- Intimate Activism: The Struggle for Sexual Rights in Postrevolutionary Nicaragua by Cymene Howe
Cymene Howe has made an important contribution to the literature on sexuality, culture, and politics in Latin America in general and in Nicaragua in particular. Intimate Activism offers multiple perspectives on the politics of sexuality in Nicaragua during the almost two decades between the Sandinista loss in 1990 and their return to power in 2007. She organizes the story of that period around the rise (in 1992) and fall (in 2007) of Article 204, “the most repressive antisodomy law in the Americas” (3). Howe asks why it was overturned, noting that her book “is an attempt to provide a partial answer by considering the work of Nicaraguan sexual rights advocates whose campaigns were largely spurred by the antisodomy law, but whose activism has attempted to change not only policy but also culture” (3–4).
Chapter 1 of Intimate Activism offers a useful overview of the evolution of the politics of sexuality in Nicaragua over the past century. Chapter 2, “Intimate Pedagogies,” is a richly detailed and nuanced analysis of three lesbian consciousness-raising and/or support groups: a lesbian discussion group that was coordinated and hosted by the Xochiquetzal Foundation (a Managua NGO); Amigas Juntas, a more informal, grassroots group that met in people’s homes in working-class neighborhoods; and Venceremos Juntas, a lesbian discussion group that met in a diner in the small city of Matagalpa and that drew participants from the surrounding rural areas [End Page 532] along with residents of the city of Matagalpa. Howe does an excellent job of capturing the contradictions inherent in such projects, informed as they were by a global gay rights consciousness. “Transforming cochonas and lesbianas into rights-bearing subjects has been central to activists’ attempts to challenge the antisodomy law” (90), “but it would be overly simplistic to follow a linear trajectory from intimate pedagogies to political protest. The ‘overturning’ that takes place in discussion groups is centered on the self rather than on the state” (91).
Chapter 3, “Pride and Prejudice,” discusses gay pride celebrations, the Sexuality Free from Prejudice campaign, and drag shows. Chapter 4, “Mediating Sexual Subjectivities,” analyzes the ways in which the members of the sexual rights movement utilized mass media: radio programs, magazines, and, especially, the phenomenally popular television show Sexto Sentido (Sixth sense), taking us behind and in front of the camera to the focus groups that allowed the producers and actors to interact directly with their audience, as well as to the office of USAID, one of the many foreign funders that made the show possible. Although she is clearly enthusiastic about the show, Howe also recognizes the difficulties inherent in producing a social justice–oriented soap opera: “How normal, or ‘beyond reproach,’ must Nicaraguan homosexual or lesbian TV characters be for respect to replace a history of burla (mockery), invisibility, and the criminalization of homosexuality? … The strategy behind Sexto Sentido relied heavily on ‘normalizing’ … rather than ‘queering’ sexual subjectivity” (145–46).
Both the power and the limits of this book are rooted in the author’s ethnographic methods. Indeed, she explains that “rather than a retrospective of a successful social movement, this book is an ethnography of activism” (2). As an ethnography, it is a lovely book. As an explanation for how and why the antisodomy law known as Article 204 was overturned, it is limited, focusing largely on social movement demands and tactics without much consideration (except for an overview of the 2006 election on pp. 56–60) of other factors that could explain why Article 204 was overturned at exactly the same time as the right to abortion to save a woman’s life and health was also eliminated. “If it were not for the tragedy of women’s lives lost due to botched illegal abortions, the juridical transformation that occurred in the National Assembly would be telenovela-like in its dramatic outcome: Nicaragua went from having one of the most repressive anti-sodomy laws in the...