South-North Dialogues on Queer Epistemologies, Embodiments and Activisms
Edited By Elizabeth Sara Lewis, Rodrigo Borba, Branca Falabella Fabrício and Diana de Souza Pinto
South-North Dialogues on Queer Epistemologies, Embodiments and Activisms is composed of research presented at the fourth international Queering Paradigms Conference (QP4), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In line with the QP project ethos of bringing together diverse epistemological and geographical allegiances, this volume intends to contribute to building a queer postcolonial critique of the current politics of queer activism and of queer knowledge production and circulation. However, rather than perpetuating the North-South dichotomy, the papers gathered here are an effort to establish global dialogues that crisscross those axes, as well as attempts at queering epistemologies, socio-political bonds, and bodies, embodiments and identities. They endeavour to trouble unequal geographies of knowledge – namely the North as an exporter of theories and the South as their importer; the North as a producer of knowledge and the South as its object of study – hosting enormous potential for reinvention.
Possible Appropriations and Necessary Provocations for a Teoria Cu
I’ve been reading Testo Yonqui (Preciado 2008; “Testo Junkie” in English), avidly, almost addictively. The reading works like the testosterone gel that Beatriz Preciado spreads over her shoulders and belly: it stimulates me. Chapter 8: “Pharmacopower”. Preciado writes about popular knowledge and the markedly female use of ancestral herbs; I imagine Preciado using not testosterone chemical gel, but ayahuasca (a psychedelic brew made from plants and used by Amazonian peoples). Feeling less European and thus less masculine, she loses her gender. She lets herself be forest, shaman, Iansã (a spirit entity from the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé faith) in order to think about Judith Butler while listening to the myth of the “Diabo sem Cu”, or “Devil without an Asshole”, which explains how certain Amazonian fish were created. According to the tale, the Devil without an Asshole had a rectum below the mouth, but a neighbor offered to change its location to the usual spot near the legs where the human anus is found. However, the neighbor, in order to get revenge for past misdeeds the devil had committed, speared the Devil without an Asshole through the length of his body, gutting and killing him. The devil’s intestines spilled into the river and turned into fish, which explains why certain fish species in the Rio Negro have anuses close to their mouths.
Now we shall set the myth aside and return to the Spanish philosopher Beatriz Preciado, one of the people who knows best how to speak about the asshole in the political sense, as I will make clear later in this chapter. Even though she is well educated and can read and write in three languages, Preciado does not seem to be aware of the knowledges that are produced here in Latin America, in Brazil, in the “asshole of the world”, so to speak. She is not alone in her silence. In fact, she is well accompanied ← 31 | 32 → by illustrious figures such as Michel Foucault, who taught me that power and knowledge are irretrievably intertwined. I refer specifically to Preciado, however, because in Brazil she has been identified as a representative of Queer Theory. She has even been considered an author who advances her views by criticizing Judith Butler’s proposals. In this sense, Preciado would, thus, be more transgressive since she confers centrality to the materiality of the body in her writings and emphasizes its political and subversive uses. Her book El Manifiesto Contra-sexual (“The contra-sexual manifesto” in English), published in Spain in 2002, has circulated around the Brazilian academic scene, especially since it was mentioned in feminist sociologist Berenice Bento’s 2006 book A (re)invenção do corpo: sexualidade e gênero na experiência transexual (“The (re)invention of the body: sexuality and gender in the transsexual experience”) – a work of national importance in gender and sexuality studies, especially queer studies.
In spite of the fact that Preciado’s books haven’t been translated into Portuguese (only a small number of her papers and interviews have), her theoretical production has begun to appear frequently in research papers published in Brazil, which makes it possible to say that Preciado and Butler share the title of “queen of queer” in this country. This title hasn’t spread beyond university walls, however, in the sense that both authors, despite being recognized in academia, haven’t directly influenced lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activism. This fact is paradoxical, since many of their concepts have been adopted in different political agendas in a manner that is relatively in step with their theoretical proposals. As strange as this may seem, there are historical and political reasons that justify this “authorless”, even fragmented, appropriation of their theories.
Differently from what occurred in the USA, queer studies entered Brazil through university doors and not via the political action of social movements. Obviously, this trajectory is shaped by historical, political and cultural matters that contribute to the singularity of local knowledges. This process must be discussed, since, beyond merely advancing a specific national theoretical line of investigation named “teoria cu”, my main objective in this chapter is to problematize how we have absorbed, discussed and ressignified queer theorists’ contributions locally. In the course of this exercise, I couldn’t help noticing that, despite local singularities, in ← 32 | 33 → Brazil our initial move was above all an attempt to apply queer theoretical and conceptual findings, instead of challenging them and, thus, building our own theories (even if in dialogue with what was being discussed in other countries). This fact has been changing in research and intellectual production in the field of gender and sexuality. However, we still adopt a worshiping posture towards European and North American theoretical productions while we are relatively ignorant of the contributions made by our continental neighbors, with whom we frequently share very similar social, political, economic and cultural scenarios. Symptomatically, very rarely do we converse with the rest of Latin America. It’s as if the Portuguese language has confined us to an island within a vast sea of Spanish speakers. Too close together, too far apart. Indeed, we know each other very little. We read each other even less.
But I now want to return to the promise I made a few lines ago and present, impressionistically, the local marks that make queer an academic rather than an activist discourse. Here, it is necessary to be careful in order not to reinforce dangerous dichotomies, such as those that separate theoretical allegiances from political positions. Queer thinking on Brazilian turf has, since its academic beginnings, been a combative theory. I hasten to affirm that Queer Theory is, for me, a place for political struggle, an arena for clashes of ideas that attempt to challenge the naturalization of a series of oppressions. It highlights the compulsory character of heterosexuality; it deconstructs binarisms that stiffen possibilities for transformation; it politicizes desire; and it points to the cruelty of hegemonic discourses, which often don a kind of scientificism that denies humanity to certain human beings and treats them instead as abject things.
Guacira Lopes Louro, perhaps one of the first Brazilian scholars amongst us to write about queer theory, presents its theoretical endeavor as being concerned with normalization “come from where it may” (Louro 2001: 546, my translation). Queer Theory is seen as a positionality that challenges canonical academic production and political movements that had surrendered to the hygienism motivated by the Aids crisis. An antiassimilationist flag is raised upon adopting the term “queer”, suggested by Teresa De Lauretis. This is how queer studies have been perceived in Brazil since the beginning of the 2000s: as a theory of action and reflection ← 33 | 34 → able to make use of Foucault, Derrida, feminism, postcolonial studies and cultural studies, in order to challenge not only binary heterosexuality, but also the matrix of thinking it corroborates and sustains.
Certainly, queer hasn’t been understood unanimously in this way. Some scholars saw in the queer theoretical and conceptual framework a possibility to update Lesbian and Gay Studies, which have been around since the 1980s in Brazil. From my point of view, this appropriation reinforced exactly what the North American production questioned: the idea of a “minority” and all the political and theoretical implications of accepting such a classification as legitimate in talking about certain behaviors and groups. Queer’s intention was to think about how the margins are constituted and how they become fixed and dangerous places inhabited by supposedly worthless people; its intention was not to suggest those people accept the place of minorities.
In Brazil in the 1980s we witnessed the recrudescence of Aids and the deflation of the homosexual political movement. There was a wide migration of activists to Aids NGOs, which started to receive funding from international organizations via the Programa Nacional de DST/Aids (National Program for STDs and Aids). This complex process, however, was reversed in the 21st century, influenced by many social and political factors, including the depletion of financial resources for the Aids NGOs. After the “heroic” stage of the militancy against the spread of Aids came to an end, activists began to frame their demands in terms of sexual rights, slowly strengthening not only the GLBT movement (gays, lesbians, bisexuals, travestis3 and transsexuals), but also the women’s movement and the racial equality movement.
Thus, queer studies began to be recognized in Brazil while we were experiencing the strengthening of identity politics, within which there were those associated with the political movement previously known as GLBT (the acronym was rearranged to LGBT after 2008, in order to give greater visibility to lesbians). In this sort of climate, a theory proclaiming itself as non-identity based seemed potentially depoliticizing. It didn’t take long for some leaders of the Brazilian LGBT movement, many of whom had been educated through militancy against the spread of Aids, to speak out against “the queers”. In other words, they didn’t exactly aim ← 34 | 35 → their refusals and accusations at a set of theoretical propositions – which were in fact little read outside the university environment –, but rather at certain groups within academia. Brazilian sociologist Richard Miskolci discusses this recent scenario at great length. He writes:
Currently, when one says “we” within the Brazilian LGBT movement – this happens more strongly in some States than in others – it seems that those who mentally split the movement in two antagonist groups move within a dualism: “we”, the LGBTs as opposed to they, “the queers”. This split between “identity-bound” and “queer” makes little difference for the rest of Brazilian society, which knows only one movement, currently called LGBT. This internal division hides a contention between the established group, which fears losing its hegemony, and those who are allegedly new arrivals, a threat to it. What is at stake, thus, is not what defines the “we” of the LGBT movement, which is condemned to keep reinventing itself at every moment; at stake is the role of the movement within the new scenario of Brazilian sexual politics. (2011: 44, my translation)
In this new scenario we are building a queer field of inquiry. This field is shaped to a great extent by the recent process of redemocratization in the country (since the end of the 1964–1985 military dictatorship) and, even more recently, not only by our economic growth on the international stage, but also by the still alarming indices of inequalities.
Social inequalities have been decreasing since 2001, and last year, according to the Social Indicators Index of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), Brazil reached its lowest rate of economic inequality in the last 30 years. However, we still have a considerable number of urban households without basic infrastructure (30%, according to government statistics). With regards to the job market, women are still enormously disadvantaged, especially the youngest and less white ones. In domestic employment, for example, 68% of workers are black, of which the majority are women. What makes Brazil remarkable is the survival of historical inequalities amidst a fast modernization process (Scalon 2011). In education, recent data show that among the young adult population (18 to 24 years of age) who self-identify as black, around only 10% were enrolled in or had completed undergraduate studies. Among the white young adult population, this index reaches over 25%. The average number of years of university studies of the black population is 6.7 years, which is ← 35 | 36 → also lower than the indexes of the population who self-identify as white (8.4 years).
The fact that these are recent changes – happening over the last 30 years – reveals the scars of a colonial past, from which we’ve inherited political vices such as clientelism and a latent inferiority complex, besides, needless to say, the Portuguese language. Portuguese is a stranded language both in its Iberian origins and its colonial propagation. Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, São Tome and Principé, Macau, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau and Brazil have very little dialogue amongst themselves. As we are geographically separated, even stranded, from one another, continental distances become cultural distances. In our pretense to be an “emerging nation” we are used to locating all those countries “no cu do mundo”, literally “in the asshole of the world”, a vernacular expression we employ to mean that they are all too far away (similar to “in the middle of nowhere” in English). In order to measure distances, we need a point of reference. When in our everyday vulgarity we refer to the asshole of the world, we are actually implying that these are all places far from “civilization”, which is certainly somewhere in central Europe or in the USA. Yes, we have been good students of positivism. All one needs to do is look to our national flag, which displays the Comtean phrase “Ordem e Progresso” – Order and Progress.
In the anatomized geography of the world, we often refer to the place we come from, or where we may have been later confined to, as “the asshole of the world”. When we say this, we recognize as legitimate a mapping of the world’s geography onto the body, and vice versa. In this metaphor, the rectum is situated as the most peripheral organ possible, linked to situations of extreme geographic and/or socio-political marginality. If the world has an asshole, it must logically have a head; a head that thinks, that is “up there”, somewhere northwards, where heads are generally understood to be. It is also important to note that inhabitants of the cosmopolitan cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are not exempt from the perception of living in a peripheral place, since deep social contrasts systematically create friction between class inequalities and lifestyles. Living in neighborhoods with good urban infrastructure doesn’t free the inhabitants from the sensation of being immersed in a bigger context – in this case, the national one, which is historically marked by social, economic and political dynamics. These ← 36 | 37 → dynamics have led countries such as Brazil to be identified as “underdeveloped”, “third world” or “developing”. These categorizations have reverberated internally and marked our perceptions of who and where we are.
The physiological metaphor of living in “the asshole of the world” sketches out a political and epistemological order, which, in turn, designates where knowledge is produced and where theoretical experimentation is conducted. This very geopolitics of knowledge also tells us in which languages science is produced, and, through potent and deep silences, indicates which human languages are exclusively “producers of folklore or culture, but not of knowledge/theory” (Mignolo 2000, cited in Grosfoguel 2008: 24, my translation).
Perhaps it’s time I discussed the meanings of “cu”. As was previously mentioned, “cu” means “asshole” in Brazilian Portuguese (although in Portugal it means only “buttocks”). The English translation, however, generates unwanted polysemic resonances, as in Brazilian Portuguese “asshole” references only the physical orifice, not the problematic individual (i.e. someone who is an “asshole” or “jerk”). With regards to the uses of the term in Portuguese, we must highlight that one certainly cannot speak of the cu in academic contexts. Even in Portugal, where it is part of the vocabulary of respectable ladies and well-behaved children, cu still wouldn’t be appropriate for an academic paper or be included as part of a theoretical framework. In Brazil, we use the word “bunda” (of African origins) to refer to the buttocks, while the Portuguese and the Spanish use “cu” and “culo”, respectively, for the same ends. For we Brazilians, only the excretory orifice deserves such a name. Due to its associations with waste, in Brazil, like many other places, cu is related to swearing, to being offensive, to dirtiness. It also reminds us of anal sex, a kind of sexual practice that is often viewed as transgressive even when practiced by heterosexual couples. However, in the local sexual imaginary, anal sex is intimately linked to gay men. Cu is as exciting as it is repulsive; that’s why it is queer. At the same time, it is important to observe that saying “queer” in Brazilian Portuguese doesn’t mean anything. “Queer” doesn’t hurt anyone’s ears; to the contrary, it has a soft sound (“quee-ar”), as if it were a caress rather than an offense. Faces don’t become flushed and voices don’t choke when we read, write or pronounce the word “queer” in conferences. Thus, the discomfort the ← 37 | 38 → term provokes in English-speaking countries is erased here by the softness of the vowels we Brazilians insist on placing everywhere. Thus, the North American theoretical model’s intention of reappropriating an offensive word in order to politicize it has been lost in Brazil.
It becomes more embarrassing to accept that we speak from the margins, from borders that are far from aseptic, from orifices and interdictions, when, instead of using the polite sound of queer, we proclaim ourselves as cu theorists. I am not defending a translation exercise of this contemporary line of thought to fit our climate. To speak of teoria cu is, above all, an anthropophagical exercise in which we feed ourselves from the impressive contributions of scholars from the so-called North. We should think about them, but we should also claim our place in this “tradition” of thought. I believe that we are truly contributing to nurturing this wide set of knowledges about bodies, sexualities, desires, biopolitics and geopolitics.
Resuming the aforementioned discussions advanced by Walter Mignolo, I often think that we’ve made a pact with those “truths” produced by Western epistemology, composed of hard binarisms: North/South, center/periphery, developed/undeveloped, white/black and rational/passionate. These dichotomies reinforce what anthropologist Johannes Fabian conceived of as “allochronic discourse”, the results of practices in which the “Other” is situated as speaking in a different time from that of the owner of the discourse (Ruiseco and Vargas 2009: 200). A view of the Other as “backwards” springs from this discursive elaboration, since the Other’s ways of living are described as rooted in modernity’s past and understood to be enemies of progress, irredeemably cast into an abyss that is temporally and spatially removed from the West.
That is to say, “Europe” is conceived of and constructed as the only cradle of modernity; as “aseptic and self-produced”, historically formed without any contact with other cultures (Castro-Gómez, 2000: 152). The Other and his “backwardness” are also isolated. His poverty is attributed to himself, to his inadequacy and his underdevelopment, which makes it possible to ignore the historical reasons behind the problems he faces. (Ruiseco and Vargas 2009: 200–201, my translation)
By separately constructing each dichotomic pole (“we/they”, “West/Rest”, “civilized/barbarian”) in isolation, an important fact is hidden from ← 38 | 39 → view: that meaning is always construed in relationships and not in isolated essences. This is what Jacques Derrida ( 1995) called “the logic of supplementarity”. Discursive operations of this sort allow us to naturalize differences by linking opposing pairs only through a simple negation of difference. They ignore a view of both poles as constitutive parts of the same system, in which hegemony is only constructed via a necessary opposition to something that is situated as inferior and subordinate.
In school, we Latin Americans are taught that we are part of the triumphant story of modernity. The truth, however, is that the fact that we have learned to read our history in this fashion only reinforces our subalternity. After all, it was at our school desks4 that we learned that the theories produced in certain geo-historical spaces and written in languages such as English, French and German are the most “advanced” and possess an unquestionable universal value. According to Mignolo (1999), an Argentine professor of literature and anthropology, our epistemologies have also been colonized.
We’ve been imaginatively confronting these frontiers for some time now. When I use “imaginatively”, I’m drawing inspiration, of course, from Arjun Appadurai, who writes,
This dimension of what I have called “the work of the imagination” is not entirely divorced from the imagination as a creative faculty, reflected in matters of style, fashion, desire and strivings for wealth. But it is also a crucible for the everyday work of survival and reproduction. It is the place where matters of wealth and well being, of taste and desire, of power and resistance come together. This analysis of the role of the imagination as a popular, social, collective fact in the era of globalization recognizes its split character. On the one hand, it is in and through the imagination that modern citizens are disciplined and controlled, by states, markets and other powerful interests. But it is also the faculty through which collective patterns of dissent and new designs for collective life emerge. (1999: 231)
Appadurai makes what I believe to be a precise and penetrating reading of how subaltern peoples have taken advantage of the technologies of communication and seduction of the present to infiltrate into the breaches of what Preciado calls the global sex-race-capital system (Preciado in interview with Carrillo, 2007).
With our well-oiled imaginations, we perceive that the frontiers drawn between the North and the South are more porous, fractal and penetrable ← 39 | 40 → than many would have us believe. Centers always have their peripheries, and peripheries, in turn, always have their centers. It is precisely the ideas of these peripheral centers that have impressed me, as they have been sufficiently potent to transform into texts and travel the world over.
I turn now to Brazilian writer and poet Oswald de Andrade’s (1928) Manifesto Antropófago (“Anthropophagic Manifesto”), a work of great importance to the Brazilian modernist movement. In the Manifesto, Andrade celebrates Brazilian miscegenation and the Brazilian population’s “anthropophagic” ability to transform contributions from other peoples in something markedly national. Metaphorically, it is as if we ate the foreigner, assimilating him without leaving behind what we are, while simultaneously keeping within ourselves that which the foreigner had that was of interest to us. Proposing a creative translation of part of the Manifesto, “it’s not just crusaders that have catechized our barbarous science, but also the fugitives of a civilization we are eating, because we are strong, like the Iara of the fresh waters” (1928: 7, my translation). The last part of Andrade’s sentence originally read, “… because we are as strong and vengeful as the red-footed tortoise”. Instead of the tortoise, I opt for the Iara, our indigenous mermaid who is said to live in the deep, fresh Amazonian waters, because she has the power to use her singing to seduce men for pleasure or on a whim. Once upon a time, the mermaid was a human warrior, but she was almost killed by her brothers while she slept because they were jealous of her strength. However, before they could carry out the deed, Iara awoke due to her acute hearing and killed her brothers in order to escape. Fearing her father’s reaction, she decided to flee, but was caught and thrown into the river, a place of death for many Amazonian peoples. The fish, however, saved her, turning her into a mermaid.
Let us return now, from this brief explanation of folklore and the Brazilian imaginary, to the Anthropophagic Manifesto. The fugitives of whom I spoke earlier in my translation of Andrade’s work are the escaping subjects of the central peripheries: the people whose subjectivities are marked and devalued because of the color of their skin, the pathologization of their desires and the belittling of their unorthodox science. These are the people that interest me for their political potential: the poor assholes of the assholes of the center of the Western universe.
← 40 | 41 → However, even when I find myself enchanted by the literature produced in the US and Europe, as I anthropophagically devour the texts, I must ponder how the relationship that leads to their production and my consumption is still quite unequal. This contact has not yet resulted in dialogue, in more horizontal exchanges. In the words of Ramón Grosfoguel, we are still locked in a vertical monologue (2006: 40).
We still display the historical and cultural marks that constitute us as peripheral, and these marks also appear, of course, in our papers and reflections. When we think of race, color, class and sexualities, we cannot forget our local peculiarities. As Miskolci writes, “the ideal of the nation that has guided policies and social practices”, an ideal that orients our desire as a nation, was “molded by elite fantasies regarding whiteness” (2012: 28–29, my translation). These fantasies were necessarily connected to a specific regime of the erotic; a regime that racialized sex, linked class and color, and sexualized non-whites in a disparaging fashion. This regime can still be seen in Brazil today. This is one of the reasons why we must construct and sharpen our own conceptual and theoretical tools, for without them, how will we ever be able to perceive this peculiar reality?
The many expressions of drag that appear in Brazil, for example, aren’t the same as the drag described by Butler in Chapter 3 of Gender Trouble (1990). We don’t exactly have the kind of workshop-produced “drag kings” that Preciado describes. We can’t talk about homosexuals in the same terms David Halperin uses, or about Aids in the way that Michael Warner does. Our closet isn’t shaped like the one described by Eve Sedgwick. In short, our realities are different from those described by the queer Fantastic Five. And, although some of these names are more familiar to us than others, this is the bibliography that has arrived in our midst with the most salience from the Euro-American queer territories.
I would like to think about this literature precisely because it arrived at a moment in which we were haunted by so many transformations, challenged by a Brazil that was changing in front of foreign eyes even before we ourselves could internally comprehend the dimensions of those changes. We were still taking baby steps towards a less phallocentric vocabulary, a less canonical science and a less heterosexist grammar, and we were strongly ← 41 | 42 → impressed by those readings from abroad. It’s interesting to note that even the people who were against “queer” assimilated its vocabulary, at least partially. Terms such as “compulsory heterosexuality”, “heteronormative regime”, “abjection” and “performativity” rapidly appeared in political forums, academic arenas and the staid pages of scientific journals. At the risk of offering a dilettante analysis, I think that this situation has something to do with the baby steps I mentioned earlier: the search for new references, for a queered lexicon, fresh and unblemished by psychological/psychiatric, medical and juridical knowledges.
Much has changed since the 1980s, when we were terrorized by moral panic regarding Aids, when an outbreak of medical ignorance and hysteria resuscitated medieval words such as “plague”, and 19th century terms like “homosexualism” and “perversion” sprung up once again in the mass media. Faced with this scenario, we sought escape routes.
It was necessary to stand up and fight against this repressive wave, a true “witch hunt” that can be better explained by those who dramatically lived it, such as the writer and homosexual activist João Silvério Trevisan. In his book Devassos no Paraíso: A homossexualidade no Brasil, da colônia à atualidade ( 2004; “Fornicators in Paradise: Homosexuality in Brazil, from the colonial years to the present”), he narrates in a biographical manner how frightened he was when he came face to face with graffiti scrawled on the wall of a public restroom in São Paulo: “make your contribution to the progress of humanity: kill one gay man per day” (ibid: 450, my translation). This piece of graffiti translated in vernacular terms what the newspapers had been saying through the frequent use of medical authorities’ testimonials, such as that of Vicente Amato Neto, head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at the School of Medicine of the University of São Paulo, who
urged health and hygiene agencies to act with “the necessary force” instead of “supporting irregularities, such as abnormal sexual acts and vices”. After all, “accepting that everyone has the right to do whatever one wants with one’s body is a full-fledged confession of irresponsibility”, Amato Neto said. And he ended by jokingly suggesting that the care of sick people should be transferred to those who defend the right use one’s body as one pleases, that is, “organizations for homosexuals, bisexuals and drug addicts”. (ibid)
← 42 | 43 → Even though it had its own local nuances, Brazil reproduced the same patterns of blaming and finger-pointing propagated in the North American press, and, thus, the same methods of outreach prevention. For example, Brazilian health authorities took “prophylactic” measures modeled after those being used in San Francisco and New York by closing gay saunas. However, regulations regarding blood donation only were signed into law after heated debates, even though it was known that blood transfusion was one of the forms of transmission of the disease.
Along with this climate of panic, in the 1980s Brazil was going through the final years of the 21-year long military dictatorship (which finally ended in 1985) and the beginning of redemocratization. Within this context, social movements began to organize. Some of these movements included the fight against the spread of Aids and against prejudice in their political agendas. Hemophiliacs, gay men, prostitutes, travestis and doctors and other healthcare professionals struggling for the universalization and democratization of the healthcare system were some of the organized groups that tried to challenge the moral wave that painted Aids as a punishment “moral deviants” deserved instead of a disease. In 1983, for instance, the gay organization Outra Coisa, in a partnership with the São Paulo Secretary of Health, started to distribute pamphlets that warned of the spread of Aids in Brazil and provided guidelines on where to get information about the disease (Perlongher 1987b: 53). It didn’t take long for scholars to become involved both in social movements and in research about the social effects and consequences of the epidemic (see Parker 2009 for a detailed discussion of the emergence of Aids in Brazil and the reactions of civil society and the government).
As was the case in other societies, we in academia mourned over the losses caused by Aids. We became somewhat orphaned in terms of ideas as the 1990s drew to a close and the new century exploded spectacularly on September 11th, 2001. The Brazilian artist, activist and travesti Claudia Wonder, who was very active in the São Paulo underground scene and died believing she was an intersex person, once told me that Aids was more than an epidemic – it was the destruction of an archive. It murdered forms of knowledge being developed by travas (a slang term for travestis), viados (“fags”), leftists and marginal artists. It produced emptiness. Perhaps this emptiness ← 43 | 44 → lies at the root of why we had such a “will to knowledge”, to use Foucault’s terms from the first volume of The History of Sexuality ( 1978).
Among our Aids deaths was Néstor Perlongher, the author of a provocative ethnographic study entitled O Negócio do Michê (1987a).
Mariza Corrêa, who was the supervisor of the master’s thesis that would later be published as the book O negócio do michê, spoke of a colleague’s shocked reaction to Néstor’s title. What was it about the title that made the intellectual so indignant? Was it due to Perlongher’s irreverence for academia or his reverence for the groups of “deviants” who wandered about the city center? In the 1980s, Perlongher was already directing his gaze towards those at the margins of society, highlighting their forms of resistance and their own situated knowledges. (Miskolci and Pelúcio 2008: 9, my translation)
In Néstor’s baroque writings, one can find a sort of vanguard post-structuralism that shines through most in his original way of using Deleuze, Guattari and Foucault. Miskolci and I once asked Perlongher’s friend Margareth Rago, a feminist, professor and historian, to tell us about him. We included one of her stories in the preface we wrote together for the 2008 edition of O Negócio do Michê:
One night in 1988, after a presentation of Uma metamorphose [“A Metamorphosis”], a theater piece adapted from the works of Franz Kafka and directed by Gerald Thomas, a group of psychoanalysts took the stage of the Ruth Escobar Theater to discuss the play. At a certain point in the discussion, Néstor Perlongher, from his seat in the audience, asked to say a few words. Just as vibrant as his yellow scarf, he vehemently disagreed with the pathologizing discourse the “specialists” had used to interpret the character Gregor Samsa. One of the psychoanalysts, bothered by Néstor’s intervention, complained that of the “two spectacles” on display (the play and Néstor), he greatly preferred the first. This posture, of course, only reaffirmed the impermeability and authoritarianism of medical discourse, in Néstor’s eyes. Protesting, he challenged the panel members in his infallible Portuñol [mix of Spanish and Portuguese]: “Que fiquem com sus inseticidas higienistas que yo fico com las cucarachas” [“You can have your sterilizing insecticides, I’ll stick with the cockroaches”.] He then left the theater to the sound of the audience’s thunderous applause. (ibid: 22–23, my translation)
With indomitable passion, Néstor preferred the metaphorical cockroaches because he had often been obliged to live with them. This subjective experience can be seen in all of his writings and in his theoretical choices. This is why I see him as one of our local representatives of the science of ← 44 | 45 → the gutters, of that marginal knowledge that we label, in our Latinized English, teoria queer.
In his aforementioned controversial book about young men who worked as prostitutes in the main streets of the metropolis of São Paulo, O Negócio do Michê, Perlongher clearly chose an atypical path through Brazilian academic territory. Although it is generally considered to be part of the research about homosexuality in Brazil that began at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Perlongher’s research was outstanding not only because he had chosen a controversial and understudied topic, but also, and above all, because of the ways he approached his object of study. In the context of a country that had been undergoing urbanization since the 1950s and with more freedom in academia since the end of the dictatorship, Perlongher went to the margins, while simultaneously choosing not to focus on Aids. Instead of simply providing a snapshot of the business of male prostitution in the 1980s, Perlongher was able to unite ethnographic research and methodological reflection in such a manner that he finished his research in a very different way from how he had started it. There is a gentle, careful theoretical process that weaves its way through the book, which, in the final chapters, culminates in Perlongher’s unique contribution to sociological and anthropological studies: a social analysis through the lens of desire.
Contemporary readers familiar with queer theory will be surprised by Perlongher’s vanguardism, since he, at almost the same time as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985) in the USA, proposes not to talk about the other, but to recognize the other’s desire (Perlongher  1993: 143). While, in the USA, Sedgwick used the sociological and historical analysis of novels to explain how desire was inscribed in the regulation of the social order, here Perlongher did something similar, but by locking his sights on contemporary society. (Miskolci and Pelucio 2008: 15, my translation)
Desire gains sociological thickness through Perlonger’s work: “it is hardly limited to the subjectified individual, but rather navigates forceful tensions that directly crisscross the social field” (Perlongher 1987a: 251, my translation). Thus, desire is not a matter of fitting into a given form of desiring – homosexual desire – but the mechanisms that split desire into what is acceptable and what is “immoral”.
← 45 | 46 → Perlongher himself was “immoral”, as he theorized about sexuality, homosexuality, Aids and medicine with critical freedom, leaving, as I mentioned previously, the discussion of the epidemic out of the discussion of prostitution. This seems to be a deliberate manner of not surrendering to the then ongoing moral panic surrounding both. Furthermore, in O Que é AIDS (1987b), Perlongher calls safer sex practices “hygienic hysteria” and questions the condom’s efficiency as a method of prevention. He sees in the condom “the transparent presence of the law” interfering with “lustful organs” that are “in the whirl of flows”, “an abominable process of disciplining and the standardization of homosexuality” (ibid: 75–76, my translation).
Positioning himself against what he calls the “rightwing turn” that was overtaking the West, Perlongher wrote the previously mentioned short book O Que é AIDS (“What Aids is”) for the classic Brazilian publishing house Brasiliense (famous for its publications attuned to the Brazilian left). The book was published in the Primeiros Passos (“First Steps”) collection, notable for its commitment to tackling complex topics in an easy-to-read style, in texts written by Brazilian intellectuals who are well-established in their respective fields. In the 197th publication in this collection, Perlongher concentrates his theoretic arsenal, clearly Foucauldian but also quite personal, on demonstrating that in order to understand “What Aids is”, one must be aware of the knowledges that have the power to establish truths about the disease and formulate moral judgments about the people afflicted by it, regulating their behaviors, disciplining their bodies and normalizing their desires. To do so, he puts into action not only academic language but also that which is typical of ghettos and other places on the fringes of society. In Perlongher’s words,
The recommendations distributed regarding Aids, dividing sexual encounters into advisable and inadvisable ones depending on the degree of risk, seem to involve a certain regime of bodies. Upon closer examination of the nature of these recommendations, we can see that they uphold a certain organization of organisms (hierarchic functioning of organs): the mouth is for eating, the asshole for shitting, the penis for the vagina, etc. Alternative bodily uses are usually considered unnecessary; anal sex in particular (remember the São Paulo gays at their rebellious finest chanting “O coito anal derruba o capital” [“Up the ass, down with class!” or “Anal sex fucks capitalism”] in protests) has been the target of the medical and media interventions unleashed in response to AIDS. (1987b: 83, my translation, emphasis added)
← 46 | 47 → For Perlongher, the way Aids turned science’s attention to the anus (ibid: 87) might have reopened the door to medicine’s earlier concerns with homosexuality, possibly leading to its re-pathologization. Writing in this style, with this vocabulary and with such a critical stance was quite avant-garde and even transgressive for those years, particularly considering that the Brazilian homosexual movement itself had joined in with the prevention discourse. The LGBT movement aimed to sanitize homosexual practices and revive the “closet” apparatus that “plastic gays” came out of, to use Perlongher’s classification of gay men who adopted a “straight” behavior model and joined the hygienic wave, defending safe sex (that is, sex without sex), marriage and chastity, while separating themselves from the robust margins of peripheral sexualities. I see in these early writings the first drafts of a teoria cu, a cucaracha theory – anthropophagical as we Brazilians have traditionally been.
When I speak of a teoria cu, this is more than an attempt to translate “queer”. It is, perhaps, my attempt to invent a tradition for our cu-caracha cockroach knowledge. It’s an attempt to highlight our anthropophagy by placing a certain structural emphasis on assholes and mouths; assholes and marginal production. My inspiration here clearly stems from Preciado, who I devour with cannibalistic pleasure. In the postscript to Guy Hocquenghem’s book El Deseo Homosexual ( 2009; “Homosexual Desire”) Preciado vigorously takes up, once again, some of the discussions that appeared earlier in her Contra-sexual Manifesto: “Historically, the anus has been considered to be an abject organ, never clean enough, never silent. It is not and never will be politically correct” (2009: 172, my translation). I pause my reading there, thinking that this anus of Preciado’s is so similar to us: Brazilians, on the margins, noisy, indiscrete and, to some, untrustworthy. I take up my reading once more, and what Preciado writes next is: “the anus doesn’t produce anything, or rather, it only produces waste, garbage. One can’t expect this organ to produce anything beneficial, nor anything of surplus value: neither sperm, nor eggs, not sexual reproduction. Just shit” (ibid). Once again, I can’t resist analogies. Here the anus is similar to whores, to swindlers, to all of the people on the fringes of society described by the hygienic discourses. Nothing is queerer than the asshole, and there comes Preciado’s final demand – the collectivization of the anus. It’s clearly a naughty parody of the Communist Manifesto, which so deeply marked ← 47 | 48 → our desires for revolution and our disobedient, but poor and colonized, writing. I pause my reading once again, now thinking about what we are still producing today. I also think about our lived experiences in the Global South, and how they have been fertile, although they are often seen as peripheral, produced in a sonorous but illegible language, one that cannot and will not be read by those who will never, however, be seen as illiterate.
I firmly believe that our productions are full of originality and at the same time in tune with what is being produced in multiple other centers and peripheries. Our interconnected set of reflections has maintained a strong dialogue with feminist theories, postcolonial studies and with Queer Theory itself. It is a body of work that we can bring together under the label of subaltern studies, a term that began to be used in a limited way in the 1980s, but that has recently come to bring together a series of theoretical lines of thought constructed via tensions with the Western epistemological hegemony.
Louro wrote that feminist studies, gay and lesbian studies and queer studies treat theory and politics in an integrated fashion that is impassioned and, at the same time, controversial. This is why these intellectual endeavors have been able to propose a renewal of reflections about gender and sexuality. They have brought new life to different fields of knowledge that were called together to enter into dialogue and that accepted the challenge, managing to “think beyond the limits of the thinkable” (2004: n.p., my translation).
To think beyond the limits of the thinkable is to reflect using other paradigms, to invent other words, to think with other organs. Louro’s proposals, as well as Miskolci’s sharp readings of our formation as a nation, Pedro Paulo Pereira’s thoughts on tropical queers, Bernice Bento’s work on marginal lives branded by the obtuse eye of the plasticity of bodies and genders, Leandro Colling’s ideas about embodied cultural production in television soap operas, Fernando Seffner’s writings on education and sexuality, along with the work of many, many other cucaracha theorists, have the merit of perturbing the argument that sexual studies are forever and merely “cultural” and supposedly depoliticized.
I have sought to show that the construction of abject subjects is marked by discourses of power in which experiences of exclusion are linked to historical processes that mark and create subjectivities. Perhaps our own ← 48 | 49 → experience on the borders has made us sensitive to fringe, subversive productions forged by the wiry strength of those who need to confront moral insecticide in order to survive.
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1 Translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette, Rodrigo Borba and Elizabeth Sara Lewis. Parts of this chapter, originally presented at the Queering Paradigms 4 International Conference, have since appeared in the Brazilian online journal Periódicus (Pelúcio 2014) and are translated and reprinted here with the journal’s permission.
← 50 | 51 → 2 “Teoria cu”, literally “asshole theory”, referring to the bodily orifice. In this chapter, “cu” alludes to the fact that “queer” has never found an adequate translation neither in Spanish nor in Portuguese. Here, “cu” inaugurates a “transcreative translation”, in the words of the Brazilian poet and translator Haroldo de Campos, and “teoria cu” is presented as something more latino-centric.
3 Although they are sometimes confused due to their similar spelling and pronunciation, the Brazilian travesti is not the same as “transvestite” in English – the latter is more synonymous with “cross-dresser”. Travestis, on the other hand, go beyond simply wearing “women’s” clothing; they permanently alter the physical form of their bodies (e.g. through breast implants and silicone injections), although they do not alter their genitalia as some transsexuals choose to do.
4 Translators’ note: “B(r)ancos” in the original. The pun is lost in English. In Brazilian Portuguese, Pelúcio is linking at least three concepts: “banco”, which can mean “desk” or, alternatively, the school archives in which theses and dissertations are deposited; and “branco” or “white”.← 51 | 52 →