Lesbian life in Brazil
Carolina Derivi is an Environmental journalist based in São Paulo, where she lives with her partner of six years, Mariana. In this interview she offers a vivid and passionate portrait of the challenges and pleasures of being a lesbian in Brazil.
Deep Brazil – You live with another girl in what Brazilian law would consider a stable union, and since a decision of the Supreme Court, last May, you now may get married – although only a dozen gay/lesbian weddings were officiated in the last six months in the country. What legal challenges do lesbians still face in Brazil? Can you share your assets and health plans? Can you have or adopt a kid together?
Carolina Derivi – Well, It’s not that gay marriage has been legalized in Brazil. The Supreme Court sent out an orientation to all the other courts stating that gay couples must be considered a family entity. That means stable union, not marriage, although the rights and duties are almost the same. Since then, no reasonable judge should rule against a Supreme Court decision, although a few conservative ones, especially in São Paulo, still do. So the legal consequence is that all those civil suits from gay couples trying to get equal rights are now bound to have a favorable result. This is a big step forward, since just a few years ago most of those pledges were simply dismissed without appreciation of merit in family law courts. The only option gay couples had to protect their common assets was to pretend they were business partners.
But the interesting thing is this had a major cultural impact, I believe. For instance: the companies that agree to extend their employees benefits to gay partners used to be the exception. Now it’s the other way around, although they are not obligated to do anything. Remember: no national laws were reformed. But all of this just became common sense. Another thing is that it became easier to get a stable union contract. Most public notary’s offices are now respectful and prepared. I got mine last year. As a result, I share my partner’s corporate health plan and our patrimonial rights are protected.
Getting legally married is much trickier. That’s why only a few couples were able to do it, as you mentioned, and the same goes for registering a child – adopted or not – with both parents names. You still have to go to court and hope to find a progressive judge that will take the Supreme Court ruling to a wider interpretation (if they are a family entity, they can get married. If they are a family entity, they can parent a child as a couple).
So, as you can see, things are far from perfect. The way I see it, until I can go through the exact same process as a heterosexual couple in any burocratic diligence, I’m still a second class citizen.
DB – Do you feel safe displaying affection in public?
CD – If you would ask me the same question in 2010, I would have said yes without blinking. But last year, side by side with all the progress we’ve made, this huge homophobic wave came about. It seems to me that one thing provoked the other.
Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a man of weak political expression, became famous for his hate speeches and had a massive support on the web. The churches, both Catholic and Protestant, went bananas, and as you know Brazil is a very religious country.
My illusions fell apart when a series of attacks against gay men took place in Paulista Avenue. This was a huge symbolical hit, because Paulista is not only the stage for the biggest gay pride parade in the world, it is also the main symbol of São Paulo’s cosmopolitanism. Not feeling safe there is the same as taking the express train back to the 70’s, when all we had were the clubs and the ghettos. Surely lesbians are victims of violence as well, but since it didn’t happen in Paulistas’s surroundings so far, it’s not on the news.
I’m telling you this story because that’s when I realized I’ve been living inside of a bubble, because of my job and my interests. Being surrounded by journalists, environmentalists, artists, open minded people in generaI, I convinced myself I lived in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, where people were either too busy or too adjusted to diversity to care about whose hand I’m holding. Sadly, that’s not entirely true. Brazil as a whole is one the most violent countries towards gays, lesbians and transgender.
That doesn’t mean it’s a war out there, fortunately. I would say if lesbians go to the right areas in São Paulo (Pinheiros, Vila Madalena, Perdizes, Augusta etc) there is virtually no chance they’ll be bothered. Let’s hope it stays that way.
DB – Have you ever been aggressed (physically or verbally) for being a lesbian?
CD – No, I haven’t, which is peculiar because I never hold back. Shaping my behavior to preserve other people’s moral issues always felt like a self inflicted violence to me. But then again, my experience can be a result of the “bubble effect”. The only thing I ever had to put up with was men flirting with both me and my girlfriend, wanting to “join us”. That alone is offensive but, sadly, it comes with being a woman.
Brazilian lesbian culture
DB – When you travel abroad, do you feel lesbian culture is very different from what you see in the country?
CD – Not at all. This is one of the most interesting discoveries I had. The more I travel, the more I realize lesbians are pretty much the same anywhere, at least when it comes to Western culture. For instance: I understand gay women in America tend to identify with folk music. If you go to a lesbian bar in Brazil, you’ll certainly listen to a type of MPB that has the same mellow, romantic vibe as folk. Even the jokes about lesbian behavior are the same.
Clearly, this is a group that lacks no variety in tastes and mannerisms, as diversity is inescapable for humans. But there are some codes that are recognizable pretty much anywhere and could perhaps be called a culture.
One smal but significant difference is that in Brazil we usually don’t avoid the “bad names” such as bicha or sapatão. On the contrary, the LGBT community took over those terms in order to invalidate their depreciative meaning. I suppose this is a very Brazilian thing. We often try to humor our way out of sad situations.
DB – What Brazilian cities you consider lesbian-friendly? When you travel as a couple, do you have trouble getting a hotel room with only one bed, for instance?
CD – São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro – Salvador as a second runner up – are the cities most dedicated to fighting homophobia, especially when it comes to tourism. Gay & lesbian tourism is a US$ 20 billion market in Brazil, and these entrepreneurs tend to take quality of service very seriously (paulistas above all). Outside of the capitals, I would recommend Paraty, the most beautiful and fascinating historic town in Brazil, seriously committed to being gay-friendly.
The only time I was denied access to a hotel was back in 2002. I wanted to go to this romantic getaway cottage hotel in a countryside town called Monte Verde, in the state of São Paulo. The woman who attended us was actually very polite, explained the hotel wouldn’t accept two women and referred us to another similar one that would. I was 19 then, very unsure, so I didn’t put up a fight.
Nowadays this is illegal in both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states (I’m not sure about other parts), subject to penalties such as fines or cancelation of business license. Although if this were to happen to a person because of color, race, religion or disability, It wouldn’t be an administrative misdemeanor. It would be a crime. But it never happened to me again and I do travel a lot with my partner.
Where is the lesbian community
DB – Is it easy to find the lesbian community if you travel around the country? Are there, for instance, good guides or websites with this sort of information?
CD – Not really. The lesbian community is quite invisible in Brazil and that is true when it comes to leisure and travel as much as it is for political activity, since the vast majority of spokesmen are male. As a symptom, the initials for the pride movement in Brazil were recently reformed from GLBT to LGBT, in order to put the lesbians first. Well, it’s going to take a lot more than that…
If you want to be around lesbians, you’ll probably need to go to a club or a bar (which is problematic if you don’t really like to party) only to find a place that started out as girl-oriented and is eventually flooded with men. It’s not that we don’t love the bichas, we do! But sometimes, It would be nice to hang around just us girls… I miss those specific services and activities that you can find abroad, such as lesbian hotels, cruises or festivals.
The fact that this “pink money market” doesn’t look at gay women as a profitable niche with specific needs could be attributed to sexism. In the other hand, some people say it’s because lesbians tend to nest and don’t go out much when they’re in love. It has to be said that we do fall in love a lot! haha
DB - How does the Brazilian media portray lesbians?
CD – They don’t. That’s what I’m telling you, as a Brazilian lesbian I almost feel like a myth at times, some sort of mystery that people don’t know much about. It’s a small, hidden and poorly written channel in a really cool gay website. It’s a footnote in a guide for gay nightlife. It’s a horrendous magazine intended to lesbians, but entirely produced by straight men that have no idea what they are doing. It’s the women’s magazines and TV shows that completely ignore that some of us might be gay, and although with different perspectives about relationships, just as interested in fashion and cosmetics as the next girl.
I can’t find anything good enough (granted: I’m a journalist. When do we ever?). When it comes to arts and entertainment, I look abroad for lesbian references. It’s a good thing my parents made sure I learned English when I was just a kid dike looking for a place in this world!
Check also the posts: Being gay in Rio, Big Brother and same sex union reveal a tolerant Brazil and One Brazilian gay killed every two daysGay, lesbian