Being gay in Rio
Boy meets boy in San Francisco. They live happily ever after (11 years and counting) and at some point, two years ago, decide to move to Niterói, next door to Rio de Janeiro.
This is the story of American Jim and Brazilian Luiz, a globetrotter couple that is particularly well-positioned to evaluate Brazil’s gay friendliness. “We have always been “out” as individuals and as a couple”, says Jim. “Living in San Francisco afforded us a tremendous amount of personal freedom to be ourselves and to express our affection for each other in the street and other public places. Throughout our travels (Thailand, Greece, Turkey) we have had to adapt our conscious and unconscious habits around each other to fit the local scene/custom. Although we generally get spotted as a gay couple because we simply do not edit our every gesture – we are often guilty of looking into each others’ eyes for longer than a brief moment at restaurants and we wear matching wedding bands, for example. We have never had a problem and we have never had to defend ourselves – ever”.
In this interview, Jim Shattuck describes the joys and challenges of his gay experience in Brazil.
Deep Brazil – Rio is considered one of the gay-friendlier cities in the country. Right?
Jim Shattuck – We have found Rio and Niterói to be very gay friendly. Never a problem. There are gay people everywhere and everyone else seems to be quite at ease with it all. Although it could be said that as an older couple we do not attract the attention a younger and flashier couple might.
Luiz and I have always been completely out when it comes to introducing me to extended family members as well as meeting friends of friends. I think that our honesty and personal integrity (and the lack of hiding anything) has proven to be disarming and perhaps a bit challenging to others. Even those we thought might have reacted with a negative, prejudiced attitude have embraced us. Our philosophy is to be ourselves and let the others struggle, if they feel the need. We seem to have gained and kept the higher ground in this regard.
Even Luiz’s mother, with whom he had maintained a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” relationship for over 40 years, has since embraced us wholeheartedly. (He is an only child.)
DB – Can you display affection in public? After all, Rio is particularly open to inter-genders physical contact and there is a lot of flesh exposed everywhere.
JS - The level of public displays of affection (PDA) here is incredible. Kids suck face on the bus, in the shopping mall, on the sidewalk – everywhere. I get it that they cannot go home and do this in the presence of their mother and grandmother – but it is really over the top compared to other places I have been. In contrast Luiz and I are definitely not allowing ourselves total freedom in public. I must admit that I miss the PDA we were used to in San Francisco. There are times when Luiz and I will walk with our arms around each other or will exchange brief kisses hello and goodbye, but in general we assume more dramatic displays will draw fire (perhaps not). On the other hand there are a LOT of gay spaces (bars, clubs, cafés, beach areas, etc.) where there is greater safety in numbers and we feel more free to be affectionate publicly.
DB – There is no such thing as Gay Marriage in Brazil. How tough was it to immigrate and guarantee certain rights (common assets, for instance)?
JS – This is an important area of difference between Rio/Brazil and San Francisco/USA. Luiz and I were living in San Francisco when the mayor there declared that public officials could extend marriage licenses to same-sex couples. We took him up on his offer and got married at City Hall on February 14, 2004 (Valentine’s Day in the USA). Long story short – the California state Supreme Court nullified all those marriages (4,000+) because the mayor did not have the authority to issue them – but more importantly, the US federal government has NEVER recognized so-called same-sex marriages for purposes of immigration.
However, here in Brazil the law allows for those in a “stable union” access to legal immigration, regardless of sex. This law is WAY more advanced (providing equality) than anything on the books in the United States. Were we to have been living in Brazil and sought to emigrate to the US, it would not have been possible for me to sponsor Luiz for immigration.
Further, the law in Brazil provides partners in civil unions access to each other’s pension benefits, property transfer at death and other legal protections still specifically denied by law in most of the United States.
One thing that makes me more hopeful for progressive change here in Brazil is that laws apply across the country when enacted. In the US individual states have a high degree of independence and authority over much of “family law”. So progress is state by state.
Brazil has many legal protections regarding discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Rio and Niteroí have additional legal protections in place regarding housing and job discrimination.
While our day to day reality in San Francisco was more open and free (Google Folsom Street Fair), and the LGBT community has a great deal of political power there, San Francisco is singularly unique in this regard – worldwide. To compare too closely is to be unfair. I choose to focus on the rights and liberties afforded by the federal governments – and to compare these. Seen from that point of view we are enjoying a more stable and protected relationship/life here in Brazil.
DB – Any particular anecdote of violence or disrespect?
JS – We have not been on the receiving end of any negative reactions (knock wood). But I will share one anecdote: I was interviewing for an English teacher job at a private school in Niterói. (I have a Permanent Resident Visa and a Carteira de Trabalho [work permit].) Given my experience working with adolescents and youth in the US and their commonplace offensive slang disparaging gay people, I said to the program director: “I need to say that I am a gay man and that I have no interest in being on the receiving end of homophobic remarks on the part of students. If you think this may be a problem then we should probably stop right now. If, on the other hand, you think this will not be a problem, then I will consider working here. But I will walk out the door at the first hint of personal offense.” The program director did not flinch. She assured me she thought it would not be a problem and that we should try things out. I have since been working at this school with students young and old without incident for nearly a year. In fact, there are several gay students who have been thrilled to have me speak so plainly about all subjects using language that does not presume heterosexuality on the part of all students.
You can learn more about Jim, Luiz and their lives at Jim’s blog.