A lot of gay and lesbian foreigners associate Brazil with images of transvestites, Carnaval drag queens, and the muscle boys of Ipanema and allow themselves to think that Brazil is a very gay-friendly place. In reality, it is and it isn’t. Brazil is more tolerant of gay men and lesbians than many other Latin American countries. You’ll see both gay and lesbian romances played out on nightly novelas, and there are openly gay and lesbian celebrities (although they are hardly activists).Gay men, lesbians, and straight people mix much more, and the result is a less overt and politicized gay and lesbian presence than in North America or Europe.Both Rio and São Paulo have intense gay scenes (though almost nonexistent lesbian scenes), with a wide range of bars, clubs, and even small neighborhood enclaves. Other major cities, such as Salvador, Recife, and Florianópolis, also have gay venues and gay beaches or portions of beaches. As with heterosexuals, gays and lesbians are also much more open about flirting in public. However, overall, the scene in Brazil is much more GLS (gay, lesbica, e simpatisante; that is, gay, lesbian, and “sympathetic”) than exclusively gay and lesbian. Gay men, lesbians, and straight people mix much more, and the result is a less overt and politicized gay and lesbian presence than in North America or Europe.
Ultimately, many Brazilians don’t mind if you’re gay or lesbian, but they don’t want to be reminded of it; i.e., they can deal with the fact of a same-sex romance in theory but don’t want to see signs of it—public kissing or hand-holding—or hear you referring explicitly to your homosexuality. Two men or women living together, traveling together, or sharing a hotel room is not a problem, but the implicit agreement is that you’re two friends, even if people may suspect you’re not. Although the drag queen and flamboyant queen are very much an accepted part of the culture (during Carnaval, even in small rural towns, the most macho of men don wigs, miniskirts, and lipstick), there is a difference between spectacle and humor and the reality of day-to-day life.
Brazil is ultimately a macho culture, and explicit signs of homosexuality can incite insults and even violence. Even in supposedly cosmopolitan cities such as Rio and São Paulo, violence against gays is not unheard of. In the more conservative Northeast and rural areas, it is even more common. Meanwhile, although gay marriage is a long way off (and violently opposed by conservative Christian groups, particularly those in government), gays and lesbians can take advantage of união estável (stable union) legislation that protects rights of all couples, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, that live together as a family unit. Among other benefits, união estável ensures that same-sex couples can share health insurance and inherit property and that a Brazilian can sponsor a foreign partner from overseas. In 2010, over 60,000 same-sex couples in Brazil were living together legally under the união estável regime.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Brazil.