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Latin American Literature  
 
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Any attempt to discuss a lesbian and gay heritage for Latin America must inevitably confront the problem of the impact of dominant cultures, such as those of major world centers (usually European or North American) and recognized establishment groups (typically white, middle-class, and male), on a cluster of societies that might at one time have been characterized as Third World or dependent and perhaps now could profitably be examined from the perspective of marginality.

Both the medico-criminal concept of homosexuality (homosexuality defined as either an illness or a crime or as both) and the agenda whereby homosexuality is affirmed as a legitimate sexual identity (today often called theory, as a term to cover both gay and lesbian sensibilities) are dominant-society ideas that have only an imperfect and even a distorting applicability to Latin America.

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The misapplication of these concepts to Latin America especially distorts if we fail to take into account the region's enormous diversity, with its different geographies, cultures, linguistic traditions, classes, and ethnic and racial traditions.

If one speaks globally about Latin America, it is difficult to avoid being superficial, and if one speaks about specific Latin American societies, there is the risk of partializing phenomena, in the sense that the range of data may not be extensive enough to allow for persuasive conclusions.

Adolfo Caminha

To be sure, Brazil is virtually a continent of its own, and its traditions evince considerable complexity. Adolfo Caminha's O Bom-Crioulo (1895; The Good Nigger, but published in English with its original Portugese title) is the first Latin American novel to deal with homosexuality as a theme, whereas Aluísio Azevedo's O cortiço (1890; The Tenement) contains the first scenes of lesbian seduction and sexual acts.

Caminha, while not eschewing the tragic mode of homosexuality as a psychological problem, attracts attention today for dwelling on the sincerity of the black seaman's passion and on the way in which his homoeroticism is persecuted by agents of patriarchal order: military discipline, compulsory heterosexuality, and white racism.

Caminha introduces into Latin American sociocultural thought a view of homosexuality as tied to larger issues of patriarchal social order. This view continues to the present and contrasts with the North American emphasis on questions of personal identity and internal psychological processes.

Notwithstanding some exceptions, from O Bom-Crioulo on, homoeroticism in Latin American literature is repeatedly linked to collective history. Thus, it is no coincidence that the emergence of homosexuality as a frequent subject in Latin American writing goes hand in hand with resistance to authoritarian military dictatorships that brand anything other than monogamous heterosexual procreative matrimony as a threat to the social fabric.

Concomitantly, by attributing homosexual identity only to the insertee in sexual relations, these writings implicitly question the legitimacy of femininity in its various "natural" and "imitated" versions. This is one reason the carnival, with its strong (though contained) element of male-to-female cross-dressing, especially in Brazil, and transvestism in general may be more outrageous in Latin America than it is in Europe or the United States.

Aluísio Azevedo

Although Azevedo's O cortiço establishes a tradition for the recognition of lesbian sexuality in Brazil and Latin America, it is written from a masculinist point of view and depicts the seduction of a local girl by a French courtesan. Yet Azevedo is quite forthright in describing the details of lesbian passion, and the experience unleashes the young girl's blocked menstrual development in a way that is subsequently received with joy.

Here, then, lesbian passion is, if only left-handedly, legitimated as a threshold experience that leads to procreative normalcy. Thanks to the agency of the foreign rouée, French sexual practices, like French culture in general, proves beneficial to native flowerings, all within a context of the harshest facts of life as economic transaction. Neither denouncing nor glorifying homosexuality, Azevedo treats lesbianism as part of the maturational process of his modest Brazilian protagonists on their way out of the tenement.

The Lack of a Homosexual Identity

Both "homosexuality" and "gay sensibility" are improper terms to describe same-sex sexuality in Latin America to the extent that these terms describe a configuration of the social order that may correspond to British or North American society, but not to Latin American. In Latin America, homosociality and the division between private and public life have always included opportunities for same-sex relations that do not necessarily provide for anything like the construction of a homosexual identity.

The indigenous cultures of Latin America furnish traces of both ritual homosexuality and pansexual eroticism, traces of a sexuality that both complements procreative heterosexuality and resists five hundred years of an imposed Judeo-Christian sexual morality.

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