Hispanisms and Homosexualities

Hispanisms and Homosexualities

by Sylvia Molloy

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A man masquerading as a lesbian in Spain’s Golden Age fiction. A hermaphrodite’s encounters with the Spanish Inquisition. Debates about virility in the national literature of postrevolutionary Mexico. The work of contemporary artists Reinaldo Arenas, Severo Sarduy, and María Luisa Bemberg. The public persona of Pedro Zamora, former star of MTV&rsquo


A man masquerading as a lesbian in Spain’s Golden Age fiction. A hermaphrodite’s encounters with the Spanish Inquisition. Debates about virility in the national literature of postrevolutionary Mexico. The work of contemporary artists Reinaldo Arenas, Severo Sarduy, and María Luisa Bemberg. The public persona of Pedro Zamora, former star of MTV’s The Real World. Despite an enduring queer presence in Hispanic literatures and cultures, most scholars have avoided the specter of sexual dissidence in the Spanish-speaking world.
In Hispanisms and Homosexualities, editors Sylvia Molloy and Robert Irwin bring together a group of essays that advance Hispanic studies and gay and lesbian studies by calling into question what is meant by the words Hispanic and homosexual. The fourteen contributors to this volume not only offer queer readings of Spanish and Latin American texts and performances, they also undermine a univocal sense of homosexual identities and practices. Taking on formations of national identity and sexuality; the politics of visibility and outing; the intersections of race, sexuality, and imperial discourse; the status of transvestism and posing; and a postmodern aesthetic of camp and kitsch, these essays from both established and emerging scholars provide a more complex and nuanced view of related issues involving nationality, ethnicity, and sexuality in the Hispanic world.
Hispanisms and Homosexualities offers the most sophisticated critical and theoretical work to date in Hispanic and queer studies. It will be an essential text for all those engaged with the complexities of ethnic, cultural, and sexual subjectivities.

Contributors. Daniel Balderston, Emilie Bergmann, Israel Burshatin, Brad Epps, Mary S. Gossy, Robert Irwin, Agnes I. Lugo-Ortiz, Sylvia Molloy, Oscar Montero, José Esteban Muñoz, José Quiroga, Rubén Ríos Avila, B. Sifuentes Jáuregui, Paul Julian Smith

Editorial Reviews

Revistas de Estudios Hispanico
[T]his is one good place to begin to rethink Hispanic literature from a queer perspective. More important, its contributors are already the nucleus of a community of queer scholars who will have much to contribute to rereadings of Hispanic literature.
Washington Blade
Hispanisms and Homosexualities is an important collection of essays on the intersection of 'Hispanism' (as a cultural and linguistic orientation that goes well beyond any simple relationship to Spanish, or to Spain) and 'homosexuality' as a sexual orientation undergoing constant improvisation.
The essays are uniformly excellent, and will reward any discretionary reader with invaluable information about a history and a culture whose complexities cannot be reduced to the kind of easy fetishism that reigns in many Gay clubs on 'Latino night.
From the Publisher
Hispanisms and Homosexualities makes a lasting contribution to the fields of Spanish and Latin American literary studies as well as to lesbian and gay studies. Original and provocative, it provides an impressive display of the new scholarship in these areas.”—David Román, University of Southern California

“By problematizing both ‘hispanisms’ and ‘homosexualities,’ this collection goes beyond the mere application of queer theory to Hispanic studies; it offers a series of meditations out of which both fields emerge enriched.”—Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé, Fordham University

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Hispanisms and Homosexualities

By Sylvia Molloy, Robert McKee Irwin

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9995-7


Interrogating Hermaphroditism in Sixteenth-Century Spain

* * *

Israel Burshatin

In 1546 Elena de Céspedes was born a female and a slave in Alhama de Granada. At age sixteen, however, her body was transformed into that of a hermaphrodite, as s/he would declare more than twenty years later while facing the tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Toledo, where in July 1587 s/he was tried. Several serious charges brought her/him there—impersonating a man, Sodomy, witchcraft, and scorn for [sentir mal] the sacrament of matrimony; the latter was the gravest of the accusations, provoked by her recent marriage to a woman, María del Caño. Married first to a man, Christóval Lombardo, a; stonemason from Jaén, with whom she lived for only three months, Elena gave birth to their son. That was how her body was metamorphosed. According to the "Discourse of her/his life" [Discurso de su vida] that s/he presented orally to the Toledo tribunal, Elena's body extruded a penis during delivery of her first and only child, Christóval junior. The trial transcript, prepared by the tribunal secretary, gives the following account:

Dixo que en realidad de verdad ésta es y fue hermafrodito, que tubo y tiene dos naturas, una de hombre y otra de muger. Y que lo que en esto pasa es que quando ésta parió como tiene dicho, con la fuerça que puso en el parto se le rompió un pellejo que benía sobre el caño de la orina y le salió una cabeza como medio dedo pulgar, que ansí lo señaló, que pareçía en su hechura cabeça de miembro de hombre, el qual, quando ésta tenía deseo y alteraçión natural le salía como dicho tiene, y quando no estava con alteraçión se enmusteçía y recogía a la parte y seno donde estava antes que se le rompiese el dicho pellejo.

[She said that she really and truly is and was a hermaphrodite, that she had and has two sexes, a man's and a woman's. That what happened was that when she gave birth, as she has said, with the force that she applied in labor she broke the loose skin that covered the urinary canal, and a head came out [the length] of about half a big thumb, and she indicated it so; in its shape it resembled the head of a male member, which when she felt desire and natural excitement would come out as she has said, and when she wasn't excited it would wilt and return to the place where the skin had broken.]

Eleno's defense was that nature—and not her own cunning, as the inquisitors and the expert witnesses alleged—had wrought her sex change. The evidence of gender dissidence adduced by his/her accusers was, s/he argued, traceable to the genital mutation that occurred during labor. It was only after the birth of her penis that she altered her dress and social persona. She privileged masculinity and took up the "male habit" [tomó hábito de hombre]—the masculine clothing, personal style, and identity that corresponded to his new physique. She also rewrote the female name that she had been given as a slave. Discarding the feminine ending of Elena, he replaced it with the o ending of masculine nouns and crafted the name Eleno, thereby signifying a gender reclassification suitable to a; hermaphrodite. Thus transgendered and renamed, Eleno's social position improved. In her previous life as a female, she had received limited training in the garment trade and had held several low-paying positions traditionally associated with women. Postmanumission Elena had been employed as hose maker [calcetera] and weaver [texedora]. But postmetamorphosis Eleno rose to the more lucrative positions of tailor [sastre] and, eventually, licensed surgeon, after spending three years in military service.

Though hardly unknown, Eleno's life story has been largely relegated to the periphery of historical investigation—never more than a curious footnote to the history of the Spanish Inquisition. By reclaiming Eleno and taking her/his account of self with the seriousness and sympathy it so richly deserves, I am aware that I am also challenging the monocultural assumptions of "hegemonic Hispanism," the institutionalization of which has asserted the primacy of things Castilian, dragging with it the heavy cultural baggage of an array of myths of "purity"—of blood, nation, Race, gender, genre, and ethos. These are founded on ideologies of cultural, racial, and gender difference, whereby Castilian national Catholicism and its pantheon of exalted—and typically male—writers and heroes triumph over enemies of the faith and the "race." In contrast with the cultural fluidity that still prevailed in early modern Spain, hegemonic Hispanism has encouraged a reductive and monocultural formation, what Juan Goytisolo astutely dubs the "super-Spanish bind" [españolísimo vínculo]. It is this repressive chain across the centuries, guarded by austere patriots and "zealous watchmen of truth" [guardianes celosos de la verdad], that has exerted undue influence on the practice of Hispanism (Reivindicación 139).

Although in the twentieth century several of the field's most eminent practitioners have eloquently resisted aspects of the "super-Spanish bind," the ruling regimes of dimorphic gender and compulsory heterosexuality that inform it have only recently come under critical scrutiny. Although not immune to heterosexist biases himself, Goytisolo has exposed the strategies of exclusion and demonization of the "other," which in the peninsular context refers primarily to Islamic and Jewish communities, as well as the Christian converts descended from these. In Eleno's world, these ethnic groups and their cultural legacies had been deemed extraneous or toxic to the Christian polity, even though their contributions were constitutive elements of Spanish culture. Regional and linguistic differences notwithstanding, the sixteenth century witnessed the construction of the hegemonic "Spaniard" as an instrument of absolutist control. It is this idealized subject-position that a powerful strain of modern Hispanism has revered and redeployed. In Goytisolo's writing, the myth of Spanish identity holds that "indelible ethnic characteristics have held constant across centuries" [perduración secular de ciertos caracteres étnicos imborrables] (Reivindicación 139). By definition, this "super-Spanish bind" has barred women, racial "others" (Moors, Jews, Africans, Indians, etc.), and forms of sexual and gender dissidence that would belie the monocultural formations precariously poised on those exclusions. No matter how repressed their accomplishments or misrepresented their resistance might have been, these marginalized "others" were also at the heart of what Spanishness was about. Our engagement with diverse Hispanisms allows us to interrogate the Inquisition's record of Eleno's hermaphroditism and thereby reclaim Eleno's voice—one of exemplary Mestizaje in its articulations of the African, the transgendered, and the subaltern—for the widening conversation of "Hispanisms and homosexualities."

Eleno's story is compelling in ways similar to the rich tradition of women's writing—especially in its autobiographical form—that feminist scholarship has recovered in recent years. Although Feminism has already transformed the field, received notions of what properly constitutes the canon of the "Golden Age" and the subjectivities allowed to emerge under those formations have largely excluded same-sex desire. Only certain marginalized forms have been included for purposes of disapprobation—"Oriental" aberrations happily eradicated from their (all too) fertile soil by the expulsions of Jews and Moriscos, or contained in criminalized depictions issuing from secular or inquisitional courts. Rather than the repressive and falsely transcendental "super-Spanish bind," it is to the articulations among categories of difference that this study of Eleno's transgendering attends. The inquisitional dossier—a marginalized and repressed site of the official culture—enables us to interrogate the record of "Golden Age" subjectivities and to begin to write a queer history of gender and sexual dissidence in Spain. Although Eleno's voice is also one ventriloquized by the official discourse that represented it, a reading sensitive to the subaltern will uncover Eleno's fashioning and positioning of self precisely at points of interdependence, where multiple discourses allow diverse articulations of sexuality, gender, and race. As we shall see, Eleno was able to assume difference while also avowing the requisite orthodoxy expected of the subject in Habsburg Spain.

Eleno, as well as her accusers, former medical colleagues, and the inquisitors who judged her, subscribed to a basic tenet of medieval and Renaissance corporeal knowledge: that physique and mores, sex and gender roles, are bound together by nature. As Joan Cadden writes, "Physiognomy, like the theory of temperaments, [was thought to yield] evidence about the relation of physical characteristics to expected roles and behavior patterns" (186). Religious and lay prohibitions against homosexual acts between women and between men

were commonly put in terms of role reversals, bearing the implication that there is something inherently feminine about taking what was construed as a passive role in intercourse and something inherently masculine about having sex with a woman. Early penitentials had used language that reflected those assumptions, and it turned up with some regularity later, both within and beyond ecclesiastical documents.... Like the prohibition of transvestism, which is associated, among other things, with preventing women from celebrating the mass, the ecclesiastical position against sexual acts between persons of the same sex carries the message of role differentiation, and like the tone of the medical and physiognomic texts which derogate masculine traits in women and feminine traits in men by calling them deceptions and hypocrisies, it communicates firm moral disapprobation. (Cadden 220)

What happens, then, with the "neuter" position; how does it affect the binary opposition between male and female, masculine and feminine, and the medical/social distinctions between the hot and dry complexion of man and the cold and wet temperament of woman? Is there really a one-sex body in medieval and Renaissance thought, as Thomas Laqueur has argued? Is there a viable middle position, a true intersex with corresponding social status? Alan of Lille, writing in the second half of the twelfth century, maintained his carefully constructed model of nature as a system homologous with the rules of Latin grammar by banishing from his system the third term that would disrupt his "ethical grammar" of genders (Ziolkowski 95-103). Although Alan entertained the notion of placing Eunuchs and sodomite males in a third category modeled after the neuter grammatical gender, he chose instead, as Cadden puts it, "to dismantle the rules of grammar by declaring that nature and grammar have just two genders and that neuter is a different type of form, a negative and confused category. Although 'neuter' presented an opportunity to construct a grammatical category corresponding to 'homosexuals,' Alan declined to make use of it and thus accorded individuals engaged in stigmatized acts no natural category, no ontological status" (225).

We find in Eleno's life story attempts to construct precisely a third, or neuter, position grounded in scientific and historical discourses and capable of furnishing a valid juridical basis for his transgendering. Eleno cited in his own defense examples from Pliny, Augustine, and Aristotle in order to insert his own story into the recognized sequences of natural history with the aim of securing a legal justification for what he argued was his natural turn from sex with a man (her husband was her only male partner) to sex with women. Eleno had many female sexual partners, and he married one of them, María del Caño, an event that the civil authorities in Ocaña and the inquisitors in Toledo would subsequently regard with contempt as Same-sex marriage and evidence of Eleno's animus against the laws of the realm and the holy sacrament of matrimony.

Eleno's legal troubles began when an officer and fellow veteran of the War of the Alpujarras (1568-1570) recognized Eleno, who was at the time newly married to María del Caño and living with her as man and wife. The officer, el licenciado Ortega Velázquez, recalling Eleno's dubious army reputation as someone who had two sexes, was quite perturbed that Eleno and María were living in connubial bliss, "haciendo vida maridable." On trial in the provincial court in Ocaña, Eleno identified himself as a hermaphrodite, a "neuter," and a man:

Preguntado en qué rreputación le tenían sus padres, deudos y vecinos deste confesante, si le tenían por onbre o muger, dixo que le tenyan por neutro y por onbre, que no era lo uno ny lo otro.

[Asked about his reputation among his parents, relatives, and neighbors, whether they considered him to be a man or a woman, this person confessing said that they considered him to be neuter and a man, that he was neither the one nor the other.]

Eleno's location of self betwixt and between male and nonmale is characteristic of the hermaphrodite, who is ontologically caught amidst competing discourses—the legal and the scientific. As Julia Epstein defines this predicament:

Hermaphrodites pose a particularly unsettling problem for medical jurisprudence. The law assumes a precise contrariety between two sexes, whereas medical science has for several centuries understood sex determination to involve a complex and indefinite mechanism that results in a spectrum of human sexual types rather than in a set of mutually exclusive categories. (101)

Daston and Park, in their examination of hermaphrodites in sixteenth-century France, conclude that homophobia played a decisive role in maintaining the "precise contrariety between two sexes" that Epstein describes (Daston and Park 7-8).

What exactly did Eleno understand by the term neutro? Covarrubias's lexicon, published in 1611, helps, but not much: "Neutro. Apud grammaticos, es el nombre que ni es masculino ni es femenino" [Neuter: In the writings of grammarians, is the name that is neither masculine nor feminine] (Covarrubias, s.v. "Neutro," 827). Covarrubias gives strictly a grammatical definition, one more suited to Latin than to the vernacular. Yet the clue that interests us in this entry is the linguistic structure that makes possible and validates gender indeterminacy. Eleno altered her name by substituting a masculine for a feminine ending and thereby rendered visible and socially meaningful his body's own new sense of an ending. But because Eleno was not regarded as a suitable name for a man—as the Ocaña tribunal would carefully point out—the result of both the name and Eleno's physical appearance (lampiño, without a beard) was to convey a curious mix of genders, which; brought into play notions of altered gender and gender itself, rather than projecting the male persona that Eleno undoubtedly privileged. For Eleno certainly knew that neuter was not a felicitous subject-position. However, as with Alan of Lille, the analogy with linguistic gender was ephemeral.

Eleno was a mulatto and a freed slave in a society obsessed with exalted origins and the so-called purity of bloodlines. After her emancipation and the death of her mother, who was a slave of African origins, Eleno relocated to the city of Granada, where s/he continued to apprentice in ever more skilled manufacturing jobs. It would have been a kind of social suicide for Eleno to acknowledge and claim for him/herself publicly the status of hermaphrodite, which at best would have set back his social aspirations. Nevertheless we learn from various testimonies presented at the Toledo trial that his popular reputation was that he had two sexes. It was this "local knowledge" of being a hermaphrodite that Eleno sought to revise when he submitted to several physical examinations as part of his application for a license to marry María. Satisfied that all the witnesses who looked at and touched Eleno's genitals declared that he was a fully endowed male, the vicar of Madrid granted his approval, thus enabling Eleno to marry María and to proclaim the unambiguous gender status that he had so assiduously pursued. If neuter was not a suitable subject-position, then neuter would only furnish an occasional locus, a sexuality to be transformed, and, all too briefly, a source of sensual pleasure.

We shall have to revise the notion that surgically assisted transgenderings occur only in modern times as we delve into Eleno's understanding of the neuter category. For Eleno, neutro initially signified a physical impediment to be overcome by a surgical procedure that would refashion the body and furnish the member necessary to play the masculine sexual role. Indeed, that Eleno had relations with women, and even married a woman after his surgery, was an opportunity not to be missed by the Toledo Inquisition, which dismissed Eleno's account of her transformation and, instead, staged on the body of the brown-skinned female who had formerly been a slave a cruel spectacle of phallocratic disapprobation and rank homophobia. If slavery was a condition that the law allowed to be superseded by manumission, femaleness, however, was not at all a condition that could be cast aside, even after proper medical intervention.


Excerpted from Hispanisms and Homosexualities by Sylvia Molloy, Robert McKee Irwin. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sylvia Molloy is the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University. She is the author of numerous books including Signs of Borges, also published by Duke University Press.

Robert Irwin is Assistant Professor of Spanish at Tulane University.

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