Wearing heavy makeup and a fuchsia wig, Brazilian drag queen Helena Black is acting out a story for a rapt group of children—but this is not your typical fairytale.
"The princess' true love was not Prince Febo, nor any other man: it was the seamstress," the performer tells the young listeners at a community center in Sao Jose dos Campos, outside Sao Paulo.
"Helena Black" is the creation of art teacher and actor Paulo Reis, 40, a self-described marginalized, black, gay man who wanted an innovative way to fight homophobia in Brazil, a country where anti-LGBTQ prejudice can run deep.
Pacing the room, Reis uses dolls and voices to perform the story, adapted from a children's book by Brazilian author Janaina Leslao. It veers from the stereotypical princess tale—but keeps the happy ending. “And people from all the neighbouring kingdoms came to the wedding: some out of friendship, and others out of curiosity to see two women getting married,” Reis concludes.
The audience bursts into applause. "Children aren't born prejudiced, homophobic or racist. They only learn it from adults," says Reis.
Brazil tops the list of the most violent countries in the world for trans people, with 100 murdered in the year through September 2023, according to rights group Transgender Europe, which monitored 35 countries.
Reis has been performing LGBTQ themed stories for children and adults since 2017, taking his act to cultural centers and libraries across Brazil.
Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic capital, sponsored the initiative, dubbed, “Mommy, there's a drag queen telling stories!” "People think a man dressed as a woman has to be trivial, but a drag queen can also occupy spaces beyond night clubs and sexualized jobs," Reis says. He calls his performances "a political act of resistance" in the face of prejudice.
Vanesa Marques, a 44-year-old artisan, attended with her young daughter in Guarulhos, near Sao Paulo. "I was curious, but as a Catholic, I was a little worried," she says. But "I broke through my prejudices, and (the event) introduced my daughter to LGBT issues with the same message I want to teach her: we have to love each other, regardless of our preferences, race or religion."
The coordinator of the community center in Sao Jose dos Campos, Roberval Rodolfo de Oliveira, says programming like Reis's act helps "enlist children as agents of peace against violence."
"It's also an opportunity to display the artistic talents of people who are often excluded," he says. His response to those who dislike the choice of programming: "Making people uncomfortable is an inherent part of art."
Reis has also taken his message to the corporate sector. He once performed The Princess and the Seamstress for workers at an oil refinery operated by state-run company Petrobras. "It was a good experience to be able to tell an LGBTQ story to a mainly male audience, in a typically heterosexual environment," he says. He now dreams of taking his show to the screen. That would help ensure that "Brazil doesn't just ignore another gay black artist... like it usually does," he says.