Marinalva Santana

This description of Marinalva Santana's work was prepared when Marinalva Santana was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Having secured the legal foundation for the human rights of the LGBT community through judicialization, Marinalva is now reinforcing mainstream support of the LGBT community in public life and at home.

A nova ideia

By going outside of the traditional methods for achieving legislation, Marinalva Santana has devised a way to win the legal rights of Brazil’s LGBT population. The Brazilian government is divided into three Branches: Executive, Legislative and Judicial. By understanding this system from the inside, Marinalva saw how to “go around” the Legislative branch’s bureaucracy by using the Judiciary power to make policy and achieve the rights of the LGBT population at a national level. Most remarkably, she started from Brazil’s most conservative state, Piaui, enabling her to model success for others to copy across Brazil.

Since the consolidation of democracy in Brazil in 1985, its people are little by little appropriating the tools for citizenship. Instead of petitioning the Legislative power, notorious for its bureaucracy and lag time in trying to approve a bill, as groups have done in the past, Marinalva pioneered in using the Judiciary as a tool for changing public policy. To institutionalize this fight for the rights of the LGBT population, she founded Matizes Group in 2002.

Through local Judiciary officials with national sway, Marinalva found a way to influence national laws from her office in Piaui. Based on extensive research and legal groundwork, Matizes’ claims are accompanied by concrete and viable solutions, increasing their chances of implementation and serving as a roadmap for other activists. In 2009, for example, Matizes challenged Brazil’s Receita Federal (equivalent to the IRS)- on regulation preventing LGBT taxpayers from declaring their partners as dependents for income tax purposes. By activating a local representative of the national Judicial branch, the Piaui state prosecutor, Marinalva was able to change this convention at a national level. As a result of this claim, LGBT taxpayers in Piaui were Brazil’s first to enjoy this right, established by the Judiciary Power and later extended to the other taxpayers throughout the country. Similarly, in 2006, Marinalva and Matizes challenged the Brazilian Health Surveillance Agency’s (ANVISA) prohibition of gays and bisexuals donating blood. Through this strategy, Marinalva was able to provide the LGBT community both in Piaui and across Brazil with rights that were formerly denied to them.

After forging this path to the legal means for the LGBT community to prosper in Brazil, Marinalva saw that other segments of society needed to be influenced to truly transform the way others view and value the LGBT community and to ensure their integration into a society that has been historically hostile. She is now focused on reinforcing mainstream support by elevating sexual diversity issues through universities, public spaces, and in the home. Marinalva does this by partnering with universities to initiate academic research and formalize discussion of diversity in the classroom, by putting the LGBT community at the center of the local cultural agenda, and by supporting and learning from the families of LGBT individuals in order to affect comprehensive change.

O problema

Just as the LGBT movement itself is diverse in its inclusion of all sexual orientations and gender identities (most commonly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender), each with specific forms of self-expression and demands, most of Brazil’s LGBT organizations are fragmented along these lines of identity. The disparate LGBT organizations are connected by the ABGLT (Brazilian Association of Gays, Lesbians and Transsexuals), founded in 1995 as a national network to bring together all of the LGBT groups. ABGLT has built a strong relationship with the government and they have an important role in diplomatically affirming the LGBT population as citizens of right before the government. The two most important bills pledged by ABGLT are one that institutes same-sex civil unions (1995) and one that criminalizes homophobia (2006). Both bills are still stuck in the Legislature awaiting approval by various governmental bodies.

Although masked by the alleged acceptance of diversity, prejudice and discrimination are historical problems that persist in Brazil even today. A remnant of the conservative perspective of patriarchy and “coronelismo” (a system of power in which the landowner elite exerted political control over the underprivileged population in exchange for favors), discrimination against minorities is most worrisome in the Northeast region, where lack of tolerance for diversity is evident in both the social and political realms. The northeastern state of Piauí, for example, has the worst social indicators and most alarming data in regards to the LGBT population: it is the state with the highest records of assaults committed against homosexuals.

Unfortunately, not even the country’s federal legislation guarantees equal rights for the LGBT community. As the world’s leader in homosexual homicides, many of the hate crimes committed against LGBT individuals in Brazil are not recognized as such. In January 2014, for example, a 17-year-old who identified as gay was found beaten to death, yet the police registered the case as suicide. Sexual diversity is a nebulous issue in the country due to lack of education on the matter. Much of Brazil’s population, including those in large urban areas, views it as a sin or abnormality to be avoided. LGBT individuals are afraid of coming out in public, and many of them suffer prejudice even within their own homes and close circles of friends.

A estratégia

It is this context that Marinalva Santana has navigated since 2002, when she founded Matizes Group as the first civil society organization in Piauí to systematically pursue the rights of the LGBT population. Matizes means “Shades” or “nuances”, a diversity of colors that come together to form a single tone. Marinalva was Matizes’ president until 2009 when she stepped back to a more general coordinator role. Before the creation of Matizes, the LGBT movement in Piauí was depoliticized and showed no history of legal advocacy. For their first meeting, Marinalva had a hard time finding a place to gather, and “coming out” was still an uncommon and significant act. It took the founding members of Matizes three years to understand their identities and build self-confidence so that they could be ready to publically work to advance LGBT rights. These three years were fundamental for the current accomplishments of Matizes’s work: Piauí, despite its conservative reputation, is now one of Brazil’s leading states in recognition of rights for the LGBT population.

Marinalva’s substantial legal background led her to understand exactly how the public system works in Brazil. Thus, she can work around and through it and knows how to best work in concert with the public agents. Although viewed as the least flexible of the government branches, the Judiciary presents a critical opportunity for changing policy: it is composed of individuals who are able to be influenced through dialogue. Additionally, as the Judiciary’s role is to enforce the law, its decisions are often more effective in practice, due to various mechanisms ensuring their fulfillment, such as immediate fines and prison sentences. Matizes demands are based on the needs expressed by the LGBT population. Marinalva and her team then talk to the public agents, and provide them with books, articles, studies, and legal sentences that demonstrate the benefits of recognizing a particular right, all part of a roadmap to a viable solution that both supports the public agent and increases the chances of implementation. This strategy has changed laws at both a regional and national level, but this process does not only lead to legislation. It is also a tool for Matizes to increase social awareness by taking any questions raised to public debate and mobilizing different actors in society to participate in the debate.

Matizes is a small organization and all of its members are volunteers, which is an important strategy for financial sustainability; with no paid staff, they do not need to rely on donations or be subject to other group’s interests. Yet Marinalva has attracted valuable human resources: Both a successful press office and a law firm reached out to Matizes with pro bono press and legal support. As a result, Matizes has a fully functioning press and legal arm for free. Marinalva has also developed strong partnerships with Piauí’s press, universities, and other social movements. Because of these partnerships, regardless of success or failure, public discussions and educational activities at universities, public spaces, and in the media accompany every judicial claim. Currently, Matizes is featured in Piaui’s media outlets at least once a day. This collaboration with other citizen sector organizations with a broad range of identities and goals has also boosted recognition of Matizes work: both its successes (which can be replicated in other regions) and battles yet to win (which can garner more support). .

Because these accomplishments transcend Piaui, Marinalva has been invited to lead discussions at the national level. She served for five years in the Brazilian League of Lesbians, in which she represented different National Councils (LGBT Council and Council of the Rights of Women). Moreover, Matizes is in constant communication with CSOs and agencies from other states in order to exchange best practices and share models of their strategies to be replicated throughout Brazil. Among many of Matizes’ achievements are a police station to combat discriminatory practices in Brazil, the country's first aimed at protecting the homosexual, black, disabled and HIV positive communities; the Municipal Council for the Rights of the LGBT Population, the first in the northeast of Brazil; and the Homosexual Citizenship Hotline, the third in the country. Piaui was also the first state in Brazil to have a public ceremony for gay marriages, which took place inside the Court of Justice.

With the legal framework for the rights of the LGBT community in place, Marinalva is now filling in the rest of this new structure in order to fully incorporate the LGBT community in society in Brazil and beyond. Marinalva recognized the fragility of law that is not supported by other conventions, so she developed a three pronged strategy to infiltrate other key leverage points in society. She chose to concentrate on: 1) universities, 2) families, and 3) public life through arts and culture because of these institutions’ influence in an individual’s life experience.

Believing in educational processes to build knowledge and deconstruct prejudices, Marinalva chose to partner with universities to both prepare the new generation of leaders who are aware of and advocates for the LGBT community and to fuel research and discussion of key topics related to sexual diversity and rights. Matizes has partnerships with the three largest universities in Piaui and their teachers to promote research on sexual diversity. This results not only in academic papers, books, and articles that will provide society with more information on the matter, but also expands the debate to the academic realm and contributes to the formation of professionals with more inclusive mindsets. Matizes is planning a Northeastern Encounter of Researchers on Sexual Diversity for 2014. These partnerships are always focused on producing educational material to inform society and demystify erroneous perspectives on the matter. This has been key to consolidating what is a current trend: Piauí is today a hub of research on sexual diversity in Brazil.

To extend dialogue beyond the classroom and library, these universities also host the “Pride of Being Week,” a week of academic and cultural activities that bring LGBT entities and other social movements to dialogue with society about sexual diversity and citizenship. Although the universities are the main stage for these book launches, movie screenings, concerts, workshops, lectures, literary discussions, and trainings for teachers, the activities also occur in schools and other community spaces. The partner organizations are empowered to plan and manage the activities, and Matizes supports them in promotion and mobilizing an audience.

The second area where Matizes penetrates is the home. Recognizing that individuals identifying as LGBT are greatly affected by the discrimination or support in their personal spheres, Marinalva and her team are now meeting with families of the LGBT community. By giving them the psychological assistance they need to support their LGBT relatives, through partnerships with specialists from the universities Matizes works with, Marinalva intends to provide everyone with the opportunity to bolster self-confidence and to receive the respect and backing from their families that they need to be successful. This collaboration takes the form of family workshops and individual conversations. Marinalva has realized that by promoting social actions for causes outside the LGBT community (such as the blood donation campaign), the LGBT cause gains credibility in society, which will in turn strengthen the work with the families.

In the public realm, Matizes leads cultural and artistic activities throughout the year, bringing the LGBT identity into the public eye. The activities are varied to appeal to people with diverse interests. The participating artists also benefit from the visibility provided by these events. Through these leisure activities that also attempt to sensitize people to new ideas, Marinalva intends to add the LGBT cause to the agendas of opinion leaders and make it a natural part of the state’s cultural life. In Piauí, the equivalent of the "gay pride parade" is the "diversity parade," which celebrates all minority groups. Marinalva’s efforts in planning this event were fruitful: it started in 2002 with 1,000 people and in 2013 was Piaui’s largest gathering with nearly100,000 people from different municipalities of Piauí and neighboring states.

Changing perceptions in the academic, cultural, and familial spheres will open doors for implementing the public policies that contribute to the inclusion and citizenship of the LGBT population in Brazil and beyond.

A pessoa

Born in the interior of Piauí and from a simple family, Marinalva moved with her parents and eight siblings to study in Teresina, Piauí’s capital, when she was thirteen years old, propelled by her father's dream of having his children become doctors. From a young age, she had to help her parents in their work. Her father owned a restaurant/night club in Teresina, where the entire family had work responsibilities: waiting tables, bartending, etc. Although Marinalva was only 14, her father asked her to guard the door to make sure that only those who had paid for the ticket would enter. From a young age, she embraced this role of authority figure and learned how to deal with people.

Always studious, Marinalva’s first experience with social causes was in high school, when she joined other students in protests for the creation of a student union. Even though her association was still a work in process, Marinalva managed to raise money for the group’s cultural activities and convinced her peers to donate a part of it to flood victims in a nearby town. The mobilization, however, did not achieve its main goal of preventing an increase in tuition, and all of the students involved were expelled and transferred to another school, including Marinalva. She had a hard time adjusting to this change, and in the new school Marinalva was made fun of for her different accent. Nevertheless, she became one of the best students in the school, received medals for her performance, and ended up helping her former bullies with their studies.

In 1989, Marinalva enrolled in Piaui’s State University (UESPI) to study Literature, and the university became the backdrop for her next attempts at changemaking. In the same year, she became the first female president of the Academic Center of Letters, and in the following year she was elected the first and only female president of the university’s Central Directory of Students (DCE). As president of the DCE, she led a protest against the university’s president who had not been democratically elected, but imposed by the state’s politicians. She convinced him to dialogue with the students, but was not successful in winning any further change from him. This taught her the limits of activism and would later on lead her to a different approach of addressing social issues. After graduating, Marinalva took the public service exam in search of a more stable income source. She took a job as a teacher and another in the criminal area of Piaui’s Court of Justice, which led her to earn a degree in Law. Not satisfied with the two work shifts, Marinalva joined the board of directors of the Judiciary Servers’ Labor Union. This multi-tasking routine, as well as social mobilization, have been constant throughout Marinalva’s life.

Marinalva’s ability to dialogue with the most diverse actors in society allows her to gather strength and credibility for her causes. In 2013, for example, she started a polemic case, together with 14 organizations, for the separation of church and state. According to Brazil’s Constitution, no state or municipality can show preference for one religion over another. However, Piaui is the most Catholic state in Brazil and many of its public entities display Catholic symbols on the walls and perform mandatory religious ceremonies, using public resources. Despite being a lesbian woman in such a conservative state, Marinalva was able to pull various actors into the discussion, including Catholics for Choice and an organization of evangelical priests – who are famous for being “the biggest enemy” of the LGBT population in Brazil.