|Photo by Chris Crain
The parade was marred by murder only hours afterward. For some, the day’s lesson wasn’t learned.
More than three million people gathered last weekend in São Paulo, Brazil, for the world’s largest ever Gay Pride parade. The sheer size and spectacle weren’t the only reasons the event was one I will never forget.
Anyone who has been to Carnaval in Rio De Janeiro knows that Brazilians know how to throw a party. Gay Pride in São Paulo, a city of 20 million, is no exception. The parade down Avenida Paulista was a gigantic street party, with 23 massive trailers, each sponsored by a gay organization, nightclub or business, and souped up with a powerful sound system, decorations and spotlights — since the parade starts in the early afternoon and lasts for eight hours well into the night.
This was not a parade like we are used to in the U.S., with floats and marchers in the street, cheered on by spectators on the sidewalks. This was a celebration for everyone, with no distinction between those of us on the trailers and the people dancing alongside in the streets and spilling over onto the sidewalks.
Strangers danced — and occasionally locked lips — with strangers, gay men partied alongside lesbians, with the expected contingent of dolled-up drag queens and a healthy contingent of straight couples, with smiles on their faces as broad as the gay participants.
I wish the energy and the spirit of Sunday could be bottled and delivered back home to the U.S., where so many Gay Pride parades have begun to feel a bit stale, a bit stereotyped, and a bit adrift from their original purpose.
Latin America in general, and Brazil in particular, still trails Europe in the U.S. in cultural acceptance of homosexuality, even if they’ve managed to achieve more rights than many of their American counterparts. Brazil is home to conservative Latin machismo and the largest Roman Catholic population in the world, so Gay Pride in São Paulo is still a vital opportunity for lesbians and gay men from smaller cities across the country — and elsewhere in Latin America — to feel free to be themselves.
Of course, any event with more than three million participants will have its hiccups. Watching safely from the float for The Week, São Paulo’s legendary nightclub, my partner and I were at times worried for the surging mass of people below, where happy partiers could be caught up in a crush of humanity in the blink of an eye.
Police presence was minimal — too minimal — so pick-pockets had themselves a field day. Pride organizers complained afterward that special observation towers and tents set up for the police were left empty, overcome by street revelers. The few police I saw simply stood and watched, and played no active role in controlling the massive crowd.
But the biggest problem is one familiar to those of us who have watched Gay Pride events in the U.S. change their focus over the years. This is supposed to be a parade with a purpose; the theme in São Paulo was ending racism, sexism and homophobia. But it appeared a bit lost amidst the bacchanalia.
I have seen the same thing in Washington, D.C., where the political focus fell by the wayside in the 1990s as a (supposedly) gay-friendly president took the White House and the worst of the AIDS crisis subsided. I knew an unfortunate corner had been turned the year Capital Pride organizers actually chose as keynote speaker Tammy Faye Bakker, who preached from the Gay Pride stage that homosexuality was a sin but we were all sinners.
In São Paulo last weekend, too many missd the message. As the parade drew down, a gay tourist from France was stabbed to death outside a gay restaurant and bar only blocks from the parade route. He had just left a well-known gay restaurant with some gay Brazilians he had met earlier, when they were approached by three youths dressed as “skaters,” typical of local skinheads. Without a word or a demand for wallets, the Frechman was stabbed repeatedly in the abdomen.
The next day, the gay Brazilian who blogs in English under the name Made in Brazil wrote about the incident, and a number of other gay Brazilians responded angrily that he shouldn’t cast Gay Pride in a negative light. Even as the mainstream media here picked up on the murder as a possible hate crime, local gay websites — the only form of gay press here — downplayed the tragedy or ignored it entirely.
Ending homophobia had been the theme of the Gay Pride parade, but how quickly some of its participants forgot. Brazil’s gay and lesbian leaders haven’t managed yet to harness the energy of São Paulo’s massive Pride celebration — or at least make the message last once the music has stopped.