Gay and Lesbian Studies in Brazil: A FIELD IN CONSTRUCTION

On July 26, 2007 Berenice
Bento, a sociologist
from the University
of Brasilia
and vice president
of the Brazilian
Homocultural Studies
Association, presented a colloquium
at CLAGS entitled
Who is “trangender” in Brazil?
Bento, author of A Reinvenção
do Corpo: Sexualidade e
Gênero na Experiência Transexual,
also discussed the signifi –
cant growth of trans activism in
Brazil over the last decade and
a bill that was introduced in
the federal congress that would
permit trans people to change
their gender and name on offi cial

Traditionally, sexuality studies
in Brazil have been
organized around ideas
of normalization.
Specialists in the fi eld
have been trained to
observe and comment
on behaviours
that did not conform
to the imperatives
of heterosexuality.
Gender was polarized
and hierarchical, and
gained meaning from the
idea of separate, complementary
sexes. Heterosexuality gave meaning to
human existence and reproduction, and
every other kind of sexual expression was
measured according to the rule of heteronormativity.
In recent years, this hegemonic view
has become the target of an intense process
of deconstruction. Both debates and
research on sexualities emerged within
Brazilian universities to counter the construction
of non-heterosexual identities
as medicalized or pathologized. Rather
than being imagined solely as a natural
site for reproduction, sexualities were
instead imagined as constructed by and
located within domains of power. This
new approach in research fi rst appeared
in the area of social science, particularly
over the last 30 years, and is ongoing.
The emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic
and the works of Michel Foucault
represent an important frame to outline a
new look at sexual practices.
High priority issues in sexuality
research and critique include homosexual
marriage; sex reassignment surgeries;
surveys on violence towards and murders
of transvestites, lesbians, transsexuals and
gays; the impact of AIDS on sexual images
and imagination; the production and
reproduction of homophobia; medical,
religious and legal discourses; pornography;
and sexual education. Over time,
the work of social scientists has contributed
signifi cantly to the recognition of
the historical development and the social
character of sexual behavior, as well as
providing a diverse array of interpretive
tools to think about sexuality in Brazil.
Just as the study of gender revealed
and analyzed the historical, social and
cultural processes that privileged men
and masculinity, and denounced the
ideology inherent in the naturalization of
male dominance, gay and lesbian studies
and studies of gender non-conforming
people (transvestites, transsexuals and
transgender people) are face the task of
making explicit the interests (class, race,
gender, religion) involved when heterosexuality
is determined to be the only
way for people to live their sexualities.
Works presented at scientifi c meetings
are a good indication of the academic
legitimacy of a specifi c subject. Where
work on sexuality was once folded into
larger panels and discussions, research on
the many manifestations of homosexuality
now merit its own intellectual space.
This has happened at the Reuniões da
Associação Brasileira de Antropologia (Meetings of the Brazilian Anthropology
Association), at the Congresso da Sociedade
Brasileira de Sociologia (Congress of
the Brazilian Sociology Society), and at
the meetings of the Associação Nacional
de Pós-Graduação e Pesquisa em Ciências
Sociais (National Association of Post
Graduate Studies and Research in Social
Science). At the most recent meetings
of these institutions, scholars presented
work that discussed homosexual marriage
and child adoption for homosexual
couples, familial arrangements with
people of the same gender, historical
approaches to homophobia, film and literary
representations of homosexualities,
social movements for sexual diversity,
among others.
Another prestigious and already
established space is the Fazendo Gênero
(Building Gender) international meeting.
The presence of researchers involved in
gay, lesbian and gender non-conforming
people’s issues grows every year. However,
debates still exist over the relationship
between work on sexualities and research
on gender expression. Though questions
raised by transvestite, transsexual, and
transgender people are related to gender
issues, researchers involved with the
subject have presented their reflections
in work groups that only discuss homosexualities.
Added to this is the fact that much
feminist theorizing and activism has been
organized around thinking of gender
through women’s biological bodies (e.g.,
women in the labor market, reproductive
rights of women, female participation
in politics, among others). For many
researchers within sexuality and feminist
studies, gender is related to biological
features, circumscribing “male” to men
and “female” to women. An internal
dialogue has still to be established within
the field of gender studies that takes seriously
a critique of binarized gender and
thinks through the concept of gender as a
performative identity.
An important leap in the institutionalization
of gay, lesbian and gender
non-conforming studies was the foundation
of the ABEH (Brazilian Association
of Homoculture Studies) in June 2001.
The main objective of this institution
is to stimulate the exchange and development
of research on homosexuality,
homoeroticism, gay and lesbian studies,
bisexuals, transgenders and queer theory.
In its three congresses, the participation
of professors, undergraduate and graduate
students, professionals, researchers and
other interested persons showed strength
and potential for growth.
ABEH is not the only organization
dealing with issues of sexuality and
research. An institution funded by the
Ford Foundation and part of the“Diálogo
Global sobre Saúde e Bem-Estar Sexual”
project (“Global Dialogue on Health
and Sexual Welfare”), the Centro Latino
Americano em Direitos Humanos e Sexualidade
(CLAM, Latin American Center
in Human Rights and Sexuality) was
founded in 2003. Publications, scientific
events, and research are some of the activities
carried out by the CLAM, whose
central objective is to discuss sexuality
from a Human Rights perspective. In
2006, the CLAM organized a pioneering
course for teachers of the Brazilian public
system in partnership with other institutions
and federal government agencies.
This online course (Gender and Diversity
at School), led teachers of some Brazilian
cities to discuss sexuality, race/ethnicity
and gender from a decentered perspective.
The need to promote the formation
of a qualified body of new researchers
led the ANPOCS, in partnership with
the CLAM and the Ford Foundation, to
organize the Social Sexuality and Sciences
Contest, intended for masters degree and
doctorate students in the areas of Sociology,
Political Science and Anthropology.
There are also two journals that deal with
issues of sexuality and gender: Cadernos
Pagu and Revista de Estudos Feministas.
Although all these projects bring with
them a variety of theoretical investments
and methodological approaches, they all
share a desire to question the existence of
a single “truth” about sexualities. Much
of this work draws upon Foucauldian
genealogies of power. Indeed, there is
a relative consensus that an analysis of
power best explains how discourses of
sexual “truth” are produced and nonnormative
sexual practices are relegated
to the margins. Considering how power
produces truth requires that we politicize
social relations previously considered
natural. The experiences of gay, lesbian,
heterosexual and gender non-conforming
people are inserted in discourse fields
where subjectivities are articulated in an
intense and painful process of negotiation
with norms. Rather than imagining the
individual as the way in which identity is
explained and understood, this approach
looks to the multiple institutions and
discourses that both construct and undermine
social hegemony. This is the process
that I call politicalization. Through this
process, gay, lesbian and gender nonconforming
studies meet lesbian, gay,
bisexual, transvestite, transsexual and
transgender (LGBTTT) activism.
If the politicalization of sexualities
and gender non-conformity makes space
for collaboration between activism and
the academy, the deciding factor that
will connects these two fields is the the
Human Rights perspective. Activists and
theoreticians point to the exclusion of
gays, lesbians, transsexuals, transvestites
and transgender people from the category
of “humanity,” and observe that humanness
as it currently stands presupposes
specific attributes, heterosexuality being
one of them. Making a claim for queer
Human Rights involves a process of radical
deconstruction (already in process) of
these naturalized qualitative features of
An important victory in the recognition
of the Human Rights of gays, lesbians,
and gender non-conforming people
was the Brazilian Government’s launch
of the Programa Brasil sem Homofobia
(Brazil Without Homophobia Program).
Initiated in May 2004, the Program was
the result of an intense dialogue between
innumerable representative institutions
of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestite
and transsexual communities, and government
representatives. This program is
organized around reaching all the levels
of government and is aimed at fighting
against homophobia and making inclusive
public policies. For the first time
in the history of Brazil, the government
has acknowledged that homophobia
is a national concern and needs to be
fought. Even though it receives constant
criticism from sectors of the LGBTTT
movement, the Program has generated
ongoing initiatives in the Ministry of
Education, the Special Secretariat of Human
Rights, and the Ministry of Culture.
In Brazil, LGBTTT social movements
are guided by the rubric of identity
politics. This strategy has mixed results,
however. LGBTTT groups demand
political recognition according to specific
identity categories, explicitly differentiated from other identities, which may
gain short-term goals but also reproduces
and maintains identifications as natural
and self-evident. Transsexuals, transvestites
and transgender people have acted
in partnership with the gay and lesbian
movement. Although there are specific
organizations for each of the collective
identities, it is possible to notice moments
of unity among lesbian, gay,
transgender, transsexual, and transvestite
constituencies, e.g. in the organization of
the Pride Day Parades.
The State is currently the meeting
place of these multiple identities,
and each looks to the State to establish
inclusive policies. Given how these policies
depend so much on stable identity
categories, it would be unreasonable to
imagine that these movements would
entertain theories that question or deny
identity politics. The disconnection
between theory and political practice is
clear in the conceptualization of “transgender”
identity. An example of this
little resonance is the fragility of the
“transgender” category. Within transgender
activism, there is little room for
those whose connection to the term is a
conceptualization of gender as performative
rather than natural or identitarian.
The concept of “queer” is also distant
from Brazilian reality. Although the texts
of queer theoreticians, mainly Judith
Butler, are used as a theoretical tool,
there is nothing in Brazil that we might
call “Queer Studies” or activism organized
around “queerness.” While in the
academy we can find research that works
with the transgender category and defines
itself as “queer studies,” social movements
have other imperatives that guide
the actions of those who are fighting to
be legitimately recognized in the context
of a specific identity. Activism and
academia bring with them specific and
unique internal features, and not taking
them into account would be making a
mechanical transposition from one arena
to another, without considering the real
and strategic differences.
A field of sexuality and gender studies
is slowly being consolidated in Brazil,
but it is hardly uniform. Rather, it is
characterized by multiple analytical
perspectives and empirical categories,
approaches to various understandings of
the body and its construction, the deconstruction
of sexual identities, the mapping
of political and aesthetic expressions
of desire, and the performance of sexual
and gender transgression.

Associação Brasileira de Estudos da Homocultura
Centro Latino Americano de Direitos Humanos e Sexualidade
At you can find a list of Brazilian institutions
for the defense of gays, lesbians, transsexuals and transvestites.
The Brazil Without Homophobia Program is published at
Revistas Estudos Feministas and Cadernos Pagu are available at
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Maria Luiza Heilborn and Elaine Reis Brandão. 1999. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge
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Sexualidade e saberes: convenções e fronteiras (Sexuality and Knowledge: Conventions
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Dois é par: gênero e identidade sexual em contexto igualitário (Two is Even: Gender
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Maria Luiza Heilborn. 2004. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond.
Religião e sexualidade: convicções e responsabilidades (Religion and Sexuality: Convictions
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Novas Famílias (New Families)
Luiz Mello. 2005. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond.
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Sopa de letrinhas? (A Word Puzzle?)
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O homossexual visto por entendidos (Homosexuals Seen by
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Sexualidade e comportamento sexual no Brasil: dados e pesquisas
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Política, Direitos & Sexualidade (Parada Gay Rio de Janeiro
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Construções da Sexualidade (Constructions of Sexuality)
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Sexualidades brasileiras (Brazilian Sexualities)
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Corpos, prazeres e paixões (Bodies, Pleasures and Passions)
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O terror e a dádiva (Terror and donation)
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