When Pabllo Vittar, a striking blond drag queen–cum–pop star, went on the Brazilian TV show Fantástico in August last year to say she likes to be both a woman and a man, she was proudly proclaiming a gender identity that is often the target of violence, even murder. The latest figures show that, in 2017, 445 LGBTQ people were killed in Brazil in homophobic attacks, up 30 percent from 343 in 2016. But Vittar is confident she’s finding acceptance. And there is growing evidence that she’s part of a curious contrast playing out in Brazil.
Despite a diverse cultural heritage and a seemingly liberal society (think Carnival), Brazil is underpinned by a machismo culture that often translates into discrimination against anyone who isn’t heterosexual or cisgender.
The numbers don’t lie and the public is really accepting our music.
Pabllo Vittar, musician
But now, a rising tide of Brazilian musicians who are openly gay or defy traditional gender roles is challenging this prejudice, taking on old taboos, and being embraced by millions of fans, both within the LGBTQ community and outside it. Vittar is leading the gender-fluid movement that has exploded in Brazil’s music scene in recent months, followed by a string of LGBTQ artists such as Liniker Barros, Aretuza Lovi, Gloria Groove, As Bahias e a Cozinha Mineira and Lia Clark. Musicians not associated with the LGBTQ scene are picking up on this trend and incorporating it into their own work. Heavy Baile, a Carioca funk duo that organizes music events and produces its own tracks, recently released “Berro,” featuring Tati Quebra Barraco, a female funk musician, and Lia Clark, a drag queen musician.
“The numbers don’t lie and the public is really accepting our music,” says Vittar. “I’m proud to be a voice for the LGBTQ audience in a country that kills people in this community. For me, it’s a huge honor to be able to break these barriers.”
Indeed, the numbers tell a story. Lia Clark’s 2016 hit, “Trava Trava,” has nearly 4 million views on YouTube and her latest song, “Tipo de Garota,” has already reached 1 million views. As a child, the 25-year-old who identifies as gender fluid, never imagined she would one day be in the public spotlight as a drag queen. Back then, she says, there was nobody on television she could identify with. She faced prejudice for behaving too feminine, and says she still does at times. The internet, she believes, is a key factor in the acceptance of LGBTQ musicians now. “I can show others who identify with me that it’s possible,” says Clark.
That growing success also makes drag queens and LGBTQ artists valuable partners for those not belonging to the community. In addition, several heterosexual and cisgender Brazilian stars are supporting the LGBTQ growth in music. One of Brazil’s biggest pop and funk stars, Anitta, worked with Vittar on “Sua Cara,” a song released last year. Lucas Lucco, a Brazilian actor, singer and model who identifies as heterosexual, just released a new song called “Paraíso”; its video features Lucco and Vittar getting physically intimate, which has been met with both praise and controversy.
Inviting Clark to partner was part of a plan to “link with the whole drag queen movement we’re seeing in Brazil,” says Leo Justi, a member of Heavy Baile. “I think the success of artists like Lia and Pabllo Vittar put a spotlight on a way of expression that has been so repressed and hated, and now is becoming more and more accepted.”
Lucas Sansi, a marketing account manager based in São Paulo who identifies as gay, believes it is this acceptance by other musicians that is helping influence how Brazilian society sees the LGBTQ population. “Music now is for people. It’s not made for a specific segment, not for women, not for men, not for gays. Just for people.”
Noah Volpi, a gay Brazilian model living in São Paulo, feels this trend is a reflection of a broader societal change he has noticed. Ten years ago, when he returned to Brazil after a stint in Canada, Volpi found many men and women were afraid to reveal their sexual orientation, even to close friends and family. “Nowadays I notice that people are becoming increasingly accepting here,” he says. “I think that all these cultural expressions, be it music, a soap opera, a film or a work of art, help people become aware and tolerant.”
But that increasing acceptance of LGBTQ performers in Brazil’s music scene appears set for a clash with a hardening conservatism in the country’s broader society. When Coca-Cola made Vittar its face in October 2017, her fans loved it, but some conservative groups and consumers called for a boycott. Jair Bolsonaro, one of the leading candidates for president in the October election, has made several anti-gay remarks publicly, yet his conservative views are popular among sections of the population. One of the reasons for the violence against the LGBTQ community is an overall normalization of intolerance and hate speech — on social media and the street — says Rogério Giannini, president of Brazil’s Federal Council of Psychology. But there are deep-seated prejudices at play too. Brazil needed a law in 1999 — Giannini helped draft it — to bar psychologists from labeling homosexuality as a disease. Giannini also publicly protested when a Brazilian judge approved gay conversion therapy in September of last year.
“Even though Brazil is a multicultural country, there seems to be an ideology that recognizes only heterosexual, white and conservative people’s points of views as legitimate,” says Giannini.
Still, the music industry remains optimistic that the success of drag queens will help foster a broader debate about respecting people for their art — instead of judging them on their gender identity. “We’re promoting an important discussion about tolerance, diversity and, above all, respect,” says Ricardo Bertozzi, a marketing manager at Sony Music. “The point is not about ‘drag music’ … it’s not about he, she or any sexual orientation. It is and always will be about good and talented artists who have a great message to come through.”
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