When people think of Maré,(1) one of the biggest favelas complexes in Brazil, the first thing that comes to mind is the historical image of stilts stuck in the soil that is, actually, water. In a period when the State had no plans for the periphery areas and replacement was the only housing policy, Maré was establishing itself and founding its structures over the waters: this is the first resistance mark of the place where we live and where we created the Entidade Maré Project. And just like our territory, our origins begin with the act of founding structures over love. In its waters we must navigate.
As Black, faveladas(2) and LGBTQIA+ people, what brought us together us was the love for our bodies, which is not given, and need to be reinvented because of the multiple invisibilities we have always faced. We are a group of artists, residents in this huge complex made of sixteen favelas in Rio de Janeiro. We have a common interest in memory and orality, especially those related to LGBTQIA+ bodies, and we wanted to build a communication channel through which we could tell narratives about these bodies, appropriating their experience through art. From the beginning, we were guided by the idea that taking up these bodies’ history inside Maré is a declaration of love for our own experiences, since the narratives of those who were here before us are also ours now.
What do you know about LGBTQIA+ people from Maré? – that was the question we asked in our investigations about the lack of data and documents on the trajectory of this community within the community.(3) The last Census carried out in Maré took place in 2019, and it was organized by non-governmental organizations based on the territory. Within the information gathered – work that, by the way, should have been conducted by the government – there was nothing about the LGBTQIA+ population, which says a lot about how Maré’s narratives are still elaborated within a heterosexual, heteronormative, and cis-colonial dynamic, and how the LGBTQIA+ narratives, mostly Black, do not figure.
The idea that the heterosexual man is the center of everything is simply not ours. This idea was so normalized that sometimes we forget it was imposed on us alongside colonization, which has dictated the parameters of civility based on the men-women binary. We, gay, lesbian, travesti(4) and transsexual people are not part of this colonial excluding narrative that justifies the differentiation between them (cis, straight, colonizer men) and everyone else. We would rather dig into our memory and get in touch with the cosmopoetic aspects linked to the dynamics of African and Indigenous cultures, our true origin. How is it possible that we are still discussing gender issues in Brazil, when some Indigenous communities, who lived here before all this shit arrived, had more than sixteen genders? Who is backward?
From inside the favela, we clash against this narrative, with double difficulty: besides being LGBTQIA+, we are also from the periphery, and that is why we experience extermination and epistemicide even more strongly. Everything produced here in terms of culture is doubly folklorized or marginalized and forgotten by official history. Although there are several records of the LGBTQIA+ movement history in Rio de Janeiro, there is nothing about cultural manifestations in Maré. We live daily in a gender abyss reinforced by a territorial, systemic and historical abyss – against which we feel the need to fight.
After we started collecting stories and data about the LGBTQIA+ community in Maré and its cultural practices, it didn’t take long for the Entidade Maré Project to take shape, perhaps because we see ourselves as urban Exus – and Exu(5) truly opens paths! We went after famous LGBTQIA+ people in the community and suddenly even our families became researchers. One would call the other, contacting friends who knew someone, and bridges were being woven in an unbelievable way. People began sending us audios, videos, sharing CDs with incredible photos: there was a need for a collective historiographical creation about this part of the Maré, which was never contemplated within official clippings. That is why the community became a partner in the construction of an alternative narrative. Despite its invisibility, it is here, alive, being woven day by day in this territory.
In our first conversations with Soraia, a travesti who is our neighbor, we realized the importance of resuming the stories of Noite das Estrelas (Night of the Stars), a series of concerts that took place in Maré in the 1980s and 1990s, starring a mixture of transexual and heterosexual women, travestis, cis gay men and lesbian women. Before becoming famous and filling Maré’s streets, these performances took place in the conviviality of roof slabs, at home parties and LGBTQIA+ meetings, just for fun. Soon, the performances extrapolated the domestic space and became shows for the entire favela, in which they would set up a stage on top of tables and crates, and perform their dubbing shows, with wigs and complete costumes.
The performances became public during the festas juninas(6) at Nova Holanda(7) and Rubens Vaz.(8) They were organized by Ney, a resident who wanted to help his travestis friends as a way of thanking them for helping sewing the quadrilha(9) clothings. The presentations were happening all over the territory until Menga, a queer Maré resident, officialized them with the name Noite das Estrelas. As the performances were becoming more serious, even the drug traffic itself began to invite its organizers to perform in the streets, and they would stir the local commerce. The performances were so well known that the first baile funk(10) in Maré, produced by the famous Furacão 2000,(11) was brought by Noite das Estrelas. The concerts would take place everywhere: during festas juninas, during carnival, after football championships and even inside schools (with bare-chested travestis being watched by children, without causing any panic). There was a very strong sense of community, because the performances were not exclusive to LGBTQIA+ people, but would also connect the neighborhood. Our grandmothers, mothers, uncles, cousins, and everyone else attended them.
Noite das Estrelas was a true transdisciplinary cultural potency because it brought together many people from the favela, it crossed multiple spaces and experiences, including charme,(12) escolas de samba,(13) Candomblé,(14) axé,(15) Northeast regionality and festas juninas. It was a way for those excluded bodies to build representation through performance and art, which still pulses through the streets of Maré and lives in the memory of its residents. Why is there nothing written about this cultural manifestation, and why was it made invisible, even though it is so strong and important to so many people?
For us, living is revolutionary. The existence of LGBTQIA+ Black bodies in a territory like Maré is not simple; it is revolutionary. When the Black thinker Beatriz Nascimento traces the experience of our bodies concerning the Atlantic in her work, she draws attention to the escape as the first movement of the body that does not want to be dominated. In the escape lies the unknown – the violence of the possibility of being caught, but also the subjectivity of people who don’t want to stop dreaming. This is also part of our collective experience: to live within Maré is to resist in a community, to be very close and to share a collectivity that precedes us, which still lives in the memories of our mothers, our families and the people who manifested their LGBTQIA+ art on the streets of the favela.
Living in Maré is fighting with the guys who call us fags when they pass by; it is resisting the extermination and exoticization of our experiences. It is also to re-elaborate relationships as soon as we leave the favela, because there are many spheres of security that Maré gives us that do not exist outside of here. Despite all the idea of Maré as a space of violence, we do not experience such violence daily. Here, no one is going to steal our car or rob our house. At the present moment, we are experiencing political changes that interfere with our daily lives – and public security strategies themselves change, including the interaction between drug traffickers and residents. However, we are not responding to this daily extermination strategy, we are living against it. Because naturally, the elaboration of living is in our bodies.
We have friends, we eat, we bleed, we get horny, and we love to be horny. Maybe that’s what sets us apart from other people. Black LGBTQIA+ women are not ashamed to say they love to cum. The binary between man and woman imposes on people a boring way of living affective and sexual relationships. For the loss of those who live this way, it must be very lonely and frustrating, because everything has to go right all the time. In our experience, we can make mistakes, because we don’t follow a model: the model is being created by ourselves. As the writer Audre Lorde would say, being the Other means we can be a lot of things that don’t fit the norm. We live through a lot that doesn’t fit inside or outside Maré.
If the experience of other bodies is not easily accepted, it is also due to the lack of data on them. The philosopher Sueli Carneiro stated, in 1987, that because the Black population was not included in the IBGE(16) official State data, it was almost impossible to understand how it felt, what it did, what it worked with – and we still face that problem today. Brazil is still the country that kills the most LGBTQIA+ people every year, and it is also the country that kills the most Black people. And we are those bodies! The Black population is incarcerated or lives on the periphery. We are in the periphery, within an area that could and should be considered the center. What Maré generates in terms of income for Rio de Janeiro is sometimes triple what some cities in the state of Rio generate. This is a very difficult extermination plan to elaborate on, which is why the focus of Entidade Maré is to present a territorial writing of LGBTQIA+ people through the intersections between their oral, cultural, performative and socioeconomic writing.
When we take back the history of cultural manifestations such as Noite das Estrelas from the 1980s and its protagonists, in a way we are setting in motion an ancestry device for Black and favela LGBTQIA+ bodies that is even more difficult to access than heterosexual Black ancestry. And because we live in Maré and we are these bodies, this historical resumption does not incorporate the distance that is usually present within anthropological and sociological research carried out on us. We are talking about research that is done collectively.
This history and this trajectory are ours, and even though we are writing about them, they were written before us. We are just a channel of recognition that becomes deeper and more collective as we weave affection networks within the community. It is beautiful to be able, for example, to feel that we are part of the same trajectory traced by Gilmara, a travesti who won a medal of honor from the City of Rio de Janeiro for her work. It was she who created the Conexão G de Cidadania LGBTQIA+ de Favelas, the only institution in the favela that seeks public policies and discusses access to rights.
Conexão G was created in 2006 and today it is of great importance for Maré, because it manages to build access to some basic rights that end up being denied to the LGBTQIA+ population in favelas. There, the staff offers professional training courses and free legal, social, and psychological assistance. As Gilmara always says, while the LGBTQIA+ population from outside is fighting for the right to marry, this same population, wihtin Maré, is fighting for their lives –with no public policy to actually meet their most basic needs.
We are talking about a huge territory with invisible barriers imposed by the drug traffic, the lack of public policies and an oppressive structure that wants to kill us – even though we continue to resist. Maré is one of the few territories in Rio de Janeiro that has two Pride parades. We have the Conexão G, theater groups fully operating the balls – which are performance competitions – and several other artistic experiences. Today we have two homes that welcome the LGBTQIA+ population and also house cultural manifestations: we know each other, we see each other. We can say that we know more than a hundred Black and white LGBTQIA+ artists here in Maré. We are together all the time, we exist in their experiences, and they exist in our experiences – forever.
When Deley, who was a pai de santo,(17) performed in the 1980s, he organized a parade on his street, going out in carnival costumes. He was a carnival destaque,(18) so it wasn’t just any costume! The whole street took part in this event, which was actually just a queer person leaving the house all dressed up. And it is beautiful to see how these people – like Deley, Gilmara, Pantera, Madame, Mila, Dominique and so many others –, who were here, living that specific moment in history, connect with us.
Their struggle and the legacy they built is just one path, among many others, that points to a history that needs to be told collectively. Their trajectories allow us to recognize that LGBTQIA+ bodies in Maré are not understood by official history, and that increasingly expanding these narratives is a way to end the pasteurization of experience. To trace the paths where these people have made – in which we walk now, living in a different way – is to take their stories by the noose and not let them die. It is telling them again, by sewing them together.
When someone like Gilmara – and so many other queers who made history in Maré – wins a medal of honor from the City of Rio de Janeiro, it crosses us in a way that we can’t even translate. It is very powerful, mainly because these are bodies for which a life project was designed, which is actually death. We look around and what we see is death designed for us. Therefore, recognizing the work of these people is also a political strategy for life, for how we can survive, how we can exist in the future.
The artist Jota Mombaça says something very beautiful, which we always repeat: Brazil is the country that kills the most LGBTQIA+ people, but despite this insistence on killing us, there is something in us that does not die. We feel this every day: they cannot kill us, there is always something in us that remains, whether they like it or not. And, in fact, it seems that everything queer people of Maré experienced in the past, we also experience today: the same fears, victories, claims, and ways of creating culture. Noite das Estrelas started with queer parties on roof slabs, which is something we still do today! We are appropriating what researcher Leda Martins calls oralitura,(19) which is the performance that is made by the body, the territorial writing of Maré made by LGBTQIA+ bodies that are ancestral and far beyond our understanding. Our bodies speak more than we can imagine, than we can handle, because they were designed before us. They are part of this community of dreams, of those who were enslaved, of those who were attacked and killed just for existing.
The official history of the LGBTQIA+ movement in the world begins in the 1950s, and in the 1980s, in one of the favelas of Maré, we had movements such as Noite das Estrelas bringing the power of the LGBTQIA+ body to the public space. The streets were being occupied and claimed by these bodies, without them being rejected. On the contrary, these bodies were applauded! The people on those set up stages were being cheered on by children, the elderly, young people, men, women, drug dealers and retailers. It’s very intense and it’s really cool to know that movements like this existed and can still be accessed by the living figures of our community. And also through the people who, unfortunately, have passed, but who are here, by our side, guiding us. This is ancestry in the veins!
Our ancestry is not only made of Black people who were enslaved. It is also in the LGBTQIA+ people who lived before us; it is precisely because they lived before us that we live today. We can only be here today because they lived and resisted countless situations of violence. Our ancestry goes far beyond our mothers, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers; it also comes from those who built the world so that we could be in it. All these gay, transsexual, travestis and lesbian figures who paraded and rocked the streets of Maré are our ancestors. They may not have any blood relationship with us, but they are part of an alliance built through love for our bodies. Thanks to them, we can now openly say that we are Black, faveladas, macumbeiras,(20) lesbians, gays, travestis… and that’s fine. We are these bodies, and nobody is going to take this away from us, because nobody takes away what we are. It is essential to know that these people existed before us, loved before us, fought before us and traced paths that we can continue to follow. There is a lot of power in our history – a power that we must mediate, articulate, aggregate, expand and, of course, claim.
1 A favela complex in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro.
2 Favelada or favelado refers to a person who was born, raised and/or lives in a favela.
3 In Portuguese “comunidade”, another way of referring to a favela.
4 Travestis are individuals assigned male at birth embracing a feminine gender identity, challenging norms prominent in Latin America, particularly Brazil and Argentina.
5 Exu is one of the most important divinities in Candomblé and Umbanda, African-Brazilian religions. Exu is the messenger of the gods, and is related to communication and crossroads.
6 Festas juninas are celebrations that take place in the month of June in Brazil. They commemorate three popular saints: Saint Anthony, Saint Peter and Saint John. The parties are more common in Northeast Brazil, but happen throughout the country.
7 One of the favelas that make up the Maré complex.
8 One of the favelas that make up the Maré complex.
9 Traditional dance danced in festas juninas.
10 Baile funk (or funk ball) is the term used to refer to parties where funk – music genre born in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, but popular in the whole country – is played.
11 Furacão 2000 is a sound team, producer and record label from Rio de Janeiro that specializes in funk music.
12 Charme or baile charme are a type of party where Black music is played.
13 Escolas de samba or samba schools are clubs that organize parades during carnival with dancing, drumming and samba songs. Samba schools have a strong community basis and are traditionally associated with particular neighborhoods. Each carnival the samba schools in Rio de Janeiro present a big parade and compete for the championship that year.
14 Camdomblé is an Afro-Brazilian religion derived from traditional African religions.
15 Axé is a Brazilian musical genre born in the 1980s in Bahia State, popular in the whole country.
16 IBGE is the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.
17 Pai de santo is a male priest in Umbanda and Candomblé, Afro-Brazilian religions.
18 The carnival parades organized by samba schools are divided in rows, and each row has its own costume. The destaques (or highlights) are people within each row that have the most luxurious costumes.
19 Oralitura: neology mixing the words orality and literature.
20 Macumbeira is a person who practices macumba, part of Afro-Brazilian religion.