Urban heteronormativity and the queer city in Brasília, Brazil by Juliana Grangeiro

Brazil leads the numbers when it comes to LGBTQ+ death rates. Stories of prejudice against LGBTQ+ persons dominate newspapers and social media daily. But what about Brazilians building local social spaces of resistance and joy? Looking at the urban context of Brasília for my MA research, I talked to its residents to discover how spaces for inclusivity and innovation enriching queer lives are created and experienced.


In a country where hate speech and homophobic/transphobic crimes are on the rise, queer lives are constantly threatened. Often, LGBTQ+ youth in cities find public space to be the liberating environment they are denied in their family’s house. But in 2017, every 19 hours one LGBTQ+ person died in Brazil, 56% of them in public spaces and 6% in privately owned establishments.

The right to walk about freely in the city, to gather, and to perform multiple genders and sexualities (according to Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity) are often denied. But in the urban context of a highly planned city, Brasília, a segment of inhabitants are challenging the heterosexist tools of urban planning and the homophobic society.

Brasília: the reach for development

Designed and built during the 1950s, Brasília represents the country’s shift from agriculture to an industrial economy. Its modern architecture and planning were made to represent (economic) progress. Under this premise, an egalitarian city was built for an unequal society, producing dichotomies that are still deeply rooted. Poverty was made invisible through structured geography and anyone beyond the white middle-upper class spectrum was further marginalised.

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Figure 1 – Brasília Esplanade with its National Museum, National Congress and Ministries

Why Brasília?

In a highly-planned context such as Brasília, state regulation is extensive; the city has a strong law enforcement unit focusing on noise made at night. Since 2008, with the popularly known “Silent Law”, dozens of restaurants, bars and clubs have been fined or closed due to “noise pollution”. The right to party and to gather as one form of our civic freedom is often denied and culture is easily framed as the enemy to life quality. In this highly regulated context, I investigated how non-normative lives and transgressive bodies were occupying places they were usually denied while also changing the social cityscape.

Having lived in Brasília for seven years, I witnessed initiatives led by its inhabitants to reclaim the city. Counterbalancing its large avenues, monumental scale and cars, people are following global city trends and re-signifying the city’s spaces. I went back to the concept of the right to the city by David Harvey to see how people “are changing their lives by changing the city”. I also saw the nuances within the different identities within the movement, focusing especially on class and gender within the queer community.

The homonormative, classicist, and misogynist city X the queer city

Among most of the research participants there is a consensus: producers and organisers are building diverse spaces. They want to move post-identity politics beyond and within the movement. According to interviewed producers, they have never claimed to be LGBTQ+ exclusive. They attracted diverse sexualities and genders by making sure to use an inclusive neutral language and equal prices.

Most of them are escaping what they called the “GGG movement” (the gay upper-class white man). Nonetheless, social segregation is also reflected within the LGBTQ+ community. For those coming from the outskirts and having a lower social economic background, challenges are still multiple. First, they have further infrastructural challenges to reach the central Queer spaces and have fewer options in their neighbourhoods. While some might find it safer to go out in the city centre in order to avoid meeting family members, they must save money to afford such a luxury. Meanwhile, they also face further social stigma coming from those of the upper social class.

Challenges are also constant for women. In the gendered urban experience, they are systematically targeted.  One of the research participants evidenced how, after two years of constant persecution, she closed her venue facing multiple charges on noise pollution and fees of thousands of euros in a process filled with misogyny and lesbophobia. Another (cis female lesbian) participant faces the backlash of trying to change a historically heteronormative venue into a more diverse one – having a place that isn’t queer enough for the LGBTQ+ community and not heterosexual enough for normative sexualities, leading to the loss of customers. Finally, a third participant shows how, being a trans artist woman, she needs to “put herself out there three times more” to have her work recognised when compared to male cisgender colleagues.

Nonetheless, the stories of those people and their initiatives aim to change their lives by changing the city. Relationships between people in marginalised social groups are reflected in the physical realm – in the landscape, on walls, in party settings. As you walk, pass by or occupy spaces, you change the space; you create shared feelings of belonging and/or community.

Most of them are doing this actively, either by assigning new meanings to abandoned underground tunnels or forgotten buildings and neighbourhoods, or by actively showing their affections in public. Others promote queer identities within the academic environment by promoting and building voguing communities and bringing back the ball culture, such as House of Caliandra.

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Figure 2 – Group of friends walking towards one of the Carnival’s LGBTQI+ parties

Through the research we could see that spaces previously neglected or overlooked are now transformed and queered by those non-normative bodies, sexualities, and genders. Planning and space heteronormativity are contested daily, either by their lonely bodies navigating through the city or their power when walking in groups (especially during Carnival).

Meanwhile, Brasiília’s queer scene seems to be evolving slowly from the gay white patriarchy. Beyond the urban heteronormativity, those that do not qualify under homonormativity might still face segregation in those spaces. The strong incipient movement led by women, trans, and non-binary genders still has room to grow and truly queer the city and its bodies.


Juliana picAbout the author:

Juliana Grangeiro is a graduate student of ISS and a Brazilian activist towards LGBTQ+ rights. At ISS, she co-founded the Sexual Diversity Committee and volunteered at COC Haaglanden. In Brazil, Juliana has worked in international cooperation towards climate change mitigation and educational projects at USAID, UNDP and Nuffic.

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