An unexpected trailblazer rocked Brazilian society in 2021 and sparked significant advances in LGBTQ rights in historically conservative groups.
Gilberto Nogueira, a reality TV superstar, brought to prime-time television what most would consider contradictions: a sexually liberal person with strong religious beliefs; a high-level academic who speaks the language of the people; and, most strikingly, an effeminate and proudly gay man who is also a football fan.
Nogueira, or “Gil do Vigor”, which roughly means “Striving Gil” in Portuguese, became a television phenomenon almost winning “Big Brother Brazil”, one of the most popular shows on Brazilian television. His shameless character has struck a huge fan base which includes some of Brazil’s most famous footballers and sports journalists. Within weeks, Nogueira managed to forge an unexpected alliance of LGBTQ people and sports fans to support him. It would produce lasting change, although it would not be without controversy.
“Dialogue is an important and necessary bridge to long-term change, which brings us to reflection, reassessment of attitudes, conscious self-assessment, practical actions and much more,” Nogueira told the Washington Blade of California, where he is currently pursuing his doctorate in economics at the University of California-Davis.
The roots of the struggle for diversity in Brazilian football go back to the 1970s, when a group called “Torcida Coligay” decided to challenge homophobes and the then ruling military dictatorship by bringing together queer fans of the Grêmio football club. More recently, tangible results have been obtained.
Since Brazil’s Supreme Court criminalized LGBTQ violence in 2019, fines and legal sanctions have been imposed by sports authorities on clubs whose supporters chanted homophobic slurs. Drawing on Torcida Coligay’s legacy, the “Canarinhos LGBT” collective is pushing relentlessly for the application of these measures.
However, as an important part of Brazilian cultural identity, sport has also entered the cultural warfare that has dominated public life in Brazil. Nogueira himself has been in the middle of a battle between two visions of what football should be like. Fan of Sport Recife club, Gil was invited by the club for a visit to the team’s stadium. The next day, an audio leak revealed homophobic slurs by one of the club’s advisers, sparking outrage from Nogueira supporters and media figures and making national headlines. Before the episode, it would be unimaginable to have football players supporting LGBTQ rights.
Since then, the club’s younger and more diverse executive leadership and its older, male-dominated board of directors have sparked a civil war over the expulsion of councilors. Perhaps avoiding further reactions, Nogueira has not been forthright on this subject in the Brazilian media. Asked to comment on this article, he broke his silence.
“Conservatism, patriarchy and homophobia are issues which, in the world of sport, are potentiated because it is an environment where these key themes have rarely been put on the agenda, which is completely inconsistent , because sport is synonymous with inclusion. But the question is: inclusion for whom? said Nogueira.
“I see that we are lagging behind and that there is little will to move forward in these debates, and even less will to introduce practices that can fuel the debate on gender identities, the expression of gender, sexual orientation, among others. I also realize that we lack dialogue, and we know that talking about the plurality of life is to respect it, to integrate it, to support it in such an oppressive environment. he concluded.
The battle for inclusion in Brazilian sport is unfolding amid a highly hostile political debate.
About a month ago, Mauricio Souza, a famous volleyball player, was fired from his club after anti-LGBTQ comments on social media. Immediately he became a symbol of the Brazilian far right, multiplying his supporters and winning the support of President Jair Bolsonaro. Souza is now expected to run for Congress from Bolsonaro’s party.
In this context, Nogueira’s contribution to diversity in sport becomes even more remarkable. His character – evangelical, gay, academic, raised in poverty – challenges the typical divide of deeply polarized Brazilian society. When asked what he would say to other LGBTQ people living in very conservative environments such as the church and football stadium, Nogueira says the answer is inside.
“There are always answers within ourselves,” he said. “If everyone has the right to express themselves when, how and if they wish on their orientation or their gender identity, truly belonging to oneself is something that we will question ourselves throughout our lives”.
Another remarkable characteristic of Nogueira is her firm belief in her dreams. Even after gaining national recognition, 15 million Instagram followers and millions of dollars in advertising, he chose to continue his long-standing plan of pursuing a doctorate at UC Davis. This does not take him away from his fight for inclusion.
“I intend to conduct relevant research that has a social impact directly related to minorities – in this case the LGBTQIA + community and racial issues – so that we can discuss and show that it is important to have diversity in all sectors of the country, and that this will not only bring more equality, but also development, ”he said.
From California, Nogueira has her own segment on a popular TV show, explaining complex economic concepts to ordinary people. This highlights his vision for the future of Brazil.
“I intend to use my theoretical knowledge as an economist… country, as a whole,” he said. Nogueira’s activism and brilliance has shown that Brazilian sports culture is on an inclusive path, but there is still a long way to go. There are very few top athletes who are openly LGBTQ, and in men’s football, Brazil’s most popular sport, there are none.
However, the impact of Nogueira, like Michael Sam and Megan Rapinoe in the US, is proof that society is changing and that includes once-homophobic circles, like sports arenas.
Egerton Neto is the international coordinator of Aliança Nacional LGBTI +, a Brazilian LGBTQ rights group, and a Masters candidate at the London School of Economics. Caio Leite is a political scientist.