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Social Construction of Gay Male Identity in Brazil
Beneath the Equator: Cultures of Desire, Male Homosexuality, and Emerging Gay Communities in Brazil. Richard Parker. New York: Routledge, 1999. xvi + 288 pp. $85.00 cloth, $22.95 paper
The 1990s saw a profusion of anthropological publishing in English on gender in Latin America, with a special focus on the construction of male gender and on practices of homosexuality and bisexuality among men in that region. 1 To this growing literature Richard Parker contributes his excellent Beneath the Equator, about the historical development of male homosexual identity and practice in Brazil.
Images of Brazil, fueled by advertising from international tourism agencies, include the pleasures of Rio de Janeiro's sweeping beaches and sparkling nightlife, representations of hot times to be had in a lush tropical setting. As Parker has shown in works published from 1985 to the present, sex--hot, exotic, available--has been part of Brazil's allure since the earliest colonial times. 2 In Beneath the Equator he offers a broad political-economic history of the emergence of a variety of ways of celebrating male homosexuality in modern Brazil.
Parker is perhaps the foremost authority on Brazilian sexuality writing in English. His previous work has been criticized for proposing to explain Brazilian sexuality in general while actually telling more about how Brazilian men think of sex than Brazilian women, a criticism with which I agree. 3 Beneath the Equator [End Page 637] avoids that problem by focusing explicitly on male homosexuality. It is a book of ambitious theoretical breadth and astonishing ethnographic depth. It sets out to explain in detail how homosexual identity emerged in Brazil at a time of enormous social, political, and economic change. Parker manages to present complex ethnography and theory intelligently, wittily, and in straightforward language. He shows that gay identity and the emergence of homosexual community are fluid processes in a complicated and changing national and international scene. Parker presents a vision of Brazil that is at once unsparing and respectful, honest, poignant, and deeply human.
Parker has had long experience living and working in Brazil. He first went there as a graduate student in 1982 and returned to live there after completing a dissertation on Brazilian sexual cultures; he also served as secretary-general of the Brazilian Interdisciplinary AIDS Association. In Beneath the Equator he uses his own participant-observation fieldwork conducted in Rio de Janeiro from 1982 to 1988 and bolsters it with the collaborative research of teams of Brazilian investigators who collected hundreds of life histories from men who have sex with men; these teams also collected statistical data in five Brazilian cities chosen with an eye to balanced representation of the nation's culturally and economically distinct regions: Rio, São Paulo, Fortaleza, Belo Horizonte, and Recife. This collaborative research, which took place from 1989 to 1996, provided data on AIDS and on women who have sex with women, a subject Parker promises to publish on in the near future. In addition, the research teams interviewed and administered surveys to some two thousand men in several separate studies directed by Parker over the years. 4
Starting with an erudite review of theories on homosexuality in general, yet avoiding the pitfall of excessive jargon, Parker situates ethnographic material of unusual depth and detail in a critique of contemporary theory. While acknowledging his intellectual debt to theorists, historians, and ethnographers who have preceded him, Parker takes them to task for ignoring the massive social, cultural, and political changes (apart from those forced by the AIDS epidemic) that shaped same-sex sexual practice and homosexual identity in the twentieth century. Focusing on a model of sexuality as fundamentally diverse, he posits that culture shapes sexuality through a set of "distinct cultural frames" (27) that intersect in complex ways.
One of these frames, also examined in Parker's earlier work, is that Brazilian folk concepts of sexuality differ from the model, derived...