In 1614, a man named “Tibira,” a member of the Brazilian indigenous Tupi tribe, was executed by a group of French Christian missionaries. His crime? Sodomy.
Over 400 years later, Ashkan Sepahvand, a post-colonial research fellow at the LGBTQ Schwules Museum in Berlin explained Tibira’s story to Vice magazine. European colonization had been in full swing by the time 500 French colonizers, including a group of Christian missionaries, arrived in northeast Brazil in 1612 in search of “sugar, gold, and other riches.” According to Sepahvand, the Christian missionary colonizers sought to “extinguish evil” among the indigenous people and convert them to Christianity. One of the evils they addressed in the community was sodomy.
To pay for his sin of sodomy, Tibira was strapped in front of a cannon and blown up. His gruesome execution served as a public announcement to the rest of the indigenous people that same-sex attraction would no longer be tolerated in the community. The only record of the execution lies in the travel diary of French Capuchin friar Yves D’Evreux who happened to be passing through at the time of Tibira’s murder. The story has been lost for four centuries.
A gay advocacy group only recently uncovered the story of Tibira’s execution while they were working to uncover local northeastern Brazilian history. Grupo Gay da Bahia, led by one of Brazil’s leading gay rights leaders, Luiz Mott, discovered the story and highlighted its importance in the media.
Mott made headlines across Brazil because he stated that he wanted the Catholic Church to recognize Tibira as a “queer saint,” and he has since been working toward that goal.
Although such recognition has not yet happened, Mott successfully lobbied for the erection of a statue in São Luis, Maranhão that commemorates the death of Tibira. The statue was a huge victory for Mott, as the death of Tibira is considered to be the “first documented case of homophobic murder in Latin America.” Even if the Catholic Church would not recognize Tibira as a martyr, Mott and the other members of Grupo Gay da Bahia certainly did.
While some may view Mott’s efforts as brave, others may see the result as anachronistic. A “queer saint” is not only a contradiction in terms for some in the Catholic Church, but the phrase is not necessarily historically accurate. European colonizers and the Tupi people would have had no sense of the word “queer” as we use it today. This realization does not invalidate the work that Mott and other activists like him do in terms of “queer-ing” history. However, it is worth mentioning that much ink has been spilled by scholars in queer theory about reading history without imposing our contemporary biases on it.
The Vice article also highlighted the fact that Mott’s campaign begs a question: why would he seek recognition from the institution that was the very cause of Tibira’s murder four centuries ago? Why would Mott need his cause valorized by the Church, who act as the oppressors in this situation? Critics of Mott’s cause, including journalist José Gabriel Navarro, ask Mott these very questions. Navarro is quoted saying, “It’s as if they can only be happy, and feel fully accepted, if the former oppressors give them their blessing, which will never happen.”
From a Catholic perspective, we hope the “never” is not true. We cannot afford to believe that the Church will “never” recognize the harm inflicted upon LGBTQ people, past or present. Nevertheless, we must continue to recognize the complexity of post-colonial and queer studies as we take caution in how to read and interpret our histories.
—Lizzie Sextro, October 7, 2017