Queering the Public Sphere in Mexico and Brazil: Sexual Rights Movements in Emerging Democracies

Queering the Public Sphere in Mexico and Brazil: Sexual Rights Movements in Emerging Democracies

by Rafael de la Dehesa


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Queering the Public Sphere in Mexico and Brazil: Sexual Rights Movements in Emerging Democracies by Rafael de la Dehesa

Queering the Public Sphere in Mexico and Brazil is a groundbreaking comparative analysis of the historical development and contemporary dynamics of LGBT activism in Latin America’s two largest democracies. Rafael de la Dehesa focuses on the ways that LGBT activists have engaged with the state, particularly in alliance with political parties and through government health agencies in the wake of the AIDS crisis. He examines this engagement against the backdrop of the broader political transitions to democracy, the neoliberal transformation of state–civil society relations, and the gradual consolidation of sexual rights at the international level. His comparison highlights similarities between sexual rights movements in Mexico and Brazil, including a convergence on legislative priorities such as antidiscrimination laws and the legal recognition of same-sex couples. At the same time, de la Dehesa points to notable differences in the tactics deployed by activists and the coalitions brought to bear on the state.

De la Dehesa studied the archives of activists, social-movement organizations, political parties, religious institutions, legislatures, and state agencies, and he interviewed hundreds of individuals, not only LGBT activists, but also feminists, AIDS and human-rights activists, party militants, journalists, academics, and state officials. He marshals his prodigious research to reveal the interplay between evolving representative institutions and LGBT activists’ entry into the political public sphere in Latin America, offering a critical analysis of the possibilities opened by emerging democratic arrangements, as well as their limitations. At the same time, exploring activists’ engagement with the international arena, he offers new insights into the diffusion and expression of transnational norms inscribing sexual rights within a broader project of liberal modernity. Queering the Public Sphere in Mexico and Brazil is a landmark examination of LGBT political mobilization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822347248
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/21/2010
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Rafael de la Dehesa is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island.

Read an Excerpt

Queering the Public Sphere in Mexico and Brazil

Sexual Rights Movements in Emerging Democracies
By Rafael de la Dehesa


Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4724-8

Chapter One

On Sexual Subjects and Public Spheres

On 1 June 1959 Alfredo Cuarón, of Semiramis Street in Mexico City, directed a letter to President Adolfo López Mateos. In the letter, requesting presidential intervention, Cuarón tells the chief executive of an encounter that his twenty-two-year-old son allegedly had with an older man on Puente de Alvarado Avenue. The letter alleges that the man, Manuel Rodríguez, offered his son a drink and, upon refusal, threatened him at knife point to go to his apartment. There Rodríguez allegedly showed him credentials as an agent of the presidency and threatened to have him jailed unless he consented to sexual relations. When informed by his son about the incident, he went to the man's house to investigate: "Several people informed me that this man is in the habit of taking men into his house, especially adolescents. He is a degenerate and a perfect corruptor of minors." To make matters worse, Cuarón goes on, the man referred to himself as a "NATIONAL GLORY," on informal speaking terms with all the men in power, "especially you, Mr. President." The letter concludes with a defense of masculinity and nation, suggesting that Rodríguez's "licentious habits" would dishonor any man, especially a respectable man like the president, and that this was surely not the type of man who should be holding credentials for such high public office.

The Secretariat of the Presidency filed the case as no. 14890 on 3 June. On 25 June a report was directed to the chief of the Secretariat's Department of Correspondence and Archives, "as [she had] ordered verbally." The report indicates that some effort had been made to investigate the case: "One could say that he [the suspect] is an artist dedicated to painting without having received any instruction in this art, but with his own abilities, born of his many trips through Europe and from having lived his life in an artistic environment, since all his relations are part of this circle; and naturally he must have suffered a very strong sexual exhaustion, particularly given his current age of between 60 and 65. We can assume that he has become a diseased element [elemento morboso], given that he has not lost the virile tone in his voice." The report describes Rodríguez's house as a meeting place for "homosexual elements," given that all the rooms are filled with erotic paintings, most with masculine figures, and that the furniture in the house is "propitious for orgies." It goes on, however, to question the initial complaint. First, it notes, Rodríguez is an older man with a weak constitution, probably incapable of threatening a young man. Second, the street where the incident is said to have taken place was quite busy at the time it allegedly occurred. Finally, it recommends that a determination be made on whether to forward the case for further clarification to the appropriate authorities, on the assumption, that is, that the initial letter was in fact a pseudonymous complaint, given that the return address, Semiramis Street, did not exist.

Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, the target of the complaint, belonged to a group of writers and artists who emerged in Mexico City in the 1920s and 1930s known as Los Contemporáneos, named for their cultural magazine (1928-31), to which he contributed illustrations. Like the writers Salvador Novo, Xavier Villaurrutia, and others associated with the group, Rodríguez Lozano was among the first public figures in Mexico known for his homosexuality. Though not all of the luminaries associated with the group were homosexual, they were broadly caricatured as such in the burgeoning postrevolutionary artistic and literary public spheres. As the cultural critic Carlos Monsivais has argued, the new public visibility of their "dissident sexualities," in fact, became possible in the wake of the massive upheavals of the Mexican Revolution, which loosened societal restrictions and contributed to the expansion of el ambiente, the semiclandestine homosocial spaces "at the margins" of society described by Novo in his memoirs (Monsivais 1998, 2000; Irwin 2003b). Monsivais has also noted the group's ambiguous relationship to the Revolution. While beholden to its secularizing impulses and modernizing ruptures with the past, they disdained its cultural nationalism, countering with a "proudly elitist" affirmation of presumably transcendent European artistic and literary traditions. They also flouted its cult of masculinity, which enshrined a New Man of unquestioned virility and a true love of "the people." In a mural on the walls of the Secretariat of Public Education Diego Rivera mocked them as effete decadents, as did José Clemente Orozco in his mural Los Anales (Monsivais 1998). Rodríguez Lozano gained prominence within the so-called countercurrents of Mexican painting, opposing Rivera's revolutionary nationalism with an art that, while also drawing on national themes, strived to be independent, universal, and above all modern (García Gutiérrez 1999; Rodríguez Lozano 1960).

Based on the complaint and the report of the investigation, questions undoubtedly emerge about the veracity of the initial account, and the painter had once before been jailed on trumped-up charges (Zamorano Navarro 1998). For the purposes of this discussion, what I would note about these documents is how they inscribe the artist into multiple fields of representation and how the practices enforcing sexual stigma in the case straddle a fairly porous boundary nominally dividing the public and private realms. At first glance it seems like a straightforward matter: an alleged act of violence is investigated and dismissed by public officials. But the normalizing enforcement of sexualities in this case does not start with the investigation, but with a pseudonymous letter from a private individual. Or does it? Indeed the initial letter itself (if we are to believe its contents) suggests an even prior enforcement, alluding to the neighbors' judgments that inscribe Rodríguez Lozano as a suspicious character and allow the conclusion that he is "a degenerate and a perfect corruptor of minors." When the public eye of the investigator follows up on the private accuser's complaint, it too looks for the telltale signs that populate the private sphere. The artwork and the furniture (apparently custom-fitted for orgies) elicit a more technical conclusion, confirming that the suspicious character is in fact a "homosexual element." The virile tone in his voice permits still greater technical precision, indicating that the homosexual element is a "diseased element" as well, alluding to the criminological distinctions made at the time between innate and acquired homosexuality, presumably reflected in conformity to or deviance from dominant gender norms.

This chapter encompasses three fairly diverse discussions united by two analytic concerns raised in this particular case: exploring the diffusely organized construction of homosexual subjectivities-and sexual stigma-and locating these constructions across the public-private divide. I begin by examining the trajectory of governmental practices disciplining homosexualities through law and policing, suggesting that they were inscribed in a particularly ambivalent position within this binary, often passing through the prism of nation. I then move from the state to the formally constituted field of institutionalized interest mediation, the political public sphere, examining religious activism in politics through a comparison of secularizations. Finally I turn to the recent construction of homosexuality in public opinion research, drawing on the World Values Surveys. In jurists' and criminologists' contentions regarding a public that needs defending, in religious activists' efforts to insert biblical precepts into public debate, and in statistical methods shaping party militants' approach to the electorate we see the constitution of a public sphere and the contestation of its boundaries. Again, we can understand this sphere is multilayered, comprising a number of different fields, each with distinct discursive parameters and articulations with broader global communities. In each field sexualities are being constructed in specific ways, distilling a fluid terrain of desire into universalizing categories of representation. As in the form of policing, these categories penetrate the private sphere in different ways.


Homosexual acts have not been illegal in either Brazil or Mexico since the nineteenth century, though the law meted out harsh punishment for sodomy in colonial Latin America. On the Iberian Peninsula there were proscriptions against homoerotic acts since at least the sixth century, when the Christianized Visigoth King Alarico II called for those who engaged in such acts to be burned at the stake (Pérez Cánovas 1996). Under Spanish colonial rule in the Americas, a number of edicts were applied in the practice of criminal law as Spanish institutions were transferred from the metropole. These contained a number of measures that brutally punished those engaging in homoerotic acts and constituted the principal foundation of criminal law in Mexico for half a century following its independence in 1821, though with modifications. The Partidas, applied to cases of sodomy until at least the 1840s, mandated death for those over fourteen who committed "the sin of lust against nature" (Penyak 1994). In colonial Brazil book 5 of the Philippine Ordinances, the foundation of criminal law for much of the period, similarly imposed harsh punishment for sodomy, condemning men and women found guilty to burning at the stake, the confiscation of all goods by the Crown, the "incapacitation and infamy" of their children and grandchildren, and equating sodomy with crimes against the Crown (of Lesa Magestade) such as treason (Pierangelli 1980).

Liberal influences in both countries led to decriminalization after independence. In Enlightenment distinctions between the public and private spheres, sexuality was often incorporated into the presumably apolitical category of the "private." Among the measures instituted by the French Constituent Assembly of 1791, for instance, was precisely the decriminalization of sodomy, now understood as a private matter (Hekma, Oosterhuis, and Steakley 1995). Liberal thought also had a significant influence on important sectors of the nineteenth-century Latin American elite. Indeed not a single country claimed an alternative tradition upon independence (Avritzer 2002). In 1830, eight years after independence, Brazil adopted a new Imperial Penal Code, which decriminalized sodomy, influenced by the French Penal Code of 1791, the Napoleonic Codes of 1810 and 1819, and liberal theorists of the time (Green 1999a). In Mexico liberalism became a rallying cry both for the independence movement and for challenges to Church authority and privilege, as the division between church and state became a central social cleavage in the new nation throughout much of the nineteenth century and early twentieth. Mexico's first Penal Code, approved in 1871, similarly eliminated any mention of sodomy.

While private homosexual acts were decriminalized, however, any public manifestation was subject to official repression. Laws and police ordinances governing morals and good customs, assaults on decency, public scandal, corruption of minors, and vagrancy were used to crack down on those suspected of engaging in such acts in Mexico and Brazil. Indeed, the legal regulation of sexualities bore striking similarities in each case, often closely bound to changing understandings of both the public and the nation. Hence in Mexico's Penal Codes of 1871, 1929, and 1931 the chapter "Violations of Public Morals and Good Customs" considered obscene two forms of public representation: the publication or distribution of obscene materials, progressively expanding state control to new information technologies, and individual public manifestations deemed obscene, effectively criminalizing social scripts that departed from prescribed gender norms. Brazil's penal codes of 1830, 1890, and 1940 similarly defined obscenity in terms of obscene acts and the distribution of obscene materials.

A few points might be made regarding how the regulation of public morality inscribed sexualities within the public-private divide. First, the "violation of public morals" is unusual among so-called sexual crimes because the passive subject (or victim) of the crime is society at large-the public itself-rather than any individual. In other words, for an act to be read as a crime, publicity was required. Hence the Mexican penal code explicitly defined an act as public if it was performed in a public arena or in a private arena when witnessed by at least six people. (In Brazil fifteen were required.) Morality, defined largely in sexual terms, was thus framed as a public good even as sexuality as such was excluded from public debate as a private and apolitical matter. Such laws inscribed homosexualities in the symbolic realm of social deviance rather than political marginalization. Second, while the issue was removed from the public agenda, public decency justified exceptions in the basic liberal rights of expression and association. Mexican laws proscribing violations of public morals, for instance, were founded on Articles 6 and 7 of the constitutions of 1857 and 1917, which, while respectively guaranteeing freedom of expression and freedom of the press, stipulated exceptions in cases that violated morality. Third, while positing, indeed constituting a perhaps questionable consensus on such matters, the requirement of publicity in cases of obscenity also reaffirmed in principle a sphere of protected autonomy in the symbolic realm of the private, an arena that the state could not touch. In practice, however, the public expressions deemed obscene were often quite broad and unpredictable, leaving much to the subjective determination of enforcing officers. Moreover, given the propensity of police forces in both countries to overstep the boundaries of their formal authority, such laws have enabled enormously abusive practices.

But what sort of public good does the regulation of public morality provide? Rooted in Roman law and Iberian legal traditions, the notion of decency (pudor) was justified by some theorists based on Christian precepts and by others as a necessary element for harmonious social life (Diez Ripolles 1982). For many jurists across the ideological spectrum, pudor was indeed foundational in nature, based on the perceived threat of unchecked sexuality and relating directly to the construction and proper functioning of the nation.

The argument is quite starkly presented in a document authored by Alfredo Buzaid (1970), the Brazilian justice minister under the hard-line General Emílio Garrastazu Medici (1969-74). The document explains and justifies an amendment to the Constitution of 1967 banning publications deemed contrary to "morals and good customs." It was in fact the first amendment to the new Constitution, suggesting that the debate about morality had gained importance for the regime in the interval. Buzaid traces the notion of pudor to Roman law but its specific sexual connotations to developments in Christian Roman law under Constantine incorporating sexuality into the juridical arena. He offers two broad justifications for amending the Constitution. He begins by pointing to purported medical evidence and examples of foreign legislation as authoritative precedents for safeguarding public morals, indeed citing Mexico's constitutional stipulation of obscenity as an exception to a free press. His second justification is foundational in nature, linking the safeguarding of morals with the security of the nation. Citing both Lenin and documents produced by the French student movement, he states, "The struggle for sexual liberty and the fight against laws repressing pornographic publications obey a revolutionary plan of action corresponding to the goals of Marxist-Leninist agitation" (13-14). Acknowledging existing legal stipulations against obscenity, he justifies elevating the law to the constitutional level in light of the urgency of the times: "If we were in a normal period, an approved solution would be necessary and sufficient. But in a time of revolutionary war, in which the legislator is aware of the threat represented by eroticism, tolerating publications contrary to morals and good customs means colluding with the debasement of youth and the dissolution of the family" (25). The document goes on to state, "In Brazil, the State intervenes in the moral domain in the name of Christian principles" (28) and considers obscenity "as great a violation of national security as war propaganda, the subversion of order, and prejudices based on religion, class, or race" (6).

Framed through the transnational prism of the national security doctrine embraced by military governments in the region and promoted by the United States, Buzaid's law posits eroticism as a threat to order and a potentially destabilizing political force. The political order and indeed the nation are in turn identified explicitly with so-called Christian principles. Of particular concern is the protection of family and youth. Together these two, presumably prepolitical elements of the private sphere are portrayed as innocent and as remarkably vulnerable to corruption. Their precarious innocence, moreover, is threatened from abroad by an enemy with internationalist designs (from France and the Soviet Union, no less), though embodied in the enemy within (not only within the nation but within the vulnerable psyche). In short, Buzaid inscribes proper and improper sexualities within a number of interrelated oppositions, including national and foreign, ordered and disordered, innocent and corrupt, Christian and Godless, and even capitalist and socialist. This kind of nationalist inscription echoed across the political spectrum and sheds light on why the gay and lesbian voices entering public spheres in the 1970s-like resurgent feminist movements, as well-were often dismissed as foreign to national traditions or, alternatively, as signs of a national modernity. More broadly they point to sexuality as a powerful symbolic realm on which multiple understandings of danger and order are inscribed in regulating social conduct.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface xi

Introduction: Hybrid Modernities, Modern Sexualities 1

Part I Frames

Chapter 1 On Sexual Subjects and Public Spheres 27

Part II Doorways

Chapter 2 Occupying the Partisan Field: First Door on the Left 61

Chapter 3 The Limits of Liberalization: Entering the Electoral Field 87

Part III Pathways

Chapter 4 Advancing Homosexual Citizenship: Brazil's Early Turn to Legislatures 115

Chapter 5 Life at the Margins: Coalition Building and Sexual Diversity in the Mexican Legislature 146

Chapter 6 Brazil without Homophobia, or, A Technocratic Alternative to Political Parties 178

Conclusion: The Hope and Fear of Institutions 204

Acronyms 219

Notes 221

Bibliography 247

Index 287

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