Interview With Flavio Alves: the 90s Brazilian LGBTIQ Rights Activist Turned Filmmaker

I could tell by first sight that Flavio Alves served in the military before, although he is now a filmmaker.

A former Brazilian gay rights/HIV activist and a former Brazilian navy sonar operator, Flavio Alves came into the West Village coffee shop, The Elk, and greeted me with a classic Brazilian warm hug when I went for a formal handshake. His salt-and-pepper beard was not neatly trimmed but there was no wrinkle on his plain dark t-shirt. The maroon baseball hat matched with the color of the concave square pattern on this cloth that wrote “SLAMDANCE”. He was wearing a pair of rinse straight-fit stretch jean, dark red socks, and brown-grey sneakers. Tying his black tartan plaid flannel around his waist, he teased that he could no longer find his waist but his paunch.

I handed him just a cup of water. He thanked me more than 3 times, and he immediately asked me if I already had had anything to drink.

I invited him to sit down by a charred-wood table on which a white note said “THESE TABLES ARE DESIGNATED LAP-TOP FREE.” We joked about this anti-technology atmosphere. “Things surely have been progressing and ‘going backwards’ from time to time,” he shrugged. His Brazilian accent endured through time, although 2017 marks his twentieth year away from Brazil.

He was excited about what was coming next for him. His new movie The Garden Left Behind will be out early next year. This docudrama is about a Latino transwoman’s life in New York City. Similar to his previous work Tom in America, this upcoming movie is a genre breakthrough. The movie casts transgender actors and focuses on the humanization of this minority. Alves took on a new approach to the story by immersing himself in the transgender community when researching for the movie. “The best way, as a director and as a screenwriter to address the issue is that you have to dive completely in the subject. You have to be able to draw the character,” he said.

His last movie Tom in America depicts the life of an aged homosexual man’s life, a topic seldom presented on the screen worldwide. The 47-year-old storyteller saw that as a topic that would “trouble” him. “I like to be troubled by the subject I’m addressing because I never know where I’m gonna meet.”

“As a filmmaker, I try to see my work as a mirror. When I’m getting older, that’s the most scariest thing,” he said, while taking off his hat to show me the small bald patches on the top of his head. “I grew up with my grandma in Brazil, and I saw the woman getting older and lost her independence. The very powerful woman who, I grew up with her, was so very powerful, but was confined and lost all of her independence and that really got me.”

He slowly leaned onto the table and crossed his arms. He still looked contained but more determined.

Brazil is a tattoo in Alves’s life, inked with fearless gay activism and atrocious death threats, as he recalled.

Alves was born in the suburb of Rio De Janerio, the second-most populous city in Brazil. However, back in 1969 the year he was born, there was no gay community. Growing up, he was not exposed to an education or culture that told him what being gay meant. There was no school, no electricity, no law, and no money. He was poor. All he knew was that he was different. “There was just no such thing as ‘labels’,” he said.

“I was never like, ‘Oh I was a gay man so I had to share it.’” He kept a low profile regarding his sexuality during his childhood.

At the age of 18, he was enlisted in the navy as a sonar operator. Little did he know at that time, it would be a watershed in his life. The navy was a new world for him. He received the education he had craved. They taught him how to read. There was electricity. There was water. People around him were schooled. The work was not cushy but it was mentally satisfying. His parents were also proud that their son was in the navy.

Besides the benefits provided from the Navy administrations, he was embraced by a friendly gay community, though discrete. For the first time in his life, he had some gay friends. During lunch times, they would have “gay hangouts.” They would hang out in the park and had some “gay conversations.” The navy officers recognized the existence of the gay community in the bases but they turned blind eyes. “It was a little bit secret, but without restriction,” he reminisced.

Time in the navy helped him to know more about himself and to bond with other gay guys. To this day, he is still grateful for what the navy brought to him that he repeated, “Navy was so good to me” more than 5 times during our one-and-a-half-hour interview.  

However, the HIV crisis in the 90s ended his carte blanche time in the navy.

The first HIV case identified in Brazil was in 1983, and there were an estimated 600,000 people living with HIV in Brazil by the end of the 20th century. Even though male homosexuals/bisexuals in the 20-49 age group mainly characterized the concentration of cases during the 80s, they were one third of the reported AIDS cases in the mid 90s. IDU (Injection drug users) were the most affected community by the AIDS epidemic, and MSM (men who have sex with men) came second.

Initially, Alves and his friends lacked the knowledge of AIDS/HIV and how vulnerable they were as members of the gay community. He visited a friend who was “sick”, and suddenly the word went out that he was HIV positive. A few days later, he died. Then a few months later, 2 to 3 more friends were hospitalized and passed away in the same manner. This series of incidents was revelatory for him and his friends as they learned that AIDS/HIV was the “virus”.

At such a critical moment, the Navy made a choice: dismissing all of the HIV positive sailors with no pay.  

“Navy was all we have. We gave everything we had to the Navy. They just fired my gay friends like this. I decided to take a stand. That’s when I became an activist. That was when everything got started,” Alves said in a slightly elevated voice. The couple sitting right next to our table looked at him confusingly, and then looked away. For the past 15 minutes, The Elk had turned from a Times-Square crowded Starbucks to an East-Village vacant backyard, but Alves didn’t notice.

“They fired everyone. Every one,” he suddenly leveled down, deepened his voice, and leaned back in his wooden chair.  

In response to the navy’s policy, Alves started to speak up by educating his own community on safe sex.

In an email he sent to me, he said that when he first heard of AIDS/HIV, education was his survival instinct. “HIV was taking away the lives of too many of my friends and I was to be the next one...although I was used to fear HIV, I have to admit that after I learned on how to protect myself, I had a much healthier life.”

He read in a local gay newspaper that “Nós por Exemplo,” an NGO, was distributing free posters and pamphlets about safe sex, condoms, etc., to public jails in Rio, and it gave him the idea to do the same at the Navy base and lounge. Accordingly, he enthusiastically contacted the NGO.

With the help of several friends and staff members from the NGO, he was able able to distribute boxes and boxes of condoms they received from the NGO to the people in the ship, regardless of sexuality. Shortly, once he realized that the they ran out of the condoms, he had to come back for more.

By communicating with more and more NGOs, Alves was able to self-educate himself about AIDS/HIV and safe sex, which made him capable of educating other people in the navy.

Such a move was small, but he saved lives.

According to the data from the National Survey of Knowledge, roughly 90% of the Brazilian population between 15 to 54 years was sexually active at the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, although sexual orientation is not specifically noted. Nevertheless, at that time, merely over one third of population reported to use condoms in their last sexual encounter. The percentage is even lower when it comes to casual sexual relationships among young people between 15 to 24 years old.

Although there is no definite data on the frequency of Brazilian homosexual/bisexual male’s use of condoms, there is sound evidence that in various countries during the AIDS/HIV epidemic, the gay community lacked sufficient knowledge of how to engage in safe sex.

The navy was as perturbed as Alves by this unforeseeable enemy. Yet, the fact that the ship was not a ventilated environment, and sailors when deployed often stayed in the middle of the ocean for months, the navy still decided to take the situation to the extreme: keep firing all of sailors who were HIV positive but not provide free condoms to the remaining sailors. “The navy could have done a much better job than I did, if they really believed HIV was a threat to its own institution. Just so you know, most of the material I am talking about, are actually printed either by the government or with their help,” Alves said.

When asked what Alves thought was the reason why the navy sent away the HIV positive gay sailors, he said, “I can’t speak for them, but because the disease was so associated with the gay community in the early 90’s that my conclusion is that their decision was based on homophobia.”

“The response to the disease should be ‘safe sex education.’ Deny the problem is not a solution”—infinitesimal pause—“Yes, sailors travels the world and more chances to engage sexual activities, gay and straight. But also, they are confined in a ship for sometime 30 or more days, and there too many possibilities for sexual encounter inside a war ship. More than most people would think,” Alves added.

Alves also learned from an NGO that he should contact a law office in Brazil to see if he could stop the navy from dismissing his friends. However, after several consultations, he realized that the path to justice was cut off. The judicial system in Brazil did not work in his favor. Firstly, he and his friends did not have the money to hire the lawyers, and there were no pro bono attorneys. Secondly, there was close to no hope to win. Thirdly, the saddest part is that many of his friends who were HIV positive didn’t live long enough.

 

“Then because I was trying to help them, they ask me to resign,” Alves suddenly jumped to a new topic. Since he was talking rather rapidly before, the shift here sounded like crashing on a stop sign on a highway. Thirty minutes in, he didn’t touch his water, not even catching a glimpse of it.  

“They put me in jail for a day and fired me because I was advocating for my friends. As simple as that.”

When these words came out of Alves’s mouth, there was no affection on his face. He didn’t lift his brows, which would’ve indicated some form of emphasis. Nor did he scowl, which would’ve told me that he was vexed. He didn’t intentionally slow down. He didn’t stress any word. That said, there was some weight in the way he delivered it.

One day in April 1995, he got a notice from the police at the navy asking him to go to their office. Waiting for him were his superior officers who were alerted by his group. In the navy, unauthorized activity inside of the ship or military base is prohibited. They questioned him about his role with the NGOs after the NGO’s newsletter published an article about him distributing condoms to the sailors.

Although he was not tortured in the jail and it was only one night, to him, “it was more about intimidation.”

The next day, Alves was told that he had two options: either to resign or to be dismissed. Since having dismissal on his record would be disadvantageous to future employment, he had to resign. “Navy was really good to me,” Alves said it again. So when the navy asked him to resign, he did.

In Alves’s case, he resigned “voluntarily”, instead of “being fired”, although essentially it was the same. The navy found him engaging in the type of activity that threatened its stability. “Mobilizing my friends and educating them about the disease was perceived as a threat. For many people in the Navy at the time I was serving, distributing condoms would have a ‘worst’ result because we are promoting ‘unnatural’ sex, especially when 99% of the soldiers (sailors) serving at the base were men,” Alves added.

Social turmoil was one of the Brazilian military’s concerns back in the late 20th century. Brazil was transitioning from a military-governed country to a civilian-elected-governed one. Although the military gave up its power in 1985, its influence in policymaking and economics was visible. Based on a declassified July 1988 CIA document, the Brazilian officers reacted forcefully to any social behaviors that had the signs of a rebellion. It presented two examples:

“The military made a show of force in Rio de Janeiro this April when it feared workers would try to shut down port operations. This May, army troops occupied three hydroelectric power plants when workers threatened to cause an electrical blackout, and they broke up a strike at a large oil production facility. Finally, that same month the army repressed a planned peaceful march by Black rights Activists protesting racism, overriding state civilian authorities who had approved demonstration. The local army commander cited reports that marchers, incited by radicals, had planned to deface a national military memorial.”

Flavio Alves was thus seen as a provocateur in the navy’s high ranking officers’ eyes. At the time, he understood why he was dismissed, and he did so, though reluctantly, as told.

Then again, the navy did not just let him go with no punishments whatsoever.

In Brazil, Brazilian citizens are required to enlist in one of the military forces for at least a year when they reach 18-year-old. Brazilian military will then issue certificates (certificado de reservista) to prove that citizens have served their terms in the military, and they can apply for jobs. After Alves resigned, the navy did not give him this paper. The navy left him vulnerable in the spotlight: he became an unemployed gay veteran in the largest Catholic country in the world in the 90s.

Helpless, he went public.

“The newspaper and the press started to write about me. I was everywhere in the TV. The navy then gave me the paper, but it was too late. I decided to write a book,” Alves said and started to wave the IFP Week handbook that he showed me previously when we talked about his films. Every time he mentioned the paper, he would pick up the handbook and move it back and forth.

Forty minutes into our conversation, his hands and arms were not even close to his water. I took a sip of my latte, and he seemed to realize that he was thirsty. “Sorry, I talked a lot,” he said immediately after I lifted my coffee cup. Guzzling the water in two seconds, he took a deep breath and looped back to the topic.

“Where were we?” He looked at me bafflingly but wasn’t looking for an answer. “Oh! It took me a year and a half to write a book. I published the book in 1997.”

The book he wrote spoke about a taboo—being gay in the navy.

In the emails we exchanged later after the interview, he confirmed that in June/July 1997, he published his biography Toque de Silêncio (“Call to Silence”). He said, “The book was not just about my personal story. I highlight other stories from the military who have been either fired or have been killed (by HIV).”

In an interview with Folha de S.Paulo, a Brazilian daily newspaper, published on May 5 1997, he mentioned that when writing the book, he looked for “almost a hundred people,” but only one from the navy agreed to open up and tell his story. Others who were discharged because of their sexuality refused to appear in the book. He also revealed that another trigger for him to publish a book was that he believed revelation under anonymity seemed like a lie.

In the book, he didn’t touch on gossip or scandalous events, only seemingly trivial but bluntly honest stories. He talked about his boyfriends who were not from the navy. He admitted the fear he experienced every day during the AIDS epidemic. He revealed how he was bothered by the prejudice from colleagues who were suspicious of his sexual orientation.

Interestingly, during our interview, Alves mentioned only one time that he wrote the book to “fight against the navy.”

He said in the 1997 interview with Folha de S.Paulo, that though writing the book is a political act, he didn’t intend to denigrate the armed forces. In that same article, he even mentioned that his journey in the navy had a happy ending because he was not cursed, raped or dismissed.

“Navy brought so much to me. Everything I know today comes from the point I came to the navy. What I’m sure of today, the discipline...especially the discipline. They gave me the education. I was very proud of what I was doing, but I just happened to be a gay man. What I was looking for was that I can be a sailor but in my private life as a private man. In my book, I want to show people that I could be a good soldier (sailor) and to be a gay man,” Alves explained.

“So I was kind of trying to educate people. Talk about my coming out as a gay man in the navy, and open the roads for other people who come after me to be proud to be gay soldiers (sailors).”

How people viewed the book right after it was published in 1997 is debatable due to lack of record. However, two comments posted in the past few years on skoob.com.br, a social network for Brazilian readers under Toque de Silêncio may shed some light on book’s educational value:

Douglas on 12/8/2011: Recomendo ! É incrível que ainda não existam outros títulos brasileiros que possam ser incluídos nesta categoria de "coming out stories”. LIVRO COM UM CONTEÚDO CERTO PARA QUEM REALMENTE ENTENDE DE LEITURA" (I recommend this one! I’m surprised to find out that there’s no other book that could be included in this “coming out stories” category. This is a book with the right content for someone who really understands about literature.).

Braguinha on 06/06/2016: Livro polêmico por dar nome aos bois! Um livro escrito sobre um gay que serve a merinha brasileira. Relata a perseguição e constrangimentos que viveu. Uma capa bem chamativa com uma bela fotografia. (Controversial book for spilling the truth. A book written about a Brazilian Navy Veteran that assumed to be gay. It reports the persecution and embarrassment he has experienced while serving the navy. A very striking cover with a beautiful photograph.)

Dr. Joao Nemi Neto, currently a lecturer at Columbia University Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures said that Alves is not the first Brazilian talking about coming out, but he wrote the first non-fiction homosexuality experience in the armed forces from the first-person angle. “His book is a book that needs to be discussed,” Dr. Nemi Neto added.

But back to my conversation with Alves. I wondered if he knew how people perceived him.

“So that’s how I saw it, my role as a…,” he paused for about 5 seconds, trying to come up with the word.

“A trailblazer?” I asked, tentatively, based on what he said when he talked about his intention to write the book.

“That’s a big word,” he cautioned, but didn’t correct me.

He knew the book would become something before it was published, but he didn’t know how big he would become. Of course, he also didn’t see these following events coming either: his gay friend who he wrote about was beaten; he received death threats; he became one of the first homosexual Brazilians in the early 90s who were granted political asylum to the United States.

One or two days before Toque de Silêncio was published, a high ranking military personnel whom Alves had written about in the book, and who was dismissed from the navy, was hit by an unidentified stranger on the street. “He was paralyzed. He couldn’t see. I don’t know if it has any relation with the fact that I wrote about him. I’m not sure.”

As Alves spoke, he started to find it hard to sit still, as the legs of the stool he sat on began to tremble.

“It was very sad!” he billowed, but I saw no major change of facial expressions on his face. The only change was his voice and his movement.

“That’s why the government felt like, ok the navy might do the same thing against you, because whoever did this to him was planned. You might be the target. That is when I felt like I had to leave the country.” When he said the government, he put his right hand on his heart and rubbed it for a few seconds, and then crossed his arms.

Alves added something self-contradictory to what he said previously, and claimed, “The incident was not connected to my book, but it was sad. A tragic.” But later added, after he saw me frown, “I’m not sure!”

It is reasonable for the government to be unswervingly suspicious of the identity of the offender.

Professor James N. Green of Brazilian History and Culture at Brown University commented that, although Alves story didn’t completely “make sense to him”, when Flavio was in the navy the military surely had no punishments for their abuses and no sense of democratic rights. Gay movements were emerging, but when people like Flavio came out, they had no protections. “Some of them (human rights activists) decided to leave the country for the fear of future persecution, and if they stay in the military, they would’ve been harassed or expelled. Perhaps, there’s a possible threat to their lives.” Professor Green added. “Government and military also have continued to have different opinions on civil rights issues.”

As for Alves, the next thing he knew -he was on his journey to the United States. “But it was never my choice.”

“The government took my passport. They took me to JFK. They shook my hand and said good luck.” Alves noted that the Brazilian officials never officially asked him to seek asylum while he was in the U.S., but only hinted that he would “be out of the country for a while.” In one occasion, “one of the guys who helped me with the Visa, etc. (told me) that I could perhaps seek asylum.”

In Fall 1997, two months after Alves published the book, he applied for political asylum in the United States with CUNY Law School’s pro bono legal assistance.

Alves is the 10th out Brazilian to receive political asylum in the U.S, Canada, Australia, and the U.K., based on a report from a Rio gay-rights group, Atob. His case was granted on Nov 25, 1998. Notably, Marta Suplicy, former Sao Paulo mayor and congresswoman, supported his claim.

His life in a new country had not yet started, when the gay community in Brazil began to accuse him of leaving his homeland, calling him “an opportunist.”

“When I came to America, there were people in Brazil that thought I should be in Brazil fighting for gay rights and not hiding in America. They thought that ‘you start a fight and now you leave. It’s just convenient for you.’” Alves blinked his eyes quickly and dusted off the bread crumb the lady sitting next to him accidently dropped on his thighs as she left. He didn’t seem to be bothered by the sticky situation he was describing at all.

He broke down the nightmare for me. “You have to understand that lots of people are very patriot.”

In Alves words, those attackers thought that gay activists should be someone who’s fearless and someone who would not run away. In the wake of his book’s success, he said that he was everywhere on TV and in the newspaper. However, media is a fishbowl. It criticizes the accomplishes that Alves was acclaimed for. It used to be a place for him to garner support and ovation, but now it was all scattershot criticisms.

He said, “Some of them think that I’m not a true, true activist.”

I asked, “Do you consider yourself an opportunist?”

He responded, as per usual, stolidly: “For one thing, like I said, it wasn’t my choice to come to America. Because the government thought that if something happened to me, it would damage the image of the country, which happened to many other activists in Brazil in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. They thought you would be safer in America, because the navy can kill you and put you in jail…I had the fear of future persecution……I actually have to leave soon, but we can actually talk and walk.”

Before we left The Elk, I reminded him that I needed to take some photos of him in the coffee shop. A smile crept on his face, and he said, “Yes! Yes! I like it. I always have a lot of pictures I can send to you but you can take also.”

We quickly decided to take the picture where we sat--technically where I sat. I was at first naively expecting him to pose very naturally and smile like most other people did. In front of the camera, he gave me the opposite of what I expected, but that is exactly who he is. He gave a head to toe gloomy look because he is not like everyone else.

Moseying along Charles Street to the east, we were in the “gay village” in New York City. I never counted, but roughly 8 out of 10 shops in the West Village have rainbow symbols on display within passersby’s eyesight. It was about 11:40 am when we left the cafe. The uncharacteristically sultry weather in the fall ruthlessly forced us to walk slower, yet there were two times I was caught up in listening to him and forgot to watch out for cars. The second before the car approached, he swiftly grabbed my left arm, pulled it back, and took one step forward in front of me. I thanked him. He politely said that it’s ok and went back to the topic.

At least now Alves looked less stricken.

Alves explained, “Just so you know, things have changed since then, and soldiers (sailors) are no longer fired by the military for having HIV... I call it a HUGE progress. Now if the commander doesn’t like you, he can dismiss you on other grounds. I know that he can. They don’t say because you are gay, but they can. Some of the people think that being gay in the military can cause bad cohesion.”

Alves is right. Even about twenty years after Alves’s book was published, being gay in the Brazilian military is still risky.

In June 2008, Army Sergeant Laci Marinho de Araujo and his partner, also a sergeant, Alcantara de Figueiredo, were arrested after giving a television interview speaking against the discrimination faced by gay people in the armed forces. The gay couple, who have been together since 1997, had been forced to keep their relationship undercover from official view. Araujo even told the TV show host that he was afraid his life was in danger.

In a decision issued on October 28, 2015, the controversial expressions of “homosexual or not” and “pederasty” were removed from Article 235 of the Brazilian Military Penal Code, which criminalizes “the practice of lewd acts by members of the Armed Forces while carrying out their military actives.” Professor Green warned that it is still a code discriminating against the gay community. On the one hand, although it includes lewd heterosexual behavior, since there are rarely any women in the armed forces, the act is more likely to target against homosexual sex. On the other hand, there is the leeway in the penal code for the judge to determine whether homosexual sex is considered lewd or not.

Alves’s story was a not a preface of a chapter, but a case study of the reality and of an on-going battle.  

On May 14, 2013, Brazil legalized same-sex marriage. But in Alves’s eyes, that is not enough.

Alves’s proudness in Brazil’s gay rights movement is as prominent as his worry about the perilous circumstances for the Brazilian LGBTQ community. Alves repeatedly mentioned the shocking comparison between the public’s ignorance of the international reputation of Brazil Pride Parade and the nefarious anti-LGBTQ violence. He saw the exuberant crowds, but he wished there were more people standing up and fighting for gay rights.

Alves said, “For most of my friends, they don’t know that you have to stand up for your rights!”  

By the end of the interview, I could tell how much he wanted to share his story and his opinions by how tightly he held my recorder and his increased speaking rate when he realized that the interview would soon be over. Just when I was thinking, out of the blue, Alves, as if he was a mind reader, he said, “I haven’t really talked about this story for a while. I’ve been mostly talking about my films and movies with other journalists.”

I was expecting him to dive into his emotions and share more about why he kept his story for all this time, but he turned the subject to his films. Then his phone rang, and he turned to me and said, “We have to hurry up!”

We walked down 14th Street all the way to the Union Square, where he said he would introduce me to his producers and post production coordinator.

I thought we would meet them in a more socially common way—a hug or a handshake on a street. However, Alves led me across the street in the heavy traffic and roaring car horns, in the thick of rushing city bikes and scurry New Yorkers. A white mid-sized car stopped near the sidewalk, but it still blocked the two or three New York classic yellow cabs behind.

Alves opened the backdoor and shouted at the respective parties to introduce me to his friends who remained seated in the car the whole time. I uncoordinatedly bended a little and said, well yelled, hi—I have never learned how to properly greet people in circumstances like this.

When it comes to Alves, I can’t foresee what is coming next, neither can he.

He never predicted that his life would be mapped with so many U-turns. He later became so used to them that he now makes peace with troubles. That is probably why, even though he has moved to a new chapter in the movie industry, he only picks topics that challenge him.

I like to be troubled by the subject I’m addressing because I never know where I’m gonna meet.” Alves words still linger on my mind.

Epilogue

The road I paved means nothing to them (some), except that they walk freely on it... EVERY SINGLE DAY. But one becomes an activist, not because they expect the credit, but because he/she wants to bring about change.

--in an email Alves sent to me after our interview

Almost 20 years later, on February 28 2012, Grupo Gay de Bahia, the oldest association for the defense of the human rights for homosexual functioning in Brazil, awarded Alves, among 21 other militants, an honorary title recognizing his sacrifices and contributions to the LGBTQ community.