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Intimate Activism: The Struggle for Sexual Rights in Postrevolutionary Nicaragua

Intimate Activism: The Struggle for Sexual Rights in Postrevolutionary Nicaragua

by Cymene Howe

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Intimate Activism tells the story of Nicaraguan sexual-rights activists who helped to overturn the most repressive anti-sodomy law in the Americas. The law was passed shortly after the Sandinistas lost power in 1990 and, to the surprise of many, was repealed in 2007. In this vivid ethnography, Cymeme Howe analyzes how local activists balanced global


Intimate Activism tells the story of Nicaraguan sexual-rights activists who helped to overturn the most repressive anti-sodomy law in the Americas. The law was passed shortly after the Sandinistas lost power in 1990 and, to the surprise of many, was repealed in 2007. In this vivid ethnography, Cymeme Howe analyzes how local activists balanced global discourses regarding human rights and identity politics with the contingencies of daily life in Nicaragua. Though they were initially spurred by the anti-sodomy measure, activists sought to change not only the law, but also culture. Howe emphasizes the different levels of intervention where activism occurs, from mass-media outlets and public protests to meetings of clandestine consciousness-raising groups. She follows the travails of queer characters in a hugely successful telenovela, traces the ideological tensions within the struggle for sexual rights, and conveys the voices of those engaged in "becoming" lesbianas and homosexuales in contemporary Nicaragua.

Editorial Reviews

Journal of Anthropological Research - Patrick Staib
"An eloquent ethnography of sexual rights advocacy in Nicaragua in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries."
Foreign Affairs - Richard Feinberg
“Of particular interest is Howe’s reporting on three lesbian discussion groups, one hosted by a European-backed nongovernmental organization, another facilitated by local grass-roots activists, and a third convened in a rural setting. Throughout, Howe keenly observes ‘intimate pedagogies’: small face-to-face meetings that address deeply personal aspects of people’s lives.”
Women's Review of Books - Florence E. Babb
“Howe aptly describesIntimate Activism as an ethnography of activism, yet it is much more. Her work contributes to the decolonial project that is called for if we are to take both indigenous, or local, and global knowledge seriously...Written clearly and concisely, it will be of wide interest and will make a welcome addition to courses in cultural anthropology, Latin American studies, and gender and sexuality studies.
From the Publisher
"Intimate Activism is an excellent ethnography of gender- and sexual-rights activism in postrevolutionary Nicaragua. Cymene Howe deftly folds the rich stories and description into a lively and sharp analysis. She has crafted an important work that provides new and productive ways of thinking about liberalism, activism, and global cultural flows."—Martin F. Manalansan IV, author of Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora

"Cymene Howe's richly textured ethnography offers nuanced insight into the workings of lesbian and gay activism in postrevolutionary Nicaragua, showing how both the contours of Nicaraguan history and the shadow cast by U.S. movements shape local efforts to create visibility and pride. This evocative work sets a standard for understanding the transnational foundations of activism in the global South that should resonate in the field for years to come."—Ellen Lewin, coeditor of Out in Theory: The Emergence of Lesbian and Gay Anthropology

European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies - Camilo Antillón
Intimate Activism will be an interesting read for researchers and graduate and undergraduate students working on same-sex sexualities, social movements and gender and sexual politics in Latin America, and its emphasis on lesbian identities and organizing is particularly welcome, since it is still a little explored area in those fields of study.”
American Anthropologist - Stephen O. Murray
"Cymene Howe’s engaging, theoretically sophisticated, and well-written book is an ethnography of would-be social engineers (most of them Nicaraguan) trying to increase tolerance for sexual diversity in Nicaragua."
Journal of the History of Sexuality - Karen Kampwirth
“Cymene Howe has made an important contribution to the literature on sexuality, culture, and politics in Latin America in general and in Nicaragua in particular…. As an ethnography that paints pictures of a range of sexuality rights work during an important period of time, Cymene Howe’s Intimate Activism is quite successful. Her vivid images and nuanced analysis of the tensions inherent in trying to globalize, “normalize,” and simultaneously respect local sexual practices make this an excellent book for scholars or for courses on Latin American gender, sexuality, or culture.”
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute - Irene Peano
“Howe importantly situates herself in her field as a queer and engaged ethnographer, highlighting the similarities between activism and anthropological research as collaborative, participatory efforts. Aside from this, her highly descriptive book provides a number of significant suggestions to scholars of activism, from the complexities of a politics of visibility to the intricacies of rights politics, claims-making, and subject-shaping.”
European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies - Camilo Antill��n
Intimate Activism will be an interesting read for researchers and graduate and undergraduate students working on same-sex sexualities, social movements and gender and sexual politics in Latin America, and its emphasis on lesbian identities and organizing is particularly welcome, since it is still a little explored area in those fields of study.”

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Duke University Press Books
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Intimate Activism

The Struggle for Sexual Rights in Postrevolutionary Nicaragua


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5437-6


A History of Sexuality

How to overturn Things

The heat of the afternoon seemed to be retreating as Miguel and I finished off our last gulp of sugary coffee. In the working-class neighborhood of Managua where Miguel lived, the woman in charge of the fritanga (outdoor eatery) down the street was heating the grill for pollo asado while one of her daughters arranged little plastic chairs around tables in the street for the night's dining. As the usual evening rituals unfolded, Miguel began to narrate how he had become involved in the lucha for sexual rights and how this articulated with his participation in the revolutionary project. After years of commitment to the Sandinista cause and of performing his duties as a loyal soldier, Miguel was summarily dismissed from the Sandinista army. Although the Contra war demanded massive troop deployments and the continuation of an unpopular military draft, Miguel's superiors were dismayed by his behaving "like a cochón." According to Miguel, the officers thought he was "too broken-wristed"—or, in North American terms, too effeminate for military service. They were worried about his impact on the other men in his unit and therefore asked him to resign his post. Even after he was castigated and discharged, Miguel continued to actively support Nicaragua's revolutionary party, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN). He also became one of the earliest and most declarado (declared, out) advocates for what he called derechos homosexuales (homosexual rights). Miguel understood his revolutionary commitments, whether Sandinista or within the struggle for sexual rights, as intimately linked processes. Indeed, he drew very explicit parallels between these two political projects. "What the battle against the dictatorship and the revolutionary struggle taught us here in Nicaragua," he explained, "was how to overturn things."

The history that led Nicaragua from decades of dictatorship to the Sandinista revolution and finally to the lucha for sexual rights is marked by a series of "overturnings." Peasant revolutionaries at the beginning of the century, Marxist university students in the 1960s, feminists in the 1990s, and sexual rights advocates in the contemporary era have all faced both tensions and triumphs in their political struggles. In this chapter, I describe how sexuality as a concept has been used to legitimate different kinds of moral paradigms and political projects in Nicaragua, from the era of Somocismo (1937–79) through the Sandinista revolutionary period (1979–90) and into the neoliberal climate of the early twenty-first century. Contemporary sexual rights activism, I argue, has been fundamentally shaped by three overlapping and sometimes competing phenomena: the Sandinista revolutionary project; Nicaraguan feminism and gender advocacy; and U.S. economic, political, and military intervention. The various ways in which sexual rights advocates have grappled with these political dynamics illustrate how activists engage with their country's past, and present, place in the world. As political histories are remembered and reconstructed in particular ways, significant political events and eras can provide opportunities for advocates to situate sexual rights as ethical projects. Activists' work in the contemporary moment is necessarily informed by the politics of the past, and a vital aspect of activists' interventions is to evaluate, mediate, and craft the chronoscape of Nicaragua's political history.

In different ways, and to different degrees, revolution, feminism, and the specter of imperialism all have contributed to the shape of sexual rights in Nicaragua. It would be impossible, for example, to narrate a political history of Nicaragua without accounting for the massive influence of U.S. intrusions in the country from the colonial era to the present. Just as U.S. intervention spurred many revolutionaries to action, the legacy of imperialism continues to motivate sexual rights activists, in the wake of revolution, to emphasize their national heritage of social transformation. Political exchanges between the global North and Nicaragua do explain, in part, how liberal discourses have made their way into sexual rights struggles in Nicaragua. However, at the same time, the legacy of U.S. imperialism compels Nicaraguan activists to be wary of Northern political forms, including liberal individualism and identity politics. Partly in response to this history of intervention, activists have been cautious about adopting the sexual identities, categories, and political strategies that are often associated with the United States.

The fall of the dictatorship and the ensuing Sandinista project provided practical experience for a generation of sexual rights activists. But it also—and, perhaps, more importantly—furnished a political model that combined diverse ideological forms, blending them into a relatively unified vision for social transformation. Even as contemporary activists engage with politically liberal notions of sexual subjectivity and human rights, they draw from a national political history based on communitarian ideals and a hybrid approach to social justice. Sexual rights advocates have also been very aware of the ways in which Sandinismo failed to provide for a full range of rights, particularly for women and sexual minorities. During the Sandinista era, political participation among Nicaraguan women increased dramatically. As the Nicaraguan feminist intellectual Sofia Montenegro put it, women became "protagonists in their own history" (quoted in Field 1999: 132), and greater numbers of women became more explicitly engaged with national politics. Although some women had been politically active before the revolution, the new opportunities afforded by the Sandinista era allowed women to more fully negotiate the political and bureaucratic nuances of the Nicaraguan state. As they sought to remediate the particular forms of discrimination that women faced—including legal barriers and structural inequalities, as well as those seen to be cultural, such as the abuses of machismo—many Nicaraguan women gained skills that would prove invaluable in their work with international allies and development agencies in the decades to come. Feminism and women's politicization were critical to the development of lesbian and gay politics in Nicaragua. For many activists, gender politics and sexual rights are intimately related projects, both personally and politically. The overlapping agendas of gender and sexual rights, as well as the tensions between them, inform contemporary activist interventions in ways that are both explicitly articulated and implicitly understood. Just as the history of Nicaragua must be viewed in light of imperial impositions, so, too, are the politics of gender and sexuality deeply intertwined projects in the nation's history.

From Imperial outpost to Revolutionary Beacon: Sandino, Somocismo, and Sexuality

Many Nicaraguans are fond of an expression that I would often hear them say in wise resignation: "Here in Nicaragua, we are so far from God and so close to the United States." In other words, God may be preoccupied with many things, but Uncle Sam seems ever vigilant, keeping Nicaragua carefully trained within the crosshairs of U.S. military power. From outright interventions—such as installing dictators sympathetic to U.S. interests or U.S. officials' making "voting recommendations" to the Nicaraguan electorate—the relationship between the United States and Nicaragua has been one of very uneven power dynamics. Indeed, the fledgling state of Nicaragua was marred from the beginning by U.S. intervention. Within a few years of the country's independence (1838), William Walker, a U.S. national, trekked to Nicaragua where he managed to establish political leverage by taking advantage of a long-standing political rivalry between the conservatives and the liberals. Walker, a "white supremacist," seized control of the country, declared himself President of the Republic, instituted slavery, and proclaimed English the country's official language (Field 1999: 789). Walker's foray was short-lived; he was ousted and then executed less than two years into his reign. His brief political coup, however, was a harbinger of future U.S. political, economic, and military interventions. While Nicaragua is a country that has endured myriad impositions, it is also true that Nicaraguans have responded, often very profoundly, to assaults on their sovereignty.

An enduring icon of Nicaragua's anti-imperialist spirit is embodied in the national hero, Augusto César Sandino (Ramírez 1981; Ramírez and Conrad 1990). Sandino, from whom the Sandinistas took their name, continues to be memorialized throughout Nicaragua. Representations of his oversize hat are still spray-painted on walls and sidewalks and scratched into trees and wooden benches. Sandino honed his legendary anti-imperialism in battles against the U.S. Marines who, in an effort to protect U.S. political and financial interests, occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933. Sandino rallied his peasant army in the 1920s, calling for an end to U.S. occupation. He famously declared, "The liberty and sovereignty of a people are not matters for discussion. They are to be defended with arms" (quoted in Collinson 1990: 4). The guerrilla war that Sandino orchestrated forced the Marines to withdraw, and his victory against such a daunting enemy rejuvenated Nicaraguan national pride. Sandino also became internationally acclaimed for his anti-imperialism and his adherence to an idiosyncratic Marxism that rejected communist orthodoxy and was uncompromisingly nationalist. Sandino's successful confrontation of U.S. military power made him a hero throughout much of Latin America in his time and, indeed, for decades to come. His accomplishments, as well as his mythos, served as inspiration for the Cuban Revolution in the mid-twentieth century, and his name continues to resonate, for example, in the political rhetoric of Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution. Sandino's effort to upset the instruments of U.S. power, though legendary, was short-lived; soon after his victory against the Marines he was assassinated in 1934 by the U.S.-trained Guardia Nacional (National Guard).

Following Sandino's rebellion, the United States managed to maintain its grip on Nicaragua by cultivating a cozy relationship with the Somoza family, who would rule the country for more than four decades (1937–79) through a series of dynastic dictatorships. There was little question that support and advice from successive U.S. administrations guided the Somoza dictatorships. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, rather famously said of the eldest Somoza, "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." U.S. military personnel were responsible for training the feared National Guard, Nicaraguan nationals who served the Somoza regime through repressive policing and the disappearing of dissidents. Over time, the Somoza family's control over the country evolved into Somocismo, a political institution that was characterized by liberal economic policies, political repression, nepotism, and the extraction of both labor and resources. Although U.S. interests are no longer managed through the dictatorial state, the ongoing political and economic influence of the United States evokes shades of Somocismo for many Nicaraguans. Reflecting on the economic difficulties wrought by neoliberalism and structural adjustment policies in the 1990s and voting suggestions made publically by U.S. officials in the 2001 and 2006 elections in Nicaragua's national newspapers, for example, several Nicaraguans pointedly noted to me, "Here we are again, living in a Somocista state." History has not been forgotten, especially when it comes to U.S. power.

Somocismo codified a particular form of rule, and repression, allowing for certain kinds of foreign intervention, investment, and extraction. As the dictator of a nominally democratic state, Somoza promoted a populist agenda predicated on nepotism and favors to the faithful. Some women who demonstrated their loyalty to the regime benefited from employment and political favors doled out by Somoza. As Victoria González-Rivera (2010, 2011) has demonstrated, women's political participation in the national project has a long and complex history. The first wave of Nicaraguan feminism, which began in the nineteenth century, lobbied for women's suffrage and access to education. However, early feminist politics would be appropriated over time by the partisan and non-feminist projects of Somocismo. Successive regimes managed a state that consisted, in part, of client-citizens. Within this framework of clientelistic populism, socially conservative, economically elite women, as well as middle-class and working-class Nicaraguans who adhered to Somocismo, were able to acquire benefits from the state (Kettering 1988). Somocismo's populism was, like other Latin American states at the time, "selectively inclusive" of women and tended to reflect "corporatist favoritism" (Molyneux 2000: 56). Through employment opportunities, goods, and other forms of material support, a segment of Nicaragua's female population became invested in Somocismo, and women came to form part of the symbolic portrait promoted by the Somozas (González-Rivera 2010, 2011). It was a point of pride, for example—and one that followed the politically liberal logic of Somocismo—that women achieved the right to vote in 1955 during the first phase of the nominally democratic Somoza dynasty. Despite these concessions, however, the majority of Nicaraguan women lived at the bottom of a hierarchical, corrupt, and exploitative system that was managed through dictatorial rule. Their status, both economically and socially, placed them beneath their husbands, many of whom were vulnerable to the vicissitudes of abusive labor conditions and political repression. Most Nicaraguan women had few political and economic tools that would enable them to overcome their marginalized position. Overall, the consolidation of power in the hands of the Somozas, for both women and men, was fraught. It was, according to Jeffrey Gould (1990: 45), both "a contradictory acceptance and simultaneous rejection of the dominant exploitative system." The specific forms of marginalization that women endured and, more specifically, the way that women's sexuality was exploited figured heavily in the portrayal of a sadistic Somocismo and became a central political trope during the revolutionary era.

Sexual commerce certainly existed in Nicaragua long before the Somozas came to power. However, the dictatorship was—and in many ways continues to be—profoundly linked to prostitution in the minds of many Nicaraguans. Prostitution became illegal in the 1880s (an act of vagrancy) but was legalized from the late 1920s to the mid-1950s. The elder Somoza declared prostitution illegal in 1955 (the same year women's suffrage was established) and brothel managers, male and female, risked prison sentences for facilitating sexual labor. However, in reality, the legal maneuver to criminalize prostitution was a ruse. By this time, the Somoza regime and the National Guard were in full control of the prostitution industry in Nicaragua (González-Rivera 2011: 143) and only those who refused to pay the appropriate mordidas (bribes) and protection payments were truly at risk for prosecution. As one legal scholar put it, "From a legal perspective prostitution [was] prohibited; from a sanitary perspective, there [was] no control of prostitution, and from a policing point of view, there [was] no prosecution of prostitution" (E. Mendieta, quoted in González-Rivera 2011: 144). The state's role in the sex industry was widely known among Nicaraguans and it was evident that the National Guard and senior officials were benefiting financially, and otherwise, from what many Nicaraguans understood as the sexual exploitation of women who had few other resources or options. Perhaps more nefariously, it was widely rumored that the Somozas tolerated prostitution within their ranks. Many accusations circulated about prominent Somoza women, claiming they were prostitutes or had been instrumental in the exploitation of young women by entreating them to enter into the sex trade.

In addition to their rather explicit profiteering from prostitution, the Somoza dynasty faced further accusations of moral and sexual impropriety. The regime was known to use sexual torture against dissidents, male and female, to elicit information from political prisoners and punish political adversaries. These brutal techniques to extract information, sometimes carried out by members of the Somoza family (Heyck 1990: 64–67), were relatively well known among the Nicaraguan population. But it was not until a series of high-profile rape cases that the Somoza regime encountered more massive public reaction and outcry. Two prominent revolutionaries and a female volunteer with the U.S. Peace Corps were raped by the National Guard for ostensibly political reasons and their stories were circulated in international channels (Hoyt 1996: 62; Randall 1981). However, the collective rape of almost twenty peasant women in the town of El Cua in 1968 likely remains the most salient reminder of sexual violence under Somocismo. The National Guard, in an effort to silence and punish women opposed to the Somoza regime, orchestrated the rape to demonstrate what political dissent might auger. The infamous sexual violence represented by the attacks in El Cua, even for many Somocista stalwarts and supporters, was the final straw. Indeed, the legacy of El Cua even almost a half-century later lives on in the collective public imaginary; most adult Nicaraguans know, by heart, the song composed by Carlos Mejia Godoy about the incident. The Nicaraguan author Viktor Morales Henríquez posited that it was sexual corruption that allowed the first Somoza dictatorship to seize control of the country. Over time it would be that same sexual impropriety that would undermine any moral authority the regime had accumulated. As Morales Henríquez saw it, it was "plunder, sex and death" that sustained the Somoza dynasty (Morales Henríquez 1980: 45). The political rapes carried out by the National Guard in El Cua, coupled with the systematic abuses and exploitation of women who worked in the nation's state-run brothels, later proved to be precisely the image of moral and sexual depravity that would animate many Sandinista policies to "clean up" the country. Sexuality, as one might predict, became a key site for programs of moral hygiene.

Excerpted from Intimate Activism by CYMENE HOWE. Copyright © 2013 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

Cymene Howe is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Core Faculty in the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Rice University. She is coeditor, with Gilbert Herdt, of 21st Century Sexualities: Contemporary Issues in Health, Education, and Rights.

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