- Masculinity and Latin American Literature: Gender Shares Flesh
Ben Sifuentes-Jáuregui begins with "a simple, working definition of 'transvestism': transvestism is a performance of gender" (2). In the rest of the book, he extends and complicates transvestism, using it as a multivalent critical tool, a filter to understand not only the transvestite but also the world around the [End Page 199] transvestite. This is Sifuentes-Jáuregui's most important claim. Transvestism is a flexible social construct; its performance creates a simulacrum that mirrors other social constructs (e.g., gender, masculinity, nationalism), a mirroring that can produce new and interesting opportunities for social analysis. Sifuentes-Jáuregui does not, though, treat transvestism as a universal critical form. He differentiates it from North American discussions of transvestism (e.g., Judith Butler's), particularizes it within a Latin American context—e.g., the collapsing of homosexuality and transvestism in Latin America—as well as claims its particular usefulness within that context.
Sifuentes-Jáuregui characterizes transvestism as the third gender, analogous to the third world and, thus, Latin American society. Sifuentes-Jáuregui best states the purpose of the book at the end of Chapter One on the "41" of Mexico:
I venture to generalize a history of Latin American sexuality—that has yet to be written. Recuperating the legacy of the "41" means peeling away the repressive historical writings of the event; recuperating means moving away from caricature and focusing on gay subjectivities, transvestite and otherwise; and rethinking the possibilities of narrative (melodrama and camp, in particular to tell about queer lives and experiences.(Sifuentes-Jáuregui 2002, 51)
The discovery of 41 men, half dressed as women, at a dance in Mexico City in 1904 precipitated a national scandal. Sifuentes-Jáuregui uses journalistic, artistic (José Guadalupe Posada's work), and literary discourses to explore how a national fit of "homosexual panic"(20) whose aim was to disappear homosexuality from Mexican society (e.g., by sending the men to an army training camp in the Yucatan) actually assured the homosexual a place in Mexican society. Through the popular press and the moralism of the obscure 1906 novel by Eduardo A. Castrejón, Los cuarenta y uno. Novela crítico social, there is the reactionary assertion of the preeminence of heterosexuality, but Sifuentes-Jáuregui notes that Guadalupe Posada's works are parodic but not particularly homophobic, and they kept the "41" in the popular imagination. However, it is Sifuentes-Jáuregui's readings of the reactionary works that is most interesting, because through them he reveals the existence of a longstanding and publicly-recognized community of homosexuality in Mexico, ferreting out a backhanded admission of existence while demonstrating that for a nation to define its gender roles it needs something to exclude. In other words, Mexican society needed cross dressing to privilege gender binarism.
What I find theoretically most fascinating—as well as most true to form—is Sifuentes-Jáuregui's ability to put on and adapt a variety of other theories and theorists to his own uses. In the chapter on the '41', he introduces Shoshona Felman's critique of J.L. Austin's constitution of the referent [End Page 200] in the speech act and her redefinition of the referent from a substance to an act. Sifuentes-Jáuregui then argues that gender is not a pre-existing form but an enactment of a social construct. The difficulty comes in policing the act to assure that the norm is enacted correctly. Moreover, it is in the failure to act out that norm correctly that opens up the space of gender: thus, transvestism is a "failure" that becomes a site of resistance and community. Sifuentes-Jáuregui makes transvestism the product of signifying—it occurs in the very act of meaning, the product of a society's normatizing regime—and he demonstrates the impossibility of norming, of perfect performativity, the flawless articulation of ideology in action.
The fourth chapter of the book is dedicated to Sifuentes-Jáuregui...