This past fall, I published this interview with Marcelo Cerqueira, the President of Grupo Gay da Bahia (GGB), the oldest LGBT and human rights organization in Brazil, in Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide (Vol. XI, No. 6). It appeared in G&LR Worldwide's International Spectrum Department, in slightly truncated form, under the title "Brazil: Organizing for Gay Rights in Bahia." Since the interview was not posted online (do subscribe to G&LR Worldwide, a wonderful journal, if you can), I thought I'd post it here.
"DIALOGUE AND LEADERSHIP": AN INTERVIEW WITH MARCELO CERQUEIRA OF GRUPO GAY DA BAHIA (GGB), BRAZIL
Salvador da Bahia is perhaps best known to tourists as the most "African" city in Brazil. The administrative center of Bahia State, the third-largest Brazilian city (with about 2.4 million people) and the country's first capital (1549-1763), Salvador's people and culture embody the abiding influence of the African slaves who were brought there for over 300 years, beginning in the early 16th century. Travelers from across the world and Brazil flock to Salvador to hear Bahian native musicians like Caetano Veloso, Olodum and Ilê Aiyê; learn its martial arts tradition of capoeira; witness and participate in the Yoruba-derived rites of Candomblé; and enjoy one the country's three major and most singular Carnival celebrations.
But Salvador has also been home to one of Brazil's most dynamic and oldest LGBT and human rights groups, Grupo Gay da Bahia (GGB). Established in 1980 by visionary scholar and activist Dr. Luiz R. B. Mott, GGB has been a pioneer in advancing human rights and passing anti-discrimination laws, both inside and outside Bahia; in battling HIV and AIDS transmission in Brazil; and in promoting public acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. One area in which GGB has been especially vigilant has been anti-LGBT violence, an ongoing problem in Brazil, especially in the socially conservative northeast region.
During the summer of 2003, I conducted an informal discussion with Marcelo Cerqueira, the President of GGB. (He's also the Co-Coordinator of Quimbanda Dudu, the Black Gay Group of Bahia.) We spoke specifically about his personal activism, GGB's role in Salvador, its efforts to advance gay rights and human rights, and the specific role of black culture among Bahia's homosexuals, among other topics. Since then, LGBT activism has increased across Bahia, and Marcelo has continued to engage in a dialogue with other LGBT groups throughout Brazil, as well as with the Brazilian federal government, now headed by Worker's Party member Luiz Inácio "Lula" Da Silva.
(For more information on GGB, you may visit their Website. They offer basic information in English.)
John: Hi Marcelo. Why don't you start by telling me something about yourself?
Marcelo: I'm 34 years old. I was born in Salvador and teach history. After I entered college, I began to get involved in student activism and dedicated myself to GGB. For more than 10 years I've been an activist in the movement for the defense of homosexuals' human rights in Brazil. I also am the communications secretary for the Brazilian Association of Gays, Lesbians and Transsexuals (BLGTA).
J: What do you do at Grupo Gay da Bahia (GGB)?
M: In addition to serving as President of the organization, I'm currently dedicating all my time to the homosexual movement in Brazil, and at the same time, I'm writing for Websites, like Farofadigital.com, and newspapers.
J: Not long ago, in early 2003, you ran for public office. What led to your candidacy, and what were your priorities for the LGBT community and for Bahia?
M: I was a candidate to be a state deputy for the Green Party of Brazil, and our campaign goal was to guarantee representation for homosexuals in the country's decision-making centers. GGB has always been an enthusiastic proponent of including homosexuals in politics. That's because we're certain that homophobia in the various decision-making centers has been greatly enhanced by a rise in organized action by evangelical groups. I wasn't elected, but I got 5,445 votes, from those who shared my consciousness and desired a change. [Marcelo once again was a candidate in 2004 and has been involved in an effort called "Desire and Power" ("Desejo e Poder") to elect gay candidates in the major cities of northeastern Brazil.]
J: Returning to GGB, how does the organization serve the local gay communities?
M: GGB offers space for the promotion of health, of rights and homosexual citizenship. We offer health services, as well as specific items like condoms and lubricants, and we serve as an advocate for those who experience prejudice and need rapid action. But our work is especially aimed at forming a favorable opinion in [Brazilian] society on homosexual questions. GGB offers the opportunity for dialogue, but above all we assume leadership in a society that does not know how to live with differences.
J: What is GGB's relation to the other Brazilian LGBT and human rights groups?
M: GGB has the distinction of being the oldest functioning group of its kind in Brazil. It has existed for more than 22 years [Editor's note: now 25!], and we are a national clearinghouse in all kinds of areas, such as the promotion of rights, health, and homosexual citizenship.
J: Are there LGBT groups in the other large Bahian cities or in the smaller towns in the interior?
M: In addition to a community mobilization project and the creation of new leaders, we belong to Project Somos ("We Are"), a national and international organization that combats the spread of HIV/AIDS. In the various Bahian municipalities we are establishing gay groups and our goal is to launch these kinds of organizations in all the cities of Bahia.
J: What other cultural activities are you participating in?
M: The major event that we've achieved is the Bahian Gay Pride Parade. It's a really exciting event for GGB and for the city of Salvador.
[Bahia's 3rd Annual Gay Pride Parade and celebration, which took place in June 2004, drew its largest crowd ever, at over 80,000 attendees.]
J: How do you see LGBT life in Bahia today?
M: Here in Bahia it's very diverse. Young people here are sexually active very early, and that's good because it facilitates the process of coming out as gay. Also, many men here are bisexuals, so it's very difficult to be gay and have a fixed relationship, because many men are available for quick affairs and don't want any commitment.
J: In GGB's Webpages, I saw that the Gay Pride Parade in Salvador has a strong Afro-Brazilian cultural aspect. The parade even begins with a procession of Bahian women in traditional dress. How did that come to pass? What is the importance of Afro-Brazilian heritage for gay Bahians?
M: Salvador is the major black city outside of Africa. As a result, there's no need to state that black culture here is very strong. Candomblé is the religion of black Brazilians and it's also a very important religion for gays, who participate in great numbers, being priests, initiating others; it's marvelous. Sex is not a problem. It's a solution because it's part of the communion with the supernatural. In no way is [LGBT life] different for Afro-Bahians. The beachheads of music and black culture are very vibrant and everyone lives and experiences these aspects of our culture differently from sexual orientation.
J: In your view, how do Afro-Brazilian cultural and political groups relate to Afro-Brazilian gays?
M: With regard to cultural groups and institutionalized black groups, they do have some difficulty in inserting the discourse of the gay movement into their political practice. It doesn't occur on a daily basis because many blacks and mixed people relate themselves sexually with other men, be it for money or pleasure, without thinking about the gay aspect. Take soldiers for example; and I've even had diverse lovers, including some who are policemen. They don't assume that they are having affairs with a gay person. But military guys take part in fetish play and gay men give them what they want, they're even looking for this kind of hookup in the majority of cases.
J: One of the major issues black homosexuals (and African-American people in general) in the USA face is a rise in HIV/AIDS transmission levels. What is the principal issue for Afro-Brazilians? In Brazil and Bahia is AIDS a problem?
M: In Bahia there are around 5,800 people identified as living with AIDS. The profile of the PWA here is male, the majority are men. We don't have a breakdown by color or race. Condoms now have been absorbed into the practice of prevention. But among some people the myth exists that black men's penises are stronger, thicker and larger than whites'. Because of this they think that black men don't get infected by HIV; the majority of Bahians don't believe this, but the myth exists. GGB has already distributed more 2 million condoms.
J: Reading Brazilian Websites and books by Brazilian authors I see that so many aspects of Euro-American culture already are in Brazil: the "bear phenomenon," circuit parties, and now barebacking (sex without protection). What do you think about these issues? Are they the result of globalization or a new form of psychic colonization?
M: I think that the Brazilian gay movement is closely linked to the movement in the USA. And Brazilian gays are really turned on by our American brothers from the north. Sometimes everything is in English: parties (festas) here are called "Party," leaflets and fliers are called "Fly"; even the model of the "body beautiful," the "Barbie" [Brazilian muscle man], is an import. Gay men go to the USA and return crazed, including bringing back novelties like barebacking. It is the effect of gay globalization, of the Pride Parades, but outside the language issues and sex without protection, I don't see much that's bad in all of this.
J: Some Americans believe that Brazil is a country of greater openness and tolerance than the USA in terms of sexuality. But on the GGB site, you've documented many incidents of anti-LGBT violence. from attacks to murders. What is the reality in Brazil and in Bahia? What is the relation between class, homophobia, economics, inequality, and religion?
M: Brazil is a country that's learning pretty quickly to live with gays. Of course, inherent prejudices exist in poor countries. It's true that homosexuals are killed here. More are killed than in Mexico, more than in the USA, and it's a point of shame for us. Many gays are assassinated every year, the fruit of prejudice. It's very contradictory, because Brazilian men like to have sex with gays. Perhaps it's that they have a problem in acknowledging this posture; sometimes after the sex depression sets in. That happens in all places in the world. It's a question that requires ample reflection, an analysis of all the possibilities, including the question of poverty.
J: What are some other current objectives of GGB? What are your goals now?
M: The objectives of GGB consist of expanding the level of information in the general population about homosexuality and creating a culture of respect for differences. Our current goals are guaranteeing social space so that homosexual people can express themselves freely, equally placing the discussion about homosexuality on the political agenda and of human rights in Brazil.
J: Thanks so much, Marcelo, for your time.
M: You're welcome.
--John Keene (c) 2003-2005