Spaces of Violence, Spaces of Resistance:Notes on LGBTIQ+ immigration in Brazil

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Space, in its sociocultural dimension, is one of the most important elements to take into account when dealing with the experiences of LGBTIQ+ migrant subjects (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite, transsexual, transgender, intersex, queer and other sexual or gender minorities). This is because the hegemonic norms of gender and sexuality have specific characteristics in each spatio-temporal context. Therefore, the modes of expression of sexual orientations and gender identities (SOGI) cannot be dissociated from territorialities. If transgressing patterns of heterocisnormativity implies being susceptible to symbolic and/or physical violence, the concrete consequences of this “infringement” also vary according to the location.  As an example, more than 60 countries still have some type of law that criminalizes homosexual practices, and punishment can lead to imprisonment and even the death penalty. In several other places, there are no rights for LGBTIQ+ people in general. Thus they become targets of abuse and discrimination, which includes insults, harassment, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests, torture and murder. Consequently, in repressive sociocultural contexts, where violence is enhanced by customs, misinformation, moral condemnations, religious dogmas, stereotypes, stigmas and prejudices, displacement creates a possibility not only of greater freedom, but, above all, of survival. In this sense, we need to understand that mobility is a condition to the constitution of the subject and to the exercise of citizenship. Since social life is increasingly lived “on the move”, space becomes crucial for the possibility of expressing diversity. With regard to a policy of mobility for LGBTIQ+ people, the exercise of citizenship lies precisely in the right to mobility in all spaces, without public visibility representing any kind of vulnerability.

However, this is not a simple issue. On the contrary, it covers a multitude of variables: the capacity (or not) that the LGBTIQ+ person has to migrate; the type of migration undertaken (internal or international); migratory status, as in the case of asylum seekers; the precariousness that displacement processes can cause; the intersection of social markers of difference (gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, class, age, religion, nationality, etc.) which are capable of further aggravating a situation of vulnerability and violence. To explain some of these topics and their interrelation with the spatial dimension of mobility, I take the Brazilian context as an example.

With regard particularly to the LGBTIQ+ issue, the situation in Brazil is quite paradoxical. From the second half of the twentieth century, LGBTIQ+ initiatives and movements (at first more related to the gay and lesbian community) began to emerge in Brazil, such as the newspaper “O lampião da esquina” (1978-1981), the group in defense of LGBTIQ+ rights “Somos” (1978) and the Gay Group of Bahia (1980). This made Brazil a prominent place in Latin America in relation to the struggles for recognition, visibility, citizenship and rights for the LGBTIQ+ population.

In the last decades there have been some advances, especially in the medical and legal fields:

  • Since the 1990s, the Unified Health System (SUS) has developed HIV-AIDS prevention actions for the LGBTIQ+ population, as well as providing antiretroviral treatment free of charge nationwide;

  • Gender reassignment surgeries began in Brazil in 1997 and, as of 2008, also started to be performed by SUS;

  • In 2011, the Federal Supreme Court (STF) recognized the stable homosexual union as a family entity;

  • In 2019, the Federal Supreme Court (STF) determined that discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people should be included in the crimes provided for in the “Racism Law” (Law N. 7.716 / 1989), which provides for sentences of up to 5 years in prison. This determination will be valid until the National Congress approves a specific law on the subject;

  • In addition, Brazil is one of the few countries in the world that accepts asylum claims based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Violence and persecution experienced in the country of origin is understood as a valid element in the application for asylum.[1]

However, these advances contrast with a socio-cultural context that legitimizes and perpetuates forms of oppression against the LGBTIQ+ population. Although there is an image of sexual diversity and respect for differences (as is evident in the stereotype of the “country of carnival”), Brazil is one of the most violent countries against LGBTIQ+ people in the world. According to data from the Gay Group of Bahia, more than 300 murders of LGBTIQ+ people occurred in Brazil in 2019 alone. Because of this, many LGBITQ+ Brazilians also seek refuge in other countries (mainly in the United States, Canada and Western Europe).[2] This means that, although there are achievements in the recognition of rights, the structures of oppression are maintained. According to the report “LGBTphobic Violence in Brazil: data on violence” (Violência LGBTFóbicas no Brasil: dados da violência)[3], prepared by the Ministry of Human Rights in 2018, the cause of this type of violence is strong intolerance and discrimination regarding sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and bodies that defy socially accepted standards. These factors directly influence the (re)configuration of difference production dynamics, which is evident in the tensions between protection, control and criminalization of LGBTIQ+ subjects' mobility experiences.

Another point to be considered is the difference between urban and rural areas, and between large and small cities. In Latin American societies, regions with varying levels of modernization and development are very common. In the case of Brazil, these differences are even more profound, mainly due to its vast size and socioeconomic inequalities. Thus there is diversity of LGBTIQ+ representation, and there are also a diverse range of public services aimed at the LGBTIQ+ population and local LGBTIQ+ collectives. In addition, even in large urban centers like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, where there is generally greater LGBTIQ+ visibility, there are spaces which are not so receptive to the LGBTIQ+ population.

In my doctoral research on the immigration of LGBTIQ+ subjects in the city of São Paulo[4], it was possible to verify that these elements impact all stages of their displacement. In general, the precariousness resulting from experiences of violence are mainly associated with: a) discriminatory discourses and practices; b) the institutionalization of violence against LGBTIQ+ subjects; c) a structural and systemic conjuncture of this violence; d) its reflexes in the (physical and symbolic) spaces of the city; and e) the absence of reception services for LGBTIQ+ refugees and immigrants. On the other hand, it is also important to mention that among the ten LGBTIQ+ refugees and immigrants I interviewed, nine reported that the immigration to the city of São Paulo represented an improvement in their living conditions as LGBTIQ+ subjects compared to the city/country of origin.[5] Among factors which they highlighted as relevant were greater freedom of expression, visibility of LGBTIQ+ subjects and collectives, political engagements of local LGBTIQ+ movements, and the LGBTIQ+ spaces in the city. This demonstrates that, despite continuing violence, the migratory experience of these subjects in the city of São Paulo reinforces their capacity for agency and allows for the construction of spaces of resistance - or even (re)existence. In this way, the interrelation between the dimensions of space and the ways in which we experience gender identities, sexual orientations and migratory experiences is evident. Therefore, we must understand the spaces of violence and resistance, as well as their influence on the geographical displacement of LGBTIQ+ subjects. To know more about this topic, check out:  i. Dinámicas de (in)visibilidad en la migración LGTBIQ+: una cuestión comunicacional ( ii. LGBTQI+ Immigrants and Refugees in the City of São Paulo: Uses of Icts in a South-South Mobility Context ( iii. Media uses and appropriation in the experiences of LGBTIQ+ immigrants and refugees in the city of Barcelona ( Hadriel Theodoro is a doctoral researcher in the Postgraduate Program in Communication and Consumption Practices at the Superior School of Advertisement and Marketing (PPGCOM-ESPM), Brazil. His research is funded by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). 

[1] According to UNHCR, only four countries provide the number of asylum applications based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity: Belgium, Brazil, England and Norway. In Brazil, between 2010 and 2018, there were 369 requests for this reason. Retrieved from: <>. [2] There are no official data on the number of LGBTIQ+ Brazilians who have applied for refuge abroad. [3] Retrieved from: <>. [4] The research started in February 2017, in the Postgraduate Program in Communication and Consumption Practices at the Superior School of Advertisement and Marketing (PPGCOM-ESPM), and it is funded by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP - processes 2016/24566-1 and 2018/18712-0). The study also included an international stage, held at the Institut de la Comunicació - Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (InCom-UAB). The main objective of the study is to analyze how the visibility or invisibility of differences related to non-hegemonic gender identities and or sexual orientations impact the mobility experiences of LGBTQI+ refugees and immigrants living in the city of São Paulo (Brazil) or Barcelona (Spain). [5] The refugees and LGBTIQ+ immigrants interviewed come from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Peru and Venezuela.