Whose Secularity?

Notes from São Paulo’s LGBT Pride Parade

The announcement that the theme for the 2017 LGBT São Paulo Pride Parade would be “A Secular State” appeared at once provocative and expected. For the mostly gay and lesbian (but also trans and bisexual) activists with whom I conducted fieldwork in São Paulo from 2011–2013, the issue of public religion has been a persistent theme of their activism. Leila, a librarian in her mid-twenties who regularly participated in street protests oriented to a variety of demands (from hate crimes legislation to improving public transit) recalled that her favorite protest chants were some such as meu cu é laico (my asshole is secular) and estado laico, porra (secular state [for] f**k’s [sake]). The vulgar embodiment (porra literally translates as semen) of Leila’s favorite chants suggests a viscerality to the theme of secularism that we might not associate with the cool affects of rational modernity around which secularism is often articulated. And yet secularism has become a hot topic—influencing Brazilian public debates on minority recognition, urban security, and freedom of speech, to name a few issues.

When LGBT activists demand a secular state, what do they mean by secularism?

The annual São Paulo Pride Parade theme has often been a measure of public opinion for national LGBT politics. Past themes have directly cited public controversies around sexual and gender-identity politics in the public sphere. The 2012 congressional hearings around gay conversion therapy, for instance, prompted the tongue-in-cheek theme “Homophobia Can be Cured.” The turn to address secularism thus reflects a broader concern about the rise of public religion. Brazil’s conservative turn, which culminated in the 2016 impeachment of Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, has been achieved through the convergence of what congresswoman Erika Cokay called the “beef, bullets, and bible” coalition. This alliance of agro-industrialist, law-and-order, and family tradition advocates succeeded in mobilizing popular discontent around the rising cost of living and elite corruption and transforming that outrage into a movement against Rousseff’s Workers’ Party. Tensions and factions notwithstanding, the long alliance between the Workers’ Party and the LGBT and other mass social movements have put social activism on the radar of the new conservative block. LGBT rights have been at the tipping point of these struggles. As they have gained seats in the national Congress, evangelical-identified representatives have stalled the LGBT social-movement agenda on a national level as well as demands for reproductive access, drug decriminalization, and recognition of Afro-descendant religions. The national discourse generated amongst evangelical elites through church-owned television or well-known political figures does not reflect the lived experience of the evangelical faith or the many reasons poor and working Brazilians (some of them gay and trans) are flocking to evangelical churches. Nevertheless, in public culture, LGBT and evangelical social movements appear as if they are locked in a struggle for mutually-assured coherence in which each movement is characterized by its antagonism toward the other one.

Queer theatrical protest against organized religion (often aimed directly at evangelicals and to a lesser extent the Catholic Church) has been gaining increasing visibility. In a 2012 march opposing congressman Marcos Feliciano’s appointment as the chair of the Human Rights Commission, one protester pretended to accost other participants using a bible as a gun.

Performance: Using the bible as a weapon at a protest against Evangelical congressman Marcos Feliciano. Rua da Consolação, São Paulo, SP. February 2013. Joseph Jay Sosa

His face covered with a bandana, this protest actor fused religious imagery within the cross-class moral discourse about criminality. At the 2015 São Paulo Pride Parade, the trans actress and activist Viviany Beleboni prompted a public religious backlash when she appeared atop a float portraying herself as crucified. Critics of this backlash point out that the metaphor of crucifixion is a common theme in Brazilian public culture, as a recent magazine cover portrayed soccer star Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. in a similar position. Conservative magazine Veja even portrayed a nameless figure of the Brazilian citizen crucified on a cross that simply displayed the word impostos (taxes). Controversy over Beleboni’s performance, nevertheless, points to the fact that the terms of the debate are being understood more and more as a struggle between LGBT social movements and evangelical churches.

This framework of self-evident, mutual antagonism leads us to ask: when LGBT activists demand a secular state, what do they mean by secularism? The answer may not be straightforward. The Catholic Church has traditionally provided a social compendium of the Brazilian state, attending to social welfare in the areas of education and health. Many of these institutional roles were renegotiated during the post-dictatorship Constitutional Convention of 1988. There, rights to health, education, and dignified living conditions set the stage for many of these social service sectors to be transferred from church to state. Ironically, the constitutional convention also paved the way for the politicization of Brazil’s nascent but growing evangelical community. Fearing the relative power of the Catholic Church, evangelical leaders were among the most vociferous proponents of secular government. Counterintuitively, gaining these demands meant evangelicals had to enter the political sphere as a secular social movement.

The common narrative of LGBT versus Evangelical antagonism sits uneasily atop these lived secularisms that emerge in visceral, oppositional, and even religious modes. 

And, while evangelical and LGBT social movements battle over the pragmatics of religion in public, the very mechanisms of the state carry traces of religious identity. Take, for example, the annual date on which the Pride Parade occurs. When it originally started in 1997, São Paulo’s gay pride involved a group of a few hundred gay, lesbian, and travesti activists blocking traffic on June 28, the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York. As a result of the rapid expansion of Pride over the next decade, the date of the parade was moved from the Saturday closest to June 28 to the federal holiday of Corpus Christi. Holding the event during Corpus Christi allows for businesses to shut down and middle class Brazilians to travel to São Paulo as four million participants take to the streets of the downtown area. The change in date has helped São Paulo LGBT Pride to become the city’s second most lucrative tourist event, while its being held during a religious and federal holiday has gone virtually unnoticed by event goers.

Finally, the antagonism between sexual minority movements and religious movements in Brazilian public culture is undercut by the heterogeneity of the Pride crowd itself. Evangelical, Pentacostal, and charismatic Catholic church groups are part of the tapestry of Pride’s over two million participants. At Pride 2017’s adjoining vendors’ fair, at least six churches rented space, some of them also circulating through the crowd with affirmative pamphlets, inviting fair goers to their services. None of the church representatives I talked to described a difference between this year’s secular theme and past Pride events. Indeed, by actively not participating in the aspect of Pride that directly targeted the government and public sphere, church groups might have practiced their own secular separation of religion and state.

The common narrative of LGBT versus Evangelical antagonism sits uneasily atop these lived secularisms that emerge in visceral, oppositional, and even religious modes. The ethnography of secularism as political demand requires attention to its disjunctive relation of lived secularism as well as its historical context and multiple framings by competing social actors.

Joseph Jay Sosa is an assistant professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at Bowdoin College.

Cite as: Sosa, Joseph Jay. 2017. “Whose Secularity?” Anthropology News website, November 22, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.689

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