A Review of The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America: A Reader on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights

Out of the Glass Closet?

by | Dec 4, 2010

The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America: A Reader on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights 
Edited by Javier Corrales and Mario Pecheny
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010, 454 pages

Has there been a massive “coming out” in Latin America for the LGBT population in the last decade? The authors included in The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America suggest that there may have been, but qualify both the success and extent of this change. The particular social, historical and economic conditions in Latin America provide a very particular context and set of challenges for LGBT people. In their introduction to the volume, editors Javier Corrales and Mario Pecheny explain that on the one hand, unlike many English-speaking states in the Caribbean and North America, Latin American states do not have as strong a legal tradition of criminalizing sodomy. On the other hand, social mores, imparted in part by the Catholic Church, still militate against open homosexual behavior. Instead of openness, one finds what the editors, citing Michael Musto, call a “glass closet” (p. 36), a status of active engagement in same-sex relationships from within a heterosexual marriage or another socially sanctioned position. That, and the fact that many young adults in Latin America still live with their parents, add up to a formidable barrier against the widespread, openly queer lifestyles that one increasingly finds in North America. Yet, since 2000 there has been a wide range of pro-LGBT legislation in countries from Argentina to Brazil to Mexico, producing new rights and possibilities. The sea change in attitudes, both political and social, as well as the ongoing challenges facing the LGBT population, is the focus of this new and worthy volume.

The overriding impression that the reader gets from this volume is that one cannot make generalizations about global phenomena, including LGBT lives and politics. Although there is something of what could be called a “queer international demonstration effect,” i.e. that “gay culture” is being produced in and exported from U.S. enclaves like New York’s Chelsea and San Francisco’s Castro, Latin American LGBT communities receive such influences in the context of their own histories, conditions and local and regional actions.

One of the most fascinating parts of this book is the section that considers what political strategies have proven most effective in establishing LGBT rights. While the right wing in Latin America has traditionally eschewed the LGBT movement altogether (with a few strange exceptions such as the opening of sewing schools for transvestites in Chile, as Héctor Núñez González describes), the left has not always proven receptive to LGBT issues either. That has been changing of late, at least on the left.

Democratization across the region and a rise in leftist parties help explain some of the changing legal status of LGBT people, but the actions of LGBT organizations and individuals are also key to success. Again, diversity rather than one common set of strategies prevails. In Mexico, as Rafael de la Dehesa notes in his essay, LGBT rights were largely pursued through alliances with particular political parties, while in Brazil, gay interest groups offered political support in exchange for favorable policies. Millie Thayer, in her analysis of lesbian movements in Central America, notes that in Costa Rica, lesbian politics and identity were largely a matter of protecting private and group spaces, carving out a terrain for lesbian identity amidst the extensive and stable networks of civil society in that country. In Nicaragua, given the turmoil of the revolution and its aftermath, lesbian politics were pursued with a more explicitly political goal; there, lesbian politics was engaged with the “larger polity…as messengers for a new way of thinking about sexuality” (p. 164). Here, we see that even as Latin America is itself a unique case, each of the societies that compose this vast region offers its own specific contexts and problems.

Another fascinating discussion for many people in Latin America is the extent to which the question of LGBT rights is itself redolent of a North American liberal political agenda. Rights are often seen as a middle-class concern, and even the concept of homosexuality itself is seen as an identity that smacks of bourgeois North American and European notions of personhood. As Renata Hiller states in her essay, “the image of the GLTTBI community that the media disseminates [in Argentina] is based on the stereotype of the white gay man from the upper middle class. This…creates the impression that this is a privileged minority” (p. 216). Indeed, Eduardo J. Gómez notes that the very idea of homosexuality as an organizing concept does not necessarily have long roots in Latin America. He writes “it was not until the 1980s [in Brazil] that the term homosexual was adopted as a category of sexual identity. This definition was…adopted from the United States by Brazilian medical scientists and quickly adopted by upper-class intellectuals, gradually trickling down to the masses” (p. 249).

If I had one criticism of this wonderful volume, it might be that theory is underplayed here in favor of description and narrative. What theory is evoked tends to come from sociology, including social movement and resource mobilization theory. There is only a smattering of political theory and even less “queer theory.” To be fair, however, queer theory has not had all that much to say about Latin America (with some exceptions like Roger Lancaster’s Life Is Hard). The essays that do touch on theoretical questions, however, suggest some fascinating possibilities for further inquiry. As already noted, Eduardo J. Gómez, in “Friendly Government, Cruel Society,” examines the degree to which identities taken for granted in North America do not have the same valence in Latin America. Gómez notes (as do others in this volume) that many in Latin America do not see having sex with a person of the same sex as being “gay” or homosexual, a view that depends on a series of factors including sexual positions, gender, class and notions of youthful play. With such a destabilized form of identity (destabilized vis-à-vis its North American and probably European counterparts), the question of mobilizing on behalf of such a community becomes paramount. The successful strategies that Gómez describes—specifically those adopted by Brazilian LGBT AIDS activists—involve hitching their cause up with other, more established (and non-LGBT) NGOs. Clearly, strategy is critical for success for a movement always in flux, busily defining itself into existence. Rather than be overcome by its complex divisions, this case and others in the volume show that it is possible to effect change even in the face of an agenda that has no clear center—and even when that agenda is itself in question.

The Politics of Sexuality delivers on its promise to cover a large swath of Latin America as regards LGBT issues. It touches on numerous fascinating subjects, some in depth, some more superficially. The book itself mirrors the topic it covers; it is sprawling and fascinating. Along the way, the reader learns surprising things (like the fact that Montevideo, on a per capita basis, is one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in the world, as Javier Corrales tells us in his essay). I would think that any scholar interested in a wide overview of the subject—a subject too long neglected by academics—would find much of value in this superb collection.

Fall 2010 | Winter 2011Volume X, Number 1

James R. Martel, a professor in the department of political science at San Francisco State University, is the author of Love is a Sweet Chain: Desire, Autonomy, and Friendship in Liberal Political Theory and Subverting the Leviathan: Reading Thomas Hobbes as a Radical Democrat.

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