There she was behind us in line at the bus station, or at least I assumed she preferred being termed “she.” Shoulder-length hair that seemed hers not a wig, hands moving in fluttering movements (really, where do they get that? how many women actually move like that?), eyebrows plucked within a centimeter of their lives, clothes a mix of male and female: black ladies’ blouse, white sweatpants pushed up to the calf, fanny-pack, and black training sneakers. She fidgeted, dramatically adjusted and readjusted her hairdo, talked loudly to herself: “calma, calma…”, and tried to strike up conversations with all around her: “Lord, it’s so hot, how can you stand it?”. Except that it wasn’t hot; most of us had fall jackets on. My Brazilian travel companion remarked afterwards, “See? That’s why so many people get frustrated with the drag queens here. If they were just gay, and lived their lives and left everyone alone it would be fine. But they’re all like that–pushing it in your face.” Well, but that’s not how a drag queen works. They’re the shock troops of the gay world; asking a drag queen not make a scene is like asking a fish not to drink water. What I thought more interesting was not the gender-warrior herself, but her companion. He didn’t wait in line with her, he waited circumspectly in a seat off to one side. He looked the stereotype of a Brazilian straight youth–baseball cap, form-fitting t-shirt, very short haircut, slightly baggy pants, modern sneakers. He looked to be at least 10 years her junior. They arrived together, and they held hands as they left. Her son? Boyfriend? Interesting.
What is even more interesting to me is that from my observations this seems to be the Brazilian structure for gay culture. I look around, and I see transsexuals everywhere and yet no gay men. I compare this to my native Northeastern USA culture where there would be the occasional gay man within our circle of friends. His sexual preferences would be explained in the same tone as if to say “He’s from Arkansas” –a key piece of information about his background, insight into some strange world we never visited, perhaps an explanation for behaviors we otherwise might take to be odd, and that’s it. Noted, stored away, and we get on with our lives. I have yet to be introduced to anyone who is gay here in Brazil. Here I do not see two apparently “straight” men holding hands or showing displays of affection. I knew a few trans folks in my old world, but they were a rarity even within a city that was known for its thriving gay culture. Alternately, I have seen more than one transsexual here even in this small town. If you see two men holding hands it is only in a transsexual-“straight” pairing. So maybe it’s only Ok if he looks like a she? I look at all the transsexuals around me and I reminisce of the youth in the USA who come out of the closet in flaming blazes of glory–all dramatic and effeminate, quick to push it in your face, and quick to take affront–until they settle into their new sexual orientation and calm down into a more relaxed version of themselves. Maybe since there’s nowhere to grow into, no out-of-the-closet maturity the gays stagnate in dramatic drag-queen land and become the strange creature that we saw in the bus station?
A recent popular telenovela (“Fina Estampa”) had a beautifully drawn character, Cro. Gay, and proud of it, he worked as a rich lady’s butler/personal assistant. He spoke openly about his challenges finding a mate in a world where love still had to be in secret. It was one of the ongoing intrigue subtexts of the novela: who is Cro’s secret lover? Married men, macho firemen, doctoral students–it could have been anyone. His character had complexities and layers, funny and intelligent, caring, and brave. But he was flaming, oh so flaming, effeminate, shrieking, catty, and voraciously sexual. Another telenovela (“Aquele Beijo”) had a transsexual, Ana Girafa, who suffered partners who used her for her money and stores that wouldn’t serve her. Abandoned by her rich mother, she lived in the novela‘s favela clearly because she had nowhere else to go.
Moreover, I do not see the ladies. Invisibility of lesbians is epidemic in latino culture. It certainly seems to be true here. Not a lesbian anywhere in popular culture (not in the telenovelas, not among the artists and musicians, not in the movies), not one to be seen around town. Even in the television ads proclaiming gay rights, the protagonists are still men. One friend commented when I asked, “We don’t have any lesbians here.” Like hell you don’t. Maybe here they’re just those two unmarried best friends that live side-by-side as they have been for generations in my rural Maine? That single gym teacher? Do they flee to the safety of the larger cities? Where are the women?
Even the government campaign against homophobia displays only men.
But before anyone gets on their high-horse about how evolved the USA is in comparison with backward third-world countries, let’s look at a few facts. In terms of basic, human rights Brazil is leagues ahead. Same sex unions are legal here. Everywhere. So is the ability for gay couples to adopt children. Legal precedents here are being pushed as one gay couple recently won to have their right to have a child through in-vitro fertalization (both fathers are listed on the marriage certificate). When I applied for residency, the paperwork clearly spelled out alternate forms of partnership and clearly pointed to the law that upheld the validity of gay marriage. At a time when my state is fighting round #2 of a gay marriage referendum and gay marriage is still illegal in more states than not in the USA and few gay couples get to claim both parents on official documents, I have to admit that Brazil has us beat. Furthermore while transsexuals may be one of the few acceptable forms of gay culture, oh honey, they express themselves with a vengeance. The gay pride parade in Rio de Janeiro is one of the largest in the world. Here where men in drag is much more common, and passing for female is raised to a polished art form. One of Brazil’s most famous international supermodels recently came out that she was a transsexual–and she’s still getting modeling contracts. Also, the stories abound about the guy who fell in love with a beautiful woman during Carnaval only to–whoops–not have read the fine print!
I don’t have a “this-is-better” sort of answer. Like so many things in Brazil–which is why I love this place–the evidence is contradictory, sometimes blazingly liberal, sometimes still struggling to come out of the dark ages. I just have one parting thought: in this world where all women ascribe to this very feminine, very sculpted, often surgically altered, always very polished version of womanhood, you could make the argument that everyone is in drag–even the women.