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Most gay men in Portugal "lead a double life. Or else they pretend to be bisexual."


Preparing for visibility. A Pride banner in progress.

Portugal

Invisible Gays Rattle Political Chains

by Ana Simo

MAY 1, 2001. A friend who recently returned from Portugal reported a curious fact: during a two-week holiday criss-crossing the country, he did not see a single gay man. Portugal left him dazzled, but also a little sad.

António Serzedelo knows why. "They're all two-faced," he says bluntly, referring to most gay men in Portugal. "They lead a double life. Or else they pretend to be bisexual," he says. Then he adds, "But this is changing, slowly."

Serzedelo, 55, a history professor and founder of the activist group Opus Gay, is nothing if not highly visible these days. He hosts Opus Gay's weekly call-in radio program. Lately, his face has been plastered in the media demanding a political 'boycott,' of Paulo Gusmão, a leader of the ultra-conservative Popular Party in the Azores region. Opus Gay wants voters to cross-out Gusmão's name on any ballot, and refuse to vote for any slate that he supports.

In an op-ed piece, Gusmão blasted the same-sex partnership bill approved by parliament in March as "an aberration" that could lead to "the destruction of the family" and "even to the persecution of the Catholic Church." His rhetorical punchline: "Since when is a de facto union of two, three or ten fags useful to society?"

The story became national news when Gusmão angrily rejected Opus Gay's demand for a public apology and dragged the Popular Party's national leadership into the controversy. "I speak on behalf of my party and of the voters who elected me. My position is that of my party at the national level; the only difference is in the language used," a defiant Gusmão told the newspaper A Capital.

Media attention forced politicians from all major parties to put in their two cents. All those questioned were more or less sympathetic to gay people, and critical of Gusmão, although distinctly unenthusiastic about the call for a 'boycott,' of a fellow politician. But not one hit the homophobic nail on the head.

Calling Gusmão's ideas "reactionary" was as far as most would go. And a Communist Party leader haughtily diagnosed Opus Gay's boycott call as a product of an identity-based "political-emotional viewpoint."

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Gusmão controversy is the disconnect it revealed between an emerging Portuguese queer rights movement that is beginning to flex its political muscle, and mainstream center and left Portuguese politicos that seem caught in a pre-identity politics time warp.

These are some of the same people who recently approved a civil union law that includes same-gender couples, while minimizing its specifically gay content. This strategy, honed by French Socialists to pass a similar law a couple of years ago, leaves the task of turning a piece of legal paper into social change almost entirely in the hands of activists. This is no small task, particularly in countries where there is a considerable gap between the law and social mores.

Only Gusmão's own Popular Party boss, Paulo Portas, refused to answer questions posed by the national weekly Expresso. Ironically, Mr. Portas, who may run for mayor of Lisbon in November, was outed as gay a few years ago by a Socialist rival seeking to "discredit" him (in the scrappy world of Portuguese politics, "homosexual" and "homosexual lobby" labels are still slung about to sink rivals in the polls.) Then, as now, the otherwise loquacious Mr. Portas remained as silent as the Sphynx, neither denying, nor admitting anything.

It worked for him then. Portas didn't lose a single vote from his Catholic, ultraconservative base, and went on to fight tooth and nail against extending civil unions to gay people. He lost that cause, and is now said to be foaming at the mouth against unclosetted queers. The November mayoral election in Lisbon, which has the largest, if still largely invisible, lesbian and gay concentration in the country, is beginning to look like Must See TV.

Related links:

For the activist group Opus Gay. (Portuguese)

For Ilga-Portugal, the oldest Portuguese gay rights group, est. 1995. (English and Portuguese)

For GayPT.com - Portal Gay de Portugal. (Portuguese only, for the time being)

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