MEXICO CITY, Oct 11 — When an Avengers comic featuring a gay kiss was banned from Brazil’s largest book festival, author Nana Queiroz stuffed copies of her latest bestseller into a suitcase in a bid to outwit authorities’ latest move to silence LGBT+ storytellers.
“I decided that if they didn’t allow us to sell the books at the fair, I would go on the streets and do it there,” said Queiroz, who was promoting Eu, Travesti or I, Transvestite co-written with transvestite activist Luisa Marilac.
In the end, Brazil’s highest court ruled that banning books over LGBT+ content was illegal and Queiroz was able to sell her book without it being confiscated by officials from the mayor’s office in Rio de Janeiro.
But the incident has given impetus to artists, politicians and lawyers to push back against efforts to stop LGBT+ stories being told, which have intensified since self-proclaimed “proud” homophobe, President Jair Bolsonaro came to power in January.
“This type of state intervention into culture has been normalised, which is very worrying,” said Renan Quinalha, a law professor at the Federal University of Sao Paulo.
Although same-sex marriage has been legal in Brazil since 2013, it is a deeply religious country where homophobia is common and both the Catholic Church and the popular evangelical Christian movement frequently criticises gay rights.
It is also one of the most dangerous countries in the world for LGBT+ people, with 320 gay and trans people murdered last year, according to watchdog group Grupo Gay da Bahia.
Upon assuming office, ex-army officer Bolsonaro removed LGBT+ concerns from the responsibilities of the human rights ministry and announced plans to delete from school textbooks all references to homosexuality, feminism or violence against women.
“I was born in (1985) the year that the dictatorship fell here in Brazil,” Queiroz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I thought I would never have to face censorship again in this country. But here we are, fighting.”
After September’s attempted Rio comic book ban, about 70 authors and editors signed a manifesto opposing censorship which read, “We don’t need someone to tell us what we can read, think, write, speak or how we should relate to each other”.
Some 200 opposition politicians also launched a cross-party initiative to improve literacy among ordinary Brazilians by pushing for more investment in public libraries and realisation of a 2010 law requiring all schools to have libraries by 2020.
They are holding public hearings, meetings and seminars across the country to encourage reading and ensure more people have access to books across Brazil.
The lawmakers also published a “manifesto against censorship”, condemning the incident in Rio as “another attempt to hold Brazil hostage to a... reactionary, outdated political way of thinking”.
“We’ve seen an escalation in this authoritarian government with very serious cases of censorship,” said Fernanda Melchionna, a deputy with the Socialism and Liberty Party.
“That’s why we decided at the last minute to launch this manifesto so that we could say: Censorship — never again.”
The courts are proving a key arena for Brazil’s battle over gay and trans rights, which pits a growing population of young, educated urban liberals against religious conservatives who say LGBT+ expression goes against traditional Brazilian values.
Pro-gay activists scored a victory on Monday when a federal judge ordered the government to reinstate R$70 million (RM71 million) in funding for about 80 films, including four which dealt with LGBT+ themes, which it froze in August.
In a separate case, five LGBT+ groups filed a motion against the president last month, arguing that the removal of the film funding was homophobic and transphobic, after the Supreme Court in June criminalised homophobia and transphobia.
Paulo Iotti, a lawyer involved in the ongoing case, said the government was using LGBT+ people “as a smokescreen to polarise society” and divert public attention from the nation’s soaring crime, moribund economy and entrenched political corruption.
Despite Bolsonaro’s success in tapping into Brazilian anger over nearly a decade and a half of leftist rule, opinion polls show his popularity is already waning, as his government has lurched from one scandal to the next.
Anti-gay voices gained prominence in 2017, when the Free Brazil Movement — a conservative group behind street protests that helped impeach leftist President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 — got an LGBT+ art show shut down in southern Porto Alegre city.
The exhibition, called Queermuseu, eventually travelled to Rio despite attempts by mayor Marcelo Crivella — who banned the Avengers comic and is also a former evangelical bishop — to block what he called “an exhibition of paedophilia”.
Bolsonaro — who was a congressman for Rio de Janeiro state at the time — said Queermuseu’s organisers “should be shot”.
Following Monday’s legal victory in ordering ANCINE, the country’s film agency, to resume its working giving out grants, director Emerson Maranhao — who testified in the case — said he was determined to fight on.
While the judge issued an injunction against the freezing of funds, it is only a temporary measure that can be reviewed by higher courts.
“We will not allow totalitarianism to take hold,” said Maranhao, who is hoping to get funding from ANCINE to make a five-part series, “Transversais”, about five transgender people in Brazil, which was publically criticised by Bolsonaro.
“We live in a democratic state — things cannot go on like this... We have to act.”
As for author Queiroz, promoting tolerance in the next generation is now more critical than ever.
“I’m going to make a poster of this (comic book) kiss and put it on my own son’s wall,” she said. — Thomson Reuters Foundation