Studies of queer sexuality are currently enjoying greater prominence in the social sciences and humanities, especially in the fields of anthropology and cultural studies. In the past two decades, a flurry of publications have demonstrated that sexuality is a critical lens through which everything from identities, [End Page 150] behaviors, and cultural norms to politics, processes of national formation, and transnational flows of people, ideas, and commodities should be evaluated.
However, Latin America remains an area still underserved by scholarship on sexualities, particularly in regards to the intersections between sexuality, activism, politics, and the state. Latin America is frequently peripheral to relevant debates, and old models of sexuality—namely, the active/passive, gender-stratified, sexual binary popularized by writers like Octavio Paz and Oscar Lewis—still hold great influence in studies of the region. Certain biases, including the idea that Latin America “received” homosexual liberation from the United States and Europe in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots, also continue to linger. These views suggest that few if any autochthonous homosexual communities or identities truly existed outside of a gendered binary, and if they did, they could not be recognized as “gay” or “lesbian” until the “arrival” of transnational LGBT movements. Compounding these biases, there are few detailed analyses of sexual politics, queer activism, and the emergence of homosexual liberation movements in the region.
This is why Queering the Public Sphere in Mexico and Brazil, by Rafael de la Dehesa is a refreshing change. The work is a comparative study of the interactions between the state and sexual rights movements in Brazil and Mexico, Latin America’s two largest economies. The work offers a necessary corrective in a field largely dominated by scholarship on the United States and Western Europe. It is a genealogy of the approaches, tactics, and strategies deployed by queer activists in both countries since the late 1960s during their campaigns to secure access to human rights, social standing, and more inclusive forms of citizenship. These actions occurred at multiple levels and included engagement with and within a variety of Leftist political parties, most notably the Trotskyist PT (Brazil) and PRT (Mexico), as well as communist parties in both countries. Other levels of engagement included alliances with feminist organizations and individual politicians sympathetic to LGBT rights, advocacy for human rights and institutions, and direct participation in electoral politics, such as occurred in both nations in 1982.
In this way, De la Dehesa paints a portrait of how homosexual liberation was part of the shifting terrain of political participation and citizenship in both countries as they gradually emerged from years of authoritarian rule and re-oriented towards democracy. What is more, his work demonstrates the necessity for looking at local and national processes of democratization as these are situated within larger transnational flows, while also showing the continued importance of viewing these flows not as omnipotent, but instead, engaged, contested, and deployed in different, important ways within national contexts. In other words, activists and political operatives did not adopt in a wholesale fashion transnational ideas of human rights, sexual politics, and democratic inclusion—as expressed in Western homosexual movements, the IV International, HIV/AIDS activism, and Eurocommunism. Rather they deployed elements [End Page 151] of these to effect certain aims at a national level, while also refracting local advocacy back onto the transnational stage.
There is much else to applaud in this work. One great strength is De la Dehesa’s insistence that the public sphere be “disaggregated” into “multiple fields within which the boundaries of representation are contested.” Doing so shows how activists used a variety of “languages” in order to approach allies in feminist movements, to forge relationships with legislators and political parties, and to engage the biomedical establishment. And, as he notes, the approach “presupposes an understanding of identity as constructed and contested in a polyvocal manner, in various overlapping and embedded, though potentially contradictory, fields of representation.” This observation situates his work clearly within the complex critiques emerging out of queer...