Gay Liberation Movements in Latin America

March 10, 2008

Considering my upcoming master’s thesis on Queer Nationalism in Cuba, I was ecstatic to find this essay I wrote in 2003. I suppose that even five years ago I had some idea that I wanted to pursue this topic deeper, but my analytical tools were certainly limited at this point–I was only a sophomore. Although this essay is too broad to fit under the purview of my thesis, I may decide to clean this essay up a bit and present it at a conference. I know the essay is a bit long–and requires a lot of editing, but any comments would certainly be appreciated 🙂

By the way, I couldn’t post the citations. If anyone wants them, just let me know.

Gay Liberation Movements in Latin America during Democratic and Military Regimes: Power through Repression, Power through Resistance

By: Pablo Rodríguez, Jr.

Post-colonial social and political situations in Latin America over the past hundred years have been nothing less than turbulent. Years after the liberation of Latin America from their Spanish colonizers, several countries have undergone various amounts of revolutionary acts of conflict and political/social reforms. In the twentieth century, various Latin American countries experienced social and political transformations. These changes include sudden military and totalitarian seizures of power. Yet, despite copious political and social revolutions in Latin America, their colonizers’ influence is inescapable. Over five hundred years after the arrival Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, a lasting impression remains on the social and political situations of Latin America. The most obvious lasting colonial characteristic is the Spanish and Portuguese language, but, the influence of the colonizers is not limited to linguistics. Much of Latin American society is structured according to colonial standards. This includes heavy influence from the Roman Catholic Church and traditional gender relations regulated by machismo and marianismo.

The impression from both of these social/religious institutions can be found in every Latin American country. Even countries such as Mexico which have made conscious efforts to become completely secular and separate church and state, are still strongly governed by the Roman Catholic Church. The long-lasting religious control of Latin American society continues to endorse machismo and marianismo. This fusion of colonial social institutions and subsequent values in post-colonial Latin America has erupted in various social movements. The Catholic Church structures society in collaboration with systems of machismo/marianismo and government by imposing strict morals and values, as well as creating and supporting a patriarchal heterosexual white hierarchy. This hierarchy proves to be problematic for those members of society who do not fit into societal ideals. From the beginning of Spanish/Portuguese colonization, homosexuals in Latin America have been ostracized and repressed. As a result of this oppression, gay men and lesbians have endured countless human rights violations. However, in the late twentieth century, homosexuals began to organize to battle discrimination and repression based on their sexual orientation. Through the mobilization of the gay and lesbian population in Latin America against the repression endorsed by the social hierarchy, power was gained in the formulization of social and political spaces.

Colonial and Post-Colonial Homophobic Principles and Practices:

The repression and persecution of homosexuals in Latin America began shortly after arrival Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. In pre-colonial indigenous populations in Latin America, homosexuality was not stigmatized. At the time of the Spanish arrival, the Maya sphere was much more liberal about same sex eroticism. However, Spanish conquerors were not at all tolerant of any form of homoerotic relations. In his conquest of Mexico, Hernán Cortes informed Emperor Charles V that, “the indigenous inhabitants living in the area in what is today the Mexican state of Veracruz practice the abominable sin of sodomy.” Like the Spanish, the Portuguese conquerors were also intolerant of any expression of same sex eroticism. The Portuguese archives list approximately five thousand accusations of same sex relations against male and female Portuguese-Brazilians, of which four hundred were punished in various ways, including death. The persecution of homosexual men and women in Spain and Portugal as advocated by the Roman Catholic Church was introduced and forced into Latin America. The colonial repression of homosexual behaviour was not only applicable to indigenous communities, but also to all inhabitants of Latin America. In post-colonial Latin America, the homophobic values and practices of Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors remained embedded in society and law. The ways in which gays and lesbians have been (and continue to be) repressed and persecuted differ in various Latin American countries.
In countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina, sexual minorities have been faced with arbitrary arrest, torture, and assassination. Paramilitary groups or death squads in Brazil have been responsible for the death of more than one thousand two hundred gay men and lesbians since 1982. In Nicaragua, Chile, and Ecuador, homosexual activity is a crime punishable by lengthy prison sentences. However, gays and lesbians are not only subjected to the aforementioned forms of persecution and repression. Homosexuality is stigmatized by society collectively, which consequently transcends into the family. Many gays and lesbians face repression and mental/physical abuse by their families due to their sexual orientation. Homophobic practices of repression are also executed by the police. Throughout Latin America, vaguely worded laws or police regulations are frequently used to arbitrarily detain lesbians and gay men and subject them to various forms of abuses, including extortion. In various Latin American countries, police habitually raid gay institutions such as gay clubs and bars. In some cases, local governments have shut down gay institutions by using public morality laws for legal justification. Even small, private homo-social gatherings were raided and disbanded by police and military forces.

Mobilization of the Oppressed: The Gay Movement Begins

Despite the constant attempted repression of homosexuality through raids and police/military action, gays and lesbians continued to become more visible in society. Various gay institutions existed in countries such as Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. However, regardless of these social spaces, gays and lesbians were still politically (and socially in terms of human rights and stigmatization) very vulnerable. By the 1960s, other vulnerable groups in various Latin American nations, such as women, blacks, and workers, were mobilizing. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, an international gay rights movement developed in North America, Europe, and Australasia, which would later influence various Latin American countries. The first openly gay organization to exist in Latin America, Nuevo Mundo, formed in Argentina in 1969; however it was forced to close in 1976 with the advent of the military dictatorship. In 1971, the first gay liberation organization was also formed in Argentina: the Argentine Frente de Liberación Homosexual (FLH). The FLH published a paper called Somos, which addressed many gay issues in Argentina, as well as aided in their “protest of antigay policies of the government and the attacks on gays in Chile after the Pinochet coup d’état.” In 1976, like its contemporary, Nuevo Mundo, the FLH disbanded with the military takeover. Political turbulence and military dictatorships actively targeted and victimized homosexuals, which consequently resulted in the limiting of socio-political space for gay men and lesbians to mobilize; some degree of stability is necessary in order to create greater spaces for expression. As a result of the characteristic post-colonial turbulence of Latin American politics, many organized gay movements did not emerge until the late 1970s to early 1980s.

The Brazilian Gay Movement:
By using the Brazilian Gay liberation movement as a model, it is possible to learn about various other Latin American gay liberation movements during the 1970s and 1980s under military regimes. Currently, the present general international consensus is that the Brazilian gay community is a vibrant, tolerated, liberated group. However this vision is both idealistic and ignorant and gay men and women in Brazil have been repressed and persecuted, just as in other Latin American countries. However, the social and political status of homosexuals in Brazil has improved radically since the advent of the gay liberation movement in the late 1970s. “When the gay liberation movement was spreading worldwide in 1969, Brazil was entering its worse period of political repression under the presidency of the former head of the secret police and the military dictatorship.” In such an atmosphere of extreme repression (and censorship), any form of social organizing was impossible, especially such a movement that which would challenge societal institutions and morals. The first attempt at a gay socio-political space was made on 4 July, 1976. The União do Homossexual Brasileiro (Union of Brazilian Homosexuals) organized the First Congress of Brazilian Homosexuals to be held at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. However, the event never occurred, as “on that day, twenty police cars, including eight arrest vans, with seventy men from the General Department of Special Investigation surrounded the museum.” As a result, public homosexual assemblies reverted into small, private confidential meetings typically held among gay students. João S. Trevisan, with his knowledge accumulated from his contact with the San Francisco Bay Area gay liberation movement, established a discussion group on homosexuality with gay university students. The student discussion group ultimately failed after a few meeting. Many of the participants were unable to fully engage in the project as many “were paralyzed by feelings of guilt.” The students were not comfortable with their homosexuality, and “70% of the group frankly admitted that they considered themselves abnormal because of their homosexuality.” The students’ feelings of abnormality was a direct result of the lack of social and political prevalence of homosexuality in Brazil. Even when periodicals attempted to address the issue of homosexuality, they were silenced immediately through the use of the Brazilian government’s press censorship laws, which were enforced rigorously during the military regime.
In 1978, when one of Brazil’s most popular magazines addressed the issue of homosexuality, “nine journalists affiliated with the magazine were threatened with government investigation for violating the morality statute.” Yet, despite the extreme repression from censorship laws, what was to be Brazil’s first gay liberation group, Núcleo de Ação pelos dos Homossexuais (Nucleus for Action for Homosexuals’ Rights) formed in São Paulo in May 1978. Unlike the student group project, Nucleus for Action for Homosexuals’ Rights began with consciousness-raising groups, which later expanded into various activities such as study, discussion, militancy, services, artistic activities, nonverbal expression, and examination of Lampião da Esquina, the country’s new radical newspaper. The Nucleus for Action for Homosexuals’ Rights, soon realized that it necessary to expand their operation, which included increasing participation through holding a public meeting, and renaming the group, Somos: Grupo de Afimação Homossexual (We Are: Group of Homosexual Affirmation), in order to attract more participants and show reverence to the Argentinean Frente de Liberación Homosexual, and its magazine Somos. As part of the mission of the newly reorganized Somos, on 8 February 1979 they participated in the first ever public discussion of homosexuality at a debate on minorities at the University of São Paulo. The university was the first time that Somos was brought out into the public, and well as the first time that they were introduced to left-wing movement and activism.
Soon after the university debate, the popularity of Somos increased greatly with an influx of new participants from various different backgrounds. Many of the new members included lesbians, blacks and older people. As more members from different backgrounds joined new issues arose, including activism. Somos’ first act of public activism occurred during the National Day of Black Consciousness when members of Somos marched carrying a huge banner declaring itself “Against Racial Discrimination, Somos Group of Homosexual Affirmation.” At the time of Somos’ first feat of activism, Lampião called a gathering of all gay groups to meet in Rio de Janeiro. In April 1980, the First National Meeting of Homosexual Groups was held, with various new gay groups in attendance: AUE (Rio de Janeiro), Eros (São Paulo), Beijo Livre (Brasília), Libertos (Guarulhos), Somos (Soroacaba), Facção Homossexual da Convergência Socialista (São Paulo), and Somos (São Paulo). By the end of the meeting, many groups formed new connections with other new gay groups; however by the end of the meeting, it was clear that the movement was divided. Many gay groups fought for an autonomous movement free from connection to any other social and political movements. However, the left encouraged linking, and in some cases combining, the gay movement to other movements in order to collectively destabilize the military regime.
After the First National Meeting of Homosexual Groups, Somos participated in other marches such as various workers’ rights marches in order to advertise their cause. However, for many members participation in such marches exhibited an affiliation with these movements. Due to lack of sufficient autonomy, in May 1980, Somos split to form the new group Otra Coisa (Something Else). As a result of this split, later that year Somos declared that the organization would be free from any affiliation from other political or social movements. At the time of this affirmation, Somos finally raised enough funds to occupy a space for meetings and other functions. To right-wing paramilitary groups, this new social space for homosexuals was unacceptable. In October 1980 the Cruzada Anti-Homossexualismo sent a letter to Somos’ new headquarters threatening to “clean up the ‘oil spot’ of cheap perfume that is masculine prostitution that prostitutes the Sacred Brazilian Family, weakening the foundation of the Nation.” In reaction to this treat, the group participated in a demonstration finally affirming their autonomous cause.
The collapse of the gay movement began shortly after the split of Somos. In July 1981, Lampião da Esquina ceased further production due its inability to keep up with the diverging paths of the gay movement. Shortly after the closing of Lampião, Brazil underwent a recession of 1981-1982, which sparked a reflux of middle-class-based social movements. Concurrently, many of the leaders of movement became “confused activists exhausted and incapable of debate or mobilization” In collaboration both of the aforementioned events inevitably lead to the collapse of Somos and the gay movement.

The Latin American Gay Liberation Movement: Mexico
The context and the pattern, in which the Brazilian Gay Liberation Movement was conceived, developed and collapsed parallels movements in various other Latin American nations, including Mexico. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, just like Brazil, many other Latin American countries were under military and totalitarian dictatorships. However, many Latin American countries, as in the case of Mexico were under democratic rule. Yet, the social and political situation of gay men and women were almost the same throughout. Like, Sao Paulo, other gay liberation movements in Latin America occurred in the social, political, and economic centres of the nation. In Mexico, the largest gay liberation movement was focused in Mexico City and Guadalajara. The first homosexual organizations in Mexico formed during the late 1970s in Mexico City. The organizations were formed as factions of leftist movements. The most prominent of these organizations were the Frente Homosexual de Accion Revolutionaria (FHAR) and the Groupo Lambda de Liberacion Homosexual (GLLH). As part of their mission, the GLLH formed an association with the Partido Revolutionario de los Trabajadores (PRT). Through this relationship, the GLLH introduced homosexual rights to the leftist party; as a result, the PRT endorsed various homosexual candidates for public office. One of the candidates endorsed by the PRT was Pedro Preciado of Guadalajara. Although Pedro and the other candidates lost the election, this would not be the last time that Pedro would be actively involved in the gay movement. In 1982, after the elections, some members of the GLLH, including Pedro Preciado, they left the GLLH to form a completely autonomous organization, the Groupo Orgullo de la Liberacion Homosexual (GHOL).
The initial movement began like way to face the repression and to the discrimination of the society and the government. Concurrently with election 1982, a new governor of PRI began an anti-homosexual campaign, clearing the streets, closing all the gay bars, and even raided small private gatherings. Homosexuals, including the GHOL, they immediately responded with a campaign which centered on the abuses of the police, including the extortion.
After the campaign — which included the first gay march in Latin America on the 8 of March of 1982 — the abuses of the police stopped with the reopening of homosexual bars and clubs. However again, with the election of a PRI mayor in 1989, the repression of homosexuals happened again; many bars and clubs were again closed again. In 1991, Pedro Preciado and the GHOL attempted to work with the International Association of Lesbians and Gays to hold their annual conference in Guadalajara. This conference would be the first homosexual international conference in a developing country, and in Latin America. Still, due to incompliance of the government and the police, the conference was alternatively held out in Acapulco, an Americanized tourist center. The repressive situation in Mexico over time has gradually better. Eventually gay bars and clubs were again allowed to reopen. In 1995, Guadalajara elected a mayor and city council from the PAN, a leftist party. The new government instituted a new law that prohibited “public practice that implies the development of an abnormal sexual life.” Still, unlike the PRI, the PAN and its members have been more tolerant of homosexuality.
In spite of its independent direction and conception, the GHOL and other gay organizations heavily relied on leftist governments and policy for tolerance. This association, “which alienated a great deal of its potential supporters, who were middle-class”, and an economic crisis leads to the collapse of the collective homosexual movement. In the mid-1990s, there was an influx of the new homosexual organizations in Mexico not centered on politics. Some of the groups focused on education, culture, and on aiding victims of AIDS. Yet in spite of this new tendency, some organizations of the homosexual rights still exist. As a means of gay solidarity, many old and new organizations come together in gay pride marches. Some of the largest gay pride marches occur in Mexico City and Tijuana. The fact that these parades happen in these cities is a “direct reflection of the cross-cultural fertilization of the north of the border, and its effect on the organization of homosexual communities.”

A Lingering Invisibility—Lesbians in Latin America:
After decades of revolutionary social and political change in Latin America, the persecution of homosexuals still persists. Although the situation has gradually become better, and homosexuals are finally beginning to become a public, active part of society, there is still a need for more change. Despite decades of feminist and gay organizing in Latin America, the presence of lesbians often remain absent from social and political discourse. The purpose of this paper was to investigate Gay liberation/rights movements in Latin America, yet my research has shown that after decades of struggle, Lesbians remain invisibilized in Latin America. While several groups and scholars are working toward Lesbian visibility, not much progress had been made.
The Latin American Gay liberation movement would have also not been possible if it was not for the women’s liberation movement. The similarities and parallels between the gay liberation and women’s liberation movement are endless. Many of the first women’s movements began also in response to repressive military governments. In many cases, women were also extremely prone to lean towards leftist politics for support, especially in the case of feminist women’s movements. Yet, just as in the gay liberation movement, autonomy was often a big concern, and connections with other organizations/movements, especially leftist, often alienated a great deal of potential members/supporters. Yet, despite all of these similarities, these movements rarely collaborated or publicly supported each other. Machismo in the gay liberation movement, which mainly consisted of males, limited interaction between these gay and women’s movement. Furthermore, rampant homophobia in the women’s movement ostracized lesbians, who were their direct connection to the gay movement. Latin American feminist/women’s movements were centered on fighting for social spaces outside of the household, while men were fighting to maintain the social spaces outside of the home allotted to them through machismo. Conversely, social spaces were at the center key of gay liberation movement. This concentration was engendered by repressive tactics of the government often targeted homosexuals, as sexual inverts, not women. The only goal shared by both the gay and women’s liberation movements was the fight for political space.
In the first stage of the Latin American gay liberation movement in Argentina involved both gay males and lesbians as equal participants in the Argentine Frente de Liberación Homosexual (FLH). After the collapse of the FLH, lesbians were often left out the development of later gay liberation organizations across Latin America. Despite similar experiences of social repression, gays often refused to acknowledge the lesbian presence in their movements. This situation was unquestionably engendered by rampant machismo in gay liberation movements. At this point, lesbians “reacted rapidly to gay machismo, questioned their misogyny and phallocentrism, and [in turn] tended to approach feminist spaces more.” Yet, even within feminist spaces, Lesbians were not welcomed. Since homosexuals were viewed as “gender inverts” in Latin America during this period, feminists were reluctant to allow lesbians to participate openly in their organizations fearing possible repercussive associations between lesbianism and feminism. “In spite of lesbians’ unconditional support of feminist demands, the right to free sexual choice was still a taboo topic within the feminist movement.” During this time, much of Latin American feminists remained devoutly catholic, despite the church’s opposition to feminist organizing. In result, many feminists tended to learn toward demands that would not jeopardize their already fragile image. In order to preserve their image, many feminists often resorted to out rightly lesbophobic activity during feminist encuentros (meetings.) Norma Aquise states that for feminist to “reaffirm lesbian identity meant rejecting the masculine symbolic order, phallocentricism, and heterosexual exclusivity.”
After further lesbophobia by Latin American Feminists during International Women’s Day 1988 and the Fifth Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro (1990), lesbians finally decided to initiate the process of creating an autonomous lesbian movement. In 1992, lesbian across Latin America organized to hold a Latin American and Caribbean Lesbian Feminist Encuentro in Costa Rica. The location of this encuentros remained undisclosed after the Costa Rican government prohibited the conference and enforced a ban on the entrance of any lesbians into the country. Despite the ban, the encuentro took place, but ended hastily after threats by local men.
After various impromptu lesbian encuentros during the 1994 UN Human Rights conference in Vienna and 1995 UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, the first autonomous Latin American lesbian organization was established in Mexico: The Closet of Sor Juana. This organization has played a pivotal role in the passing of various ant discriminatory legislation for sexual minorities in Mexico. The Closet of Sor Juana’s largest success hitherto has been the passing of legislation which would allow for the marriage of same-sex couples in Mexico.
It is evident that in many countries in Latin America, gays and lesbians have been mobilizing for social change. However, many of the victories (and even their conceptualization) would have not been possible without the influence of the American and international gay liberation movements. The influence of the international community and those in favor of gay rights has greatly improved the state of homosexuals (and the perception of homosexuality) in Latin America. Moreover, it is also imperative to remember that the American and international gay liberation movements are inextricably connected to the influence of the women’s liberation movements. After decades of dissent, many women’s organizations are finding solidarity with gay liberation organizations. Both of these movements have been successful in various ways, and as long as they are around, they will continue to influence and grow off of each other. These movements will continue to prosper just as they have even during repressive regimes, but both gay/lesbian and women’s movements must continue to strive for collective solidarity in the struggle for social justice.

Que pienses?


One Response to “Gay Liberation Movements in Latin America”

  1. mariposaextravagante said

    I just wanted to comment and say that I really enjoy your writing and shared posts in this blog, which I’ve recently discovered. I’m also looking forward to reading the above essay, though the past week has found me overworked and sleep deprived. I have particular interest in gender and sexuality in Latin America, especially in Cuba, and was excited to learn of your thesis. May I ask the disciplinary scope of your study of Queer Nationalisms? What is your source material?

    Bueno, asi me presento y te doy saludos,

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