Bryan Pitts

“We aren’t hiding anymore – it’s our rights that we’re fighting for,” exclaimed a participant at a July 2010 pro-same-sex marriage demonstration in Buenos Aires. A few weeks later the Argentine Senate voted to modify the country’s Civil Code to permit same-sex marriage. The landmark vote represented perhaps the most significant legislative victory for the LGBT movement in Latin America and made Argentina only the second country in the Western Hemisphere, after Canada, to legalize same-sex marriage. Recent developments like the legalization of same-sex marriage in Brazil, Uruguay, and several Mexican states; the institution of civil unions in Colombia and Ecuador; and a flurry of legislative and judicial victories for the transgendered in places like Bolivia, Chile, Cuba, and Uruguay render The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America a timely, pioneering contribution to the literature on non-heteronormative sexualities in Latin America.

The volume’s focus on the politics of sexual identity sets it apart from earlier literature by United States-based Latin Americanist scholars, which focused on the formation of sexual identity itself. With few exceptions, the contributors take for granted the existence of self-identified gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered subjects who are similar to their counterparts in North America and Europe and explore how they have mobilized to demand equal citizenship rights in Latin America’s new democracies. At the same time, the volume highlights many of the specificities that distinguish LGBT politics in Latin America from those in the North Atlantic – for example, the growth of LGBT movements within the context of a remarkably effervescent civil society that arose in opposition to military dictatorships in the late 1970s, the active role of many Latin American states in fighting discrimination, and the relatively greater influence of a mobilized transgender/transvestite/transsexual community on the LGBT political agenda.

The volume demonstrates that in addition to the usual difficulties confronting LGBT political organization everywhere – homophobia, the availability of the closet, the relative invisibility of LGBT as a social category – the LGBT movement in Latin America faces special challenges, including widespread poverty (which the editors consider a brake on identity politics), the influence of religious institutions, and the lingering ambivalence among parts of the Latin American left about identity politics. Although the editors, Corrales and Pecheny, feel that these factors have limited the gains of Latin American LGBT movements, it is also true that their victories have come more quickly, with more active state intervention, and with less social upheaval than in the United States.

The volume is divided into six sections. The first section, on “Nation-Building and Heteronormativity,” seems out of place in a volume on contemporary LGBT political mobilization. Still, the articles on the policing of male same-sex sexuality in early twentieth-century Buenos Aires (Pablo Ben) and late nineteenth-century Cuban assimilation of U.S. discourses about homosexuality and effeminacy (Emilio Bejel) do provide examples of how Latin American states and intellectual elites have historically addressed non-heteronormative discourses and behaviors.

The second section, “Sexuality-Based Political Struggles,” focuses largely on LGBT political organization, with an emphasis on the internal divisions within the movement over its goals and strategies. Pieces by James Green (Brazil), Stephen Brown (Argentina), Adriana Vianna and Sérgio Carrara (Brazil) and Millie Thayer (Costa Rica and Nicaragua) trace the growth of these largely middle-class groups and highlight similar questions. Should the movement pursue an assimilationist strategy that incorporates LGBT desire into a heteronormative framework? Or should it adopt a civil rights-based one that utilizes a democratic/human rights discourse? Or should it choose a “radical” approach that seeks to subvert heteronormativity? This section explores how the arguments employed by LGBT activists have changed since the rise of the movement in the 1970s and the democratization of the 1980s, as well as how local specificities and the political and ideological orientations of individual activists have shaped LGBT organizing.

In the third section, “LGBT Movements’ Relations with Political Parties and Legislators,” the focus shifts to the attempts of LGBT organizations to influence parties and policy, particularly through calling for anti-discrimination legislation and government recognition of same-sex relationships. An outstanding article by Rafael de la Dehesa contrasts the electoral strategies of LGBT organizations in Mexico and Brazil in 1982 and explores the transnational links that activists formed with their counterparts abroad. A recurring theme in this section is the strained relationship of the LGBT movement with the left, particularly in Brazil, where activists have sought allies from across the political spectrum, not only in leftist parties, and Venezuela and Ecuador, where leftist governments have been reluctant to codify protections for LGBT citizens in new constitutions.

Part Four, “The State and Public Policies,” emphasizes policy responses to LGBT demands. Several of the authors (Eduardo Gómez, Roger Raupp Rios, and Tim Frasca) emphasize state responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis. And the transcript of a speech by Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to a 2008 national LGBT conference and interview with Mariela Castro, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education and daughter of Raúl Castro, merit special attention for their value as primary sources.

In the less-focused fifth section, “Intrasociety Relations,” the contributors focus, broadly speaking, on the relationship between LGBT citizens and the societies in which they live. It includes pieces on Cuban oppression of gay men (Scott Larson and Rafael Ocasio), human rights and/or hate crimes (Andrew Reding and Camila Zabala Peroni), and media depictions of transgendered individuals in Argentina (Alejandro Modarelli). It also contains an intriguing chapter by Elisabeth Jay Friedman on Latin American lesbian-oriented websites, which explores the opportunities and challenges afforded by online organizing and community building.

Finally, the sixth section, “Diversities Within,” is the most pathbreaking. It addresses the competing goals and interests that co-exist, often uncomfortably, within the LGBT movement. Lesbians sometimes feel that gay men are conditioned by a machista society to marginalize women and thus remain unsympathetic to their interests (Yuderkys Espinosa Mifioso). The transgendered, transvestites, and transsexuals complain that gay men and lesbians focus too heavily on marriage and anti-discrimination measures and de-emphasize police brutality and class-based issues. Meanwhile, gay men and lesbians sometimes appear embarrassed by the association of transvestites and the transgendered with poverty and prostitution, and gay men are uncomfortable with their rejection of norms of masculinity (Héctor Núñez González, Josefina Fernández, and Isadora Lins Franca). And an ideological gulf also can exist between the organizers of events like pride parades and participants on the street, as explored in the outstanding article by Aluminé Moreno.

The volume contains a number of outstanding, theoretically sophisticated, and empirically rigorous studies alongside several briefer, more journalistic accounts that address an entire country or even region in a more cursory manner. The volume’s originality is limited, however, by the fact that over two thirds of the pieces have previously been published elsewhere, often in English. Moreover, in the interest of providing a broad a range of regional and disciplinary perspectives, many of the reprinted articles have been heavily edited – in some cases to the extent that the argument becomes difficult to follow.

The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America represents a trailblazing contribution to the study of same-sex sexuality in Latin America. Its move beyond questions of sexual identity to the politicization of that identity, attempts to include studies of lesbians and the transgendered, and the inclusion of primary sources by activists and politicians ensure that a wide audience – including scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates from the humanities and social sciences, as well as law and public policy – will find it useful. Several of the chapters would work well in graduate seminars, while more general pieces, as well as those by activists and politicians, will prove invaluable in undergraduate courses.

Javier Corrales, Mario Pecheny, eds. The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America: A Reader on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. xv + 454 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8229-6062-1.

This is an abridged review published in full at H-Histsex, H-Net Reviews (September, 2014) and commissioned by Chiara Beccalossi.

Bryan Pitts is visiting assistant professor of Latin American history at Duke University. His book project studies the fraught relationship between the military and civilian politicians during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship. He has also conducted research on representations of African-descended men in Brazilian gay media, as well as gay Brazilian tourists’ discourses about sex and relationships with foreign men.


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