Five men beat out a samba cadence on their drums. Other people turn up and start dancing around the place. The rhythm is contagious – it attracts the occasional passer-by on this tiny street in the city centre, which is unusually busy for a Saturday afternoon. One of the city’s samba schools is rehearsing for Carnival, but it’s not just any ordinary school. Monalisa Paulistana is one of the first samba schools aimed at the LGBT population of São Paulo.
Gays and lesbians have always played very important roles in Brazilian Carnival – as dancers, stylists or even carnavalescos (the people responsible for the whole conception of the parade). It doesn’t mean that they are fully accepted, though. ‘In traditional samba schools, prejudice against gays is really big. I have witnessed many acts of aggression happening behind the scenes – in the rest-rooms, for example,’ says Miguel Tyesco, 37, president of Monalisa Paulistana. ‘When a transsexual enters the male toilet, she causes a certain uneasiness. If she uses the female toilet, the guys don’t want her to be around their girlfriends, so there’s another problem. The gay community carries the weight of Carnival on its shoulders and doesn’t get the respect it deserves.’
It’s the reason Tyesco decided to found Monalisa in October 2008, along with his wife and the samba school’s vice-president, Renata Loureiro. Carnavalesco Alex Griga reinforces the purpose of a gay-oriented samba school. ‘Carnival is a typically gay business, with its extravagant clothes and stuff. We have good taste, we have glamour, and we are very demanding. If we have always done this for them [straight society], why not start doing this for ourselves?’
Despite being aimed at the LGBT community, Monalisa Paulistana is inclusive of all-comers. To prove its commitment to diversity, the school has five different dancers representing the school in front of the drum line, instead of one rainha de bateria (drum queen): a gay man, a lesbian woman, a transsexual, a straight man and a straight woman.
‘The straight people who attend our school feel very comfortable here. They have joined us because they wanted to, so they are very supportive,’ Loureiro explains.
The name Monalisa Paulistana comes from a play on words: mona (‘woman’, in the gay slang of transsexuals) and lisa (‘broke’, without any money). Between 200 and 500 people attend the rehearsals, depending on the day and the weather, and the atmosphere is open and friendly; flirting even happens – up to a point. ‘People generally relate the gay world with reckless sex.
That’s exactly what we want to avoid here,’ says Tyesco. ‘Dating is okay, but it can’t become a mess. This is a family environment.’ Just as in any other samba school, Monalisa’s parades have a different enredo (theme) every year, alternating between gay issues and those that deal with the reality of the city. While the lyrics in 2010 talked about prejudice, this year, the theme is noise pollution.
A grass-roots following
With about 500 associates, rela- tively small by Carnival standards, the school has only grown by word of mouth. In comparison, Grêmio Arco-Íris, by most accounts the first gay samba school in the city, says it has over 2,000 members. But Monalisa dreams big, hoping to have a thousand members by 2012 and to win a place in the disputed grupo especial, whose parades are broadcast on television during Carnival.
The school has more urgent challenges to deal with, though – financial difficulties. They have only two sponsors so far: LGBT association Casarão Brasil, and a company that develops soundproof glass. ‘Ideally, we should have a more participative community, more volunteers,’ Loureiro believes. ‘Besides, there’s still great resistance to sponsoring LGBT social projects.’
Monalisa Paulistana hosts free practices at Espaço Caê during the run-up to Carnival.