Same-Sex Behavior in Latin America, Pre-Conquest to Independence

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Same-Sex Behavior in Latin America, Pre-Conquest to Independence

Prior to the Spanish Conquest, same-sex behavior was present in indigenous societies and continued after the Conquest within different and changing contexts. The Spanish often pointed to same-sex behavior and transvestism as evidence of the fallen nature of the indigenous peoples and therefore as a justification for conquest and slaughter. Part of the colonial agenda was the denigration of an effeminate nobility; thus for the Spanish, portraying the indigenous societies as rife with sodomy, and the sexual desires of indigenous women as unsatisfied by their men, served to justify the colonial administration.

In certain tribes some men assumed the social role of women and married other men. Occasionally these men, considered to have special knowledge of both the male and the female, were treated with respect. In other instances these men were treated with disdain, either for choosing to live as women or for being so weak in the social hierarchy as to be forced to dress and behave as women. In their interpretations of the meaning of same-sex behavior and cross-dressing in the Americas prior to the Conquest, some scholars see this behavior as ritualized performance affirming the feminine, whereas others see it as an act of power that demonstrates the strength of certain groups and denigrates perceived inferiors.

Understandings and cultural constructions of same-sex behavior after the Conquest were in constant flux. Indigenous, Iberian, and African populations viewed same-sex desire and behavior in different ways, given their different sociohistorical contexts. Colonial mentions of same-sex behavior can be found in texts as varied as narratives of exploration (e.g., by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca) and Church liturgy (the Catechism of Peru, and companion sermons, Lima, 1583–1585). Other testimonies regarding same-sex behavior among all ethnic and class groups can be found in documents from the Inquisition, particularly from Brazil. There is also testimony of same-sex behavior in the slave communities, either as a choice or as a situational necessity. Research has also established the presence of male same-sex communities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Mexico and Brazil.

Although there is less documentation of same-sex behavior among women, evidence exists in Inquisition papers as well as references in sermons and catechisms. However, in a society in which women lacked sexual, as well as financial and familial, independence, lesbian activity has often gone unnoticed. There are notable exceptions: One is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695), a nun from Mexico, known for her poetry and tracts in defense of women. Although there is no clear evidence of her sexual behavior, she has frequently been portrayed in modern times as both a protofeminist and protolesbian. Another is Henriette Faber (1791–?), a cross-dressing soldier and doctor in Napoleon's army who later, after immigrating to Cuba, married a woman; she was later exiled to New Orleans, after which point she disappears from the historical record. More research is needed to uncover evidence of female same-sex relationships.

See alsoCabeza de Vaca, Alvar Núñez; Homosexuality and Bisexuality in Literature; Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor.


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                                         Richard D. Reitsma