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New articles seek to expand the debate on LGBTI+ issues in Brazil

Researchers investigate the subject through aspects that include history and territory

The sixteenth-century seamstress Felipa de Sousa, 35, did not escape punishment for having revealed her sexual desires. Found guilty of “various dalliances with other women,” she was the first woman convicted for being a lesbian in the New World. As a result of the sentence imposed by the Visitor from the Holy Office in Salvador, in 1591, Sousa was taken in chains from Terreiro de Jesus to the Sé Cathedral of Bahia, “where, dressed simply in a white tunic, barefoot, with a candle in her hand, in front of the main ecclesiastical and civil authorities, she heard her ignoble sentence.” She was then flogged while listening to the bailiff proclaim her crime, the “heinous sin of sodomy with women,” concluding, “May she be exiled from this captaincy forever and ever.”

The case of the Bahia seamstress, as reported by anthropologist Luiz Mott, is the first essay in a collection of 24 previously unpublished writings by gender and sexuality researchers now gathered in the anthology Novas fronteiras das histórias LGBTI+ no Brasil (New frontiers in Brazilian LGBTI+ history) (Editora Elefante, 2023). The book is an effort to “jump the university wall,” in the words of historian Paulo Souto Maior, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), who edited the book with lawyer Renan Quinalha, a specialist in human rights and a law professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP).

The collection’s structure reveals the writers’ intentions, namely, to break with the historical, territorial, and thematic boundaries that limit understanding of the LGBTI+ (the acronym used to designate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transvestite, intersex, and others) experience in Brazil. These boundaries provide titles for the three sections in which the essays are arranged.

The first section examines historic boundaries. The opening work in the anthology is by Mott himself, one of the principal names in Brazil’s gay movement and now a retired professor at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) where he currently advises graduate students at the State University of Bahia (UNEB). In his essay “História cronológica da homofobia no Brasil: Das capitanias hereditárias ao fim da Inquisição (1532–1821)” (A chronological history of homophobia in Brazil: From the hereditary captaincies to the end of the Inquisition), the anthropologist pores over documents from the Tribunal of the Holy Office in Portugal, collected in the National Archive of Torre do Tombo, in order to recount the histories of the “sodomites,” as anyone who differed from the heterosexual norm was referred to at the time.

“More than 500 lawsuits are there, all digitized. It is the world’s largest collection of the day-to-day life of this cohort from that period,” says Mott. According to the researcher, although the Spanish Inquisition was more wide-reaching, with courts in Mexico, Peru, and Colombia (unlike the Portuguese Holy Office, which did not establish courts in Brazil), their historical accounts were not preserved in full. The Spanish, he observes, only summarized the lawsuits, while “In Portugal, I found actual love letters,” he says. In his article, Mott lists the cases under four categories: sodomites from Brazil, Portuguese sodomites exiled to Brazil, colony residents who confessed or were accused of sodomy, and Brazilian defendants of the crime of sodomy imprisoned and sentenced in the court of Lisbon. The text also presents a chronology of the principal facts related to homosexuality and homophobia in Brazil during the Inquisition.

the lawsuit from the Tribunal of the Holy Office, studied by researcher Luiz Mott. The document deals with the conviction of Luís Delgado of Portugal, living in Brazil, who was accused of sodomy and exiled to Angola in the seventeenth century

Mott’s article does what the organizers requested, summarizing the results of his research in a way that is accessible to a broad audience. Souto Maior and Quinalha’s goal was to gather a collection that brings together the results from the growth and diversification of gender and sexuality research in Brazil, especially during the last 20 years. The editors say this increase accompanies the advances in the legal and judicial framework of what they call, in the book’s introduction, the “process of civic inclusion of LGBTI+ people,” which has taken place over the last decade.

In the preface, Brazilianist James Green writes that the anthology is the realization of “a dream since the early 2000s, to see dozens of books, hundreds of master’s dissertations and doctoral theses, and thousands of academics producing research” in Brazil. Green, a historian who heads the Brazil Initiative at Brown University in the US and is a long-time LGBTI+ activist, lived in Brazil between 1976 and 1982. In the 1990s, he completed his doctorate at the University of California (UCLA), which provided the genesis for his book Além do Carnaval – A homossexualidade masculina no Brasil do século XX (Editora UNESP, 2000), originally published in English as Beyond Carnaval: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil (University of Chicago Press, 1999). At that time, as he recalls in the preface, “there was one article and three books” that served as references for writing his thesis. Green was responsible for bringing to light a pioneering study in the area of social sciences, written by sociologist José Fábio Barbosa da Silva. The monograph, which profiled middle-class and elite male homosexuals in São Paulo in the 1950s, was defended in 1960 at the University of São Paulo (USP) for a panel composed of sociologists Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Octavio Ianni (1926–2004), and Florestan Fernandes (1920–1995), who supervised the research. In 2005, the work was published in the book Homossexualismo em São Paulo e outros escritos (Homosexuality in São Paulo and other writings) (Editora UNESP), edited by Green and anthropologist Ronaldo Trindade.

The recent proliferation of academic works on the LGBTI+ community does not, as a matter of course, accurately reflect its social existence. For Remom Matheus Bortolozzi, from the Department of Psychology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Paraná (PUC-PR), “the great irony of history is to say ‘in my time it didn’t exist.’” Bortolozzi authored the article “Por entre melindrosas, almofadinhas e transformistas do Triângulo: Novos gêneros e sexualidades na Belle Époque paulistana do início do século XX” (Among flappers, dandies, and cross-dressers of the Triângulo: New genders and sexualities during the Belle Époque in São Paulo at the beginning of the twentieth century,” which is also part of the anthology’s historical boundaries section.

Taking its source material from the pages of newspapers and other periodicals, the article deals primarily with the social reaction to women and men — the flappers and dandies of the title — whose social codes indicated a gender inversion. As the researcher writes, “the fashions of the 1920s, fundamental to the flapper culture, were marked by a slender, rectilinear silhouette… and by the influence of men’s clothing. The women of the period went for an androgyny or ‘masculinization’ in their clothing that was manifested by deemphasizing the bust and waist and wearing their hair cut short.” In the case of the dandies, the publications of the period highlighted “the elegance of their clothing and the use of makeup such as lipstick, rouge, and rice powder, in addition to having manicured nails and pedicured feet,” as well as the “mannerisms of effeminacy and delicacy, being beautiful and charming, speaking in falsetto, refinement of education, and the appreciation they receive from women.”

“At the beginning of the century, these identities were associated with the desire to be modern and European and nontraditional, at a time when São Paulo aspired to cosmopolitanism,” Bortolozzi observes. These were cultural identities that were not necessarily linked to homosexuality. “In that historical moment, ‘social medicine’ was shaping the medical, legal, and police perspective, creating an opening for the institutional formation of LGBT-phobia,” the researcher explains.

Brazilian National LibraryFlappers and dandies in 1920s editions of the magazine Para Todos (For everyone)Brazilian National Library

In addition to being one of the book’s editors, Souto Maior is coauthor of an article in the second section titled “Fronteiras territoriais” (Territorial boundaries), dedicated to the LGBTI+ scene in places such as the states of Mato Grosso and Rondônia. With coauthor Bruno Silva de Oliveira, who recently received a master’s degree in history from the Federal University of Sergipe (UFS), Souto Maior addresses the experiences of gay and trans men in the city of Campina Grande, Paraíba, during the 1970s and 1980s. “One recurrent theme in the LGBTI+ imagination is what the French philosopher Didier Eribon calls ‘escape to the city,’ and the anonymity of large urban centers that allows these people to live out and express their sexualities,” Souto Maior says. This “escape,” he says, does not mean that there are no spaces in rural areas or in capitals outside the Southeast for experiencing this type of social interaction.

The article unearths the history of public and private spaces that served as gathering spots for these groups, such as Toca do Caranguejo, a bar in operation on the city’s outskirts from 1980 through 2004, where the annual “Miss Campina Grande Gay” contest was held. This social lifestyle was, however, impacted by the AIDS epidemic. The disease, which saw its first cases diagnosed in Brazil in 1983, was initially treated in the Campina Grande scene as a sickness imported by those who traveled outside the country. It was only beginning in 1985 that AIDS began to get coverage in the local press and became a source of panic and distrust in the city. The symptoms, as described by the press, came to “act like a tattoo on someone who had the disease, almost automatically denouncing their sexuality,” the authors write.

Among the first academic studies written about the homosexual scene in the city of Paraíba was a master’s thesis by historian Kyara Maria de Almeida Vieira, defended at the Federal University of Campina Grande (UFCG), in 2006. With historian Rozeane Porto Diniz, Viera contributed one of the articles for the anthology’s third section, on thematic boundaries. The researchers trace a dialogue between their two doctoral theses, developed respectively at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), in 2014, and at the State University of Paraíba (UEPB), in 2017, in which they addressed literary representations of “lesbianisms.”

The article starts from the premise that “what history does not mention, did not exist” to analyze the cordels O homosexual (2010), by Raimundo Nonato da Silva, and A confusão da sapatão com a ronda do quarteirão (The dyke in trouble with the beat cops) (2008), by Jair Moraes. (Cordels are traditional Brazilian publications in booklet or pamphlet formats.) They also analyze the novel Eu sou uma lesbica (I am a lesbian) (1981), by Cassandra Rios (1932–2002), a writer with broad popular reach, who was able to live exclusively off the royalties from her books.

In Vieira’s opinion, although the cordels do not reflect “all the transformations that have occurred over the last 70 years” for the LGBTI+ population in Brazil, and use language stereotypes via terms such as “sapatão” (akin to “dyke”), these popular literary works name and give visibility to the lesbian experience. “There is representation in them, but not representativeness,” observes the researcher, who currently teaches at the Federal Rural University of the Semi-Árido Region (UFERSA).

Brazilian National LibraryAn article published in 1931, in the newspaper A esquerda, reports on a man in São Paulo who began dressing like a womanBrazilian National Library

On the other hand, the novel by Cassandra Rios questions moral codes and even scientific and religious precepts to talk about desire among women at the height of the military dictatorship (1964–1985), Vieira says. The story was originally published as a serial, in 1980, in a men’s magazine. The following year, the book — which narrates the main character Flávia’s life and the blossoming of her sexuality during childhood — was published by Record. In 2006, it was reissued by Azougue Editorial. It is the only work by the São Paulo author to announce the sexual orientation of its protagonist in the title.

In another article published in the anthology’s thematic boundaries section, anthropologists Paulo Victor Leite Lopes and Silvia Aguião discuss the issue of homosexuality in the favelas, based on their master’s dissertations, which focused on the scene in Rio. Aguião, who defended her dissertation in public health at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) in 2007, describes Rio das Pedras, a favela that emerged in the late 1960s in the capital of Rio de Janeiro that was marked by militia activities (at the time referred to as the “policia mineira”), which constrained the activities of armed drug traffickers in the area. “The absence of armed trafficking doesn’t guarantee the formation of a territory free of coercive powers, which, in this case, are exercised by the militia,” the researcher says. “Throughout the research it was possible to perceive there were places considered more or less comfortable for non-heterosexual people in Rio das Pedras. Showing ‘excessive’ sexual orientation was considered disrespectful and a type of behavior subject to sanctions by the militia.”

The anthropologist began to investigate Rio das Pedras with a focus on homosexuality, race, and racial intermixing while still finishing her bachelor’s degree in social sciences at UERJ, in 2003. While working on her master’s research she lived in the favela for four months in late 2006. During this time, she hung a poster in her rented studio that displayed the phrase “Down with homophobia.” “My closest contacts in Rio das Pedras were with non-heterosexual people, such as gays, lesbians, and trans people, and when they entered my house, they would usually ask me what homophobia meant.” At the time, this was not a commonly used word, according to Aguião, now a researcher at the Center for Research and Training in Race, Gender, and Racial Justice at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (AFRO-CEBRAP). She says that at that time, the debate on affirmative action and the defense of rights related to gender and sexuality were just emerging at universities. “I was intrigued to know how the term arose in everyday life in the favela.”

This question inspired the doctoral research she conducted from 2008 to 2013 at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), with support from FAPESP. In her study, Aguião investigated how the political processes underway in Brazil at the beginning of the twenty-first century made it possible to establish this population, which at that time was designated LGBT, as subjects with rights within the Brazilian government’s agenda. Two examples of initiatives along these lines were the creation of the National Council to Combat Discrimination, in 2001, and the launch of the federal program Brazil Without Homophobia, in 2005. “If we want to understand how subjects with rights are produced in this context, we need to look at the mutually productive and dependent relationship between these three spheres: social movements linked to the LGBTI+ cause, academic production, and the state,” argues the anthropologist, whose thesis was published as a book by EDUERJ in 2018 and is available as a free download. “As a result of their participation in government discussions, social movements linked to the LGBTI+ cause have grown their contact base and expanded their activism networks. This way of doing politics, of organizing, is a legacy that won’t be lost, even in scenarios that are hostile to the cause.”

The anthology’s editors also see a fundamental link between academic production and activism, with the results of research being translated into public policy for the LGBTI+ population. “Our primary intention isn’t to simply tell the story out of a museological desire to preserve the past,” says Quinalha. “Public policies need technical information, data, and analysis in order to be developed. In this sense, I think the book can contribute, for example, to anyone who is thinking about policy proposals in local and regional terms,” he concludes.

The construction of LGBT individuals as subjects with unique rights in the Brazilian governmental sphere (nº 09/09786-1); Grant Mechanism Doctoral Fellowship; Supervisor Maria Filomena Gregori (UNICAMP); Beneficiary Silvia Aguião Rodrigues; Investment R$118,723.19.