Antonio Variacoes, the Artist

"Leave it for tomorrow
You might as well live today
Because tomorrow who knows if you'll still be here
Oh you know well how life runs away
Even from those who say they're here to stay."
– Antonio Variacoes

Today we are going to be looking at a man who was integral in the formation of Portuguese music and queer culture: Antonio Variacoes. Variacoes was a man who had an impressively eclectic musical career alongside influence on the political side of his country. As he was becoming popular shortly after the Carnation Revolution, he was able to be at the forefront of a huge social and political shift, pushing his country towards acceptance through his music.

Before diving into the life of Antonio, however, we have to look at his country so we can see the climate he was coming into. Variacoes grew up under an authoritarian dictatorship which had been ruling Portugal for over four decades. This meant that the music and media in Portugal at the time was strictly censored, so any mention of queer identities in a positive light was erased. It is important to note that, because of this, it was unlikely Antonio had any delusions about his country’s attitude to homosexuality. Because the only talk of it was highly negative, it is easy to understand why Antonio never came out about his identity as a man who was attracted to other men. Add onto that the fact that he served in compulsory army duty, which was often used as a vessel to push toxic masculinity on the youth of a country; it is surprising that he turned out the way he did at all. A part of his development, however, surely lay in his tendency to travel and his love of the arts.

Antonio went to live in London and traveled to Amsterdam for a couple of years when he was just beginning to explore his identity as an artist and as a person. While those two places were not perfect examples of acceptance of the queer community, both would have provided very different atmospheres for a man who had grown up under such severe oppression. He took the chance to expand his worldview, which made his music notoriously hard to define. The same can be said, of course, for the man himself.

By the time Antonio returned to Portugal, he was a very different person, regarding both in his art and in his appearance. He had adopted an eccentric and vibrant way of dressing in his travel, and this made him stand out starkly in a country that was shifting from a strict dictatorship to a new democracy. Fashion was not the only front he led the way in after his return though. He also opened the first unisex barber shop in all of Portugal, which was quick to get famous clients, connections that he would later use to push forward his musical career.

When he was finally signed to a music label in 1978 by Valentim de Carvalho, the corporation took its time releasing his music. This was not because of the quality of the music but because of how hard it was to place in one genre -  not surprising, as “Antonio Varicoes” was Antonio’s  chosen name, and his last name translates into “variety.” Antonio spent his entire music career staying true to the style that his last name advertised and quickly became one of the most popular Portuguese singers of all time.

That, however, is not what we are going to be focusing on. Barely over ten years after the ban on same sex relationships ended, Antonio was writing and releasing songs alluding to things that used to be heavily censored. With his position as the most famous man in Portugal, he was able to shift attitudes: dressing in ways that did not always conform to the gender roles and singing about things that weren’t even whispered about less than twenty years ago.

Antonio’s life was cut short, however, by a disease that was common in our community during this time; AIDs. Though his official cause of death remains very speculative, friends and family of Antonio report that only shortly before his death at the age of thirty-nine, in June of 1984, he was told that he was HIV positive. This, as many of us know, was a death sentence at this time.  

Rumors flew about him after his death; speculation, and much of it probably untrue, so it is hard to find facts about his life. Despite many rumors, Antonio, such an influential man during his life, was just as influential after. He was voted to be Portugal’s most famous gay icon, and he dramatically changed the way the Portuguese public saw and addressed homosexuality. He was a rudder in a country that was just finding its identity after decades of dictatorship.

There had been more than enough revolutionaries and activists telling them what they should think; Antonio was an artist. He was able to tap into a part of the country’s soul that other revolutionary men and women weren’t capable of. He used his fame and his art to steer Portugal into a more accepting and open age gently. Now, looking at a  Portugal that has a strong and thriving queer community, it is clear to see that a part of the reason that they can exist so openly is that of the paths a man who has spent his life in the closet opened for them. After a revolution of flowers, Antonio brought a revolution of music, and again we see the power that can be found in creating beautiful things in the face of destructive forces.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

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