As the euphoria of Pride 2020 winds down, it’s once again time to reflect on the representation of the LGBTQ+ community in the media. Among the seasonal tidal wave of performative branding opportunities and Pride playlists mostly highlighting “queer” anthems by cisgender, heterosexual artists (it’s OK to give “Vogue” a rest you guys), there is no doubt the zeitgeist has also made a strong and overdue pivot towards protecting and uplifting trans and non-binary voices. Notable examples include the success of critically acclaimed drama series Pose, thousands of protestors turning up to marches for Black trans lives and the cathartic buzz around “Disclosure,” a new Netflix documentary chronicling the history of trans representation on screen. And while activist icons like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are central figures of the stonewall riots and Pride history overall, the indelible impact of these trans revolutionaries, as well as their countless unsung siblings, cannot be overstated.
In the U.S., calls for the visibility and protection of trans people span decades, although the conversation’s mainstreaming is relatively young. Across Spanish-speaking Latin America, queer and trans people in media are still overwhelmingly parodied and ostracized—frequently depicted as over sexualized caricatures and one-dimensional fringe groups whose only meaningful stories are tethered to tragedy, disease or sex work. And yet, while Brazil is not exempt from homophobia or transphobia, a vibrant national community of femmes is reshaping the popular narrative of suffrage and stardom while storming TV, radio and streaming charts.
“When you are marginalized the way queer and trans people are in Brazil, your art keeps you alive,” says Thales Coimbra, a lawyer working with the LGBTQ+ community in public health centers in the São Paulo metropolitan area. “I would say artists like Pabllo Vittar and Liniker sing very intensely of love and heartbreak, topics to which everyone can relate,” he adds. “Brazilians aren’t afraid of talking about our emotions, which I think is something very Latino. Pabllo Vittar and Liniker didn’t invent this way of making art. What they did was bring their uniqueness to Brazilian music, being trans femmes or queer artists who want to show us the different ways they experience emotion. When you are so close to death, you find [new meaning in] life.”
As a former lawyer for the LGBT Center at São Paulo’s City Hall, and later working closely with police stations and public defenders to better assist his majority Black and poor clients (emphatic descriptors commonly used to underscore people’s socio-economic struggles), Coimbra is able to provide a remarkably detailed rundown of the victories and challenges facing Brazil’s vast queer and trans community. In 2013, Brazil legalized same sex marriage, becoming the second Latin American country to enact nationwide legislation, after Argentina. In 2018, the Supreme Court decided transgender citizens could amend their birth certificates and other documents without undergoing surgery, later criminalizing LGTBQ+ discrimination in 2019 and allowing gay and bisexual men to donate blood as of 2020, overturning restrictions dating back to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s.
“All these decisions give the false impression that we are in a good place,” he adds cautiously. “[Jair] Bolsonaro’s government didn’t obey the Supreme Court’s ruling on blood donation, which was even more scandalous considering Brazil is currently the global epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic. So the reality is we live in a very conservative society and we can’t always count on Congress since almost all of our rights were granted by the courts; with the exception of the domestic-violence bill which protects lesbian and bisexual women as much as [cis, heterosexual] women.”
The rates of hate-motivated violence have spiked under Bolsonaro’s government, where efforts at censorship and negligence have also become commonplace. The government moved to defund and eliminate numerous HIV/AIDS programs, as well as artistic grants for underground projects which often center Black, poor, queer and trans voices. As disenfranchisement becomes normalized and civil rights battles rage, Brazil’s Supreme Court is once more preparing to make potentially groundbreaking decisions: One on transgender accessibility of public restrooms, and the other on whether schools have the duty to intervene in LGBTQ+ discrimination cases the same way they do with bullying. And while Brazilian politicians like Erica Maluguinho (São Paulo’s first Black, trans woman elected to congress) are spearheading initiatives to fund scholarships and mental health resources for the trans community, these are drops in the bucket before safety and equity become the standard.
“Brazil is the country that kills the most trans people in the world, but it’s also the country that most watches trans pornography in the world,” says model turned outspoken singer Urias. The rising 26-year old star found viral success covering popular Brazilian acts like Alcione, O Rappa and Pabllo Vittar, later unleashing her self-titled debut EP where singles “Diaba” and “Rasga” cemented her as one of the breakout talents of 2019. But it hasn’t all been champagne, runways and accolades on her road to the top.
“As the most marginalized group in my country, [trans people] have to slam doors to find opportunities as artists,” Urias tells Remezcla. “We gotta fight to be heard and taken seriously, and it’s not like that for straight cis artists, obviously. It came to a point that our voices [were unavoidable]. We made art at such high quality levels that people couldn’t ignore us anymore. We broke [through] the ‘gender and sexuality walls’ and people started to consume our work and consequently hearing our side of the story.”
Sharing their side of the story has made all the difference for Brazil’s powerful and extremely prolific queer and trans femmes. Groundbreaking baile funk artists like Lacraia, Mulher Pepita and MC Trans have successfully disrupted the genre’s reputation as an impenetrable boys club, scoring millions of plays across streaming platforms. Coimbra and Urias also listed numerous emblematic figures of Brazilian LGBTQ+ history, ranging from queer rock icon Ney Matogrosso to legendary drag artists like Silvetty Montilla, Márcia Pantera, Salete Campari, and Miss Biá—the latter coming to prominence in the 1960s at the height of the military dictatorship and remaining a fixture of the community until her recent passing at 81-years old. As in most queer scenes, punk and theater are also home to vital agitators, and in Brazil few are more respected than experimental performance troupe Dzi Croquettes and travesti legend Claudia Wonder, who shocked audiences by splashing herself with fake blood at the apex of the AIDS crisis.
The new generation of Brazilian queer and trans femmes continues to fight for basic rights like access to healthcare and education, while tackling modern conversations on race and the gender binary. Coimbra stresses the urgent relevance of Linn da Quebrada’s 2018 debut album Pajubá as it, “relates to the sub-language of Brazilian ‘travestis,’ borrowing from Afro-religions so cops on the street can’t understand them.” Across Latin America, the travesti community has politicized their gender identity beyond the binary, and in Brazil they are the group most vulnerable to hate crimes.
“In this context,” adds Coimbra, “a travesti who sings about being a subject, rather than an object of pleasure makes a statement for so many young queers to not accept less than what they think they deserve: don’t hide in bathrooms, don’t hide in closets. This statement can also apply to the mainstream. Show your pride. Show your self-love. This is what being bold means. And Linn da Quebrada [who now identifies as a trans woman] speaks clearly of this message in her songs.”
In order to spotlight this wave of trailblazing queer and trans femmes, we’ve compiled a list of artists bringing the gender revolution to the music industry’s doorstep. Over the years we’ve provided extensive coverage on Liniker, Pabllo Vittar and Linn da Quebrada, so today we’ll be highlighting the vital new voices emerging from the Brazilian LGBTQ+ underground.