Snapshots of an LGBTQ+ immigrant and refugee community in Brazil

A rainbow flag sweeps across São Paulo's architectural landmarks, wrapping the Avenida Paulista in the colors of queer and trans pride. Photo by Lola Mahdhaoui Silva, used with permission.

On May 17, Brazil's Ministry of Justice and Public Safety approved a measure to ease refugee requests for LGBTQ+ people, coming from countries where their sexual orientation or gender identity could lead to life in prison or the death penalty.

The new protocol, discussed via the National Committee for Refugees (Conare), was approved one day after the International Day to Fight Homophobia.

According to a note published on the ministry's own website, the measure seeks to create possibilities for integrating migrants into Brazilian society, and also stresses the country's historical position defending the LGBTQ+ population nationally and internationally.

Brazil has led rankings of violence against trans people for years, and registered 273 killings of LGBTQ+ people in 2022, according to a report by the Observatory of Deaths and Violence against LGBTI+ in Brazil. Still, even though far from being a perfect haven, it's a country where LGBTQ+ individuals have their rights and freedom protected by law.

Queer and non-binary individuals across generations sit in a circle, their eyes fixed on a Black lesbian artist. | Photo: Lola Mahdhaoui Silva, used with permission.

One non-profit organization that witnesses and works with this daily reality is MILBi+, the Immigrant, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Pansexual Women Network in São Paulo, Brazil's most populous city. It was established in 2018 by Maria Botero, a Colombian lesbian immigrant living in the country.

The organization is a network and a platform for empowering women and transgender individuals who face challenges related to migration, gender, and sexuality in Brazil, say the people involved in its community. It provides legal advice, guidance on medical and healthcare rights, translation and interpretation services, and psychological support for queer immigrants and refugees during their initial migration stages. When I contacted them in May 2023, there were around 30 people being assisted.

The images in this photo essay were done over Pride month, June 2023, and they showcase the diversity of MILBi+'s members, spanning generations and backgrounds. They transport us to the euphoric streets alive with the rainbow colors of Pride marches: queer and trans flags flutter in harmony, vibrant symbols of defiance against a world that seeks to confine and marginalize this population.

Among the throngs, I found drag queens, embodiments of artistry and self-expression, challenging societal norms with grace and courage.

Jade, Mister Trans Brazil International, adjusts his trans-colored scarf, proudly surveying his post-mastectomy chest as both prize and testament. Photo by Lola Mahdhaoui Silva, used with permission.

I also witnessed the inspiring presence of Jade Esseyah, a Tunisian trans refugee and a highly active member of the network.

Jade fled their country because of the criminalization and oppression faced by individuals with different sexual orientations. With unwavering courage and the support of the network upon their arrival, Jade found a place to settle, accessed healthcare to transition, and ultimately became Mister Trans Brazil International 2022.

Jade was among the massive crowd occupying Avenida Paulista, in São Paulo's Pride, a spectacle of unity and liberation that resonates far beyond Brazil's borders.

As one of the biggest Pride parades in the world, with around four million attendees each year, it serves as a beacon of hope, illuminating a path towards a more inclusive and equitable society.

In these collective moments of visibility, we witness the power of solidarity, amplifying the voices of those who are not always heard or seen.

MILBI+ and its members have persevered, navigating a tumultuous path under the government of far right Jair Bolsonaro, a conservative politician, known for his infamous stances on homosexuality.

In an interview with British actor Stephen Fry, Bolsonaro, a congressman at the time, said that “no father would be proud of a gay child” and that Brazilian society did not like homosexuals.

In the face of anti-LGBTQ+, anti-gender equality, and anti-immigration sentiments, this network has tried to emerge as a testament to the indomitable spirit of individuals fighting for justice, recognition, and love. Their activities started in the same year Bolsonaro was elected president.

The shift to a new government, with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva being inaugurated for a third term in January 2023, saw policies focusing on the LGBTQ+ population reintegrated into the federal government agenda.

Lesbians march with a tapestry of flags and banners, amplifying intersectional messages that span gender identity, sexual orientation, race, and economic systems. Photo by Lola Mahdhaoui Silva, used with permission.

I felt, while photographing these people, that, through their journeys, we are reminded of the urgent need to build bridges of compassion, dismantle barriers of prejudice, and fight for the rights of all individuals, regardless of their origin, gender, or sexual orientation.

My goal is for this photo-essay to serve as a witness to the transformative power of unity and acceptance. It is an homage to those who have defied the odds, carving out spaces where identities flourish, and where love knows no borders, in Brazil and elsewhere.

Sharing a kiss, creating a moment of resistance amid the street bustle of São Paulo. Photo by Lola Mahdhaoui Silva, used with permission.

A Pride truck pierces the São Paulo skyline, its signage an urgent call to action against LGBTphobia. Photo by Lola Mahdhaoui Silva, used with permission.

A drag queen wears the traditional Bolivian cholita while holding the Bolivian flag — a smiling blend of culture and queer identity. Photo by Lola Mahdhaoui Silva, used with permission.

The entrance to a queer immigrant women's shelter reveals a mix of comfort and activism, energized by a rainbow sequin curtain and empowering art. Photo by Lola Mahdhaoui Silva, used with permission.

São Paulo's streets swell with Pride revelers, as an advocate stands out with a jacket pledging solidarity with LGBTIQ+ refugees. Photo by Lola Mahdhaoui Silva, used with permission.

An Afro-descendent queer femme glimmers in gold, her defiant gaze erasing the line of police and military that stand behind her. Photo by Lola Mahdhaoui Silva, used with permission.

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