Gabriela Silva Leite is dead. For me, her passing has stimulated continued reflection upon the meaning and passion of an activist life – a life lived for justice, often at odds with those in power. Leite was a Brazilian sex worker and sociologist who was instrumental in organising for the political rights of sex workers in that country, and has been a global leader in the sex worker rights movement for the past 30 years, addressing problems like police violence, discrimination and STI’s.
One of the most significant things about Gabriela Leite’s story is that she took on the religious leaders in Brazil who were opposed to sex worker rights, and wanted the putas (whores) removed from the streets. Leite challenged them from the beginning. It was the desire to see prostitutes pushed out of the city where she worked that caused Leite and other sex workers to begin organising in the 1970’s and 80’s. It was also the silencing by church authorities that helped to give impetus for Brazilian sex workers to meet together at a national level, discussing the legal and societal issues that concerned them. Leite would not be silenced and she has written a number of books and articles about sex work and her role in the prostitute rights movement, which are very good. Leite’s work and political action is also the subject of a documentary called ‘A Kiss for Gabriela’ released in 2010, which records her political campaign for a seat in the Brazilian Senate.
Her sustained focus upon the negative representation of sex workers as diseased and stigmatised and the rejection of sex workers by religious leaders has been influential on my own perspective on this topic and I want to honour Gabriela Leite’s feminist originality and decisive voice. Particularly her challenge to Liberation theologians, who were so keen to speak on behalf of the poor in Brazil, claiming that sex workers were victims, but were not so keen to actually hear the voices of organised sex workers when they challenged the structure and status of the Catholic and Evangelical Churches. Leite and other sex workers had profound insight for the religious leaders at that time, if only they would listen. Her voice still rings like a clear bell in our own time, if we can hear her truth:
Like most of my colleagues, I am a Christian, and like them I feel an immense vacuum concerning religiosity when faced with our culture. Prostitution is very old and as such has created its own culture, which is not respected by Christian evangelists. It is indeed a challenge to the life and mission of the Brazilian churches.
A major challenge for the future is to prepare a theology that takes this culture into account, that considers prostitution through the exegesis of the prostitute in the Bible. Our love for Jesus Christ and our self-respect will help greatly our religious understanding, as will our knowledge that in the past we were very important people for Christ and for the formation of Christianity. We want light to shine on our Christian story.
And this today is the greatest challenge for our movement. Many female prostitutes still believe that they are not normal persons and do not respect themselves because they feel that they are sinners. The Christian mission of the movement today is to show them theologically that the person who had the privilege of announcing the good news of Christ’s resurrection was once a prostitute. I am absolutely sure that on the day they have learned of this marvellous truth they will become whole people, culturally and spiritually.
 Gabriela Silva Leite, “The Prostitute Movement in Brazil: Culture and Religiosity,” International Review of Mission 85/338 July 1996, 425 – 426.