May 27, 2008
Posted by: Kevin
It's almost surreal to stare into the enormity of the annual São Paulo gay pride parade (known here simply as the "Parada") and to see within that image the past, present and possible future of the gay movement in the United States all at the same time. The picture is a mash-up of self-discovery and self-destruction, incredible power and pathetic weakness, great hope and miserable failure. And we should all be drawing lessons from it.
The event is universally seen as the largest gay pride event on Earth -- last year's gathering brought together more or less 2 million people and broke all previous world records. While the authorities gave up on crowd estimates this year, it was clear from any observer that the numbers either matched or exceeded those of 2007.
The success of this event's ability to call on Brazilians from all over the country to come and participate is, in itself, a testament to the potential of the gay Brazilian community nationwide. And as anyone can attest, the parties that are thrown all over town during the Parada weekend have become world famous, and are attracting hundreds of thousands of gay foreign tourists. The event has now become an important source of revenue for the city's economy, and politicians are scrambling to ensure it never abates, and the multitudes keep coming every year.
But with all these incomparable strengths, what is most remarkable about São Paulo pride is its utter failure to articulate even the most basic message. Beyond a few pronouncements and a banner or a website, a coherent message of any kind fails to reach anyone in the street. Instead, the Parada is a sea of drunken recklessness, criminal violence and disturbing overcrowding which has begun to actually drive the resident gay population of the city away from it. The organizers are very competent in breaking world attendance records, but are hopelessly inept at finding some way to truly organize the attendees around any sense of mission or purpose beyond getting loaded, and getting laid.
Ideas will always be more powerful than mere feet on the pavement. When people gather, they want to be led. They aren't motivated to travel great distances just to wander aimlessly in a confused mob. And if chaos reigns, then only bad can come of it. The level of public intoxication was so excessive that the medical facilities set up along the parade route were quickly overwhelmed. The crush of people was so intense that the reserved areas for media were overrun. The police were either unable or unwilling to stop violent robberies that were happening only feet away from them.
My understanding of gay pride events is that they provide a zone of safety for gay people to come out and feel more confident and secure against a tide of intolerance in society. Ironically, at the biggest such event in the world, gay people feel ever more insecure and unsafe. Last year's Parada was marred by a brutal, anti-gay murder in the heart of the Jardins neighborhood just hours after the event ended. A gang of "punks" picked out a man at random outside a gay bar/restaurant and stabbed him to death right on the sidewalk. The police hunted down the perpetrators and began cracking down on gangs as a result.
But this year, the death of a 25 year old gay Brazilian has come to symbolize the growing failure of this event to leave any sense of greater meaning behind than a sense of insecurity, distraction and self-destruction.
On Friday afternoon, Lucas Cerqueira Leite Cardoso de França was found dead, face-down in the pool at the Mercure Hotel in the heart of Jardins. A new resident of São Paulo, he'd been partying the night before, and was a guest of two men staying at the hotel - Rodrigo Vaz, a doctor from Brasília, and Diogo da Sá, a journalist from Recife, who he'd just met at Pacha, a nightclub hosting Thursday night's circuit party (there was one every night from Wednesday through Sunday). The three men had arrived at the hotel earlier in the afternoon from the party, briefly visited Vaz's room, and then Vaz and Lucas went to the pool. After dozing on a chair, Vaz awakened to find Lucas floating, dead. He tried CPR to no avail. What we do know is that Lucas had taken alcohol and GHB, which is a lethal combination even in relatively small doses (something most gay clubbers know about).
It's unclear when Lucas took the various drugs in his system, in what order, or why he was in the pool. But the jarring reality is that by all accounts, he was a happy guy, full of life, and was looking forward to starting a new job at a store in the fashionable Shopping Higienópolis mall. Not the profile of someone who self-destructs at a hotel pool on a sunny Friday afternoon. But alas, he apparently did.
The anguish is evident on a page of mourning ("luto") that his mother, Priscila, has started on the social networking site Orkut. It is filled with pictures of a very handsome young man with a loving family, as well as messages from openly gay friends from around the country who were just as shocked at his death. His sister also grapples hopelessly with why this happened.
And this is indeed why Lucas' death is symbolic of what the Parada has come to represent. It was big and utterly pointless. It was a tragic search for pleasure in vain, and a moment which made a beautiful sense of life and purpose appear worthless in the end. It left nothing behind but questions. It made none of us feel prouder, or more secure. It taught us nothing, and betrayed a sense that we have learned nothing.
I get emails from American gays fairly often which tell me of a rising level of disgust at gay politics in the United States. To many of them, it is run by a group of hacks who lack vision and courage, who cater to politicians of both parties that have no qualms about throwing us overboard. And these critics are not outraged so much as ready to turn their backs on something that was once an inspiring movement full of hope and joy. One of them, an activist who started in the 1980s, wrote me that she felt like she was watching "my baby, all grown up, just laying there dying and I can't do anything about it."
Today, I read a comment by a Brazilian posted today on the gay news portal, MixBrasil. The frustration I saw in it matches the frustrations in emails from back home. And I wondered, will we end up defeating ourselves more handily than our enemies, simply because we don't have a message anymore?
Here is "Mau"'s posting, translated by me into English. And it left me thinking of HRC black-tie dinners, gay magazines obsessed with straight celebrities, and how circuit parties have filled the void of thoughtful action in the United States. I share his grief here:
When I went to my first gay pride (in São Paulo) seven years ago, it was an incredible experience. It wasn't perfect, of course, but everyone tried however possible to make that parade really be something to be proud of, and set a real goal to gain visibility and tolerance in society. Last year, when I went to it with a friend, after two hours trying to walk along one of the floats, we decided it was impossible because of the number of people and we gave up and went home. Now at home, thinking about the parade, we also feel like we don't have that sense of pride when we left the party, as it's no longer the party it was. Today I live in London and I compare the gay scene of São Paulo with the one here, and I have to say that for all the ways our scene is better, it has a lot of growing up and learning to do. Along with this, after reading the details here and on other sites, and the comments of some friends, I have to say I'm disappointed to see our parade and it's not even Paulista or even gay, it's been turned into a party that sadly promotes just the opposite of what it proposes. Tourists coming to São Paulo to hit the parties in the clubs instead of going to Avenida Paulista, people afraid to get up on the floats or dress up for fear of some kind of retaliation - robbery, crimes, violence and breaking the rules of its own participants is shameful. We have to be more aware and do something that really lives up to being proud.
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