São Paulo's LGBT+ Scene From Past Struggles to Present Celebrations
The late Tom Jobim once famously said that Brazil is not for beginners, and the same can be said for the LGBT+ scene. On one hand, Brazil is known for its hospitality and for being the second country in South America to legalize gay marriage in 2013, preceding the United States by two years. Queer couples openly express affection in public, and the 2022 election of notable transgender federal deputies in the National Congress, including Erika Hilton (São Paulo) and Duda Salabert (Minas Gerais) demonstrates significant progress. And, of course, São Paulo is famous for having one of the world’s largest pride parades with crowds that match the intensity of its more well-known Carnaval celebrations. At the same time, the city's vastness can make it intimidating to fully immerse oneself in the rich queer culture the city has to offer.
São Paulo’s Hidden Past, State Violence and Resistance
Historical context is crucial for understanding the present reality, especially as the trauma of state-sponsored violence against LGBT+ individuals is still fresh in the minds of pioneering activists. In São Paulo, the military dictatorship persecuted queer individuals under so-called ‘vagrancy’ laws enforced at the municipal level throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The stigmatization of the LGBT+ community was exacerbated by the advent of the HIV-AIDS pandemic. One notable event is "Operation Tarantula," launched by the São Paulo civil police in 1987 during the country's democratic transition. It aimed to combat AIDS and 'venereal contagion, but resulted in the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of around 300 travestis. (1)
...Brazil is known for its hospitality and for being the second country in South America to legalize gay marriage in 2013, preceding the United States by two years.
Of course, the LGBT+ community fought back against state violence throughout this period. In the decade after the Stonewall Riot kicked off the gay liberation movement in the United States, the political mobilization of the LGBT+ community became more visible throughout Latin America. While the number of ways in which the queer community organized against state persecution is too long to enumerate here, one example is the Jornal Lampião, which was launched in defense of homosexuality and to spur political action, creating a counterpoint to the conservative voices found both in critics and supporters of the military dictatorship. Grupo Dignidade maintains an archive of the magazine, providing insights into cultural issues that mirror contemporary polemics. A second example is the numerous political manifestations that amplified the voice of the queer community and were strengthened through contemporary efforts of groups fighting for racial equality and labor rights, approaching queer liberation through an intersectionality lens.
The Struggle for Equality and Safety in the LGBT+ Community
The 1990s and 2000s saw efforts to strengthen LGBT+ rights redoubled through the exchange of information and mobilization of the community both locally and globally via the internet. Similar to the LGBT+ movement in the United States, the Brazilian LGBT+ community has fought for and achieved equal protection under the law particularly through same-sex marriage legalization and a landmark Supreme Court case in 2019 that criminalized homophobia.
However, Brazil and the city of São Paulo still grapple with contradictions and discrepancies between declared public policies and individual rights. Encouraging progress can be observed in initiatives to distribute PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), sexual health testing, and preventive materials at public health clinics throughout the city, demonstrating a remarkable effort to support safe and responsible actions for people of all sexual orientations without stigma. Despite the presence of NGOs like Casa Neon Cunha and Casa Chama, however, São Paulo continues to face significant challenges in addressing the issue of trans homelessness and high levels of trans homicide rates. And when it comes down to the lived reality of the queer community, 35% of LGBT+ professionals say that they have suffered discrimination at work, and a lack of alternatives has resulted in 90% of trans individuals making a living through prostitution due to the difficulty in finding alternatives in the formal market. (2)
Embrace the Queer Spirit: A Weekend in São Paulo's Vibrant LGBT+ Scene
With this context in mind, what is the best way to spend a weekend in the city, celebrating queer culture and acknowledging the continued fight for social and economic progress? Start the weekend meeting some locals over some coffee at Cafe Floresta or over a cocktail at Fei on the queer-frequented street behind Oscar Neimeyer’s Copan building downtown. Continue with people watching on the famed Frei Caneca Street just around the corner, where many small restaurants, bars, and clubs are teeming with queer Paulistanos. If bars are not your thing, perhaps take in a film screening. Independent films can be found at Cinemateca Brasileira or the Instituto Moreira Salles. Follow Cinemalgbt on Instagram for upcoming queer films screened in the city.
On Saturday morning, visit an exhibition at the recently relaunched Museum of Sexual Diversity (if you had a long night, the museum has virtual exhibitions as well!) The space, scheduled to re-open on July 8, will hold cultural activities and will include an entrepreneur center for the LGBT+ community. Afterward, head to an LGBT+ restaurant for bites, beers, and cocktails. For a taste of home, Castro Burger in Vila Mariana serves pride-themed patties with queer-liberation themed decor. For more typical Brazilian bites, head to Torneira bar in Pinheiros, a trans-owned establishment with dozens of beers on tap and regular food and drink promotions that support the trans community. Finish your night with one of the many rotating queer parties thrown throughout the city designed for your specific music and sexual tastes. Check out Desculpa Qualquer Coisa, a carnaval bloco organized by São Paulo-based lesbian DJs that throws parties in different locations across the city throughout the year. For gay men, Bigger, Komplexo Tempo, Festa KEVIN, Lunatica and High Club are just a smattering of the rotating parties.
If you still have the energy on Sunday, how about drag brunch at Sky Hall Terrace Bar? Or perhaps visit one of São Paulo’s many parks to watch or participate in one of the many LGBT+ sports leagues in the city? Or perhaps you could visit an exhibition by one of the many queer contemporary artists? Or maybe finally hit up that new queer bookshop in your neighborhood? What are you still doing reading this article! Get out and explore!
Mark Buttweiler works as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Consulate. The views expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government. Special thanks to Lucas Bulgarelli from Instituto Matizes for his support in developing the historical context for this article.