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date: 11 December 2019

Brazil’s LGBT Movement

Summary and Keywords

Brazil has boasted a vibrant and creative LGBT movement since the late 1970s. Early organizing focused on consciousness-raising, the formation of a collective identity, and political opposition to the military dictatorship (1964–1985). These years saw transformations in understandings of individual and collective identity, publications in an early homophile press, and successful experiences organizing in homosexual gay and lesbian groups. In the late 1980s, with the advent of HIV/AIDS and re-democratization, the movement began a turn to institutionalized politics and public policy. Strategic engagement with the state as legally registered civil society organizations established a framework for a routine and cooperative relationship in policy and policymaking. This occurred first for HIV/AIDS service provision and later for LGBT citizenship. By the 1990s, the movement embraced identity politics and grappled with an explosion of advocacy on behalf of identity groups that make up the alphabet soup of LGBT politics, particularly lesbian and transgender rights groups that had been less visible in earlier years. Movement successes, such as same-sex partnership recognition, gender-identity recognitions, and policy programs against violence, have been accomplished primarily through engagement with the judiciary and executive, not the legislature (nor electoral politics). The legislature and electoral politics have failed to produce significant gains in LGBT-friendly policy at the national level; however, state and municipal LGBT-friendly policy exists. Moving forward, persistent challenges include divisive partisan [identity] politics within the movement, concerted opposition from conservative evangelical politicians, and volatility of the national political context. These challenges jeopardize policy successes that the movement has made through rather precarious executive and judicial avenues.

Keywords: LGBT, LGBT politics, Brazil, social movements, sexual diversity, public policy

The old adage that Brazil is a country of contradictions certainly holds true for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) politics and policy. On one hand, the LGBT pride parade in São Paulo, Brazil, entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 2006 as the largest event of its type, for uniting 3 million participants, a feat it continues to repeat annually. On the other, annual statistics on LGBT-related violence and homicide regularly place Brazil as one of, if not the most, dangerous countries for LGBTs in the world (Itaborahy, 2012). Yet these contradictions threaten to obscure the LGBT social movement that has made possible both the success of the pride parade and documentation of the unfortunate reality of daily violence against LGBT persons.

The Brazilian LGBT movement emerged in full force in the 1970s under relatively inauspicious political conditions. The military dictatorship, installed in the coup d’état of 1964, strengthened its grip on political and social life in 1968 with the Institutional Act 5 (AI-5). This act severely demarcated civil liberties in the country that, for the four years prior, continued in place despite the nondemocratic nature of the regime. Instead, AI-5 prohibited freedom of assembly, instituted censorship of the press and media (and established a review board for all publications), suspended habeas corpus, and granted discretionary power to the military to intervene in political affairs. As such, although 1968 and 1969 marked a global watershed for so-called countercultural movements, with events such as the Stonewall Riots, the political context in Brazil limited early organizing capacity and strategic tactics of LGBT activists. Early efforts focused primarily on consciousness-raising and strategies related to identity formation. These would be further challenged by the advent of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.

The democratic opening (abertura) ended the military regime in 1985 and culminated in the passage of the 1988 Constitution. This signaled the arrival of a new era for LGBT social movements and LGBT politics and policy. Although activists failed to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in the constitution, the democratic state became a legitimate target for contentious politics. As the movement pressed with various demands, and new resources were made available, the cohesiveness of a collective LGBT identity was challenged. Thus, re-democratization brought with it concomitant processes of institutionalization of the LGBT movement within the state and fragmentation of the movement itself.

A significant segment of the Brazilian LGBT movement has moved definitively from the realm of non-institutional politics to the realm of institutional politics. As a policy actor, the movement struggles to make headway in the legislative arena. This is particularly acute at the federal level, where notable bill PLC122/2006 to criminalize homophobia, on par with hate crimes legislation in the United States, has floundered since 2006. However, the LGBT movement strategically pursues initiatives in both the judicial and executive arenas of politics. This approach accounts for many policy successes in the country, including rectification of names in accordance with gender identity on official documents for the trans population in 2018; nationwide same-sex partnership recognition for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals in 2011; and marriage equality in 2013.

The Brazilian LGBT movement faces a number of persistent, contemporary challenges, many of which reflect long-standing and unresolved dilemmas to social movement organizing and contentious politics. Within the movement, collective identity politics continues to surface as a dual-edged sword that both holds the movement together and threatens to tear it apart. Notably, conflict emanates from disagreements over partisanship and gender/sexual identity (trans/LGB segments). These internal challenges are unfortunate given serious external threats and concerted action from conservative politicians and social activists. The 2016 impeachment of democratically elected president Dilma Rousseff and subsequent events make evident the precarious nature of judicial and executive successes of the LGBT movement.

Brazilian LGBT Movement Organizing

Homosexual Consciousness-Raising

Scholarship on sexuality in Latin America notes the importance of sexual acts in establishing individual and collective identity. Throughout most of the 20th century, binary and dichotomous sexual roles as active or passive partners during same-sex relationships strongly determined subsequent categorizations of self and subjectivity. These roles reproduced heterosexual notions of sexuality that tightly connected sex to gender and separated masculinity from femininity (Parker, 1999).

Thus, early male homosexual communities in Brazil were organized around a symbolic active and passive divide (Parker, 1999). The performance of traditional gender roles during sex defines one’s masculinity, or not. For two men, the active partner retains claim to real masculinity, virility, and even heterosexuality, with agency and dignity in a language with gendered pronouns, adjectives, and verbs, whereas the passive partner is emasculated and effeminized (Modesto, 2006).

This logic made difficult the formation of a collective LGBT identity movement. If scholars understand that self-identification with a group is one of the first steps to mobilization, then individual disassociation from gay identity based on active or passive roles was one of the first challenges to overcome. An important shift occurred alongside countercultural movements and changes in the 1960s and 1970s. In the urban centers of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, emerging middle-class homosexual communities embraced the new label of entendido (“in the know”) to define what would later become gay and lesbian identity (Fry, 1982; Green, 1999; MacRae, 1990). The new identity of entendido marked a shift away from dichotomous and hierarchical relationships of active/passive to those characterized by symmetry and equality, albeit both systems co-existed nationwide (Guimarães, 1977). The entendido signified homosexual men and women and the places those in the know would go to meet around town. Fry (1982) suggests that the medical-psychological community mediated this process through broad classification of homosexuality as an innate trait of certain individuals, associated with mental illness; thus gendered sexual roles mattered less in self-identification as gay or lesbian.

At the same time, large-scale processes of urbanization and development sparked the growth of an urban middle class. Calls for equality, particularly in gender-based relations, influenced the political position of the new entendido identity. Early articulations incorporated feminist demands to restructure gender roles and socialist demands to restructure class roles. The construction of entendido also reflected a desire to radically change societal relationships and hierarchies (Fry, 1982; Simões & Facchini, 2009).

In Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth Century Brazil (Green, 1999), historian and former activist of the Brazilian LGBT movement James N. Green documents with great detail the emergence of entendido spaces in the urban centers of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. As homosexual communities approached a critical mass, both cities witnessed a proliferation of bars, nightclubs, parks, and beaches (such as Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro) that catered exclusively to entendidos. Through processes of consciousness-raising common to collective identity movements, contact with other entendidos led individuals to create new turmas (groups of friends) and practice a markedly homosexual subculture of drag-, camp-, and carnival-style balls.

During this time, a nascent homosexual movement experimented with consciousness-raising through the development of a homophile press (Green, 1999). The first of these home-crafted, modest publications, O Snob, largely reproduced language of gender hierarchy present prior to the entendido phase of identity. A later publication, Gente Gay, transitioned its language toward the model of egalitarianism present in entendido identity. These publications, with limited circulation, served as early forays into the mobilization and collective action of homosexuals as politicized subjects. Identity for empowerment (Bernstein, 1997, 2005; Taylor & Whittier, 1992) was underway in these texts: identities were negotiated, consciousness was raised, and inklings of politicization began within a small homophile community of 50–100 (Green, 1999).

Political Organizing

Full-scale political mobilization of the Brazilian LGBT movement (then referred to as the Brazilian Homosexual Movement [MHB]) occurred gradually during the second half of the 1970s. As homosexual activists embraced the liberating entendido identity, steps were taken to create organizations that would continue consciousness-raising and involve activists in politics. The MHB politicized following the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship during a period of democratic opening in 1978. One key challenge to early organizing was the macro-level political context of the military dictatorship. Following AI-5 in 1968, harsh measures were taken by the dictatorship to repress civil liberties of free speech, press, and free association in public spaces. On July 1, 1976, an activist distributed flyers of meetings for the Union of the Brazilian Homosexuals in an early attempt to organize in Rio de Janeiro (Green, 1999). As Green (1999, p. 272) recounts, on the day of the event, the General Department of Special Investigation swarmed the meeting space and effectively repressed the meeting.

A second challenge to mobilization was ideological tension present in the organized left. The Brazilian Communist Party, characterized as sexist and homophobic, strongly resisted demands to incorporate other groups as valid political subjects within the logic of class struggle (Green, 1999, p. 271; Trevisan, 1986). Others doubted the strategic value of organizing a separate movement based on sexual identity, given the dire political context of the military dictatorship. Thus, the question between organizing as an autonomous homosexual movement identity versus organizing in partnership with the traditional left undermined mobilization as a collective movement (Green, 1999).

In 1978, Winston Leyland of the San Francisco Gay Sunshine Press visited Brazil and catalyzed social movement mobilization (Green, 1999; MacRae, 1990; Trevisan, 1986). Press conferences by Leyland shared news of the international gay rights movement. This encouraged Brazilian activists and intellectuals to dabble in homophile press once again. A watershed moment came in 1978 with the publication of Lamp Post on the Corner (Lampião da Esquina). The publication instigated collective action, encouraging homosexuals to “defend individuals against arbitrary antigay actions by the government and to fight homophobic attitudes in Brazilian society in general” (cited in Green, 1999, p. 274).

In the same year, the Action Nucleus for Homosexuals’ Rights (Núcleo de Ação pelos Direitos dos Homossexuais) began in São Paulo with participation rates of around 15–20 people (Green, 1999, p. 275; Trevisan, 1986, p. 208). One of the early tasks was to settle on an organization name that captured the expressive and political intentions of the group. The group combined the two leading propositions into one name and became Somos: Group of Homosexual Affirmation (Somos: Grupo de Afirmação Homosexual). The name honored the early Argentine homosexual organization persecuted during the dirty war and, as the Portuguese equivalent for “we are” or “we exist,” it was “expressive, affirmative, palindromic, [and] rich in semiotics” (Trevisan, 1986, p. 208).

Somos quickly grew in size, remaining relatively fluid and inconsistent in membership. Entrance and exit of participants led to a decentralized structure with multiple smaller group meetings and a loose cycling of leadership positions (MacRae, 1990). The sheer number of participants called for the creation of specialized subgroups such as one for new participants, who were encouraged to engage in consciousness-raising, and women, who were a minority of the participants. The formation of subgroups ultimately weakened ties between participants, as they became sites for ideological struggles between anarcho-libertarian and Marxist-Trotskyist leadership (MacRae, 1990). The anarchist camp preferred homosexual consciousness-raising work, and the Marxist-Trotskyist camp sought to incorporate the homosexual movement directly in the progressive political and social struggles of the era. These included campaigns to defend the editors of Lampião da Esquina from indictment under the National Security Act; resistance to police repression; mobilization with the United Black Movement’ organization of the First National Encounter of Organized Homosexual Groups’ and direct engagement and participation in the labor movement and fledgling Workers’ Party (PT) (MacRae, 1990, p. 183; Trevisan, 1986).

Eventually, disagreements within leadership over the direction of the movement and its political strategies fractured Somos (MacRae, 1990, pp. 191–207; Trevisan, 1986). A definitive split occurred on May 1, 1980, coinciding with the Labor Day strikes organized in São Paulo. Anarchists opted to picnic at a city park to commemorate the day, rupturing the order of capitalism by engaging in deviance and leisure (Trevisan, 1986). The Marxist-Trotskyists voted to participate in the demonstrations and marched with a contingent of 50 men and women under the banner “Commission of Homosexuals Pro May 1” (MacRae, 1990).

This initiated an early and long-standing alliance with the organized labor movement. A logic of countercultural anarchism and the celebration of sexuality was replaced with class struggles and the suppression of sexuality. As Trevisan (1986, p. 219) observed, “[Somos] lost its characteristic of instigation and was institutionalized.” The group shared a headquarters with the municipal office of the PT and shifted away from the mission of establishing an autonomous homosexual rights movement. Some who had exited Somos alleged that linguistic changes occurred, as members were required to replace indigenous cultural symbols that affirmed homosexual identity with those that hailed the camaraderie of the left, and some effeminate homosexuals felt excluded from activities (MacRae, 1990; Trevisan, 1986).

In addition to ideological differences, Somos and the early MHB faced racial and gender differences, struggling to incorporate discussions of racism and women into the organization, even after setting up subgroups for lesbians in 1979 (see MacRae, 1990, pp. 241–278). Despite entendido identity utilizing feminist ideals of gender equality and egalitarianism as a way to understand homosexual marginalization, some early activists reproduced misogyny and sexism internally (MacRae, 1990; Pinafi, 2011). Participants ignored intersectional differences of class, sex, gender, and ethnicity; flattened differences; and reified the subordinate position of women within the group (Pinafi, 2011, p. 93).

In 1980, the 1st Meeting of Organized Homosexual Groups (I Encontro de Grupos Homossexuais Organizados [EGHOs]) drew around 200 participants to debate, among other topics, “the lesbian question: machismo among homosexuals and sexual roles” (Pinafi, 2011, p. 904). Later EGHOs witnessed instances of flagrant machismo propagated by prominent male homosexual activists who reportedly pressured female participants to declare themselves as either lesbians or homosexuals, accusing them of separatism. After an agreement was reached to include the lesbian identity in the name of future EGHO meetings, a prominent lesbian press alleged that semantic changes alone would be insufficient to tackle machismo in the movement.

In 1981, lesbians founded the Group of Feminist-Lesbian Action (Grupo de Ação Lésbica-Feminista). Although independent lesbian groups were on the rise in the 1990s, scholars note organizational instability and burn out (Almeida & Heilborn, 2008; Facchini, 2008; Simões & Facchini, 2009, p. 115). In São Paulo, for example, lesbian and bisexual women’s groups hold an independent march (the Caminhada de Mulheres Lésbicas e Bissexuais de São Paulo) a day prior to the municipal LGBT Pride Parade. In 2018, the Caminhada commemorated its 16th edition. In 2014, active disagreements over the inclusion of trans women in the Caminhada split the directorate and resulted in two demonstrations that met halfway through São Paulo (Longaker, 2016).

Trans Organizing

The contemporary Brazilian LGBT movement boasts strong trans organizing. The trans movement organizes along the lines of three politicized identities: travestis, transsexual women, and trans men (travestis, mulheres transexuais, e homens trans). The construction of these identities as political subjects placed the trans movement at odds with the more visible and resourced male homosexual movement, particularly over the question of travesti identity.

When the Brazilian gay and lesbian movement crystallized in 1970s as the MHB, the contemporary identity “travesti” did not signify a political identity. Rather, travesti signified a condition assumed by effeminate homosexual men during Carnaval, who temporarily embraced feminine identity and wore feminine clothing; it also maintained pejorative connotations with sex work and street life (Costa, 2010; Green, 1999). As homosexual gay identity emerged in Brazil, the MHB distanced itself from digression of gender norms and the stigma attached to the figure of the travesti, casting it in stark opposition to a new masculine homosexual aesthetic (Carvalho & Carrara, 2013).

The boundary construction between gay and travesti identities came to a fore during the 1988 Constituent Assembly. MHB activists moved to include sexual orientation as a protected class in the non-discrimination clause. In speeches, respectable homosexuals were differentiated from travestis, a form of “polluted” homosexual engaged in illicit behaviors of drugs, theft, and sex work. Thus, at a critical juncture in the LGBT movement and state re-democratization, strategic choices in how to engage the state and external actors contributed to the erasure of trans identities.

The 1990s began an era of identity politics that made possible the re-emergence of travesti as a distinct trans political identity (Carvalho & Carrara, 2013). The logic of collective identity expanded boundaries for gays and lesbians to associate themselves politically with travestis. At the same time, a distinct position of difference was maintained in society that allowed gay identity to exist without fear of the stigmatizing notions of travesti identity.

Hence, trans activism in Brazil is relatively young compared to gay and lesbian activism. In 1992, mobilization of the trans community gained steam with the formation of ASTRAL, a travesti organization, in Rio de Janeiro by Jovanna Baby (Carvalho & Carrara, 2013). Early trans activists mobilized in response to police brutality and police repression. They also engaged with non-governmental organizations with funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment that trained trans activists in discourses of advocacy, empowerment, and peer education (Carvalho & Carrara, 2013). Demands expanded beyond HIV/AIDS policy to include non-discrimination, access to comprehensive specialized healthcare, access to education, recognition of gender identity, and the removal of derogatory terms from everyday parlance and media reports.

Discrimination faced within collective movement spaces and disagreements with the academy catalyzed trans activists to organize independently (Carvalho & Carrara, 2013; Coacci, 2018). Trans activists alleged, much like earlier lesbians, that gay organizations utilized their inclusion in HIV prevention organizations and activities to extract resources from the State, without substantively including the community. Notably, the 8th Meeting of Brazilian Gays and Lesbians (VIII Encontro Brasileiro de Gays e Lésbicas) in 1995 was the first time a trans organization participated. It would be another 15 years before a travesti woman would occupy a leadership position in the ABGLT, the largest and most influential LGBT network in Brazil. In 2017, Symmy Larrat, a travesti activist from Paraíba, was elected president of ABLGT.

The trans movement participates in collective LGBT movement spaces and independent trans spaces. Multiple national networks promote the trans movement. In 2000, the National Articulation for Travestis, Transsexuals, and Transgenders (ANTRA), was founded in Curitiba, Paraná. Today, it includes more than 80 organizations from all regions of Brazil. In 2009, RedTrans—National Network of Trans Persons emerged as a contingent of activists splintered from ANTRA. RedTrans includes over 35 organizations and participates in regional Latin American networks. The trans movement has also made strides in incorporating transmasculine identities and Afro-Brazilian identities. In 2013, the Brazilian Institute of Transmasculinity (IBRAT) became the first nationwide network for trans men, with statewide chapters around Brazil. In 2015 and 2016, the National Forum of Trans Black Persons (FONATRANS), held back-to-back annual national meetings with themes focused on public policy and deconstructing racism and transphobia.

Political Action

HIV/AIDS Advocacy

In the 1980s, the advent of HIV/AIDS and re-democratization in Brazil presented new challenges and opportunities to the MHB. The movement would face significant changes in organizing strategies and tactics. Older organizations and leadership succumbed to HIV/AIDS, and new organizations and leadership directly engaged the re-democraticizing state for HIV/AIDS rights and LGBT rights.

In 1982, the first confirmed cases of HIV/AIDS arrived in Brazil. Early reactions by the government and homosexual activists cast HIV/AIDS as a North American illness confined to middle to upper-class gay men (Trevisan, 1986). There was little action taken in the early years of the epidemic until a high-profile case of fashion designer Markito dispelled those myths. By August 1985, new cases were reported daily and the confirmed cases rose to 400 (Trevisan, 1986).

The Brazilian government and MHB did not act to confront the early HIV/AIDS epidemic, possibly because of “panic, fear, and discrimination” (Biehl, 2004, p. 107). The number of homosexual organizations declined precipitously from 1981–1991 (Simões & Facchini, 2009). Organizations like Somos claimed insufficient resources and a priority of organizational growth (Trevisan, 1986). Other organizations distanced themselves from the stigma of HIV/AIDS in pursuit of respectability politics (Simões & Facchini, 2009). From 1985 to 1989, voluntary associations provided patient care and medical services in urban centers with little to no financial assistance (Galvão, 2000).

Scholars claim that HIV/AIDS eventually mobilized resources from wealthy gay men in urban areas (Galvão, 2000; Parker, 2009). According to Trevisan (1986), the visibility afforded by HIV/AIDS catapulted (homo)sexuality and desire into the national spotlight. HIV/AIDS activists mobilized under the banner of human rights during re-democratization to press for action from within state governments of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (Rich, 2013).

In the 1990s, the HIV/AIDS movement initiated deep institutionalization with the state and international community through modes of cooperation would influence the LGBT rights movement (Biehl, 2004). In 1992, the World Bank and World Health Organization drew up a $250 million package to fund the Brazilian National AIDS Program. By 1996, the Cardoso administration (1995–2002) authorized universal distribution of HIV/AIDS medication and treatment through nationalized health service (Biehl, 2004, p. 105).

The National AIDS Program brought together actors from civil society and the state to stem the tide of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In turn, the state provided generous financial support to civil society organizations to exercise treatment and prevention work (Rich, 2013). Notably, the disbursement of funds encouraged activists to shift from antagonism to cooperation with the state (Biehl, 2004). It also caused a new explosion of civil society organizations working on HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues. Scholars estimate that 50 organizations in the late 1980s ballooned to 695 by 2009 (Biehl, 2004; Galvão, 2000; Rich, 2013, p. 16). Rich (2013, p. 10) finds that “between 1999 and 2008, the Brazilian government funded an astounding 4,108 civil society AIDS projects, with consistent allocations of funding across years.” Many of these funds also promote more general LGBT-related activities and are responsible for increased levels of citizen participation in movement activities (Green, 2000).

The HIV/AIDS policy sector also established participatory institutions that bridge civil society and the state, opening up collaboration between the two (Rich, 2013). A dense network of participatory institutions, including councils and conferences at all levels of the federal system, involve activists and activist bureaucrats directly in policymaking. These innovations offered new mechanisms for compliance, oversight, and transparency in policy design and implementation. Reproduced today for the LGBT rights movement, participatory institutions pioneered under the National AIDS Program created an activist state in Brazil (Biehl, 2004, p. 107).

Brazilian responses to HIV/AIDS have been hailed as an international success story of intervention and state and civil society relations. Strong actions supported by financial resources effectively addressed the HIV/AIDS epidemic and created a public health policy sector considered one of the most consolidated, intersectorial, and transversal in the country (Mello, Perilo, Albuquerque de Braz, & Pedrosa, 2011).

LGBT Rights Advocacy

The same period of time witnessed the emergence of LGBT rights groups that engaged in institutional politics, taking advantage of political opportunities of re-democratization and constitutional reform. Early examples include the Gay Group of Bahia (GGB) and Pink Triangle (Triângulo Rosa) and Atobá in Rio de Janeiro. These groups formalized militancy through direct state engagement, human rights claims, and partnerships with international non-governmental organizations in efforts to reduce violence against LGBTs, combat discrimination, and guarantee civil and human rights (Dehesa, 2010; Simões & Facchini, 2009). The GGB began the earliest annual records of hate crimes in the country through clippings of newspaper articles. From 1984 to 1991, no fewer than four national conferences for the homosexual movement were held, with new goals of gay marriage, combating violence, religious discrimination, positive treatment of homosexuality, and combating HIV/AIDS (Simões & Facchini, 2009).

LGBT rights organizations also sought state recognition for the first time as legitimate civil society organizations, with the GGB in 1983 and Triângulo Rosa in 1985. In 1981, the GGB put forward a proposal to remove homosexuality from the list of illnesses in the national Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which would be approved in 1985 (Simões & Facchini, 2009, p. 121). In 1987, João Antônio Mascarenhas, founder of Pink Triangle, made history as the first openly gay man representing a homosexual group to enter the Chamber of Deputies at the Constituent Assembly, where he lobbied unsuccessfully with other leaders to include sexual orientation as a protected class in the 1988 Constitution.

Alphabet Soup Advocacy

Early LGBT activists struggled with the construction of identity for empowerment by drawing up identity boundaries, engaging in affirmative consciousness-raising, and negotiating the emergent symbols of the collective identity (Taylor & Whittier, 1992). Contemporary activists, for their part, are immersed in what Facchini (2005) calls an alphabet soup of identity politics. As the LGBT rights movement gained traction, campaigns were underway to advocate pride and visibility, and combat violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. These activities exposed differences in tactics, goals, identity, and questions such as the nature of sexual identity politics, hierarchical organizations in national advocacy, autonomy versus cooperation with political institutions, and the allocation of material resources.

Since the mid-1990s, the Brazilian movement has seen an increase in politicized LGBT identities with demands for legitimacy, recognition, and resources. The movement has responded to these shifts by way of boundary expansion—rearranging the alphabet soup of identities—while maintaining a movement based upon shared collective identity.

In a survey of acronyms used by the movement, Simões and Facchini (2009) demonstrate the aqueous nature of sexual identity politics. Until 1992, the movement referred to itself as the Brazilian Homosexual Movement. By 1995, the language of MHB had been substituted for gays and lesbians. In the same year, the nationwide network and federal lobby organization Brazilian Association of Gays, Lesbians, and Travestis (ABGLT) was founded. By 1997, national movement meetings began to read gay, lesbian, and travesti (GLT). The 2005 Brazilian Meeting of Gays, Lesbians, and Transgenders officially included bisexuals. The “T” identity encompassed transsexual women, travestis, and transgenders. It was not until the first national conference for LGBTs, sponsored by the federal government, in 2008 that the international norm of “LGBT” was adopted.

LGBT Policymaking

A significant segment of the Brazilian LGBT movement has moved definitely from the realm of non-institutional politics to the realm of institutional politics. As a policy actor, the movement struggles to make headway in the legislative arena. This is particularly acute at the federal level, where a notable bill PLC122/2006 to criminalize homophobia, on par with hate crimes legislation in the United States, has floundered since 2006. However, the LGBT movement strategically pursues initiatives in both the judicial and executive arenas of politics. This approach accounts for many policy successes in the country, including rectification of names in congruence with gender identity on official documents for the trans population in 2018 and nationwide same-sex partnership recognition for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals in 2013.

LGBT Legislation

The Brazilian LGBT movement faces considerable difficulty in passing LGBT-friendly legislation. This difficulty is due to a number of factors internal and external to the movement, such as an ambivalent relationship with party politics, an absence of LGBT identified (or allied) elected officials, and concerted opposition from evangelical conservatives (discussed at length in “LGBT Jurisprudence”).

Scholars quickly identified the Workers’ Party (PT) as a potential ally and consistent supporter of LGBT rights in era following re-democratization (Dehesa, 2010). Many early activists were themselves affiliated with the Workers’ Party and eventually pursued militancy within party channels, establishing LGBT committees within the rigid party structure of the PT. Some scholars credit the influx of activists within party apparatus with weakening the capacity for autonomous action by civil society.

At the legislative level, PT legislators were responsible for the first statewide non-discrimination law 10.948/01 in São Paulo in 2001. However, at the federal level, activists and elected officials have been unable to move forward proposals that would criminalize hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The infamous PLC122/2006, known colloquially as the anti-homophobia bill, was proposed in 2006 by federal deputy Iara Bernardi (PT–SP) but, despite a number of revisions, alterations in form, and continuous focus by the LGBT movement itself, was never brought to the floor for a vote and was archived in 2014.

Similarly, a gender-identity law, PL5002/13, was introduced in the Chamber of Deputies in 2013 by the only openly gay federal deputy, Jean Wyllys (Socialism and Liberty Party–Rio de Janeiro [PSOL–RJ]), and progressive female deputy Erika Kokay (Workers’ Party–Federal District [PT–DF]). The proposal, modeled after advances made by neighboring Argentina in 2012, would recognize the gender identity of all Brazilians and allow for rectification of official documents without judicial, psychological, or medical hearings. Similar to PLC122/2006, the proposal has not made headway through legislative channels.

LGBT Jurisprudence

In spite of these difficulties, advances in LGBT policy have been achieved through the judiciary. The judiciary advanced public policy in the wake of legislative inertia for gender-identity recognition. In 2018, the LGBT legal nongovernmental organization GADVS, along with activists from the broader LGBT movement, successfully argued in favor of gender-identity recognition measures at the STF. The court approved the measure and, following regulatory decisions, transgender persons will be able to request new identification cards and official documents in congruence with gender identity and name without medical, legal, or juridical requirements.

Notably, same-sex partnership recognition began and ended with judicial rulings that creatively applied jurisprudence. The process timidly expanded early decisions by jurist Maria Berenice Dias of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, who coined the terminology “homo-affective” to refer to same-sex relationships that were characterized by long-lasting and publicly assumed ties of love (not unlike a civil union). By doing so, Dias established a framework by which other progressive jurists could reconfigure notions of family without directly confronting traditional marriage. The strategy paid off, and by 2011 the STF guaranteed same-sex couples the right to civil unions, and in 2013 the CNJ mandated that all clerks should “upgrade” same-sex civil unions to marriage upon request, a process well established for opposite-sex couples.

LGBT Executive Actions

At the executive level, the LGBT movement boasts considerable success. In 2004, the Lula administration authorized the policy program Brazil without Homophobia (Brasil sem Homofobia, 2004). The plan, designed together with activists from the social movement, laid out a series of directives and recommendations for federal, state, and local government entities to fight discrimination and violence against LGBTs and promote citizenship. It laid the groundwork for the tripartite set of demands pressed for by the LGBT movement at all levels of government: a policy plan to combat LGBT violence and discrimination, an LGBT participatory policy council to bridge civil society and the state, and a bureaucratic agency to handle LGBT policy (Longaker, 2016).

This structure accounts for a significant degree of LGBT policy activity, especially at the state and local levels (Longaker, 2016). In a rather remarkable advance for sexual minority politics, upward of 346 municipalities reported having a policy plan to combat LGBT violence and discrimination in a 2014 survey by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE, 2015). In the same survey, 431 municipalities reported having an administrative organ for human rights tasked with addressing LGBT policy. Finally, by 2016, at least 28 municipalities and 13 states had approved the creation of a participatory policy council.

What explains stark differences in policy success between legislative, judicial, and executive arenas? The scholarly literature on comparative LGBT rights points to a number of alternative explanations. In work on same-sex marriage policy, Encarnación (2016) argues that, relative to neighboring Argentina, Brazilian activists failed to develop a master frame of human rights that resonated with the national context. A more sanguine view suggests that the lack of legislation should not be treated as a measure of success, but rather it should be acknowledged that Brazilian activists have achieved policy stasis through judicial victories and executive decisions (Schulenberg, 2010).

Indeed, the judiciary and executive have been strategically accessed as activists pursue relationships with progressive political parties (Marsiaj, 2006). The most significant advances occurred under the Lula (PT) administrations (2003–2007, 2007–2011) as well as the first Rousseff administration (2011–2014), as both left-of-center governments brought conditions of favorable macro-level political opportunities (Mello, Brito, & Maroja, 2012). As scholars have noted, governments receptive to social movement demands provide important inroads for the advance of LGBT rights (Corrales & Pecheny, 2010).

Contemporary Challenges

The Brazilian LGBT movement faces a number of persistent, contemporary challenges, many of which reflect long-standing and unresolved dilemmas to social movement organizing and contentious politics. Within the movement, collective identity politics continues to surface as a dual-edged sword that both holds the movement together and threatens to tear it apart. Notably, conflict emerges from tense differences in partisanship and gender/sexual identity (trans/LGB segments). These internal challenges are joined by serious external threats from conservative politicians, evangelical religious leaders, and conservative social activists. Finally, the rightward shift in Brazilian politics (and Latin America more broadly) has made clear the precarious nature of LGBT policy achieved through the judicial and executive branches.

Partisanship and Party Politics

Partisan politics presents a serious point of disagreement for activists within the Brazilian LGBT movement. Not dissimilar to the ideological tensions in groups like Somos, contemporary differences place activists within a highly polarized era of democratic party politics. For LGBT politics, the early scholarly consensus that primarily the Workers’ Party (PT) represents the movement no longer appears to be true in entirety. Rather, LGBT politics have diffused broadly throughout the party system and many, if not most, political parties house a committee (working group) on sexual and gender diversity, field LGBT candidates, and take positions on LGBT policy issues, particularly at the municipal and state levels. The result is that activists disagree vehemently over which political party best represents the LGBT community (however best it may be defined) and disagree vehemently over which political party claims ownership for even the most incremental of policy successes. In state and local governments with LGBT policy machinery, partisan disputes may heighten to the degree that state and civil society operate in purely antagonistic ways, or social movement activists disengage entirely from the institutional arena. Even so, center-left parties like the Workers’ Party (PT), Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), and Democratic Labor Party (PDT), and center-right parties like the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) appear more committed than most parties to fielding LGBT candidates and supporting LGBT policy.

Identity Politics

Identity politics also presents a serious obstacle for the contemporary Brazilian LGBT movement. Although identity is the glue that nominally holds together the movement, the alphabet soup of identities (Facchini, 2005), along with respective demands for visibility and rights, strains collective action. As these advocacy efforts increase on behalf of individual identity constituencies, gender- and sexual-identity differences sharpen (Longaker, 2016). The result threatens to fragment the coalitional LGBT movement into multiple identity-based movements or push different segments to exit the LGBT movement. For example, many lesbian activists pursue activism primarily from within the feminist movement or even work from within policy machinery for women. Additionally, many trans activists who seek positive self-representation within the movement chose to pursue militancy primarily from within trans specific groups. However, with the 2018 election of hard-right Bolsonaro, identity differences have receded from view as the state once again emerges as an antagonistic target of collective action.

Conservative and Evangelical Opposition

These persistent internal differences remain salient at a time when challenges from the conservative right are on the rise. The primary source of these challenges is conservative politicians, evangelical religious leaders, and social activists. Conservative politicians and evangelical religious leaders have learned to wield LGBT politics as an effective wedge issue in a highly polarized political system. Moreover, in a party system noted for its fragmentation, these actors exercise concerted opposition to LGBT rights through voting blocs in the Chamber of Deputies. The principal source of opposition comes from the bloc made up of three groups—bala (bullets), boi (cattle), and bíblia (bible), representing rural landowners, evangelicals, and gun rights (Alessi, 2017). The bloc itself constitutes a significant source of electoral power within the legislature. Scholars and activists alike attribute the failure to pass hate crimes legislation PLC122/2006 to its clout. In particular, the evangelical bloc of politicians finds support from powerful evangelical leaders, such as Silas Malafaia and Edir Macedo Bezerra, who harness extensive national media apparatus to sway public opinion and turn out the vote against LGBT issues.

Anti-LGBT policy proposals are also on the rise within the Chamber of Deputies. Among the most notable are proposals to establish a day of heterosexual pride, definitions of marriage as between a man and a woman, conversion therapy, and proposals that would prohibit transgender persons from utilizing gender conforming names in school (PDC898/18). In 2019, openly gay Federal Deputy Jean Wyllys (PSOL–RJ) announced that he would resign from his third term and leave the country, following death threats and the 2017 execution of queer Rio de Janeiro city councilor Marielle Franco (PSOL–RJ).

The reach of the bloc also extends to the executive. As part of its electoral strategy, the Workers’ Party Lula administration (2002–2010) and Rousseff administration (2010–2016) forged a longstanding strategic alliance with the PMDB (Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement). PMDB leadership, such as former vice-president Michel Temer (2011–2016) and former president of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha (2015–2016), maintain strong ties to the evangelical church and evangelical movement. This resulted in split-ticket electoral outcomes, with the PMDB capturing the vice presidency and a number of important ministry posts. As a result, the PT administrations, especially Rousseff’s, became unable to govern without broad coalition support. In 2010, the Ministry of Education, headed by Fernando Haddad (PT), proposed new curricular material on gender and sexual diversity for schools. Evangelical opposition leaders and political leaders from opposition parties dubbed the material the “gay kit” and claimed that it sought to indoctrinate children with “gender ideology” (“Kit gay quer,” 2012). On the cusp of elections, the proposal was scrapped by the Dilma administration in a move widely criticized by LGBT social movement leaders.

The 2016 impeachment of Dilma Rousseff crystallized the precarious nature of LGBT policymaking through executive and judicial avenues. The incoming Temer administration publicized new choices to head federal ministries that included no women and no Afro-Brazilians (“CIDH Expressa,” 2016). In 2017, Temer dismantled secretarial policy machinery charged with promoting LGBT rights, women’s rights, racial equality, disability, old age, and children’s rights from within the Ministry of Justice (Fernandes, 2017). Similarly, the Bolsonaro administration (2018–present) reframed the same policy machinery as the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights, removing most mentions of LGBT policy from the website. In 2019, Bolsonaro signed Executive Decree 9.759 to extinguish all participatory policymaking councils not guaranteed in organic law, including the National Council to Combat Discrimination and Promote the Rights of LGBTs, established under the Lula administration in 2001.

At the state and local levels, the state and municipality of Rio de Janeiro elected conservative politician Luiz Fernando Pezão (PMDB–RJ) in 2014 and evangelical bishop Marcelo Crivella (PSB–RJ) in 2017. The state gradually dismantled the widely renowned policy program Rio without Homophobia by tightening financial resources (“Rio sem Homophobia,” 2018). The municipality of Rio de Janeiro, under the Crivella administration, staffed its LGBT policy machinery with volunteer career public servants and similarly cut all funding to the agency.


In many ways, Brazil stands as a regional, if not global, leader in progressive LGBT politics. It boasts a vigorous LGBT movement that survived the military dictatorship, developed a world-renowned approach to HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, provided access to comprehensive healthcare for transgender persons, and achieved marriage equality and gender-identity recognitions relatively early. It also houses the largest annual celebration of LGBT Pride, gathering over 3 million revelers in the streets of São Paulo every first Sunday after Corpus Christi.

Yet Brazil complicates these successes with a problematic reality. Annual reports on LGBT violence regularly place Brazil as the most dangerous country in the world, especially for the transgender community. In spite of persistent advocacy by the movement and unsettling national and international media reports of LGBT violence, daily news continues to feature reports of LGBT brutality.

The era of re-democratization brought the entrance of the LGBT social movement to institutionalized politics and policymaking. LGBT rights legislation, such as criminalization of hate crimes and recognition of gender-identity, does not find traction in national politics. Instead, policy successes and advances, like same-sex partnership recognition and gender-identity recognition, have been made through the judiciary and executive.

The Brazilian LGBT movement itself suffers a number of internal challenges. At times partisanship and partisan disagreements destabilize and weaken collective action and engagement with state actors. Identity differences, particularly disputes between individual letters of the alphabet soup of LGBT politics, threaten to fragment the movement into a multitude of competing actors.

Finally, the Brazilian LGBT movement faces serious external challenges. Principal among these are organized opposition from conservative politicians, evangelical religious leaders, and social activists. The turn to the right of national and regional politics bodes poorly for advances in LGBT politics. In a contemporary context of closing political opportunities, the Brazilian LGBT movement will once again need to find creative strategies to advance its goals.

Further Reading

Biehl, J. (2004). The activist state: Global pharmaceuticals, AIDS, and citizenship in Brazil. Social Text, 20(3), 105–132.Find this resource:

Corrales, J., & Pecheny, M. (2010). The politics of sexuality in Latin America: A reader on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.Find this resource:

Dehesa, R. (2010). Queering the public sphere in Mexico and Brazil: Sexual rights movements in emerging democracies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Facchini, R. (2005). Sopa de Letrinhas? Movimento homossexual e produção de identidades coletivas nos anos 90. Rio de Janeiro, Brasil: Garamond.Find this resource:

Galvão, J. (2000). AIDS no Brasil: A agenda de construção de uma epidemia. São Paulo, Brasil: Editora 34.Find this resource:

Green, J. N. (1999). Beyond carnival: Male homosexuality in twentieth-century Brazil. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

MacRae, E. (1990). A construção da igualdade: Identidade sexual e política no Brasil da abertura. Campinas, Brasil: UNICAMP.Find this resource:

Parker, R. G. (1999). Beneath the equator: Cultures of desire, male homosexuality, and emerging gay communities in Brazil. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

Rich, J. A. J. State-sponsored activism: Bureaucrats and social movements in democratic Brazil. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Simões, J. A., & Facchini, R. (2009). Na trilha do arco-iris: Do movimento homossexual ao LGBT. São Paulo, Brasil: Perseu Abramo.Find this resource:

Trevisan, J. S. (1986). Perverts in paradise. London, U.K.: Gay Men’s Press.Find this resource:


Alessi, G. (2017). Bancada da Bala, Boi e Bíblia impõe ano de retrocesso para mulheres e indígenas. El Pais, Dezembro 7.Find this resource:

Almeida, G., & Heilborn, M. L. (2008). Não somos mulheres gays: Identidade lésbica na visão de ativistas Brasileiras. Niterói, 9(1), 225–249.Find this resource:

Bernstein, M. (1997). Celebration and suppression: The strategic uses of identity by the lesbian and gay movement. American Journal of Sociology, 103(3), 531–565.Find this resource:

Bernstein, M. (2005). Identity politics. Annual Review of Sociology, 31, 47–74.Find this resource:

Biehl, J. (2004). The activist state: Global pharmaceuticals, AIDS, and citizenship in Brazil. Social Text, 22(3), 105–132.Find this resource:

Brasil Sem Homofobia: Programa de combate à violência e à discrimnação contra GLTB e de promoção da cidadania homossexual. (2004). Ministério da Saúde/Conselho Nacional de Combate à Discriminação. Brasília.Find this resource:

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Corrales, J., & Pecheny, M. (2010). The politics of sexuality in Latin America: A reader on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.Find this resource:

Costa, R. (2010). Sociabilidade homoerótica masculine no Rio de Janeiro na década de 1960s: relatos do jornal O Snob (Dissertação de mestrado). Fundação Getúlio Vargas, Rio de Janeiro.Find this resource:

Dehesa, R. (2010). Queering the public sphere in Mexico and Brazil: Sexual rights movements in emerging democracies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Encarnación, O. G. (2016). Out in the periphery: Latin America’s gay rights revolution. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Facchini, R. (2005). Sopa de Letrinhas? Movimento homossexual e produção de identidades coletivas nos anos 90. Rio de Janeiro, Brasil: Garamond.Find this resource:

Facchini, R. (2008). Entre umas e outras. Mulheres, (homo)sexualidades e diferenças na cidade de São Paulo. (Tese de doutorado). Campinas: UNICAMP.Find this resource:

Fernandes, M. (2017). Por que direitos humanos virou ministério no governo temer. Política, Fevereiro 17.Find this resource:

Fry, P. (1982). Da hierarquia à igualdade: A construção histórica da homossexualidade no Brasil, in para Inglês ver; Identidade e política na cultura Brasileira. Rio de Janeiro, Brasil: Zahar.Find this resource:

Galvão, J. (2000). AIDS no Brasil: A agenda de construção de uma epidemia. São Paulo, Brasil: Editora 34.Find this resource:

Green, J. N. (1999). Beyond carnival: Male homosexuality in twentieth-century Brazil. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Green, J. N. (2000). “Mais amor e mais tesão”: A construção de um movimento Brasileiro de gays, lésbicas e travestis. Cadernos Pagu, 15, 271–295.Find this resource:

Guimarães, C. (1977). O homossexual visto por entendidos (Dissertação de mestrado). Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro/Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.Find this resource:

Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia. (2015). Perfil dos estados e dos municípios brasileiros: 2014. Coordenação de População e de Indicadores Sociais, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.Find this resource:

Itaborahy, P. (2012). State-sponsored homophobia: A world survey of laws; Criminalisation, protection, and recognition of same-sex love. Geneva, Switzerland: International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).Find this resource:

“Kit gay quer doutrinar em vez de educar,” diz Serra. (2012). Carta Capital, Outubro 14.Find this resource:

Longaker, J. (2016). Identity and representation within the contemporary Brazilian LGBT movement. (Doctoral dissertation). University of Kansas, Lawrence.Find this resource:

MacRae, E. (1985). O militante homossexual no Brasil da “abertura” (Tese de Doutorado). Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brasil.Find this resource:

MacRae, E. (1990). A construção da igualdade: Identidade sexual e política no Brasil da abertura. Campinas, Brasil: UNICAMP.Find this resource:

Marsiaj, J. P. (2006). Social movements and political parties: Gays, lesbians, and travestis and the struggle for inclusion in Brazil. Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 31(62), 167–196.Find this resource:

Mello, L., Brito, W., & Maroja, D. (2012). Políticas públicas para a população LGBT no Brasil: Nota sobre alcances e possibilidades. Cadernos Pagu, 39(Julho–Dezembro), 403–429.Find this resource:

Mello, L., Perilo, M., & Albuquerque de Braz, C., & Pedrosa, C. (2011). Políticas de saúde para gays, lésbicas, bissexuais, travestis e transexuais no Brasil: Em busca de universalidade, integralidade, e equidade. Sexualidad, Salud y Sociedad: Revista Latinoamericana, 9(Dezembro), 7–28.Find this resource:

Modesto, E. (2006). Vidas em arco-íris—depoimentos sobre a homossexualidade. São Paulo, Brasil: Editora Record.Find this resource:

Parker, R. G. (1999). Beneath the equator: Cultures of desire, male homosexuality, and emerging gay communities in Brazil. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

Parker, R. G. (2009). Civil society, political mobilization, and the impacto f HIV scale-up health systems in Brazil. JAIDS: Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, 27, 49–51.Find this resource:

Pinafi, T. (2011). Assimetrias de poder na militância entre gays e lésbicas. In H. Costa, B. Bento, W. García, E. Inácio, W. S. Peres, & Associação Brasileira de Estudos da Homocultura Congresso (Eds.), Retratos do Brasil homossexual: Fronteiras, subjetividades e desejos (pp. 899–908). São Paulo, Brasil: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo.Find this resource:

Rich, J. A. J. (2013). Grassroots bureaucracy: Intergovernmental relations and popular mobilization in Brazil’s AIDS policy sector. Latin American Politics and Society, 55(2), 1–25.Find this resource:

Rio Sem Homofobia pode fechar as portas por falta de recursos. (2018). O Dia, Janeiro 29.Find this resource:

Schulenberg, S. P. (2010). Policy stability without policy: The battle over same-sex partnership recognition in Brazil. In J. Pierceson, A. Patti-Crocker, & S. Schulenberg (Eds.), Same-sex marriage in the Americas (pp. 93–127). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.Find this resource:

Simões, J. A., & Facchini, R. (2009). Na trilha do arco-iris: Do movimento homossexual ao LGBT. São Paulo: Perseu Abramo.Find this resource:

Taylor, V., & Whittier, N. (1992). Collective identity in social movement communities: Lesbian feminist mobilization. In A. D. Morris & C. McClurg Mueller (Eds.), Frontiers in social movement theory (pp. 104–129). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

Trevisan, J. S. (1986). Devassos no paraíso. São Paulo, Brasil: Editora Max Limonad.Find this resource: