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Day 48: Rio de Janeiro

Michael Palin - BrazilOnce inside the building she cheers up and ushers us briskly into a lift. As we emerge at the seventh floor, Marjorie's transformation is complete. She's in control. This is her world. Red Aids ribbons decorate the elevator doors. 'Rio Sem Homophobia' is written in large letters across the wall ahead of us. As she walks down to her office Marjorie points out the various doorways. 'Lesbians in there. Transsexuals in there. Disabled over there.'

Everything seems to have been done to brighten up institutional passageways and wood-panelled walls, and everyone greets each other merrily; a less hysterical version of the atmosphere at the march on Sunday. Marjorie flirts and jokes so easily that it's hard to remember she's a large black man, something she confronts head-on as she settles us down in her office.

'In my mind, I'm not a man. I'm a woman with a penis,' she declares. She's never wanted to have surgery and become a transsexual.

Marjorie has a rather impressive office. It has two big windows with Venetian blinds, a long desk with a panoramic photo of a Gay Pride March on the wall behind. The office furniture is from the 1950s and a very rough and ready modernization job has been done. Ducts and cables emerge from holes knocked through the walls and are carried across the room on a metal grid suspended from the ceiling. Coffee is brought in in small plastic cups and we talk. Marjorie's more relaxed and her English is much better today. She talks movingly about growing up as the son of an African-Brazilian mother and a German father. Her mother thought gay sex was a godless perversion, and it was her father who was the understanding one. Marjorie shows us a poster on the wall for an LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender - Travestis) fundraiser. It was demanding rights for those who had changed their sexual orientation to be able to use their adopted names on ID cards and work documents. The graphic on the poster is powerful. A woman emerging from a man's body holding an ID card aloft, whilst blood drips onto her skin.

Marjorie nods approvingly. 'We didn't want hearts or butterflies. We wanted to show the pain we felt.'

There are a hundred people working in the minority rights department on the seventh floor. The State Governor has recently authorized a multi-million reais advertising campaign to press home the message of sexual toleration. For people like Marjorie things seem to be going their way, but it's an uphill struggle. She is particularly worried by the growing strength of the Evangelicals. With their increasing representation in the Council of Deputies, they are seen by those on the seventh floor as the new enemy. But enemies seem to bring the best out of people like Marjorie. After plying us with free pencils and notepads she shows us to the lift. I wish her well. It can't be an easy ride, facing up to ignorance and prejudice on a daily basis, but I feel that the fight has a real soldier here. And we all kiss her goodbye.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 48: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 201

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