopted the word ‘gay’ because
it didn’t have the negative cultural implications of bicha and viado, with the equivalent sting of
faggot. Some also pointed out that it carried additional value as a foreign term associating them with
sophistication and culture. The script seems to read, “I’m cool and superior.” Is this cultural
colonialism or a successful strategy of appropriating terminology that gives one agency? Or both?
Part and parcel of the proliferation of Euro-American consumer culture in Latin America is the notion
of coming out and publicly proclaiming one’s sexual desires and personal life. It is a political approach
embedded in cultural traditions ranging from Puritan communal confession to the atomized individualization
pervasive in many advanced capitalist countries. The view that one should celebrate one’s
passions and desires, instead of hiding or making them ambiguous, is a liberating experience for
many who have counter-hegemonic desires. It is this power, I believe, that drives Brazilian activists
and their supporters, to overturn long-term survival strategies of “don’t ask, don’t tell” that are
predicated on familiar and social harmony and the avoidance of scandal and uncomfortable topics,
especially in middle class circles.
The risks, however, are much greater in societies that ultimately rely on the family as a safety net,
where governments pursue neo-liberal polices to dismantle the welfare state, and where economies
hinder the expansion of a middle class with expendable income. A political movement packaged in
life-styles, self-revelation, and consumerism may find only intermittent customers. In countries where
socio-economic gaps between the rich and the poor are growing rather than diminishing and the
middle class hangs precariously in the balance, the prospect of personal liberation conflated with
perfect bodies, stylish clothes, and a trendy lifestyle is as likely to generate as much frustration as it
does pride. Not only are the poor and struggling middle class left behind. The masculinization of gay
male culture and its pervasive presentation worldwide, leave the flamboyant queen and the
effeminate bicha [faggot] at the margins. Although transvestites retain a social space as an important
component of highly gendered and differentiated constructions of same-sex eroticism in Brazil and
the rest of Latin America, gay identity tends to push them to the sidelines. Lesbians also get erased
from this equation.
Unlike the U.S. movement that has found a tenuous political ally in the Democratic Party, there
are few centrist political parties in Latin America that are likely to embrace the demands of the LGBT
movement. In some countries, movements have had to negotiate a relationship with a rather
reluctant left that until recently shunned activists raising uncomfortable issues deemed alien to the
working class and popular movements. The dictum that the nature of a society can be judged by its
treatment of women must be expanded to the notion that a democratic society will be judged by
how it accepts lesbians, gays, and transgender people. The egalitarian society that the anti-globalization
movement and most Latin American leftists still seek defends full rights for the poor and
working class and the elimination of poverty, hunger, and exploitation. Yet any movement that does
not support the most intimate rights to pleasure is a movement that can easily become authoritarian,
bureaucratic, and ultimately reactionary. u
James N. Green is associate professor of Latin American History at California State University, Long Beach,
the President of the Brazil Studies Association, and the author of Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in
Twentieth-Century Brazil (University of Chicago Press 1999).