“It’s important for me to assert my experiences as a homosexual, precisely to deconstruct the concept, to disrupt the discrimination and to be able from that point to discuss a new ethic that doesn’t set apart the private life from the public one. [...] to make the politicians representatives that don’t replace the represented, but who has the power to talk about citizenship in the widest possible way.” – Herbert Daniel
Queer culture in Brazil is as big and diverse as the country itself. The Pride Parade of São Paulo was considered the biggest in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2006 and received 1 million reais from the São Paulo city hall in 2010. And after many years of struggle, it’s currently legal for same sex couple to marry and adopt children. The public health system can now cover gender confirmation surgery - even if under less than ideal circumstances. But as important as those victories are, there’s still a history of violence in this country that makes many victims to this day. In 2016, Brazil was the country with the highest number of homicides against transgender women in the world, being transgender is still considered a psychiatric issue. Making it necessary for transgender people to have a medical professional’s approval to access hormonal therapy and gender confirmation surgery legally. The discrimination against queer people has deep roots in Brazil and even during times of adversity the Brazilian LGBT community has kept fighting for their rights.
From 1964 to 1985 Brazil lived a military dictatorship that was marked by violence, censorship, and torture. During this time the government eliminated the democratic rights of the political and cultural organization. That brought to an abrupt halt the fight for sexual liberation and queer rights that defined the 1950s, forcing the queer movement in Brazil to work in less public ways.The queer community was isolated during the dictatorship even inside other groups that were also resisting the government, which refused to discuss the issues brought by the queer community and often ignored the government's violent measures against the queer people. LGBT people were targeted as criminals, having their sexuality and gender identity seen as an attack on morality and a danger to the “good citizens” of the country.
The 1964 coup d’etat that started the military dictatorship in Brazil was branded at the time as a revolution to save the country from the communist menace represented by the then president João Goulart and his populistic governing decisions. The coup was initially backed by some sections of the civilian population such as the urban middle class, large landowners, the anti communist faction of the Catholic Church, the biggest newspapers, tv, and radio channels. The first president of the military regime established an iron fist approach to repress any leftist political action from the population and discourage the communist guerrillas that were then considered by the dictatorship “terrorists.”
During the first few years of the dictatorship, the population was in unrest due to the violence of the government and its severe attacks to political rights. Several resistance moments started, however when the Institutional Act Number 5 was decreed in 1968 things changed. The IA-5, as it was called, was considered the heaviest blow to Brazilian democracy at the time as it suppressed several political rights which meant the prohibition of activities and manifestation about political issues, preliminary censorship of music, movies, theatre and television, suspension of habeas corpus for political crimes and it gave the President the power to take away the political rights of citizens considered subversive.
The government’s repression had its focus on the “communists” and “subversive citizens,” with a whole political apparatus dedicated to hunting down and subduing those citizens. But the dictatorship’s control of the Brazilian population went a step further with the creation of means to target the “morally deviant.” The people who were deemed immoral were victims of arbitrary detentions, torture, expulsion from public careers, censorship and many other forms of violence. Being queer was seen as immorality in the government’s eyes, queer people were considered a danger to the Brazilian youth.
This attack on the queer community landed very heavily on poor and people of colour, especially transgender people. The people that survived that time often recall the common tactics the police used to apply to get them. Living in the streets and off of sex work, the travesties (a common Brazilian transfeminine identity) and transgender women had a very close knit community, and they noticed when the girls started disappearing.
They recount that week after week their friends would get picked up by a client and never came back. Some of the survivors tell that many of them were being picked up by groups of police officers in plain clothes, brought to the top a cliff and then thrown down. Most of them didn’t survive the fall. Other times the police would come and arrest the travestis, keep them in cramped rooms, beat them up and extort them. The police would promise to let them go if they could pay them some arbitrary amount of money. The people who could afford it shared their money to get their friends out as well. And soon enough they started creating their means to protect themselves.
“We used to cut ourselves with razors so that the cops wouldn’t arrest us. See, I still have the scars. They were afraid we’d cut ourselves.” - Weluma Brum, about the travestis’ self-defence practice. The cops’ fear came from the stigma around travestis and AIDS during that time.
Of course, it wasn’t only the people in lower class standing that were targeted by the government. Some public institutions like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs conducted investigations to identify “deviants” inside their ranks. During this investigation 44 people lost their jobs under the accusations of “homosexuality practices, ” and other ten diplomats had to go through medical and psychiatric exams to verify if they aligned with the government’s “good values.”
Being visibly queer in public could mean losing your job, an arbitrary arrest, a beating or worse, so the parts of the queer community that could afford it started to create coded spaces to exist out of the public eye. This signaled the rise of queer bars, saunas, and clubs. Places where queer people could be themselves without putting their lives in danger.
The violence of the State to the queer community legitimized the hatred of the civilian population towards LGBT+ people. People would gather signatures from their neighbors to have queer folks arrested. Many violent mass arrests were conducted by General Richetti under this pretense of maintaining the moral standards of neighborhoods. And since being queer was considered an illness, many of the people who were arrested in this period were sent to mental hospitals and treated as if their sexuality or gender identity was something to be fixed or pathologized.
This prejudice was present even inside the resistance. Guerrilla leader Herbert Daniel who had a part in the liberation of 110 political prisoners during the dictatorship suffered from homophobia inside the militia. Homosexuality was seen in the resistance as a bourgeois desire and that homophobia, racism and sexism were topics that belonged to the middle class. Herbert was told to chose between the resistance or his sexuality and he chose to continue to fight in the revolution. He fought against the dictatorship from 1967 to 1974 when he decided to exile himself in Argentina where he lived with his partner Cláudio Mesquita for 20 years.
In 1977, with the decline of the dictatorship, the government started to soften some of its harsher measures to begin a transition to democracy. Many of the political rights taken away during the dictatorship are returned during this time, and we have the resurgence of organized resistance. In the final years of the dictatorship, Brazil became more politically tolerant of different ideologies ushering in a new rise in opposing movements. However, one of the ways the government found to keep its control of the population was to make the moral repression even worse.
With the new political freedom in the final years of the dictatorship, the population began to understand that they now had the possibility to openly disagree with the government, take to the streets with their discontent and organize opposing movements. During this time we have new queer organizations becoming more and more public. Many important queer newspapers are born in this decade such as the Lampião da Esquina. The Lampião was published between 1978 and 1981 in a context of an alternative press; it discussed LGBT issues, trying to give a voice and demarginalize queer people.
The people producing and distributing queer content were often attacked by civilian hate groups, and the police would turn a blind eye to those cases. Many newsstands that sold queer magazines and newspapers got bombed or burned down by those groups without any retaliation from the police. Other times LGBT books would be censored only after they were printed and ready to be distributed which meant a huge financial loss to the author and editor. Lesbian writer Cassandra Rios, the second most sold Brazilian author, wrote openly about women loving women in her 50 books and sold more than one million copies of her books. During the dictatorship, she had 36 of her books censored in this fashion.
Plays were censored in their opening night after the whole production was done and all the time and money invested couldn’t be saved. Due to these tactics, queer artists were pushed into poverty and debt, and the government took advantage of this. Fiscal investigations were conducted on many editors and publishers that worked with queer books or newspapers. They would send agents to this places and check if their accounting books are in order and if they weren’t, they’d close the business. This censorship of LGBT material during this time forced many queer artists to leave the country to continue working.
The oppression of queer people at the end of the dictatorship culminated in the “Operação Limpeza,” which translates to “operation cleanse,” conducted by José Wilson Richetti in may of 1980. This operation occurred in the centre of São Paulo and had the goal to arrest gay, travestis and sex workers. In less than a week, 1500 people were arrested. But those were different times and the LGBT community could finally make themselves be heard. In 13 of July, the queer community in São Paulo took the streets along with the black and feminist movements in a march against police repression. This day was marked as the birth of the LGBT fight in Brazil and became the national day of the homosexual fight, and the march is considered the precursor of the São Paulo Pride.
With the active participation of LGBT groups, queer rights were heavily debated in the constituent assembly of 1988. However, to protect the “traditional family” and the “good values,” they were promptly ignored in the new constitution. By pushing aside these issues, a permissiveness in the violence against queer people has grown in Brazil. During the dictatorship, the crimes the civilian population committed against queer people were encouraged and left unpunished. Today Brazil is the country with the highest number of trans women murdered. The investigation and punishment of this hate crimes are still far and between, and many of those crimes aren’t even accounted for.
The Brazilian LGBT community didn’t stop fighting for their rights, and throughout the last decades, they achieved many victories through the judiciary system. The laws protecting queer rights in Brazil are growing and already address many issues, but at the same time, the violence against queer people is still worrisome. The fight for LGBT rights in Brazil is far from over and the scars the dictatorship left in this country still have a long way to heal.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material.]
Cover of Lampião da Esquina in june of 1980. Translation: “The comeback of the faggot-killing squad: the three crimes that shook the gay community”
Cover of Lampião da Esquina may of 1980. Translation: “Minorities request in São Paulo: Happiness should be wide and unrestricted.”
Pictured from the LGBT demonstration on May 1th 1980. Translation “Against the discrimination of working class homosexuals”
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Vieira, H. “Onde Estavam as Travestis Durante a Ditadura?” Revista Fórum (2015). Retrieved June 20 2017 from
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“Operação Limpeza” Resistência em Arquivo (2014). Retrieved 20 June 2017 from