Cymene Howe

The bus ride from California to the little Nicaraguan town of San Marcos was a long one. It was not long after my arrival that I met Chefo. He immediately lamented the fact that I had come a little late: just missing the era of the Sandinista Revolution—one of the few successful socialist revolutions in Latin America, which lasted from 1979 to 1990. The Revolution had been a burr in the side of the Reagan regime, which, in desperation to dislodge what it considered a communist threat in “the backyard” of the United States, initiated the infamous illegal sale of arms to Iran to fund the Contra War of the 1980s. Despite the ways that the revolutionary project was trampled by US foreign policy, ultimately leading to the Sandinistas’ electoral defeat in 1990, the revolutionary impulse felt as though it remained. When I arrived in 1992, well-worn books by Marx and Gramsci lay on café tables everywhere, still marking the country’s revolutionary spirit and commitments to equality.

Image by Cymene Howe.

Chefo had been part of the revolutionary endeavor, serving in the Sandinista military. But to me the most fascinating element of Chefo’s story was the most intimate. One evening, Chefo told me about all the young men in town that he had been with; all of them, as far as I knew, had girlfriends and were ostensibly “straight.” Sure that the brand of machismo that predominated in Nicaragua would never allow for sex between men, I was more than a little surprised. “But they are not gay,” Chefo assured me with a wave of his hand, “I am.” Not naïve to queer life myself, I was nonetheless puzzled as to how Chefo could be marked, as he put it, as a cochón (fag)—and castigated and mocked for it—while the “hombre hombre” (manly) men with whom he was regularly having sex entirely escaped stigma. In the years that followed, I learned much more about the complexity of sexuality in Nicaragua and I deepened my knowledge of the revolutionary principles that were woven through contemporary political projects, including what would become Nicaragua’s lucha (struggle) for sexual rights. In the lucha, familiar forms of sexual desire and practice found new expression through the language of rights and identity. This is why it is especially important to recognize the particularities of sexuality as a political category.

The sexual life that Chefo described to me can be understood as what social scientists have called the Mediterranean model. In this configuration of gender, desire, and same-sex sexual behavior, only the “passive” same-sex male partner—or the “active,” and thus “manly,” female partner, la cochona—is consigned to disgrace. The gap between what constituted gay or lesbian behavior in places like the US and those same acts, differently defined, in Nicaragua was dramatic. But more dramatic still was the fact that in the year I arrived (1992), the country had just instituted the most severe anti-sodomy law in the Americas, Article 204. After a decade of revolutionary rule under the Sandinistas, the socially conservative Chamorro regime appeared intent upon reversing the progressive gains of the Sandinista era. Sexually marginalized people like cochones and cochonas served as a political vehicle through which to send a message of conformity and social conservatism. The revolution was definitely past, but with the threat of Article 204 now looming over Nicaraguans who engaged in same-sex behaviors, a new lucha for sexual rights had begun.

Image by Cymene Howe.

When the Nicaraguan government instituted Article 204, it mandated up to three years imprisonment for “anyone who induces, promotes, propagandizes or practices in scandalous form sexual intercourse between persons of the same sex.” It did not name a persecuted constituency (gays and lesbians) but a series of acts—most of them related to the promotion, rather than the practice, of same sex sexuality. The law targeted both men and women and it threatened to incarcerate anyone who wrote about, spoke about, or “propagandized” the subject of homosexuality in any way, even if few individuals were ever actually prosecuted under the law.

Article 204 may have been the original impetus for the sexual rights struggle, but in the formation of the struggle itself and in debates among activists about the proper “subject” for sexual rights, it became clear that cultural shifts in how Nicaraguans understood sexuality, writ large, were as critical as any legal mechanism that sought to persecute same-sex sexuality. In other words, as the movement for lesbian and gay rights began, it highlighted the fact that what constituted “lesbian” identity and practice—or “gay” men—was not self-evident. The categories of lesbiana, gay, and homosexual were being formed through the process of the lucha.

For as long as most Nicaraguans can remember, there have been cochones and cochonas. In the years of the revolutionary project, newer categories—homosexuales (or gays) and lesbianas—became increasingly pervasive in the country’s sexual lexicon. International lesbian and gay rights movements, increasing flows of media and digital information, and people’s migratory paths between the global North and Nicaragua have all continued to influence this phenomenon. Since the early 1990s, Nicaraguan advocates for sexual rights have also played an instrumental role in how same-sex sexuality has come to be understood in Nicaragua. Following several years of research, and many conversations with regular queer folk (like Chefo) as well as sexual rights activists and others, I came to see that advocates for sexual rights functioned as key mediators in the transformation of ideas about, and experiences of, same-sex sexuality in Nicaragua.

Nicaraguan sexual rights advocates have been committed to a political and intellectual matrix that brings together human rights, identity politics, and global LGBTQ discourses. If cochones and cochonas had been generally tolerated (if taunted) in Nicaragua, newer categories of lesbian and gay subjectivity that appeared threatened to upset the quietly abided existence of homoerotic behavior. Moving from a form of sexuality that generally stigmatized only one partner, to one that—in an “egalitarian” way—now stigmatized both, also poses challenges to identity politics. It suggests that behavior cannot be easily naturalized nor delimited by singular terms. Many Nicaraguan activists have, like other sexual rights advocates around the world, found claims of gay, lesbian, and trans* identity to be useful for political coalition building, particularly with international allies. However, my research showed that sexual identity categories that may apply in the US and elsewhere, may not travel well, or prove useful, to communities outside of the Global North. The twinned emergence of sexuality and political forms are in some cases, inseparable.

My research in Nicaragua had its origins in conversations with Chefo, but I found a deeper personal commitment as I began following how queer women lived and loved in this country that had seen so much upheaval and promise and yet which was experiencing a backlash against progressive ideals. While there have likely always been women in Nicaragua who have had affective and sexual relationships with other women, like much of the global North historically, women’s same-sex sexuality had not had much public visibility in the country. Speaking with discussion workshop leaders who were trying to establish a space for what they understood as lesbian “consciousness,” I saw that orientación sexual and opción sexual could take on very different valences. Some activists were working with the concept of Gay and Lesbian Pride while others were committed to a paradigm they called  “Sexuality Free from Prejudice.” Proponents of Sexuality Free from Prejudice insisted that it was not only lesbian and gay Nicaraguans that “had” sexuality; rather, sexuality was constitutive of human existence and the right to choose one’s behavior freely was essential to “a modern consciousness.” As activists worked to establish a specific lesbian identity among both cochonas and their girlfriends, femeninas, it was not simply that a new, positive term (lesbiana) was being affixed to an older and more familiar personage (the cochona). Rather, through the course of the 1990s and 2000’s lesbians were being produced where cochonas once were. A similar process was taking place for men, who gravitated toward, and were encouraged to grasp, the possibilities of gay identity. In part this was a clear confrontation with the law, but it was equally a sign of times changing.

By the time the Sandinistas again returned to power in 2006, Nicaragua was the only country in Latin America that criminalized same-sex sexual relations between consenting adults, male or female. Sexual rights activists, by that time, saw themselves deeply involved in the lucha to transform la vida cotidiana (daily life). Organizations and committed individuals were doing such things as creating a social justice soap opera (which would become hugely popular), providing teach-ins on sexuality, and hosting radio call-in shows to discuss intimate issues in a confidential yet public forum. Many sexual rights activists who had earlier been committed to the revolutionary cause now directed their political work toward highlighting how fundamentally sexuality is implicated in questions regarding human rights. The Nicaraguan struggle for sexual rights, I have argued, is different from many other sexual equality movements, not because activists confronted a formidable anti-sodomy law, but because they came armed with revolutionary experience. The lucha for sexual rights marks a pivotal moment in Nicaragua’s continuum from revolution to rights.

The anti-sodomy law was finally rescinded in 2008 under the Sandinista regime, but the end of the law has not meant the end of prejudice against queer folk; some even suggest it has increased. The government has established a Bureau for Sexual Diversity in order to formalize complaints of discrimination and abuse. Sexual rights activism continues in Nicaragua, now linked more profoundly to international LGBTQ movements and transnational allies. For all the opportunities afforded through global political networks and rapidly downloadable information about sexuality’s fluidity, it is hard to imagine the social life of sexuality in Nicaragua without the openings afforded in an earlier, aspirational era.

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Cymene Howe is an associate professor of Anthropology and a core faculty member in the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Rice University. She is the author of Intimate Activism: The Struggle for Sexual Rights in Postrevolutionary Nicaragua (Duke 2013) and has published extensively on gender, sexuality and social movements. Serving as an expert witness in sexual asylum cases, she has also assisted several Nicaraguans to gain sanctuary in the US. She currently serves as co-editor of the journal Cultural Anthropology and The Johns Hopkins Guide to Social and Cultural Theory. When not at a screen, she can be found tölting around Icelandic glaciers. She tweets from @CymeneHowe

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