Elisabeth Jay Friedman

Seeking Rights from the Left offers an innovative and often surprising assessment of how, when, and why early 21st century left-leaning Latin American governments responded to the demands of feminist, women’s, and LGBT movements. Whether you are interested in historical or more contemporary dynamics of gender-based and sexuality rights and/or movements, this book offers a combination of detailed and incisive case studies and a set of fascinating general conclusions. Most of these governments improved the basic conditions of poor women and their families. Many significantly advanced women’s representation in national legislatures. Some legalized same-sex relationships and enabled their citizens to claim their own gender identity. They also opened opportunities for feminist and LGBT movements to press forward their demands. But in contrast to common wisdom about the Left’s promotion of gender-based and sexuality justice, these governments have largely ignored or rejected the more challenging elements of a social agenda and engaged in strategic trade-offs among gender and sexual rights. Moreover, this volume reveals that the Left’s more general political and economic projects have been profoundly informed by traditional understandings of gender and sexuality.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what are the questions you still have?

Friedman: When we started this project in 2013, the majority of Latin Americans were living under left-leaning governments after a long period of more centrist or right-leaning rule. As students and observers of gender and sexuality politics, my wonderful team of collaborators and I were curious and concerned to understand whether the political Left was going to be effective at promoting gender-based and sexuality rights and including their champions. The “mainstream” analyses focused on regional political dynamics were not taking gender and sexuality into account. So there seemed to be an interesting and important set of questions to ask that weren’t being addressed – although many individual scholars and, of course, activists in the region were seeking answers.

Some remaining questions:

  • What are the factors that lead to the kind of movement coalitions that enabled the gender-based and sexuality justice that was achieved under the Left? Are they generalizable within and outside of Latin America?
  • Just as we found some unexpected results given the common wisdom about Left support for women’s and LGBT rights proponents, what will the move to the political Right mean? New administrations in places like Brazil do not bode well.
  • Does using the lenses of gender and sexuality justice lead us to fundamentally challenge the political categorization of Left and Right?

This book speaks to histories of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it highlight?

Friedman: Its uniqueness consists in bringing the politics of sexuality into the same analytic frame as the politics of gender. It advances our understanding of the factors that advance or inhibit progressive movement on gender and sexuality justice. It also shows how vital it is to look at issues of gender and sexuality to understand more general political transformation.

NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?

Friedman: If we had had the time and space, we would have included all 16 cases in which a left-leaning executive had come to power for at least one term in the “Pink Tide” period (roughly 2000-2015), although we covered nearly all of the extended experiences of left governance. We would have also liked to cover more of the internal dynamics of the movements, but – again given limitations of time and space – chose to focus on their interactions with governments in order to focus on what was possible through state policy and governance.

NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it?

Friedman: As mentioned above, we initially hoped to include more cases. But the shifts in the conceptualization of the book came from the rich exchange made possible by the wide range of enthusiastic (and persistent!) collaborators from different disciplines and geographical locations, and their expert knowledge of their cases. As a key example, my initial conceptualization had a “blueprint” framework for all cases. But the authors ultimately decided which elements of the framework were most relevant for their chapters.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

Friedman: It is such a lively and critical arena of analysis – and lived experience! The sometimes vertiginous shifts in social, political, and legal acceptance of lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, and a wide range of queer folk in my lifetime had made me curious about what causes shifts over time. As a long-time student of Latin American feminist movements, I have seen how they have intersected with those focused on sexuality and gender identity, which made me eager to know more. And as I had the opportunity to look in depth at the Argentine same-sex marriage campaign, I became fascinated with the distinct trajectories of sexual politics in the region.

NOTCHES: How do you see this book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?

Friedman: Because we designed it to have both a general summary and a set of comparative cases, I see this book being used in different ways in a wide range of courses. It can diversify the analytic approaches, topics, and coverage in a general comparative politics course, a course on Latin America, a global sexuality course, a course on social movements, a gender studies course… I would hope it would be assigned alongside work that explores the different countries from other angles, or comparative work on gender and sexuality from other world regions.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Friedman: This collection contributes to the ongoing effort to track how gender and sexuality are embedded in the (Latin American) state, and the consequences for those who live in the region. As quite recent history, this book preserves a key moment in which movements and individuals brought ideas and policy about gender and sexuality to the fore, often expecting or hoping that there would be significant shifts. The lessons learned from their experiences seeking rights from the Left can inform the next generation of seekers, whether they are studying or acting more directly in the political arena.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

Friedman: We are moving ahead with a Spanish translation, and looking forward to distributing it in Latin America.

Elisabeth Jay Friedman is professor of politics and Latin American studies at the University of San Francisco. She has published extensively in the area of gender politics, as well as on sexuality politics, in Latin America and globally. Her published works include Interpreting the Internet: Feminist and Queer Counterpublics in Latin America (2017); Sovereignty, Democracy, and Global Civil Society: State-Society Relations at UN World Conferences, with Kathryn Hochstetler and Ann Marie Clark (2005); Unfinished Transitions: Women and the Gendered Development of Democracy in Venezuela, 1936–1996 (2000); and articles in journals including Politics & Gender, Latin American Politics and Society, Signs, Women’s Studies International, and Comparative Politics. She is an Editor-in-Chief of the International Feminist Journal of Politics.

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NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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