The Americas 59.3 (2003) 444-447
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The term pathbreaking has been so abused by reviewers as to lose much of its impact, but it truly applies here. James Green's historical study of male same-sex relationships in Brazil is a genuinely pathbreaking work. Beyond Carnival amply deserves this designation not only because of its relatively unexplored subject matter, but also because of the innovative and often daring way in which the author approaches the topic of homosexuality in twentieth-century Brazil. Instead of merely documenting the existence of a same-sex erotic culture in Brazil throughout the twentieth century or presenting us with a compendium of notable gay Brazilian men, the author has given us a very complex and thoughtful study of changing attitudes [End Page 444] about sexuality, public space, and social control in Brazil as it pertains to the experiences of men who sexually desire other men.
The careful reader will note that I avoided using the term "gay" in the above paragraph (and only used "homosexuality" because it appears in the book's subtitle). This was quite deliberate since one of the central points of Beyond Carnival is that men were involved in same-sex eroticism long before the category of "homosexual" or anything like a gay identity existed. Furthermore, he demonstrates very compellingly that it's not just a matter of slapping a label on a phenomenon that already exists; rather, these labels can have considerable impact on the way society thinks about (and polices) same-sex eroticism and how "homosexual" men themselves think about their sexual preferences and desires. In this sense, the challenge for scholars doing "gay history" is much more daunting than those that faced pioneering historians of women, not only because the source material is more scattered and inaccessible, but primarily because the sophisticated historian of gay life-- excuse the anachronism--has to begin by asking how to identify his/her object of research. This isn't just a matter of the "hidden" nature of homosexual activity; what's really in question is whether one can impose a category such as gay or homosexual on people living at a time when such categories and concepts did not exist. Judith Butler may well be right that "woman is an empty category," but at least the historian studying women in the past can identify a population labeled as such and who regarded themselves as "women," and can proceed from there to figure out what that gender construction entailed. The historian of gay life who goes back more than a few decades does not even have anything as tangible as a readily-labeled and self-identified population to study. Green has not given us a history of homosexuality in Brazil defined a priori by our contemporary categories. Rather, he has traced the very construction of the category of homosexual and the formation of a same-sex erotic community through the agency of doctors, journalists, police, performers, and "homosexual" men themselves. This is precisely what makes James Green's study so remarkable.
The first two chapters were likely the most challenging to write since they focus on the earliest decades of the twentieth century, and thus the author could not rely nearly as much on the oral histories that informed his later chapters. Nevertheless, by piecing together material from fictional works, popular journalism, medical treatises, police files, and occasional scraps of personal testimony, the author gives us a sense of the way in which Brazilian professionals and the larger public were starting to categorize men involved in same-sex relationships. Particularly impressive is his marshalling of evidence to show that "homosexuals" themselves (or "inverts," as the medical literature called them) didn't simply conform to pre-existing notions of the sexually "deviant" male but actively participated in those constructions through their adoption of certain forms of dress and self-presentation in urban/public spaces where they could...