Lesbians’ Empowerment from Afro-Brazilian Religious Communities.

My research revealed three main areas of macrosystemic support. In this article, I’ll focus on the first. Whereas Christian values and customs, which affect lesbians through a myriad of avenues, are often environmental risk factors, Afro-Brazilian religion was affirming not only of their sexual identities, but of their ethnic identities as well.

Afro-Brazilian Religious Communities. Afro-Brazilian religious groups, of which there are a myriad in Brazil, are known for being LGBT friendly, contrasting sharply with the biggest Christian religious groups in Brazil. For clarity, when I discuss “Afro-Brazilian” religion, I will be referring primarily to Candomblé and Umbanda, as these were the two Afro-Brazilian groups with which participants had engaged, and they discussed the communities in very similar ways. Juliane, Camila, and Vilma have all been very involved in Afro-Brazilian religion, and they all reported being out and feeling supported as lesbians there. From age nineteen to twenty-five, before personal internal conflicts led her to leave, Juliane was a member of an Umbanda community. She described Umbanda as a religion that combines Indigenous, African, and European Spiritualist practices. Camila and Vilma both were very proud to tell me they were of Candomblé. Camila described her Candomblé house as “an environment of marvelous acceptance and incredible respect.” Vilma said, “I speak openly there… It’s the Candomblé house that embraces you the most.”

Vilma believed the majority of LGT people would tell me that their religion is “of African roots, or Candomblé.” While I found no numbers confirming this belief, there does seem to be a general understanding both among my subjects and researchers that Afro-Brazilian congregations are made up of high proportions of LGBT people (Mott, 2006a; Allen, 2012). It is common for Candomblé religious leaders to be gay men, and this was the case for both Camila and Vilma. Mott even noted that because Umbanda houses have high numbers of gay and lesbian people, they have conducted same-sex marriages (2006a).

Afro-Brazilian religious communities were important sources of social support and identity affirmation for the women interviewed. As religions with roots in pre-colonial Africa, Candomblé and Umbanda come from cultures with more flexible gender roles than those found in European cultures (Greene, 1996). Afro-Brazilian religious mythologies include stories of male same-sex love and gender non-conformity (Allen, 2012). For example, during certain Afro-Brazilian initiating rituals, the orixá, or spiritual deity, mounts the individual, who takes on the role of “bride,” regardless of the genders and gender presentations of the initiate and orixá involved (Allen, 2012). Despite their contribution to a general acceptance of gender role flexibility, Allen argues that these rituals are phallocentric and focused around active/passive dynamics, thereby excluding dynamics more typical for lesbians (2012). For lesbians, whose sexual orientation in particular is not as affirmed by the spiritual stories and practices of Candomblé and Umbanda houses as that of gay men, affirmation is found in the general acceptance of non-dominant sexualities and gender expressions, and the sheer numbers of women who have relationships with women in the houses (Allen, 2012).

Social support from gay and lesbian members, and especially from leaders, was very important to Juliane, Vilma, and Camila. Camila’s religious leader, called a “Pai de Santo” in Portuguese, gave Camila counseling regularly, and affirmed her sexual identity, saying that if she continued living ethically and loving herself, she would be happy as a lesbian in Salvador.

Not only do Candomblé houses affirm sexual nonconformity, but they are also central actors in the affirmation of African ethnic and racial identities (Selka, 2005). As all three women involved had African ancestry, this was very important. Many queer women of color, throughout the Americas, report feeling like most spaces reject one aspect of their identity, and therefore suffer from never feeling like they are part of any group completely (Greene, 1996). Candomblé and Umbanda, however, nurtured a positive relationship with these women’s spiritual, sexual, and ethnic identities.

There are multiple institutions that support lesbian women’s positive relationships with themselves. Rare, however, are Brazilian organizations that facilitate familial learning and tolerance of lesbians’ sexual orientations. Camila’s Candomblé leader did just this, meeting with her mother and urging acceptance and connection, changing the nature of their relationship for the better. This is the only case I heard about a third party helping a family unite after conflicts around their daughter’s sexual orientation, and thus it is extremely important.

My findings built off of Allen’s thorough research on lesbians in Candomblé houses in Salvador, confirming her conclusions that, to some extent, their identities are affirmed there. Allen’s principle argument, however, that while lesbians gender identity was confirmed, their identity as homosexuals was not, stood in stark contrast to my interviewee’s enthusiastic words. Allen’s participants recalled being “discrete” about their sexual orientation in the Candomblé house, which the author attributes to the internalization of sexist Brazilian cultural norms that encourage them to be submissive. She argues that the mere presence of many women who engage in same-sex relationships is not enough to overpower Brazilian sexist norms in the Candomblé house. She concludes that the discussion of homosexuality among the African diaspora is male-centered. My participants did have gay men as their leaders, but their female homosexuality was a part of the conversation in their Candomblé houses, unlike the case was for Allen’s participants. It is unclear why Vilma, Juliane, and Camila had such different experiences from the subjects of Allen’s recent and in depth research on lesbians in Candomblé. It is possible that my subjects were not members of the same Quêto houses of Candomblé, so maybe the branch of Candomblé that Allen investigated was particularly male-centric. Regardless, those in which Vilma and Camila were involved were more affirming of female Afro-Brazilian homosexual identities.

For Juliane, Camila, and Vilma, Umbanda and Candomblé have been central to their positive growth in multiple ways. Afro-Brazilian spiritual communities are social institutions in which participants felt safe from informal sanctioning. By nature of being a community, they connected them to non-heterosexual role models, mentors, peers, and even intermediaries with their less tolerant family members. There, they developed a sense of belonging, a sense of emotional support, and reassurance that one’s sexual identity does not alienate them from God or the divine. Thus the relational-cultural theory and developmental contextual model would both posit that the relationship built with the Afro-Brazilian religious social institution, as well as the people in it, is a major environmental factor for resilience for Afro-Brazilian lesbians.

In my next article, I’ll discuss the second and third macrosystemic factors for resilience that my research revealed. The Internet provided access to social connections and information. Additionally, the knowledge that they have laws protecting them empowered the women I interviewed to exhibit resistant self-direction, an incredible force for good, in multiple spaces.


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