Staff Sexologist Travels Part Two: November, São Paulo, Ssex Bbox Conference
The extraordinary online media project Ssex Bbox has impressed me ever since its creator Pri Bertucci came to San Francisco. “[SSEX BBOX] – SEXUALITY OUTSIDE THE BOX” describes itself as “a social justice project that seeks to make visible the debate regarding issues of gender and sexuality.” Those double consonants stand for São Paulo, San Francisco, Berlin and Barcelona, cities which the media projects compares and contrasts. Here’s how they describe it: “In times of intolerance some possible paths are information and the union: we need to educate ourselves and unite to resist and provide knowledge against mysogynist, sexist, racist and LGBT-phobic conservatism. The commitment of [SSEX BBOX] is to create (virtual and physical) spaces that democratize the access to information, encourage open dialogue and allow people to discover more about themselves and their desires. [SSEX BBOX] is a social justice project that seeks to provide plural perspectives on sexuality and gender from the narrative of the experiences of thinkers, educators, activists, artists and others who live, learn and love ‘outside the box’. Its main themes are sexual and gender diversity and sex positivity and it promotes action in São Paulo, San Francisco, Berlin and Barcelona.”
Earlier this year, when Pri asked me to enlist Center for Sex & Culture help to fiscally sponsor a Ssex Bbox conference—hopefully the first of many, to be held in Pri’s hometown São Paolo––I was happy to support the project. CSC loaned an intern to help work on a crowdfunding campaign, and with the help of that fundraising and an angel donor, the conference began to take shape. A setback happened when Pri lost a venue—but then 23 Mix, SP’s answer to SF’s LGBT film festival Frameline, saved the day by cosponsoring the conference. One of its main venues, São Paulo’s Cultural Centre, could hold Ssex Bbox’s panels, lectures, and films.
So off I went to get a visa for my first trip south of the equator; CSC’s librarian Miss Ian booked tickets too, and so did a few more US Friends Of Pri, notably Daniela Sea, lately of The L Word. Pri arranged for one more guest from the US, trans filmmaker and motivational speaker Buck Angel. Buck and Daniela have big fan bases there, so getting them both on the bill was a crowd-pleaser; besides the unique perspectives each brought to the conference, they also helped guarantee attendance and media attention—both important aspects of an event that was the first of its kind in Brazil.
São Paulo has a very large LGBT community and hosts one of the largest Pride celebrations in the world (the city itself is immense, over 20 million souls living in the megalopolis and a mere almost-12 million within the city limits). But Pri defined the Ssex Bbox conference as queer, and this is a pretty controversial notion there. Portuguese has no word that translates; as many Brazilians told me, a large part of the LGBT community sees the word and the identity as US transplants, a kind of cultural imperialism. This was particularly important for me to consider because Pri had invited me to give a keynote address explaining the US meaning of this word and identity. Brazilians think of queer as inextricably linked to Queer Theory, and in academic circles, this is a particularly important idea for many; queer theoretician Judith Butler is lionized. But, as I told the crowd that came to my talk, the history of this term goes back decades before the advent of queer theory. (I’ll share a prècis of the talk below.)
So I staggered off the plane to a verdant world; it’s spring in the southern hemisphere, and in subtropical São Paulo it’s probably always green. I was delivered to SP011, a charming hostel tucked into one of SP’s zillion neighborhoods, and besides the wonderful proprietors, who took great pride in their cute little property and treated us like VIPs, the other treat was that the whole place was packed with conference speakers. Most of the people from the Bay Area were staying there, and a number of Brazilians also, including a woman who works with refugee populations who’d been living in Vienna for years. So the conference never stopped! Great conversations filled the air. And those few times when the conferees left, I hung out and chatted with owner Marcos, trying to drink in as much information about Brazil and Sao Paolo as I could.
The Cultural Centre was in an urban zone less than a half-hour on the Metro, and we all quickly learned how to navigate transit and read—if not pronounce—the Portuguese signs. 23 Mix and the Ssex Bbox Conference were already underway when I arrived on Wednesday—a full week long, it had been going strong since Monday, though more and more people attended as the week went on. The Centre itself was a large building, tucked in with landscaping so it looked like a hill with a building inside. There was a large multi-level library, a cafe and crafts shop, and mirrored glass walls on three sides of the lobby, where all day long Brazilian dance troupes of all kinds came to practice their moves! Whether we were watching people learning to tango or seeing a large group choreographing their next YouTube hit, it was always busy with beautiful dancers.
Pri desired, in creating the conference and giving it its queer identity, to bring together elements of a fractionalized community. As in many big cities, each part of the LGBT world has a critical mass of participants; people don’t need to hang out with others unlike themselves just for support and fellowship, but one of the tenets of true queer community is that diverse non-heteronormative folks will have enough in common to stick together and support one another. (Another is that sexuality and identities can be fluid, and there is more room under a queer umbrella than there may be under an LGBT one.) These were both important points to Pri; Bay Area ideas of queer community had been very important to Pri’s own identity journey, and they thought others in SP might have similar feelings once “queer” was unpacked from its Judith Butler-shaped box.
Brazil’s queer community, and especially its community of trans women, is also embattled. Many countries around the world are experiencing increasingly violent and state-supported waves of homophobia and transphobia, and Brazil is no exception. Attacks and murders are on the rise, and there—as here—trans women of color and sex workers are particularly vulnerable and targeted. Anti-gay, anti-trans evangelicals from the United States are the purveyors of a hate-filled and religion-powered philosophy that’s been infecting countries from Uganda to Russia to Brazil—if you want to bitch about US cultural imperialism, folks, try starting there—and one reason to make the participants and ideas at the conference as diverse as possible was to give each a stake in all the others’ wellbeing and to draw connections between the various parts of the LGBTQ world. The hate is well-organized, and these evangelicals are making inroads into Brazilian politics as well as preaching intolerance and instigation in the churches.
The role of women is fraught there, too, and there had just been a fierce and trans-inclusive SlutWalk* in Rio (“Our daily fight is against machismo, fascism and homophobia,” participants there shouted) that came on the heels of a right-wing legislator’s success in further restricting abortion—and even access to the morning-after pill—in Brazil. The politically powerful legislator, Eduardo Cunha, has also proposed to make “gay cure” therapy legal in the country. (In fact, read on to meet one of the former proponents of “reparative therapy,” which treats homosexuality as an illness.) Activists and analysts associate the radical evangelical right’s power with a noticeable uptick in violence, even murders, of both women and LGBT people, and while the conference was going on, the country’s first Black Women’s March in Brasília drew over 10,000 participants, protesting violence and racism.
*Amazing photos from the Rio SlutWalk are here: http://riochromatic.com/2015/12/rio-slutwalk/
So while there was lots of joy at Ssex Bbox’s conference, the undercurrent was deadly serious; its backdrop was a country grappling, sometimes violently, with power disparities, racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism and violence. That’s a lot of deep trouble for queer, diversity-conscious politics to take on! But the overall effect of gathering together people representing various communities, orientations, races, and political situations was truly remarkable. Most of the panel moderators I saw were trans women, which gave them a particular visibility. On top of that, Pri had arranged for a fantastic crew of volunteers that included simultaneous translation—while the non-Portuguese-speaking Americans did our presentations, expert translation made our words immediately accessible, and when we were in the audience we had headsets so we could hear the discussions in English. Marta Botto de Barros and her team worked constantly to make sure we could all understand each other.
I took part in three presentations: First the Bay Area participants did a panel together to talk about the varying scenes, from the Tantra world to Occupy to sex-positive community to Good Vibrations and the Center for Sex & Culture, that have shaped our understandings of community and sexuality. This was an attempt to give São Paulo people (a.k.a. paulistanos) a snapshot of the world Pri encountered in coming to the Bay Area, a way to compare and contrast the two cities that are most important to Pri. It was also a great underpinning to some of the more theoretical stuff we were going to discuss later in the conference. East Bay activist and Friend of Pri Claire Rumore joined Miss Ian, Daniela, Pri and me for this panel. Next I participated in “Beyond the Binary,” a panel to introduce ideas about genderqueer and fluid sexual orientation as well as critique the idea of binaries as a way to think of sex and gender. It was my impression that it’s more common to identify as trans in Brazil than genderqueer; it’s perhaps not so common to see the identity parallels between bisexuals and transgender folks, for instance, as we explored in the anthology PoMoSexuals, I co-edited in 1997. I talked about that and some of the history of binary thinking; other participants who identify in non- binary ways talked about their experience. Daniela and Miss Ian spoke on this panel along with Brazilian activist Éris Alice.
Pri had titled my keynote “History & Future of Queer,” and in it I tried to tackle the elements that I knew made the term and identity controversial among some of the Brazilians. That meant going back to the era when the word was used as a homophobic slur (at least to the 1930s in the English-speaking world), as well as to the period from the ‘60s into the ‘70s when it was reclaimed by (mostly) gay men––in that time of identity politics, this was happening to other words largely identified as hate speech in other communities, too. And far from being launched by the Queer Theory academics, “queer” became a household word largely via the activism of Queer Nation. “Queer theory” is actually quite a different animal than queer studies, and many people, even in the US, who use the term regularly probably have little idea about all of its linguistic and cultural travels. As to what’s relevant about it to Brazilians, of course, the entire conference made clear: bringing diverse people together under one umbrella allows differences to be unpacked and debated, but also allows a kind of unity to connect the participants… at least in an ideal world. The greater the barriers to understanding between people, the greater the challenges of bringing them together.
This became all too apparent during a panel of some of the conference’s Black women, one of whom, Marissa Lôbo, was among the group staying at the hostel (she’s the expat academic working with refugee women in Vienna)—I’d had interesting talks with her for days. This panel, “Decolonization of Bodies and Queer Normativity,” as well as one called “Trans Dignity and Respect,” took place on November 20—this is the Transgender Day of Remembrance in many countries around the world, and in Brazil it is also Black Awareness Day—in Portuguese, Dia Nacional do Consciência Negra––a day commemorating Black resistance and the death of Zumbi dos Palmares, an important leader in Brazil’s colonial slave rebellions who was killed in 1695. Not surprisingly, given that date (and that it occurred the same week as the Black Women’s March in Brasília), the role of racism in LGBTQ communities in Brazil was on the table, and the discussion (other panelists were J. Mombaça, Sueli Feliziani and Tatiana Nascimento, moderated by Djamila Ribeiro) was passionate and heated. I just read an interesting article in the New York Times that dealt with Brazil’s history of slavery; almost half of the people captured from Africa to work in the Americas were taken to Brazil, and slavery was outlawed there 20 years later than it was in the US, yet the country has still not had a civil rights movement.
As with Black Lives Matter protests in the US, there is both institutional and cultural racism to unpack, as well as violence and social discord to call out. And that’s just Brazil as a whole… within the LGBT community, of course, there’s a different kind of colonization having to do with images and assumptions of who is normal and who isn’t, who belongs and who doesn’t. I hardly need to say that race and class are part of this particular kind of normativity, and in an interesting but problematic twist, it can be especially hard for majority-culture LGBT people to see this, because they too are battling with questions of normativity—in this case, against the heteronormative world. So the bias and belonging associated with different identities are like nested boxes, in a way––one contains the next, but can’t see into it. This is one of the issues of diversity that queer community could help to address––if race stays on the table. And when it’s made central, the pain of past and present often emerges.
It was hard for Pri to see this discord enter the magic circle they were trying to create with Ssex Bbox. But that’s the thing about racism: It causes pain. When we talked about it, I shared my perspective: When you open a door, everything that’s out there comes through it, trauma and anger and all. It was a measure of how successful the conference was at opening the door. In fact, every time we had time for the participants to interact with the panelists and speakers, they told their own stories: of discrimination, violence, and pain, but also of finding identity and love.
I skipped all the all-night parties, but sat in on a number of other panels and keynotes. Buck Angel had two sessions, one to screen clips from his new series Sexing the Transman, a groundbreaking series of short films that combine interviews with trans guys as well as footage of them being embodied and sexual, solo or with their partners. He had a non-X-rated session too, in which he talked about his journey. Buck identifies himself as “a man with a vagina,” a pretty controversial identity among trans men. Part of Buck’s power is the way he embraces his notoriety. The audience’s response to him was intense––because he disclosed so much about himself, more peoples’ stories came tumbling out, and he ended his second session onstage just hugging one person after another.
Particularly interesting was the panel on religion–Sunday morning, of course! Though I whined pretty hard about having to skip the panel of sex workers that was scheduled opposite, this panel proved to be my favorite of the whole conference. Gay Cure advocate turned proud gay man, writer and humanist Sergio Viula worked the room like the Baptist pastor he used to be. (His memoir of coming out after running an ex-gay ministry is on Amazon in Portuguese and English.) University professor Tatiana Lionço has gotten on the wrong side of the Brazilian evangelical Christian Right, who’ve taken to calling her “Satan”––she told her story, as did trans woman and actress Viviany Belebony, whose participation in São Paulo Pride nailed to a cross painted with the words No More Homophobia was hugely controversial and led to attacks on her. Historian of religion Du Meinberg Maranhão filled out the panel, which was moderated by Fabio Figueirido. While the religious Right is undoubtedly a huge influence in the US, in Brazil, if anything, it is even more significant in shaping political issues and, as already mentioned, it helps fuel attacks and intolerance on a level that has become a crisis for the queer community in Brazil. Ravishly wrote up an interview with Viviany Belebony after her cross action and included this: “…statistics point that one gay, transgender, or bisexual person is killed every 28 hours in Brazil. Being transgender in Brazil can be particularly lethal: the country holds the highest murder rate of trans people in the world, according to Transrespect Versus Transphobia. Terrifyingly, according to the group Transrevolução, life expectancy for trans people is about 30, against the cis-average of 75.” This was the very point Pri made in crowdfunding the conference, and was the constant underlying challenge as diverse speakers shared their stories with the audience: How do we mobilize to protect ourselves and each other from these threats?
Sunday was the conference’s last day, and it closed in a really interesting, inspiring way: The final panel was made up of members of the audience, coming up on stage a few at a time to tell their stories. This was a fantastic way to round out the diversity of the programming; anyone wanting to insert their own specifics into the group narrative could do so even if Pri had missed including them. (And really, the world of sexual and gender identity is so broad, even a 7-day conference can’t contain it all!) Finally Black women’s hip-hop crew LES Queens took the stage, and Miss Ian and Buck Angel became their back-up dancers while they rocked the house.
Back at Hostel SP011 we had a bittersweet last party with our hosts Marcos and Nani and the many other guests and conference participants. Everyone was drifting home, many leaving on Monday, and I waited for my car while Pri worked on closing out the books and Marissa jammed with the LES Queens crew before going back to Europe to help a new wave of refugees. Daniela worked on an almost-due project, and I sat in the charming living room struck by parallels between the US I know and the Brazil I’m just beginning to learn: colonized by others, populated by waves of immigrants and slaves, developing national identities out of that often-difficult history. It’s no wonder that Brazil has its own culture wars, and of course it’s tempting for a visitor to see the parallels––the real challenge is to try to understand what’s different. That’s not an irrelevant message to ponder after gathering with a groundbreaking mix of people who are so different from one another, yet so definitely sharing things in common, too—including the common enemies that make Brazil less safe for its LGBTQ people, women, and people of color. All my new friends and colleagues are in my heart, and I hope they are using their new connections to one another to continue to demand safety and justice.