Portraits in dispute – dictatorship and LGBTQIA+ persecution



Police raids generally took place at night and early in the morning, focusing on LGBTQIA+ ghettos that were formed in large cities, generally in central areas considered “degraded” and abandoned by public authorities.

In 2012, as a young master who had just defended one of the first works on transitional justice in the country at the USP Law School, I was called to work as a lawyer and advisor to the Truth Commission in São Paulo. In this search for clarification of certain historical facts, especially human rights violations by public agents and their authorship, we ended up facing the need, in addition to oral testimonies, to also have documentary research in public and private collections.

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This period of work by the Truth Commission coincided with a period of personal discovery. After a few years of more or less clandestine experiences and experiments, I decided to publicly admit my homosexuality. I had already been opening up about my sexuality to my closest friends and family, but it was at this moment of self-discovery that I delved deeply into LGBTQIA+ theoretical references and decided to become an expert on the subject.

Given this decision, it was natural to direct my interests, also within the Commission, to highlight how the regulation of gender and sexuality was an important dimension of the Brazilian dictatorship.

A hetero-military dictatorship

Until then, the prevailing view was that the Brazilian dictatorship, in truth, had been a “dictabrand” in moral terms. After all, for some, we had a pulsating counterculture: Secos & Molhados, Dzi Croquettes, Caetano's kiss with Gil on stage, etc.

However, what such an analysis seems to ignore is that all these movements were the result of a deeper process of cultural and social changes that had been germinating in previous decades, with intensified urbanization, family changes, generational conflicts with the emergence of a “rebellious youth” and the questioning of traditional gender roles and reproductive practices of sexuality. This was a global phenomenon in the post-World War II era, not a Brazilian jaboticaba that the dictatorship encouraged. A rebellious consciousness developed, more despite the dictatorship than because of it.

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In fact, today we know better how moral censorship was intensified during the dictatorship. The complex repressive apparatus made use of politics, information and espionage agencies, censors in different artistic languages ​​and journalism to curb the circulation of ideas and values ​​that could challenge the current political and sexual order.

As I progressed in the research that later gave rise to my book Against morals and good customs, noted that the number of historiographical sources that made it possible to reconstruct gaps in that past was abundant.

I then immersed myself in a set of printed documents, magazines, newspapers, any type of material that would help to reconstruct the events that occurred during the Brazilian civil-military dictatorship. Among this diverse set of sources, something that always caught my particular attention were the photographs.

I noticed that most of the records about LGBTQIA+ people in the Brazilian press and photojournalism reproduced stereotypical and stigmatizing views of these subjects. Images of abnormal, sinful, sick, dangerous and criminal people were reinforced. It was not invisibility, these people were often hypervisible in the articles, but always in a negative way. Under the visibility regime in force at the time, the only section of the news in which these people appeared was on the police pages, either as victims morally guilty of their own tragic fate, or as suspects already convicted of acts of delinquency associated with the underworld of drugs and prostitution.

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However, when I was preparing the curatorship of exposure Pride and Resistance: LGBT in the dictatorship for the Resistance Memorial in São Paulo, in the process of searching for files we came across a set of photographs that clashed with the journalistic records of the sensationalist press.

These photos were all kept in the Public Archive of the State of São Paulo, in a folder, mixed with other documents and press clippings on other topics, without cataloging or organizing the material.

There were dozens of portraits, generally very closed to the faces, of people who today we would call LGBTQIA+ and who had been detained in the recurring police “cleaning” operations commanded in São Paulo, especially by police chief José Wilson Richetti.

They caught our attention because they were photos, because of the sober characteristics of those portrayed and signs indicating the date, probably taken for police records of people arbitrarily detained in these police operations that intensified during the dictatorship, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Police raids generally took place at night and early in the morning, focusing on LGBTQIA+ ghettos that were formed in large cities, generally in central areas considered “degraded” and abandoned by public authorities.

These territories concentrated places of sociability for LGBTQIA+ people who sought casual sex and friendships with their peers amid the anonymity offered by big cities. They were deactivated street cinemas and converted into cinemas, bathrooms, squares, public parks and other spaces where it was possible, especially for gay and bisexual men, to give vent to a clandestine and stigmatized desire that found no space for a public experience.

In this way, these photographs are still a scathing record of the police violence committed against these people. It is worth remembering that being homosexual or transvestite was not a crime in our legislation in dictatorship Brazil. However, repressive bodies took advantage of legal loopholes to classify LGBTI+ in criminal misdemeanors and various crimes with a strong moralizing content in their contours, such as indecent assault, acts against morals and good customs, vagrancy, etc.

An example of a restrictive measure of rights that used photography as an instrument of power was Ordinance 390, of 1976, published by the Delegacia Seccional Centro, in São Paulo. The rule was specifically dedicated to transvestites, who had to sign a Declaration Form, generally accompanied by a photo, with various personal information (spending on hormones and monthly earnings, for example).

Police records should “be illustrated with photos of perverts, so that judges [could] assess their degree of dangerousness.”[1] This relevance attributed to the appearance of the “accused” or “suspects” to define their character or propensity to commit crimes goes back to conservative schools in the field of criminology. In this sense, delegate Guido Fonseca, author of research on the subject, commanded, between 1976 and 1977, a special file with this information that aimed to facilitate the persecution of transvestites.[2]

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Portraits in dispute

But if such photographs can be seen as violence in themselves, the faces, looks, costumes and expressions of the people framed support something of haughtiness, vanity or even pride that escapes the central objective of the photo, which is to record a person considered deviant or delinquent.

In some of the images, they appear getting ready, wearing makeup, wearing accessories that question the binary of genders. In others, they are posing, smiling and even, apparently, mocking the absurd situation to which they are being subjected.

They demonstrate a certain naturalness when faced with the scene of arbitrary violence of which they are victims. Perhaps because of the conviction of those who decided to support their own desire despite the adversities, perhaps because it was so routine to have their rights disrespected that there was no solemnity or exceptionality whatsoever on those occasions.

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There are some photos that form pairs: in one a person with a feminine appearance, with a wig and makeup; in the other, with a shaved head and without any accessories or makeup. This demonstrates that it was necessary to capture, in photography as a public security measure, all the ways of being of these people who moved between genders and challenged heteronormativity. It was necessary to strip them of the identity they wanted to assume or expose, revealing their deepest and hidden truth, even controlling these people's subjectivity.

Something to highlight is that there are no captions or explanations in most of the portraits. They must have been lost from the folders they were in when they left the respective police stations and were sent to the Public Archives. In one of them, which ended up being chosen as the cover of the book Against morals and good customs (Companhia das Letras, 2021), the back only reads, in pencil and handwritten: “Wilson Luis 1975”. This is a photo of a black man, without a wig and with a shaved head, which contrasts with his other in the pair, in which Wilson Luis is posed in drag.

This lack of elements beyond a simple image raises the question of gaps and erasures in LGBTQIA+ memory. Without control over the mechanisms for writing history and materially recording their experiences, these people end up deprived of their place and past. Without memory, there is no identity and no formation of a community of affection and alliances.

These portraits, apparently banal from a photographic point of view, now recovered and published, should no longer be seen and only as a product of the dictatorship's LGBTphobia. The resignified images demonstrate the capacity for agency and resistance, albeit molecular, of these people who took advantage of the attempt at dictatorial control to put their faces in history. With so little, as they basically received only repression and marginalization from the Brazilian State, they did a lot, managing to exist and dispute culture and legislation in a country traditionally dominated by conservative morality like ours.

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60 years of 64: the dictatorship that never passed

It was not the dictatorship that inaugurated the institutional practice of LGBTphobia, torture, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances or summary executions in our country. Such violence, practiced and supported by state agencies, dates back to the time of the occupation of our territory by Portuguese colonization.

However, during the dictatorship, according to the report of the aforementioned Truth Commission, a body created in 2012 with the aim of investigating serious human rights violations, 191 people were killed, 210 are still missing and only 33 bodies were located, totaling 434 dead or missing. In addition, 230 sites of human rights violations were inventoried. More than 6500 soldiers were persecuted for resisting the dictatorship and 377 public agents were named as perpetrators of human rights violations.

There are many other data worthy of note, but, despite these already impressive figures, the fact is that the New Republic was founded more on the structures than on the rubble of the dictatorship. Many of the violence mentioned persisted and continue to be practiced today. They are not “authoritarian rubble” or “remains of the dictatorship”, but as practices and discourses renewed daily by political actors under our democratic regime.

The memory work on the dictatorship and our transitional justice had some limitations that are still felt in our country today. In recent years, we have seen demonstrations in front of Army barracks calling for “military intervention”, we have seen praise for notorious torturers and even people taking to the streets to ask for a new AI-5, a symbol of the state of exception and the hardening of the dictatorship.

This scenario reflects how, during the political transition and the advent of a new Constitution in the country in 1988, due attention was not given to the amount of dictatorship that persists in the depths of our democracy. An example of this is that historiography and official memory policies did not address issues of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation as themes of the dictatorship.

It is necessary to broaden the understanding of the category of “victims” of the dictatorship in our country. It was not only those who were accused of being communists and taking up arms who were persecuted by the authoritarian regime and became “political prisoners”. The coup affected these politically organized segments that resisted the dictatorship, but it also took place against ethnic-racial, gender and sexual diversity in our country.

The dictatorship tried to impose an ideal of a great homeland, of a homogeneous nation, of absence of conflicts and divisions. This entire ideology reinforced the marginalization and exclusion of black, indigenous, women and LGBTQIA+ people, seen as an “other” from the white, heterosexual and cisgender universal. This process legitimized state persecution and all types of violence against these communities.

This change of lens allows us to see how the entire society and, especially, its most vulnerable segments, were impacted in a broader and deeper way by the dictatorship.

In these 60 years since the 1964 coup, it is memories like that of Wilson Luis that we need to recognize and celebrate. Memories of resistance, lives of ordinary people recorded in a police portrait, who were buried by the logic of forgetfulness, conciliation and LGBTphobia that has still marked public policies in the field of human rights in our country. These portraits are, today, overwhelming proof, produced by the regime itself, that the dictatorship persecuted the LGBTQIA+ population.

Recently, President Lula made a statement that the 64 coup is history and that Don't want to dwell on the past. If we want to build a democracy that truly deserves this name, we must speak and act on the dispute over this past that has not yet passed.[3]

* Renan Quinalha He is a writer, lawyer and law professor at Unifesp. Author, among other books, of LGBTI+ Movement: A brief history from the 19th century to the present day (authentic). [https://amzn.to/4cLMgCL]

Originally published on the IMS.


[1] OCANHA, Rafael Freitas. “Police rounds to combat homosexuality in the city of São Paulo – (1976 – 1982)”. In: GREEN, James N.; QUINALHA, Renan (Eds.). Dictatorship and homosexuality: repression, resistance and the search for truth. São Carlos: EDUFSCAR, 2014, p. 157.

[2] Rafael Freitas found that “between December 14, 1976 and July 21, 1977, 460 transvestites were brought together for the study,…. Transvestites who did not present the documents were sent to the district, where they awaited the formulation of an investigation that would then lead to proceedings for vagrancy. When released, he should go to a printing shop as soon as possible to provide another photocopy to present to the police, in case he was stopped in a traffic stop. The image was also part of criminology studies and the investigation of transvestites” (Ibidem, p. 47).

[3] Photos provided by the São Paulo State Public Archive.

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