Same-Sex Behavior in Latin America, Modern Period

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Same-Sex Behavior in Latin America, Modern Period

Inquisitional accusations against individuals who allegedly had engaged in sodomy offer some insights into same-sex relationships in colonial Spanish and Portuguese America. Many more men than women were accused of the offense, and some received capital punishment for committing the "crime against nature."

Post independence constitutions and the reform of legal codes decriminalized sexual acts between men or between women in most countries of the region, making it more difficult for historians to trace social practices through the examination of criminal cases. Authorities controlled non-normative sexual behavior by policing public spaces where men gathered to meet others for sexual liaisons, charging those whom they suspected of "pederasty" with vagrancy or public indecency. Women were restricted from full access to public social spaces; nevertheless, those who desired sexual relations with other women maintained carefully guarded romances by taking advantage of acceptable patterns of female sociability. During the nineteenth century, the semi-clandestine world of same-sex erotic interaction developed in the capitals and large cities of almost all Latin American and Caribbean countries. Discreet social networks and semi-secret clubs and social gatherings provided some with opportunities for homoerotic relationships.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries normative gender roles attributed effeminacy in men to sexual passivity and the assumption that they engaged exclusively in receptive anal intercourse. Given social restraints, exaggerated or somewhat feminine sartorial styles, meticulous grooming, and hints of makeup were used as markers by some men to attract male sexual partners. Men with traditionally masculine comportment who engaged in sexual intercourse with such effeminate men generally considered these escapades as sexual adventures that did not alter their masculine persona and identity. Some women adopted masculine clothing and occupied public spaces as an assertion of their right to move freely about and as a means of attracting female sexual partners.

In the late nineteenth century, Latin American criminologists and physicians appropriated German, French, and to a lesser extent, British and U.S. medical and psychological theories that linked same-sex eroticism to criminality and perversion. The word homosexuality began to replace terms such as sodomy and pederasty to define same-sex sexuality. Although European and American authors attributed homosexuality to all people who engaged in same-sex eroticism, most Latin American intellectuals who wrote on the subject echoed notions pervasive in popular culture that associated homosexuality exclusively with effeminate men and masculine women. The common view persisted that the "active" masculine male who engaged in sex with a seemingly effeminate man had not lost his heterosexual status, and his masculinity remained intact. Likewise, masculinized women who "seduced" other women were considered homosexual, whereas their feminine partners were not. A vast lexicon of pejorative terms, many local or national but others shared across borders, described effeminate men and masculine women in negative ways and reinforced the idea that homosexuality merely mimicked traditional gendered relationships.

At the same time, urban centers and the semi-invisible spaces of homoerotic sociability served as magnets to attract men and women with non-normative sexual desires. By the turn of the twentieth century significant homoerotic worlds had formed in Havana, Mexico City, Lima, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Salvador, among other cities. Men, and to a lesser extent women, organized same-sex private parties and dances and used the more permissive moments of Carnival celebrations to cross-dress and publicly affirm their dissident gender personas and sexual proclivities. By the 1950s most capitals had bars or nightclubs that serviced a homosexual clientele, and certain restaurants and entertainment venues offered public spaces where men and women could congregate. Blurring the gender roles that developed in the 1960s in response to unisex clothing, the hippie and countercultural movements, rock music, and other international cultural expressions opened up new forms of individual performance and expanded possibilities to transgress traditional gender norms.

Parallel to the emergence of the gay and lesbian movements in the United States and Europe in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, small groups of politicized gay men and lesbians formed in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Puerto Rico. In 1971 several such groups in Buenos Aires formed the Frente de Liberación Homosexual de Argentina, which promoted a radical critique of sexual norms and a public debate about homosexuality. The organization collapsed in 1975 under the increasingly repressive political climate that ended in Argentina's military regime (1976–1983). Incipient gay and lesbian political groups in Brazil and Chile never came to fruition due to the dictatorships that dominated these countries in the 1970s.

In the early years of the Cuban Revolution (1953–1959), official state policy linked homosexuality to "bourgeois decadence," and homosexual men and women who did not conform to traditional gender roles were labeled counterrevolutionary and sent to forced labor camps, along with dissidents and others deemed undesirable by the revolutionary regime. Although these centers were dismantled in the late 1960s, official government policy barred homosexuals from educational and cultural institutions, though this ban was at times difficult to enforce.

The processes of democratization in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s in countries that had been under military rule opened up new possibilities for political activism among gay men and lesbians. New social movements offered models for the organization of homosexuals. Concurrently, the expansion of feminist ideas and vibrant women's movements in most countries of Latin America offered opportunities for lesbians to challenge heteronormativity and forced activists to address discriminatory attitudes toward same-sex eroticism among women. Many leaders of gay and lesbian activist groups had been militants in left-wing or revolutionary organizations and had moved away from them because they persisted in their views that homosexuality reflected behavior inconsistent with working-class norms and values of the popular classes. These activists brought their experiences of organizing and mobilizing to gay and lesbian groups, bringing a political tone to many of the founding organizations in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru, among other countries. Some gay and lesbian leaders insisted on maintaining or forging strategic links with left-wing movements as part of a larger effort to develop progressive national agendas for social change in their countries.

The advent of AIDS in Latin America had a contradictory effect on gay men. At first, longstanding prejudices against homosexuality marginalized those who contracted the disease, and many died in the early years of the epidemic due to government indifference or inaction. At the same time, new activist groups lobbied public-health authorities to respond to AIDS with effective medical policies and sex-education campaigns. In Brazil, for example, the alliances formed by public-health experts and activists to develop creative responses to the disease have become international models for how to address AIDS. Gay and lesbian activists also used the need for effective AIDS education through the active participation of members of at-risk groups as a means to leverage state resources and sustain their ongoing operations. Many small consciousness-raising groups became institutionalized as nongovernment organizations through state and international financial support that provided resources to set up offices, hire staff members, and sustain an infrastructure that could be dedicated to political organizing.

Violence, murder, and everyday forms of aggression and discrimination persist throughout Latin America, especially targeting effeminate men, transvestites, and masculine women. The Catholic Church remains an outspoken opponent of the acceptance of same-sex sexuality. Television soap operas, public declarations by popular entertainers about their homosexuality, and news of increasing toleration of homosexuals in Europe and Canada (and to a certain extent in the United States) have mitigated persistent homophobic attitudes somewhat, and also have served as a means of encouraging local activism. Groups have lobbied legislatures in many cities and states throughout Latin America to enact antidiscrimination laws, and same-sex civil partnership legislation (and even the right to same-sex marriage) has been adopted in some localities. A rich and diverse literature by openly gay and lesbian authors has developed in recent decades and also has encouraged public debate about homosexuality.

In 1995 the International Lesbian and Gay Association held its seventeenth international conference in Rio de Janeiro, attracting activists from throughout Latin America. The meeting served as a catalyst for developing networks and regional organizations. This gathering and other national and regional efforts to coordinate activism also provided opportunities for transvestites to participate in the movement. In several Latin American countries, international gatherings of feminists, as well as meetings of lesbian activists and groups, have served to strengthen the autonomous organization of lesbians. Concurrently, annual gay and lesbian parades commemorating the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City, which symbolically marked the beginning of a militant rights movement, have become increasingly popular forms of public visibility and a means of promoting social tolerance. The Pride Parade in São Paulo has attracted three million people annually in recent years, becoming the largest such event in the world.

Although social discrimination still persists throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and class and racial differences fragment social cohesion, in recent years the widespread assumption among activists is that the act of "coming out" to family, friends, employers, and to society as a whole is the most effective means of expanding social acceptance and encouraging legislation that will offer full rights to lesbians, transvestites, and gay men.

See alsoSexuality: Gender and Sexuality .


Bracamonte Allaín, Jorge. De amores y luchas: Diversidad sexual, derechos humanos y ciudadanía. Lima: Programa de Estudios de Género, 2001.

Drucker, Peter, ed. Different Rainbows. London: Gay Men's Press, 2000.

Green, James N. Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Ingenschay, Dieter. Desde acera opuestas: Literatura-cultura gay y lesbiana en Latinoamérica. Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2006.

                                         James N. Green