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RAINBOW NATION

Pride and Parade

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RAINBOW NATION: Mateus Solano, who plays a gay character in the prime-time soap, Amor da Vida, has become Brazil's new sweetheart

As many western nations drag their feet on same-sex marriage issue, Brazil is in the process of making homophobia a crime. It is also making billions by attracting gay and lesbian tourists.

Felix Khoury is an unlikely hero. He wears Armanis and cracks jokes in his upper-crust accent, but he has a dark side too. Even as Felix runs the family business, he steals from his father, poisons his sister's life and cheats on his wife - not for another woman, but a man who has tattoos on his biceps. And guess what! Brazil has fallen in love with this character in the primetime soap Amor da Vida (Love of Life), which has a subplot about a gay couple. And Mateus Solano, who plays Felix, has become the country's new sweetheart.

On Sunday, Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad invited Solano to the gay parade in the city. Solano couldn't make it, but several people among the 3. 5 million who attended the event were carrying his posters. Till midnight, Avenida Paulista, the main boulevard of the city, was packed with lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBTs) and their friends and families. Also present were hundreds of thousands of tourists, making it the world's biggest gay event. "Felix's character is negative but it's very human and that's why we love him. The gays are different but they are humans too. We need to end homophobia, " said Cate Munro, a dentist who was swirling on her toes in a riot of colour and music at the parade, which had people in Carnival-style costumes.

In 17 years since it started, the annual parade has become a part of this city's culture. But this Sunday's turnout was impressive as millions came despite a downpour. The sky was grey but the street below was colourful, with people carrying slogans that read: "Never again we will keep quiet about it!"Compared to this, the mood in the western world was bitter last week. In Paris, violent rallies protested against same-sex marriage. In London, politicians dragged their feet on a similar bill. In Russia and Georgia, gay activists were beaten and jailed. And in the US, First Lady Michelle Obama was heckled at a fundraiser for her husband's "failure" to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.

But South America is on a different track. Argentina and Uruguay have already legalised gay marriage. And Brazil, the world's biggest Catholic country, has taken big steps on this front. Civil union between gays was made legal in 2004. Last year, the Supreme Court granted gay couples most of the rights enjoyed by heterosexual partners, including pension benefits. Last month, the Brazilian National Council of Justice ordered states to register the marriage of same-sex couples. And now the Congress is debating a bill that will make homophobia a crime.

While the estimate about the number of gays in Brazil varies from 8 per cent to 11 per cent, in cities like Rio de Janeiro, this figure is as high as 20 per cent. "As a politician you have to be a nutcase to talk against the gay community, " says Munro. "We too vote in elections!"

Though Brazilians and other South Americans are fairly liberal on the issue of sexuality, the gay movements here actually benefited from the struggle against dictatorships. According to Rafael Dehesa, a social scientist, as popular movements helped end the army rule and empowered new left-leaning governments that supported human rights and individual freedom, gay activists used this "wave of democratisation" to assert their identity. "We can't become a better society by suppressing people for what they are, " says a priest who was associated with the Liberation Theology movement. "An open society which offers space to everyone also benefits from it. "

Brazil seems to be already reaping the benefits of this openness. In 2011, as tourists flocked to the Sao Paulo parade, it brought $175 million in revenue to the city. This year, the figure is about $200 million, almost as much as the money generated by the F1 circuit here. In addition, Brazil has developed a LGBT tourism market worth $23 billion by making hotels and resorts that cater to the community. "Whether an LGBT person has a great holiday is directly related to how welcomed they feel when they stay with a hotel and visit a destination, " says Darren Cooper, a consultant. Data reveals that half of this money is spent by some 67, 000 Brazilian gay couples. "They are more educated, have better jobs and higher income. As childless couples, they have more disposable income for leisure and cultural activities, " says Renato Meirelles, president of Data Popular, a survey firm.

The gays may be good consumers, but everyone is not in love with them. In recent months, with the Congress discussing the new bills, there has been a rise in homophobia. In Rio, the Catholic church recently sacked a priest who defended homosexuality. These tensions may come to a boil next month when Pope Francis arrives in Rio to attend the World Youth Day, which will attract more than 2 million people. In Brasilia, Marcos Feliciano, a controversial pastor who has become the president of the House of Deputies' commission of human rights and minorities, has launched an all-out war on the "gay dictatorship".

But for the soap-watching Brazil (which is almost everyone), Feliciano has become a joke. They are in love with Felix, who is being called "Felixciano", a pun on the pastor's name. "I have fun with the pun, and it's a sign that the character has got public empathy, " said Solano, the actor, on a chat show on Sunday.

Few in this country would disagree with this unusual villain, who has become a hero.

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