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First Gay Kiss On Popular Brazilian Prime Time Soap Opera is a Milestone in a Country of Mixed Messages

February 1, 2014 Leave a comment

On April 30th 1997, I was 16 and very much in the closet. This must be why I still recall how strongly my heart pounded on that night as I sneaked down to the basement of my parent´s house to turn on the television to channel ABC 6. I sat on the floor a few feet from the screen so I could turn the volume down as low as possible; the television was right under a heating vent and the sound sometimes traveled up to the living room where my mom and dad were.  You see, on this night it was imperative that my parents did not know what I was up to. This was the night that Ellen DeGeneres´ character was going to come out of the closet on her show.

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Ellen Morgan comes out over the microphone the famous 1997 episode of the sit-com “Ellen”

I watched anxiously while listening for anyone opening the basement door in case I had to quickly change the channel.  I had never seen one episode of Ellen´s show, nor did I even know who she was exactly, yet I genuinely laughed at all the toaster jokes and “will she do it now moments” as if I had been a fan my whole life.

Why did I go through all this trouble? Because I wanted to see someone on television I could identify with – yes she was a woman and a lesbian, but she was open about it and free. As teenagers we want nothing more than someone to look up to, someone that resembles not only how we wish to look and talk, but how we wish to feel – Ellen´s courage spoke to me on a deep level which shaped my capacity to be myself then and which I still feel today.

Flash forward to 2009 and I find myself in Brazil. Since that “Ellen” episode there have been many other milestones for gays and lesbians both in fiction and real life – the recent Grammy marriages being one of the most audacious. But down here it felt as if I had stepped back in time.

It was a difficult to explain exactly why I felt like this, for Brazil is a country that markets itself as being open and accepting to gays.  But after some time it was impossible not to see how it was also a country that maintained some rather strict, if not puritanical, notions on sexuality. For example, the words “faggot” or “little fairy” are comical fodder, when not used in virulent hatred, and are bantered around as freely as a transvestite during Carnival season.

It´s also very often I come across people who claim to be unprejudiced but lovingly utter phrases like, “they´re a great person even though they are … you know … ´that way’“.  This is said so nonchalantly that I am always caught off guard.  By the time I come to terms with how ignorant it is the conversation has already shifted to something else.

Eventually I began to understand.  This is Brazilian culture: a mixed bag of opposing emotions and positions about every conceivable topic.  Sometimes these elements contradict one another at important junctures and most of the time I have to learn to take the good with the bad without digging too deep.

The one place where this conundrum felt more visceral to me was on television, especially soap operas. TV Globo, which is the most viewed broadcast television channel in Brazil is famous for it´s 9 o´clock soap (which, in step with Brazilian wishy- washyness, almost never begins at 9).  These Globo soap operas resonate deeply with a large number of Brazilian and have at times amassed more than 50 percent of all television viewership in the country – they are so much an institution that weekly soccer games have to wait until they are over to begin!

Even if one doesn´t watch regularly, the best characters become well known and turn part of every day conversation.  So it didn´t take much for me to notice that each year these melodramas had a greater influx of gay characters – albeit the stereotypically flamboyant “Will and Grace” sort, but I figured one has to begin somewhere. As these gay characters began to take more of a central role in the story lines and grew more popular, the question began to be asked, “When will we have a gay kiss.”

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First gay male kiss in a Brazilian institution – the nightly soap opera.

Perhaps because I had already had my personal revolution 17 years back, I wasn´t as keyed into the whole issue as I could have been, but it was nevertheless impossible not to hear about.  And every year, Globo disappointed by finding some plot angle which would keep its gay characters from sharing this kiss – that is until the night of January 30th on the last episode of their latest mega production, “Amor a Vida” (Love for Life)

I don´t usually follow these soap operas, therefore I had no clue that it was building up to this.  I assumed Globo would just pass over the opportunity again and didn´t even watch.  However, when one´s Facebook page becomes flooded with commentary about the kiss, it´s hard not to take notice.

My first reaction was a cynical one. I said to myself, “What a backwards culture!  These people are worried about a damn kiss when they should be working to further education, health care and other matters”. Then I stopped and thought back to that 16 year old me – of how important that moment in that dark basement, hidden from my parents, was.  The moment where for the first time I could see me reflected back at me and then transmitted to a mass audience, and how there are young people now that much in the same way wish to see themselves reflected in the culture, how there are as many adults as there are these young people who have never had a chance to say, “Look everyone, what I feel is that simple!  I know you saw it!”  When I reflected on this it made me smile, for they finally had their moment.

I then thought about the cultural impact.  How having a gay kiss on Globo is important in a county where the head of The Commission on Human Rights and Minorities, Marco Feliciano, is an openly homophobic and racist preacher from the Christian Social party who believes homosexuality can still be cured.  A man who has asked to have two young girls arrested for kissing in public.  It´s important in a country where 100s of gays are murdered each year and countless other harassed.  And important in a country which purports itself to be gay friendly but at it´s roots has a long way to go still.

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One of the many controversial remarks made by Pastor Marcio Feliciano the Head of the Commission on Human Rights and Minorities

Maybe this little kiss will rock the system for the better, maybe it will make things worse.  Most Brazilians are emotionally driven and the intensity in which they can express both love and hate can be either inspiring, frightening or simply mind boggling. I wish I knew the outcome, but I don´t. What I am more certain of is that a lot of people had to look at something on the night these two men kissed that may have made them smile or made them squirm – either way it caused a reaction.  Perhaps it made others question what love was, and what their relationship with their gay neighbor, relative, sibling or child truly represented.  Perhaps it changed nothing, but at the very least gave a group of people the opportunity to open a dialogue.

In a country with a moral and social code as complex as Brazil´s one can do nothing but wonder, and instead of thinking in mass look to individual groups.  I hope that the day after this kiss is one where plenty of gays in Brazil can wake up feeling glad about having themselves represented in a true light (or as true as light as a soap opera can offer) and that those who, like me, had to watch hidden in some dark corner, can begin to view a future where they can move out of the shadows. This is my sincerest wish, for I´ve been in those shadows and it is a lonely place.

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