Marc Hertzman

Brazil has featured prominently in recent news, as the Zika virus and the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro (the first to be held in South America) have brought international attention to the country. One of the most infamous stories highlighted by the media is the ousting of the nation’s president, Dilma Rousseff, who was formally removed from office on August 31. The main architects of the impeachment campaign and a stunning number of congressmen are either under investigation or have already been convicted of an array of malfeasant deeds that dwarf Rousseff’s alleged wrongdoing—an accounting sleight of hand used to project economic health and boost her political fortunes. However unpalatable that act, Rousseff’s male predecessors did not receive so much as a slap on the wrist for doing the same. Rousseff’s interim successor, Michel Temer, has been ineffective, to put it kindly. New accusations of corruption roll in daily, and he poured gasoline on the fire by appointing an all-male, all-white cabinet immediately after taking power.

Women protest rape culture and the Temer administration. (Photograph by Ignacio Aronovich)

Coverage of these events, especially in English, has focused on corruption, power politics, and the role of the media. Less attention has been given to the sexist and homophobic undertones of the anti-Dilma maneuvers. The campaign against Dilma has been vicious and misogynistic, replete with car decals that fit around the gas tank and invite motorists to penetrate her splayed legs each time they fill up their cars. This example indicates that the impeachment-coup against her is inseparable from the larger waves of misogyny and anti-gay/trans hate that continue to rock the country.

Though the impeachment is now complete, there is perhaps a silver lining in the powerful activism of women and LGBTQ people whose actions not only strike a blow for democracy but also carry the potential for a historic symbiosis between groups often divided in the past. This synergy between feminist and LGBTQ movements that continue to challenge the Temer government, as well as rape culture, misogyny, and homophobia more broadly, is another aspect of the story that has been overlooked or downplayed in the media. A number of circumstances and initiatives have helped bring feminist and LGBTQ activists together in unique and inspiring ways this year. Their common ground and potency is channeled in the hashtag zeitgeist #AmarSemTemer. The phrase, which translates as “Love Without Fear,” plays on the interim president’s last name, which happens to mean “fear” in Portuguese. It quickly went viral and is now a staple on social media and a ubiquitous presence at all kinds of political demonstrations, where it has been emblazoned on signs, stenciled on t-shirts, and screamed into the air.

Activists mobilizing for women’s rights have embraced and adapted the phrase, too, carrying their own signs that read, “(To) Be a Woman Without Fear! (Ser Mulher Sem Temer!).” A literature professor summarized this particular meaning in a blog post that reflected on Rousseff’s shortcomings but also acknowledged that the Temer administration made her realize that under Rousseff, “we were happy without knowing it.” In a statement that might strike home for many, she wrote, “I want to be a woman without temer, in both senses.”

In Brazil, and indeed across the world, the sexual politics of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s exposed rifts and divisions as often as it built bridges. On the right, “free love” and other forms of sexuality were seen as dire threats. To the military dictatorship, homosexuality represented what Benjamin Cowan calls the “pink menace.” The left was hardly immune from gendered divisiveness. Brazilian historiography has shown how the proliferation of social movements led by black Brazilians, women, workers, and gay rights activists helped bring down the dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985. But gender, sex, and sexuality often divided one group from another and differentiated or marginalized others. Gendered hierarchies, Victoria Langland shows, divided Brazil’s student movement, and, as James Green explains in a forthcoming book about the gay activist Herbert Daniel, comparable divisions throughout the Left tracked along lines of sexuality and orientation. Though gendered divisions have hardly disappeared, the current moment, where the anti-Temer movement and the atmosphere of gendered violence has brought together women’s movements and LGBTQ activists in unique ways, offers tantalizing possibilities for overcoming these historic divisions.

Amar Sem Temer had a coming out party of sorts at São Paulo’s massive Gay Pride Parade on May 29, 2016 when some 3 million people packed the city’s Avenida Paulista, many carrying signs emblazoned with the new rallying cry.

Activists participate in the Walk of Lesbian and Bisexual Women in Largo Payssandu, central São Paulo. The act was organized by the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) in São Paulo, Brazil, on May 28, 2016. Posters displayed while walking criticized the current President of Brazil, Michel Temer. (Getty Images).

The elusive right to love without fear, or to be a woman without fear, took on especially poignant meaning during the impeachment-coup. Shortly before the Gay Pride Parade, Brazil’s political drama received a violent, gut-wrenching jolt when thirty men brutally raped a teenage girl in Rio. And as if the rape itself was not horrific enough, video and images of it circulated on social media, garnering hundreds of “likes” and approving comments. When news of the gang rape in Rio broke, disgust with the impeachment-coup’s bald sexism and homophobia was already high. For instance, Congressman Jairo Bolsonaro, who has been unapologetic in his celebration of torture, dedicated his anti-Rousseff impeachment vote to the man who oversaw Rousseff’s torture during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Previously, Bolsonaro had said that a fellow congresswoman was “not worth raping.” The anti-Rousseff campaign has also been virulently homophobic. Bolsonaro, who is also frighteningly anti-gay, has suggested that parents who physically abuse homosexual children should not be punished. That menacing threat has been made real in a recent spate of physical attacks, many fatal, on trans and gay Brazilians.

Activists protest against a gang-rape of a 16-year-old girl, which occurred along Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo, Brazil on June 8, 2016. The Brazilian police investigated the rape, which horrified the country after attackers boasted about the act by posting a video of the young victim naked. / AFP / Miguel Schincariol. (Getty Images).

In the context of these violent assaults on women, trans, and gay people, the admonition to love without fear is clear, direct, and poignant. As the country dangles between democracy and dictatorship, Brazilians have mobilized forcefully in response. Most have done so to defend the country’s democratic institutions and to prevent a return to the dark days of the military. While some activists are eternally loyal to Rousseff, many others have taken to the streets in spite of mixed or negative feelings towards her. Rousseff has been an imperfect ally for Brazilian women and the nation’s LGBTQ communities, securing important advances but also vacillating, for example, on an anti-homophobia law before embracing it during her reelection campaign in 2014.

Ahead of the Gay Pride Parade, activists distributed a manifesto that could be downloaded along with a printable Amar Sem Temer poster decrying the interim government and detailing how the impeachment-coup had rolled back decades of painstaking work and negotiation to secure incremental rights. The rhetoric and actions of Bolsonaro and other politicians, including an increasingly vocal anti-gay evangelical contingent, demonstrate what activists call the “tenebrous” nature of the moment. The votes for impeachment, the manifesto’s authors wrote, were votes against the very existence of gay, trans, and bi people. Hard fought advances such as the “Brasil Sem Homophobia” (Homophobia-Free Brazil) project and three Public LGBT Policy conferences lose their meaning in a context where democracy is not respected. Further, one of the first casualties of the impeachment-coup was the suspension of a presidential decree authorizing the use of “transvestite” and “transsexual” in official government documents.

In this context, the Amar Sem Temer rallying cry is particularly poignant and can be heard in all kinds of contexts. A case in point is the Facebook feed of the Brazil Popular Front of Minas Gerais, a group associated with the Dilma’s Worker’s Party in the state neighboring Rio de Janeiro to the west. Alongside announcements for landless rights mobilizations, anti-racist groups, and other forms of social justice activism, the group regularly includes Amar Sem Temer references. At a woman’s rally (Ato de Mulheres) in early June, the group described participants holding Amar Sem Temer signs alongside others with phrases like “Men Against Rape Culture” and “I Fight Against Rape Culture.”

The convergence of women’s and LGBTQ movements was already in the works before the Gay Pride Parade. On May 26, 2016 a teenage girl in Brasília, the national capital, wrote on Facebook, “Imagine how crazy it would be if all the church leaders stopped preaching against homosexuality and started preaching against rape.” One viewer responded, “That would be spectacular.” Indeed, her concise encapsulation of the joint desire to stem institutional anti-gay hatred and devote more resources to protecting women and combating misogyny is itself the sign of the potentially historic links and alliances being made right now.

While individuals like the teenager from Brasília explicitly link homophobia and the permissiveness of rape, others have focused more specifically on male-on-female violence. Shortly after the gang rape, activists covered Copacabana beach with 420 pairs of women’s underwear to represent the number of women raped every 72 hours in Brazil. A photographer printed large photos of abuse victims with red handprints across their faces.

Others have taken to social media. One ubiquitous image depicts a woman, crucified, bleeding from beneath her underwear. Hashtags like #QueroUmDiaSemEstupro (IWantADayWithoutRape) have exploded. One of the most popular, #EstuproNuncaMais (RapeNeverAgain), utilizes a well-known phrase used to denounce torture under the military dictatorship, immortalized in the famous 1985 report, Brasil: Nunca Mais.

Such expressions are indicative of how women are taking center stage in the current political moment. The influential magazine Carta Capital recently placed Brazil’s “reinvigorated feminism” at the center of what it calls a new generation of political and protest movements.

Though it is impossible to know how effective that feminism will be in bridging old gendered divides or at chipping away at cultures of privilege and violence long in the making, its centrality not only in the fight against sexual violence and homophobia, but also in so many other political arenas already seems secure. Some already speak of a nascent “Feminine Spring” that will turn the recent mobilizations into a broader political movement capable of sweeping progressive women from multiple parties into office and countering ages of male political domination. Whatever the future holds, the dynamic connections among LGBTQ activism and women fighting against Temer, Brazil’s rape culture, and other ills marks the present with signs of symbiosis between movements and activists often divided in the past.

And so, even in dark hours there is hope that Brazil’s democracy will recover. Perhaps even more improbably, there is reason to hope that activism may yield the kind of gendered justice, concrete political reform, and eradication of sexual violence and homophobia that to this date has been so elusive.

Marc Hertzman - professor of history

Marc Hertzman is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has written widely about race, culture, and gender, and is currently working on a project that traces the contested meanings assigned to the death of Zumbi, the last leader of Palmares, Brazil’s famous runaway slave community. He tweets from @MarcHertzman.

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