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Beneath the Equator:
Cultures of Desire, Male Homosexuality
and Emerging Gay Communities in Brazil

Book Review by Peter M. Beattie

Beneath the Equator: Cultures of Desire, Male Homosexuality and Emerging Gay Communities in Brazil, by Richard Parker, Routledge, 1999, 288 pages
Richard Parker's title draws on the phrase that compares early modern Brazil to the North Atlantic world -"beneath the equator, sin does not exist" - to better effect than most authors seduced by perhaps the most cited catch phrase of colonial travel literature. The author correctly emphasizes that sexuality has been a significant way of distinguishing between the Northern and Southern hemispheres as well as Western and Non-western cultures.

But, these cultural, moral, and sexual dichotomies are ultimately untenable, because "Sexualities, like cultures, can no longer be thought of as neatly unified, internally coherent systems" (1). As Parker notes, the gay agenda in Brazil is no longer a "hidden transcript." Issues important to gay leaders and to other men who participate in homoerotic culture have been discussed by Brazil's Congress, the military high command, and religious leaders. His work suggests ways that homoeroticism illuminates broader trends and processes at work in Brazil and other nations over the last two decades.

This informative study is based on almost 15 years of research conducted by the author and, in more recent years, a team of collaborative researchers dedicated to the important and admirable work of promoting AIDS awareness and prevention by studying male homoerotic practices, attitudes, and identities in Brazil. Researchers consulted more than 1,800 informants in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Fortaleza. Thus, this study provides both chronological and geographic depth, and allows Parker to measure changes over time.

For instance, he notes that those who engage in homoerotic practices and who identify themselves with the term "gay" has increased dramatically, moving from only 5% of the interview sample in 1989 to 17% by 1995(48-9). It is the rise of this international identity of self-proclaimed "gay" (sometimes nationalistically rendered in Portuguese as guei) communities that Parker seeks to place in context with local cultures of homoerotic commerce, politics, and romance.

Before the 1930s, few men in Brazil or elsewhere conceived of a "homosexual" identity based on a sexual preference for one's own gender. Rather, one's role in same sex intercourse tended to reinforce traditional age and gender hierarchies and identities. Most Brazilians understood the active partner in same sex intercourse as masculine and virile, while they denigrated the passive partner as an effeminate gender transgressor, or at best, as a "boy." Parker explores why this and other sex and gender based identifications begin to change in the late 1900s.

To illuminate how local circumstances and levels of development have influenced the formation of "gay" identities, Parker compares Brazil's second largest urban center, Rio de Janeiro (with more than 10 million inhabitants) and Fortaleza, a city of almost 3 million in Brazil's less economically developed Northeast.

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As one might expect, he finds that "gay" identity and community are more fully developed in Rio de Janeiro than in Fortaleza, and that global economic trends played the most important role in shaping their emergence. Predictably, migration, urbanization, tourism, and industrialization are credited with changing the relationship between individuals, families, and the state (as the author notes, there are echoes of Gilberto Freyre's classic analysis).

These changes have given new space for the redefinition of identities in terms of sexuality as it has accelerated contact with the values of the "Anglo-European" world (a troubling term that the author never bothers to define). These communities are built upon different axes: areas of homoerotic cruising and prostitution, gay-owned businesses that cater to those engaged in homoerotic culture, and gay political, health, and social organizations.

Thus, the international identity expressed in the term "gay" is overtaking the homegrown and more flexible concept of entendido to describe men who prefer sex and romantic companionship with other men.

Clearly, this is an ambitious project for one volume, and the author frankly admits many of the limitations of the analysis and even the "unsurprising" nature of many of his findings (223-26). One area where the author might have added to the suppleness of his argument lies in the very ideology and symbolism of the most powerful idea of community over the past two centuries: nationalism.

The rise of nationalism has been identified with the creation of heterosexual identity formation (see e.g., Doris Sommer's critique of Michel Foucault and Benedict Anderson on this count in Foundational Fictions). The question of homosexual and heterosexual identity formation are elemental parts of nationalist concepts of family. In short, it is hard to historicize homosexual identity without some considerations of changes in heterosexual and national identities.

Admittedly this is a tall order, and the author has set his field of focus on male homoerotic culture, but a consideration of these issues at some level seems obligatory if one is to study sexuality as part of a broader system of social meanings.

In the text, this problem arises not so much at the conceptual level as in the way Parker sometimes portrays heterosexuality as nearly unidimensional and ahistorical when compared to same sex eroticism. When hetero-identity is discussed the reader encounters "traditional culture," "traditional expectations of masculinidade," "normative patterns of masculinity and femininity," and the "straight-laced world of heterosexual normality" (p. 35, 74).

Where homoeroticism is as diverse and as colorful as the rainbow flag, heterosexuality appears as monochrome and reactionary as a rerun episode of "Father Knows Best." Just as there are homoerotic subcultures, there are heteroerotic subcultures; as Parker notes elsewhere, the latter often harbored the former. Sexual marginalization occurs both within and between hetero- and homosexual identities.

Parker's study suggests how an exploration of changing heteroerotic attitudes might deepen understandings of homoerotic identities and larger historical processes. For example, new heterosexual terms also emerged in the mid-1900s, such as macho (as Mathew Guttman's Meanings of Macho and others have shown).

Why did Latin American masculinities and the term macho become an international reference point for sometimes positive but mostly negative gender traits associated with the abuse of socially sanctioned male prerogatives in the mid-1900s? How is the history of this term bound up in the struggle for greater national autonomy, both economic and political, in Latin America in the mid-1900s? How might both feminist and gay movements in the "Anglo-European" world have used cultural chauvinism, consciously or not, to point out the abuses of sexism and homophobia?

The term macho is frequently used by queer studies to describe heterosexual hegemony without a critical or historical assessment of the term. Do most contemporary heterosexual Brazilian men identify themselves with the term macho?

Nationalism and militarist movements of both the right and left in Latin America and beyond have demonstrated an obsessive concern with purifying "national morality" and protecting the "national" family. This preoccupation was and is often given vent by defining and repressing those who practice "unnatural" sex.

Is it mere coincidence that Stonewall coincided with anti-militarist movements in the United States and that the Brazilian gay movement began to form during the struggle to overthrow an authoritarian military regime? How have critiques of the familial symbolism of nationalism and the relative quiescence of nationalist fervor in much of the Western world opened up new possibilities for the reorganization of cultural, sexual, and racial identities?

Parker correctly pinpoints the AIDS epidemic and violence against those who involve themselves in homoerotic commerce and culture as major rallying points that have united diverse constituencies to battle for resources, protection, and recognition of "gay" rights. In the absence of these common enemies, what holds together these homoerotic communities?

Many of the barriers to the development of gay identity seem similar to those faced by feminism and the black movement in Brazil. To what extent does an organization emphasize that its members primary political, cultural, and sexual identity be "gay," "feminist," or "black"?

By touching on these issues, I began to wonder if reference to the anthropological and political science theory of social movements (e.g., John Burdick's Blessed Anastasia) could help researchers and activists critically evaluate the sociopolitical significance and strategies of gay identity movements, which Parker claims to be one of the most "powerful forces in contemporary life at the end of the twentieth century" (231). How do we get a sociological handle on such an assertion?

Though based on some 1,800 interviews, only forty-seven of these informants are cited in the text. Thirty-one of these live in Rio, making it by far the most fully represented research setting. Some methodological clarification on how interviewees were selected and used in the text might have been helpful to assess how widely shared the opinions voiced are.

Even within this smaller universe, some informants cited seem to get more play than others (e.g., Jorge). At times, one feels the need for the author to back up the observations of interviewees with those of other informants or secondary sources to assess the accuracy of some assertions.

This would help the reader determine the distance that sometimes exists between individual perceptions and larger processes that do not always reflect individual experiences. While descriptions included how informants identified in terms of class, employment, and geographic origins, I was struck that they did not include racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual self-definitions.

Might not these dimensions contribute to a fuller consideration of the interviewees' perspectives? Clearly, Parker has conducted some path breaking work on Brazilian sexuality, but there is at points an excess of self referential citations. In the 24 pages of Chapter Two, the author cites his own work 34 times (47, if one counts further citations in the notes). Parker cites other important and appropriate work, but not with the same ubiquity as his own.

Despite these few shortcomings, Parker's work brings together a mural portrait of the dilemmas, paradoxes, and unexpected reconfigurations of gay identity and symbols in contemporary Brazil. It will serve as a valuable survey, particularly for those unfamiliar with the growing body of work on homoeroticism in Brazil, because of the study's ambitious breadth.
Reviewed by Peter M. Beattie who teaches for Michigan State University.

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