First Session – Sexuality, States and Political Processes
Morning—August 24 , 2009
The first session of the Latin American Dialogue on Sexuality and Geopolitics was coordinated by Sonia Corrêa, co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW), and Gloria Careaga, member of SPW Steering Committee, co-Secretary General of ILGA and professor in the Psychology Department at the Universidade Nacional Autônoma de Mexico (UNAM). They gave comments on the overview paper, “Sexualities and politics in Latin America: A draft for discussion,” prepared by Rafael de la Dehesa, professor of sociology at the City University of New York (Staten Island Campus), and Mário Pecheny, professor of political science at the Universidade de Buenos Aires.
The authors began with the reflection that to address the region as the unit of analysis always implies the risk of unduly homogenizing highly heterogeneous experiences across countries in political, cultural and sexual concerns. This paper retraces the historical trajectory of debates around sexual and reproductive rights in Latin American countries, identifying structural trends such as the 19th century independences inspired by political liberalism; secularization or laicité, which however retained a strong patriarchal imprint; the sequence of authoritarian regimes across time; the democratizing processes of the last thirty years; the wave of neoliberal policies; and the recent electoral victories of left-wing parties in a large number of countries.
Their analyses also examined key state, social and religious institutions, as well as relevant political actors and actresses that have directly influenced contemporary sexual politics in the region–classical social movements, feminism and sexual diversity movements, HIV/AIDS and sexual work activism, religious groups, and medical sectors among others. This paper also aims at situating the analysis of sexual politics against the background of major debates underway in political science and political sociology about state-society relations and power structures in Latin America.
Pecheny and De la Dehesa examined Latin American sexual politics in relation to what has been a leitmotif of studies and interpretation about the state and politics in Latin America–the question “modernization” or “modernity.” They explained that parallels can be drawn between the debates around sexual politics, citizenship and rights, and described the arguments that have been developed by theorists and researchers in respect to the limits and possibilities experienced by Latin America in terms of engaging with a transnational process of “modernity.”
One clear sign of how sexual politics intersects with current debates about “modernization” or “modernity” in Latin America seems to be the lingua franca of rights (and human rights) that is presently used by its actors and actresses. Regardless of its liberal imprint, the language of rights today is incorporated into the vocabulary of unexpected movements and individuals, far beyond the “Western, white, bourgeois, property owners” who were originally their subjects and main deployers. On the other hand, the proliferation and use of rights language coexists with the incompleteness of Latin American modernity, in particular the permanence of a disproportionate private sphere that more than often implies the contamination of the public sphere by strictly private or even personal and familiar logics:
“… The incapacity of supposedly rationalized state institutions to subordinate the private interest of elites contributes to: clienteles or privileged favor relations that constantly merge with formal state actions; systematic impunity and disparate experiences of what a “state of rights” can mean for different people in the same society; the persistence of social authoritarianism that derives in a sort of stratified citizenship.”
The overview also examined the conceptual definitions of “public policies,” terminology that is fully incorporated in the sexual politics vocabulary across the region. In relation, the authors highlighted that the classical model of public policy that is strictly managerial and limited to the sphere of state action, is presently questioned and eventually overcome. In contemporary political theory, the spheres of action of public policy are not circumscribed anymore to the “national,” but includes local and global dynamics, and principally, involves a plethora of non-state actors.
The authors suggested that public policies in which sexual political actors and actresses are engaged should be conceptualized through a governamentality framework (Foucault 2004; Lascoumes and Le Galès 2007). Multiple and contradictory processes contribute both to maintain and transform social and political orders. As state actions, public policies necessarily combine the use of force and instrumental politics. But they also comprise expressive and communicative dimensions–the production of discourses, symbols and images. Pecheny and la Dehesa consider that expressive public policies constitute, unequivocally, one main characteristic of state responses to sexual politics in Latin America.
The authors point towards one main paradox of politics in general and sexual politics, in particular–the abyssal gap that exists between legal frames and formal public policies and their effective implementation. In all countries, laws and policies exist to protect sexual rights, which however, remain as words on paper. One example is Ecuador whose Constitution was one of the first few in the economic South to include language on sexual orientation as a non justifiable basis of discrimination. However, access to justice is deeply compromised by inequalities and the Catholic Church and other conservative sectors are gaining terrain in their efforts to oppose sexual and reproductive rights. This calls for the recognition that:
“…The proliferation, in the last quarter of the 20th century, of women and feminist movements, LGBT, HIV/AIDS and sex work activism (among other) has transformed the public sphere across the region. However, to more fully understand the gains achieved by these movements as well their limits and challenges ahead, it is crucial to analyze the wider context and historical moment in which these movements have consolidated as well as their connections with other relevant political actors.”
Another key challenge identified by their overview paper refers to how to translate the erotic dimension of life or a notion of erotic justice to law and public policies. Sexuality constitutes a wide and complex domain of desires, thoughts, fantasies, values, behaviors, social and personal relations that are hardly translatable to the logic of state regulation and management. In this process of translation new but also narrow normative views may be crystallized or else this vast and heterogeneous domain of human experience may by dangerously reduced and simplified.
:: COMMENTS ::
In her comments, Gloria Careaga emphasized aspects related to the trajectory of the feminist and lesbian movements that, in her view, should have higher visibility in the overview analysis. She reminded us that sexuality was an important theme in the 1970s feminist agenda, to later lose density. She said that it is usually thought that the struggle for sexual health, reproductive rights and abortion, is enough to take care of sexuality issues. However, the fact is that today the discussions about sexual rights within the feminist field are scarce, weak and, in recent years, feminism has to a large extent inflected attention towards macro issues while restricting, to a large extent, the debates on intimacy or private life to the struggles for legal abortion.
This inevitably reflects on sexual politics at large, as today just in three countries of the region, organic connections have been established between feminist politics, LGBT struggles for rights and sex work activism. Also, although in recent years lesbian groups and initiatives have multiplied–and the LGBT acronym now stats with L – in the majority of countries lesbian visibility is confined to individual leadership and lack a better organized and moral vocal social basis.
Careaga also called attention to the urgent challenge to incorporate an intersectional perspective going beyond sexual politics and it’s boundaries. She explains how both the feminist and LGBT movements “suffer from a middle class bias” that hampers its connections with other social groups, which would be key for the sustainability of democracy in the region. In addition, she underlined how deeply politics has become a complex and contradictory maze in Latin America today.
“The left – right binary frame does not give us enough elements to analyze what is happening around us. A “revolutionary” government in Nicaragua abolished abortion and persecutes feminists, and hides date on hate crimes against trans people, while at the same time decriminalized same sex relations. In contrast, Colombia, currently governed by a conservative party, has made progressive decisions at the juridical level, that recognize and protect same sex unions and a number of public policies to promote LGBT rights are underway.”
Careaga agreed with the analysis developed by de Pecheny and La Dehesa about an abyssal gap between law and public policies, on the one hand, and the realities of sexualities, on the other. But she also suggested that “dead words” are not the privilege of legal and public policy documents, but can also be identified in the discourses deployed by sexual politics movements about their policy achievements. Because, in her view, even when we do gain something in legal or policy terms much yet remains to be done for these gains to effectively transform daily life conditions of those who experience discrimination, violence and absence of rights.
Examining the sexual diversity movement more closely, Careaga recalled that its struggles have concentrated on criminalization, HIV/AIDS and human rights and same sex civil union/marriage. Although gains have been made in these areas that are to be praised, this approach has not yet provided for the construction of a more broad and clear sexual citizenship agenda, which would help diminish stigma and discrimination. Agreeing with the authors, she thinks that the political victories of the last few decades have been effective to fight against violence and discrimination. However, she believes these victories have not expanded the debate in regard to the right to privacy and freedom of expression or pleasure.