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Gay Pride in the Amazon

January 11, 2012

Just days before the release last month of the United Nations’ first official report on gay rights the small Amazon town of Benjamin Constant also marked an important milestone—its first gay pride celebration. The Brazilian town, with over 30,000 people from multiple ethnic backgrounds, sits at the triple border with Colombia and Peru, overlooking the junction of the Amazon and Javari rivers. It is a quintessential Amazon town—a colorful market with abundant local fruits and fish, a deprived economy, high migration, and a rather religious community.

Benjamin Constant, like many other Amazon towns, also boasts a thriving gay community. It is a reminder that gay rights are spreading to the furthest corners of the world, and that the Amazon may be more modern than often assumed.

Celebrating gay pride across the Amazon

After a full-day LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) forum to discuss education, security, health, and work at the Universidade Federal do Amazonas, over 60 participants then paraded a large rainbow flag through town. Transvestites dancing to the gay anthem “I Will Survive” in sexy glittering outfits opened the march alongside anthropology students, followed by a diverse and lively crowd chanting slogans against homophobia and honking motorbikes. The march brought together soccer players and Indigenous lesbians, math teachers and sex workers, and grandmothers and little children.

Benjamin Constant’s first gay pride celebration generated some confused looks and awkward smiles, but no violence. Instead, the contagious enthusiasm enticed bystanders to join in as the lively group of perhaps a hundred people made their way to the port. Transportation difficulties prevented others from participating, notably a Tikuna Indigenous group from Feijoal, which got stuck on the way upriver. The crowd would have been larger if the event had not conflicted with the annual Country Drag Queen Contest in the old rubber town of Cavallo Cocha, Peru. (Jackie, the town’s recurrent Carnival Queen, had won last year’s contest and expectations were high for a repeat.)

Far from being an isolated event, the local celebration echoes a larger trend across the Amazon. In 2011 Manaus (Brazil) celebrated its 12th gay pride event and Iquitos (Peru) the sixth. Over 10 smaller towns along the Amazon River have already held such celebrations and Tabatinga, the military town across the river from Benjamin Constant, has hosted four successful gatherings.

View a slideshow of the LGBT pride parade:

All photos courtesy of the author.

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LGBT rights and homophobia

Despite a reputation for machismo, Latin America has taken center-stage in the LGBT scene. Various countries have developed progressive legislation, from the legalization of sex change in identity documents in Ecuador to same-sex marriage in Argentina and Brazil (over 1,000 gay couples received government welfare support in Brazil in 2011). São Paulo annually hosts the largest gay pride in the world with 3 million participants, and Rio de Janeiro won the title of world’s hottest gay destination for the second consecutive year after being elected best Global Destination City for gay travelers in 2009.

In the Amazon, Manaus has brought together activists and entrepreneurs to promote gay-friendly tourism—a marketing strategy supported by the TAM airline company. The Ministry of Justice of the state of Amazonas is developing tools to monitor and strengthen anti-discrimination laws and is offering workshops on gender and sexual diversity.

Some gay pride events have become large public celebrations, such as in São Paulo, while others are more political, for instance defending Trans Citizens in Lima. In the triple border area, the LGBT community has so far not articulated a distinct political discourse, preferring instead to embody its demands in the celebration of beauty and differentiated gender identities. But this LGBT community’s lack of a public agenda should not obscure the political dimension of the daily practices of its members.

Homophobia also still kills—and violence is soaring. According to Grupo Gay da Bahia, a nongovernmental organization founded in 1980, Brazil follows Mexico with the world’s highest number of homosexuals murdered. In its Annual Report on the Assassination of Homosexuals, the NGO detected an increase from 198 murders in 2009 to 260 in 2010. These numbers, unfortunately, are only the tip of the iceberg; most crimes remain invisible in official statistics.

Crimes against homosexuals, as noted in the UN report, are particularly macabre. The assassination of the Amazon gay singer Omar Faria—brutally strangled and stabbed last September—showed the signs of mutilation and cruelty that often mark homophobic violence. Transvestites are particularly vulnerable. They transgress gender roles most openly, and suffer correspondingly higher levels of violence. Transphobia has dramatic consequences on their physical well-being as well as on their education and economic opportunities. Many work in beauty salons and in the sex industry, with professional choices often dictated by limited educational opportunities and burdened by violence.

With the constant threat of violence, it is no surprise that the Manaus government and civil society activists discussed security alternatives during the 2011 municipal conference on LGBT rights. According to Francisco Nery Furtado, the forum coordinator, every two weeks a homosexual is assassinated in Manaus, with no responsible criminals yet identified. Although government discourse constantly reiterates a commitment to address, resolve and punish homophobic crimes, in practice, they are often treated with impunity.

Sexually modern Amazon

To look at the Amazon through gay lenses is revealing on multiple fronts. First, it sheds light on global dynamics of gender that are often overlooked. LGBT politics are everywhere, all along the Amazon, highlighting the extent to which the “local” and the “global” are permanently interacting with and redefining each other.

Second, a look at gender identities shatters flattening generalizations about the Amazon region. Gay pride activities depart from the imagination of an a-temporal and homogenous Amazon to reveal instead a diverse, complex society. Our surprises reveal our assumptions. The surprise of finding gay pride in the Amazon is embedded in the assumption that it is not a place of political modernity.

Well, it turns out that there are manifestations of gay pride deep into the Amazon, that people who live in isolated areas without electricity listen to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” (on their Blackberries), and that there are homosexual couples in Tikuna Indigenous communities. Perhaps most importantly, it turns out that people in the Amazon practiced diverse sexualities before globalization gave them the political language and songs to say so.

The first gay pride demonstration in Benjamin Constant may be opening public spaces to discuss sexual identities from a political standpoint, expanding the rights of LGBT citizens and facilitating alternatives to exit the closet. But it is not creating new sexualities. The multiplicity of sexualities was always there, before globalization, as everywhere else.

What was missing, perhaps, was the outsider’s capacity to identify diversity. Through sexuality and equipped with LGBT language, the outside eye is perhaps more inclined to discern complexity, even modernity, within the Amazon. 

Tags: Brazil, Amazon, Gay Rights, LGBT Rights

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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