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Latin American Literature  
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The Problem of Gay Sensibility

As thorny an issue as homosexual identity is, gay sensibility presents an even greater problem. There continues to be resistance in Latin America to simply making "gay" a nonbiased synonym for the negatively charged "homosexual," especially since, as a foreign-sounding word in Spanish and Portuguese, it is viewed as representative of a foreign ideology.

The notion of gayness has two fundamental problems in the Latin American context. The first is that it tends to be associated with a middle class that is privileged in terms of its economic status, its professionalism, and its opportunities to consume foreign culture--either in the original or in translation--and to travel abroad in order to assimilate an international style.

This association of gayness with middle-class privilege is evident in Jaime Humberto Hermosillo's 1984 film, now virtually a gay classic, Doña Herlinda y su hijo (Doña Herlinda and Her Son); it is the only Latin American film, discounting Babenco's English-language Kiss of the Spider Woman, to be included in the revised edition of Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet.

The film is a brilliant utopian vision of the restructuring of the patriarchal family, whereby bisexuality allows a young doctor to have both a wife (herself a professional) and a child by her and to have his male lover, all of them living happily ever after together, literally, with his mother in a house that she has built for them.

The displacement of a rigid heterosexist patriarchal order by a more open matriarchal one is undoubtedly meaningful for Mexican and Latin American audiences, particularly since the resistant matriarchy in the private sphere has traditionally been accommodating toward gayness, even when the matriarchy is also complicitous with the patriarchy in wanting sons to produce grandsons, as Doña Herlinda clearly also desires.

But Doña Herlinda is a well-to-do widow, and her son belongs to one of the most prestigious and well-paying professions in his society; there is little fear that the insulated cocoon they inhabit--surrounded by the international trappings of their class and behind the protective walls, hedges, and grills of their estate--will ever be disturbed by the police who harass less advantaged gays in the public spaces that are all they can afford to inhabit.

Part of the meaning of Hermosillo's film for Mexicans is that it is set in Guadalajara, not only one of Mexico's most traditionally Catholic cities (the opening shot is of the 450-year-old cathedral) but also one where homoeroticism is very much on display and frequently and vigorously repressed, at least in its many public manifestations.

Several major gay novels like Brazil's Nivaldo e Jerônimo (1981) by Darcy Penteado, Mexico's En jirones (1985; In Tatters) by Zapata or Utopía gay (1983; Gay Utopia) by José Rafael Calva, Argentina's La otra mejilla (1986; The Other Cheek) by Oscar Hermes Villordo, or Venezuela's Toda una dama (1988; A Real Lady) by Isaac Chocrón all involve members of the middle class, especially professionals, who are able to construct their lives in accordance with international models.

Indeed, these characters view both their conflict with their society and their opportunities for an alternate sensibility as the consequence of their access to extranational perspectives. The point is not that there is somehow something amiss with these texts, but that they must be read with an awareness of their participation in the controversies of national versus international culture in Latin American artistic and critical circles.

The second problem associated with a gay identity as it has been promulgated within Euro-American culture is the danger of indiscriminately including homoerotic practices among social groups excluded from the Euro-American model.

In the United States, the pursuit of marginalized identities has resulted in the recovery of a submerged homoeroticism in some Native American societies (whether tagged as berdache clans, ritual practices, or quotidian behavior) and an interest in exploring similar phenomena in other marginalized groups.

For example, Cherríe Moraga, in both her play Giving Up the Ghost (1986) and in her personal ethnic memoir Loving in the War Years (1983), discriminates between what she sees as a destructive lesbianism in Anglo society (because it allegedly duplicates macho stereotypes) and a productive lesbianism in Chicano society (where the Hispanic emphasis on the dignity and sensitivity of interpersonal relations counters the violence of the Anglo world).

She affirms a strong and vibrant lesbian continuum in Hispanic culture that affords her a way of coming to terms with her own personhood. Terri de la Peña's novel Margins (1992) details a similar pattern.

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