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Other Ways of Inhabiting: Gender and Sexuality in the Creation of New Domestic Spaces

05/27/2024

by Fernanda Galloni

Derick’s mothers’s decision to turn their home into a meeting place for the lesbian and queer community was an isolated choice, but one that is less unusual than it might seem.

In January of 2020, film director Cássio Kelm released Mães do Derick,1 a documentary that portrays the daily life of four lesbian, bisexual, and non-monogamous women who share the maternity of a child in the city of Matinhos, on the coast of the state of Paraná, in Brazil. Through self-construction, with an all-female labor, and within a land occupied under constant threat of foreclosure, Derick's mothers are portrayed building a house that aims to accommodate not only this family, but also a cultural center and a local business.

Still today, in Brazil and in most of the Western world, the common imagination about what constitutes a home is permeated by the understanding that a single family—heterosexual, monogamous, and biological—should occupy each housing unit. However, this is not a common reality for a large part of the population—whether due to financial limitations or because other types of affective relationships make up the nuclear family today. Through its internal organization into intimate, social and service zones, through the size, quantity, and layout of the rooms, as well as the use of the corridor (originally devised to separate family members from domestic staff) and the relationship with the urban space, the standard real estate supply plays a key role in maintaining hegemonic relations of class, race, sexuality, and gender.2

Still from the film "Mães do Derick."

Against the backdrop of the current common understanding of a home as based on narratives associated exclusively with the nuclear family, how might living spaces be reconfigured to accommodate other bodies and affective relationships? How might homes that detour from the sex-gender system point us to new ways of living? And as we look for real examples of this potential, what can the house built by Derick's mothers teach us about new ways of living, projecting, and building?

In her book Women and the Making of the Modern House (1998),3 American researcher Alice Friedman analyzes six iconic houses designed by modern architects, suggesting that the real drive behind such transgressive designs lay not in the creativity of the architects but in the demands of their clients. All the projects were commissioned by financially independent unmarried women, who didn’t have a family in the traditional sense. Freed from the ties of marriage, they were at liberty to create new relationships with the domestic environment.

Especially in the cases of single women, lesbians, or those who experience their affective and family life in a different way than  what has been attributed to them, it is possible to see that their domestic expressions tend to subvert some of the common dichotomous patterns  in the imaginary constructs of what a home is, such as the opposition between intimate and shared, feminine and masculine spaces, as well as the rigid differentiation between the public and private spheres.

I first came into contact with Derick’s mothers in 2022. Over the past year, through regular conversations, I have been able to observe the convergence between the experience of inhabiting a body that deviates from the heterosexual norm and its expression in the construction of an innovative domestic environment.

Derick’s Mothers

Thammy and Bruna are married, Bruna and Ana Paula are ex-girlfriends, and Chiva and Thammy are a sentimental couple. They all share the motherhood of a 14-year-old boy called Derick. While Ana Paula lives an hour away in the city of Paranaguá, the other three women live with their son in Matinhos, in a chalet shared with two other people on the slopes of the Saint-Hilaire National Park. Over the past six years, they have devoted themselves to designing and building a house for the family on a plot of land just a few meters away.

The group's interest in shared custody and self-building is not recent. Since Bruna and Thammy moved to the city in 2013, to study visual arts and agroecology, respectively, at the Federal University of Paraná, they have been exploring, along with other women, the transgression of common conceptions of what defines a family, what characterizes a home, and how relationships of love and friendship occur.

The shared custody experiment grew out of meetings with other lesbians and feminists at the university, who were interested in learning more about motherhood, so they offered to help raise Derick. Together with three other women, they rented a house where they not only shared custody of their son, but also began organizing events and cultural activities. By 2014, the property was already known as Espaço Sideral, an independent art and culture center that served as a home, a source of income, and a meeting and empowering place for lesbian and queer women.

«I'm Derick's biological mother and I've always been very concerned about not being his only reference. [...] I don't know everything about the world, so as he develops the ability to socialize and relate to other people, and to create this field of trust with other people, it's going to be great for him. At the same time, we learned to let go of our son, who isn’t just ours but a child of the world, because everything he does has consequences for all other beings. So, when we got to Matinhos and found this desire on the part of other women, to intertwine with us and to be able to share motherhood, which is not an easy task, it's not that romantic thing, it was great for us.»

Thammy Tk

A few months after opening Espaço Sideral, Chiva moved from Curitiba to Matinhos and settled in with Bruna, Derick, and Thammy. During the five years they lived in the rented house, they faced two major challenges. The first one had to do with the space maintenance: As houses in the city are often rented by tourists and students who are just passing through, the owners don’t pay enough attention to the upkeep of the property, resulting in  leaks, flooding, and plumbing problems. The second challenge was about the traditional organization of the home. They had to reformulate the small kitchen, the number of bedrooms, and the connection between the house, the street, and the urban space.

Although the relationships between the mothers and the women who visited the house were often romantic, loving, and/or monogamous, they gave priority to each of them having an individual room, not necessarily for sleeping, but as an individual space for creative and private use. To make this feasible, the kitchen, which they considered to be too small for all of them to eat and socialize, became Chiva's room, and the garage, in the absence of a car, was transformed into a kitchen for them and for Espaço Sideral events.

As part of Thammy's graduation project, over the course of two years, they organized weekly meetings with women and people from the LGBTQIA+ community, where they worked on the collective design and construction of a shed that would serve as a stage, workshop space, and guest room. Starting from the premise that everyone knows how to build their own house, they experimented with construction and design in a completely empirical way—without consulting books or manuals—and only using upcycled materials found on the street and in abandoned construction sites. The experience gained from the workshops, combined with the frustration of housing opportunities that always had the same inadequate spatial organizations for their needs, led Thammy, Chiva, Bruna, and Derick to make the decision to build their own home.

The search for affordable land, relatively close to the university and Derick's school, led to an early initiative to build a house within the ocupação4 (occupation). However, before it could be completed, the work was brutally interrupted by a police raid that expropriated and destroyed a large part of the buildings and materials remaining on the land. The film Mães do Derick ends amidst this process. Although the 300 or so families occupying the site later resumed their occupation, the mothers chose to abandon what was left of the building and start a new project.

 «We never thought 'Oh, let's build our house and that's it.' Never. It was always like ’Let's do it, let's build the house and the Espaço Sideral.’ That's where we work, where we give workshops, where we promote art and culture. [...] It was never separate, you know?»

Thammy TK12

The legal purchase of the land was possible thanks to the help of a friend, who bought the previously occupied land as a way of guaranteeing that the families in the occupation could continue to live there without the threat of seizure. Today, they are the only family that has actually acquired a plot of this land. This allows them to have complete autonomy over the use of the land and vegetation without losing contact with the occupation movement, which is made up mostly of single mothers and their children.

The entire house was built in wood because, besides  being a sustainable and affordable alternative, building without any putty or cement allowed them the freedom to alter the construction whenever it was necessary, without having to break down walls, generate rubble, or lose material. In March 2022, the house consisted of two floors measuring 6 x 2.5 meters each, built as a raised deck with no doors or walls. The first floor contained only the kitchen and an adjoining living room. The second floor housed four small bedrooms (one for each inhabitant), a mezzanine, and a dry restroom.

Although the family stresses the importance of the single room, this idea is not necessarily linked to the act of sleeping. As the bedrooms were such small modules, they would have been taken up almost entirely by a bed, so Bruna and Derick chose to use their spaces to house other objects, hobbies, and activities, and began to share the mezzanine at bedtime.

The house built in 2020.

Courtesy: Thammy Tk12 and Marina Chiva.

Before completing the construction, Thammy had to undergo knee surgery, which made the use of stairs unfeasible and limited the available workforce. Due to the need for a downstairs bedroom and a problem with the home's original foundation, they opted to disassemble the upper floor and re-divide it into three larger bedrooms. Over the past few months, Chiva and Bruna have shared the worksite with another builder friend and a master builder, working together on the construction and drawing up the plans for the project.

The way in which Thammy, Bruna, Chiva, and Derick perform the act of inhabiting has been very active and conscious since the time they shared a rented house. Their design choices, construction methods, and subjectivities are interconnected, constantly thinking of inhabiting as an act of identity, which must necessarily be in harmony with the other spheres of their lives.

The philosophy of life of this group of residents, builders, mothers, and architects also operates in the making of the space. The house they build does not arise as an aesthetic or sculptural architectural object but as a tool to support an experience and a relationship with the world that is itself transgressive. The spatial qualities of this construction are intrinsically linked to the political, affective, and individual qualities of the group. A house with these material qualities could only exist if it was built by and for them.

In this sense, the act of rebuilding the house over again is not a singular process but rather a constant practice. The autonomy gained by its residents to design and build according to their own requirements, has meant that the house is always "under construction." It is a home in constant movement, capable of adapting to their needs, always with the aim of supporting and encouraging the personal choices and positions of its residents.

This group of women made a series of transgressive decisions in the houses they inhabited. By opening the doors of their own homes, they not only questioned the rigid differentiation between public and private spaces, but also enabled the construction of a new home by themselves. The characterization of that home as a space of belonging for the whole community encouraged several women to participate in joint efforts (or mutirões,5 in Portuguese) to help build a space that would be enjoyed by all.

From the architectural standpoint, they also pointed to new ways of organizing their home. By reaffirming the individuality of each resident, they rendered the figure of the double bedroom obsolete, proposing individual rooms, independent of previously established sentimental relationships. The kitchen—a space characterized as a service area, therefore often isolated and of small dimensions—was moved out to the balcony, thus becoming the heart of the house and allowing for sharing and socializing the tasks.

"Mutirão" to build the house in 2020.

Courtesy: Thammy Tk12 and Marina Chiva.

Derick’s mothers’s decision to turn their home into a meeting place for the lesbian and queer community was an isolated choice, but one that is less unusual than it might seem. In analyzing all-female client housing and homes, author Alice Friedman noted a common feature of many of the projects commissioned and inhabited by wealthy women: the presence of a program that exceeds the boundary between the public and the private, often serving as a cultural center, library, or theater for the community.

We might suppose that the absence of norms and restrictions imposed by the nuclear family organization contributed to these households seeking a stronger link with their neighborhoods and communities. From a gender and sexuality perspective, we can also speculate that, given the split that associates the male figure with public spaces and the female figure with private spaces, it is not surprising that, while the gay male community appropriated urban typologies [creating saunas, the banheirão, and the cinemão],6 lesbian women created their own spaces of socialization and empowerment within their homes.