UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Queer Rights in Latin America

Queer Rights in Latin America

Wil Mumby

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This article focuses on two different literary works that cover the topic of queer rights in Latin America: Pedro Lemebel’s My Tender Matador and Mario Bellatín’s Beauty Salon. The very different styles used by these two works are observed, contrasting vivid descriptions of Lemebel’s neo-baroque and phallic symbolism with Bellatín’s sparseness and ambiguity. As such, the article aims to uncover two depictions of gay life in Latin America: one as a representation of the oppressed locas in Santiago under the tyranny of gay mass culture and the hyper-masculine regime of Pinochet, the other an indication of how gays involved in the aforementioned mass culture coped with the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic.

Queer rights in Latin America have been explored in many key works of literature. Amongst this collection are two related, but very different, books: Pedro Lemebel’s My Tender Matador and Mario Bellatín’s Beauty Salon. While inevitably connected by their discussions of homosexual oppression and gay mass culture, these two texts use starkly contrasting aesthetic styles to capture diverse views of homosexual life in Latin America. Lemebel’s novel pits the feminine tendencies of the loca (or drag queen) against the hyper-masculinity of the State and attempts to revive a truer representation of homosexuality and transvestitism. Moreover, he conjures up a lush forest of neo-baroque descriptions to embellish upon and ultimately transform the view of lower class Chilean life, thus defying and mocking the State’s sense of order. Bellatín’s novella, on the other hand, turns to a much more sparse style and uses ambiguity to raise questions about how an isolated community copes with a lethal disease (presumably the AIDS epidemic afflicting gays) and how this relates to depictions of humanity and empathy. Ultimately, both authors create jarring depictions of Latin American queer life that force the reader to consider the political realities of gay mass culture and engage with the truth of the homosexual struggle against intolerant societies.

My Tender Matador introduces the Queen of the Corner as a marginalized transvestite living in a poor neighborhood in Santiago, Chile. Early in the novel, Lemebel uses depictions of the Queen’s childhood to indicate how bigotry towards homosexuals has been heavily ingrained into society: “Her heart, shaking like a squirrel, frightened by her father’s shouts, her thighs scarred by the lash of the belt. He said he beat me to make a man out of me. That he didn’t want to be ashamed around his friends in the union or get into fights with them when they teased him I’d come out backward. And he was so macho…” (Lemebel 8). The Queen’s father possesses such an obsessive sense of masculinity that nothing must defy this orderly and macho sensibility. As such, the Queen’s “unnatural” desires and more feminine traits need to be eradicated in his view. These sentiments of machismo are clearly prevalent in this Chilean society given that his friends indirectly pressure him into his abusive behavior (given his fear of standing out himself through association with his son). Thus, these highly masculine ideals are shown to pervade society as a whole.

In fact, Lemebel demonstrates through the character of the State’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet, that these chauvinist ideas fuel a hyper-masculine government intent on eliminating deviations from “normality.” The narrator’s insight into Pinochet’s childhood reveals his collection of war toys and a dislike for decoration and surprises, intimating that these represent the roots of his obsession with masculine uniformity.

This was the zoo of war that had surrounded him through his childhood, these the toys that inspired the playful fantasies of a massacre. He looked them over, inspecting his miniature troops with the eyes of a boy lynx and trying to figure out what set was still missing from his collection so he could ask for it on his next birthday. That was all he wanted, no cake, no surprises, no parties. None of that. He had learned to hate chocolate, balloons, streamers, and paper hats ever since his mother had decided to celebrate his birthday with a big party” (Lemebel 87-88).

Pinochet’s disdain for excess and decoration indicates how he despises a departure from his vision of masculine homogeneity and control. Moreover, his need for order and control, in addition to his destructive fantasies, reflects a strong sense of “manliness” that he holds in high regard and that he carries with him into power many years later.

Clearly, this hyper-masculine outlook motivates Pinochet’s contempt and oppression of homosexuals. This relates to Ilan Stavans’s article, “The Latin Phallus,” which discusses depictions of the phallus in Latin American literature as a symbol of the hyper-masculine repression of homosexuality: “The phallus remains an all-consuming image for Hispanic society, whether as the absent, animating presence in the repressive culture of machismo or the furtive purpose of the repressed culture of homosexuality. It is the representation of masculine desire, a fantastic projection of guilt, shame, and power. Hyperactive bravura and suppressed longing are its twin modalities.”

While a phallic symbol is never directly associated with Pinochet, it becomes clear that these strong masculine ideas of control and oppression (and suppression) of homosexuality have pervaded Chilean society under his regime. Lemebel incorporates this technique of phallic representation when the character Carlos, the Queen’s love interest, describes a sexual encounter from when he was a child:

I watched him as I rubbed myself against the warm sand, and suddenly I couldn’t stand it and I jumped on top of him, but he turned around and said, Me first, but I answered him, No way. I told him he should just let me stick the tip in, just the tip. And there we were facing each other with our pricks hard and red in our hands because neither of us wanted to turn around; you know what I mean? (Lemebel 79)

The phallic symbol emerges here in the context of an uncomfortable expression of sexual desire and want for control. The awkwardness of this near-sexual experience highlights a testosterone-driven need to assert oneself above homosexuality in society (as neither wanted to submit to actually having sex with the other). As such, they both cover up their true sexual desires in order to adopt a more “macho” masturbation contest. The Queen observes in her reflection of Carlos’s story that there is “urgency” in male discussions of sex, lacking “tact or delicacy,” ultimately reaching the conclusion that such a story had “withered and shriveled the verb to love” (Lemebel 80). These views may act as a commentary from Lemebel on the harms inflicted on Chilean society by machismo. By introducing the phallic symbol in Carlos’s story as a representation of desire for sexual dominance, he illustrates how such dependence on masculinity undercuts more beneficial human relationships such as love. Moreover, the reader may see that these brutish modes of dealing with sex mask potential homosexual propensity, which in turn result in society repressing it on a broad scale so as to avoid it on a personal level. This kind of behavior can be observed in the character of Pinochet.

Pinochet’s adherence to notions of machismo is evidenced by what appears to be his own suppression of homosexuality. One instance of this occurs when the dictator observes a young cadet.

His closely shaven blond head shone like a bronze egg in the sparkling rays of the sun… Pretending to read the pages one at a time, he kept a close watch out of the corner of his eye on the cadet as he walked away down the thin finger of sand along the banks of the river, his adolescent figure bending over like a flamenco from time to time to pick a flower he chewed on in his watermelon-colored mouth (Lemebel 122).

These sensual descriptions suggest a physical attraction to the young cadet, as Pinochet is forced to pretend that he is still reading the prepared speech in front of him. The narrator’s romanticized descriptions of the boy, like calling his head a bronze egg, and likening his movements to that of a flamenco, are read through Pinochet’s perspective; thus, the reader comes to associate those perceptions with the dictator and his insecure masculinity. Subsequently, he orders that the “effeminate pansy” is dismissed from his military as a means of restoring masculine order to his life and the society he oversees (Lemebel 122). This, in turn, reflects Pinochet’s need to mask the potentially lustful or romantic feelings of the above passage with harsh machismo, which can be related back to his connection to his war toys as a means of escaping any and all elegant decorations or deviations from structured management. Therefore, the phallic symbols that emerge in Carlos’s stories can in fact be connected to Pinochet’s own insecurities and his obsessive need for a regime where manliness thrives and homosexuality is hidden, condemned, and punished. Using artistic license and hyperbole, Lemebel utilizes the aesthetic strategies of phallic symbolism and obsessive masculine tendencies masking homosexual ones, in order to create an elegant caricature of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

While the city around the Queen is consumed with political protest against the dictator Pinochet, she primarily remains content thriving off of fantasies fueled by boleros (love songs) and her regular inclination to decorate the things and places around her. Lemebel’s style throughout the novel seems to mirror these sentiments of embellishment and decoration, so as to bring a flourish to dreary settings or situations.

Like drawing a sheer cloth over the past, a flaming curtain fluttering out the open window of that house in the spring of 1986. A year scarred by smoking tires in the cordoned-off streets of Santiago. A city waking up to the sounds of banging pots and pans and lighting blackouts, electric wires dangling overhead, sputtering and sparkling (Lemebel 1).

The neo-baroque style utilizes lush prose with descriptions that create an illusion of decorating the violence and ugliness of a city torn by rebellion, making it more aesthetically accessible. Identified as a predominantly gay style of writing, neo-baroque can be interpreted in this context as a means of instilling decadence, typically available only to the wealthier people that the Queen serves through her tailoring business, to a neglected poor district of Santiago. In addition, the rich descriptive diction defies the State by breaking away from a clear, orderly mode of conveying meaning by allowing the reader to become lost in layers of excessive embellishment.

In fact, in line with the Queen’s birth of political awareness through her interactions with Carlos (a Marxist rebel) and listening to political radio stations, Lemebel seems to suggest that the neo-baroque style can be fused with political motivations to draw attention to, and combat, issues of oppression against lower class Chileans and the marginalized groups such as the locas. In the article, “The Wounded Body of Proletariat Homosexuality in Pedro Lemebel’s Loco afán,” Diana Palaversich discusses Lemebel’s solidarity with marginalized queers such as transvestites, and how he links this to social class differences. Lemebel contests that upper and middle classes identify more with consumerist, “macho” depictions of homosexuality that emerge from widespread mass culture (and was imported from notions of gay culture in the United States), rather than a truer homosexual identity of the marginalized groups.

Thus, Lemebel pits the powerless and oppressed locas not just against the oppressive State, but also against the mass culture of the mainstream gayness that emerges from the government-controlled media. In fact, in My Tender Matador, Lemebel introduces this problem of infectious mass culture from the Queen’s perspective of some of her gay friends. “They were all the same, living for their next haircut, their waistline, the T-shirt they’re going to wear on Saturday to go shake their booties at the disco where they all fondle one another and make out with each other like the gays in the States” (Lemebel 96). This derogatory depiction of the mass culture of gay life throws a shadow on what many would consider the “typical” gay lifestyle. As such, Lemebel sets his character (the Queen), and his novel as a whole, apart from these conventional, canonically gay methods and ties his gay struggles with a political movement that works in tandem with social class struggles. It is this refusal of a universal gay rights discourse that allows Lemebel to achieve a truly nonconformist stance that enables a truer position against oppressive government and mass culture.

Lemebel primarily proceeds with this strategy through a sub-category of the neo-baroque style in My Tender Matador. Palaversich coins a new term for Lembel’s prose, calling it “slum baroque” or barroquismo pobla, declaring it “a style of writing that deploys excessive flourishes in order to transvestize the material poverty of the locas and of a vast stratum of marginal beings—in short, all those whose existences shatter the myth of the Chilean economic miracle and the conversion of Chile into a First World nation, its back turned on the rest of the continent.”

While the Chilean government creates the illusion for the world that Chile has emerged as a capitalist power with no prevalent poverty or human rights problems, Lemebel hopes to reveal that there still remain many marginalized, impoverished homosexuals that are doubly oppressed and struggle to have their voices heard. Slum baroque seems to serve this purpose of bringing the disenfranchised to the forefront in an immersive rhythm of luxurious prose that appeals to the reader’s aesthetic fix. For instance, while the Queen is initially described as old and bald but for three tufts of hair, the narrator’s depiction of her transcends these seemingly ugly characteristics. “She had never been beautiful, not even attractive; that she always knew. But the beaver-like combination of her swarthy features constructed a melancholic scaffolding that sustained the intense brilliance in the mysterious depths of her eyes” (Lemebel 70). This indulgent description attempts to compensate for the Queen’s physical flaws—and to some degree succeeds in drawing in the reader to register the Queen’s presence as more profound and worthy of respect than initially seemed warranted—but also creates a self-parody in its style. The overwhelming images and adjectives conjured by the prose lead the description to become laughably convoluted (especially if read aloud). However, this also serves its purpose in creating a satire of upper and middle class notions of gay culture, as Palaversich points out: “As portrayed by Lemebel, loca culture not only rejects mainstream society’s morality but returns to that very mainstream a parodied version of its own paradigmatic values and tastes, thereby carrying kitschiness and theatricality to new, politicized extremes.”

Therefore, Lemebel’s command of the various baroque styles serves numerous aesthetic purposes in his ability to draw readers in and force them to assess the life of the loca in contrast to mass culture depictions of gay life. Moreover, he demonstrates that these marginalized members of society remained in gross poverty under the oppressive regimes that neglected and repressed homosexuality.

Palaversich’s article also addresses Lemebel’s belief that AIDS was a disease that colonized Latin America from the spread of the mass culture from the United States.

While there is no mention of AIDS in My Tender Matador, Mario Bellatín’s novella Beauty Salon seems to cover the topic of the epidemic in relation to gay communities. In the novella, the unnamed narrator, a gay beauty salon owner, turns his beauty salon into a place for people affected by an unnamed disease to come and die. Peculiarly, the narrator adopts a fascination with collecting fish in an aquarium which becomes a pivotal aesthetic focus for him and subsequently for the reader. During his reflections, he likens his trips to the bath houses, as a part of gay culture and sexual behavior, to being in one of his aquariums.

I always felt like I was inside one of my aquariums. I felt revitalized by the thick water, by the oxygen bubbling up from the pumps, by the jungle of underwater plants. I also experienced the same strange feeling as when the larger fish hunted the smaller ones. At that moment, the lack of any possible defense and the thickness of the clear walls of the aquarium became a very palpable, all-encompassing reality (Bellatín 9-10).

This eerie depiction of gay life suggests a great deal of discomfort and lack of control. The aquarium appears to represent a microcosm of gay culture where the gay community (or at least the narrator) has become trapped in an alien world, isolated from the rest of society. And yet, in a sense, this comes to represent the place that society demands that the gay community holds, given that the bath house culture is very much considered a part of middle/upper-class mainstream gay life as dictated by mass culture in the United States. This is also possible, considering that the gay narrator is a former hairdresser, a profession often associated with mainstream gay tendencies in its strong connection to beautification and artifice, along with being at the center of gossip and mass culture. This idea is reinforced by the narrator’s description of the pleasures of working at the salon while dressed as a woman.

I couldn’t wait for the days when we hit the streets dressed as women. We also began to start dressing like that when we attended our clients. It seemed to create a more intimate atmosphere in the beauty salon. The clients felt more at home and they were able to talk more freely about their lives and their secrets, to find relief from their problems. Although inside the beauty salon a greater unity and a pleasant harmony was created, the overdose of street activity began to erode my spiritual core (Bellatín 35).

While he feels connected within his own group in the beauty salon, the narrator clearly cannot connect with society as a whole. One may presume that societal sentiments, isolating and repressing homosexuality evident in Lemebel’s text, may exist in Bellatín’s world as well (though much less obviously). The narrator seems connected to this sense of gay culture he has grasped onto, but ultimately it is a strange and unnatural experience for him and one that arguably infects him with AIDS (as the disease was heavily spread through bath house sexuality). As such, the narrator’s preoccupation with the fish may be a narrative technique to convey a connection with this culture that he never fully feels comfortable in, but is still fascinated by, and is unable to fully relinquish.

Overall, Bellatín’s style conjures a feeling of empty confusion and loneliness that ultimately reflects upon the political reality of the narrator, severed from his dependence on gay mass culture in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. The style is essentially the opposite of Lemebel’s in its usage of sparse details and unfocused discussion. Beauty Salon comprises the internal thoughts of the narrator as he recounts events that have led to the end of his beauty salon, and will soon culminate in his own death. The narrator does not offer the reader a location or the name of anyone in the story. Thus, the storyline displaces the reader and carries a very grim, defeated tone throughout, which accompanies the minimalist style of the narrative to create a drab account of a gay man coming to grips with his own isolation and impending demise. In the last fleeting moments of the novella, the narrator tries to appeal to the empathy of the reader. “When I think about it calmly it seems that I must have believed I was immortal and thus I didn’t prepare for my future. Perhaps this feeling kept me from devoting time to myself. Otherwise I can’t explain why I am so alone at this stage in my life” (Bellatín 62). Focusing on his loneliness alongside his crushed tone and bare language, the narrator elicits sadness in the reader. Yet, Bellatín obfuscates the situation with all of his other actions throughout the novella (shunning outside assistance, treating his fish in the tank poorly, not taking measures to actually help his patients, but just letting them die peacefully, etc.). Ultimately, the reader’s assessment of the narrator and his story becomes highly ambivalent amidst the heavy usage of ambiguity. This, in turn, mirrors the utter confusion that accompanied the AIDS epidemic. Gays, while assimilating into a mass culture that society had created for them, were still a disenfranchised group struggling for acceptance, and when their behavior seemingly ushered them to their death, the uncertainty must have been immense. Certainly, for a while at least, no one could even identify how the disease was spreading. Bellatín’s aesthetic strategy evokes the vagueness and mystification of the encroaching disease, and how this in turn forces the gay community to relinquish its former risqué lifestyle. As such, when the narrator has to cope with losing the only means of connecting with people around him (gay culture and the beauty salon) it takes a toll on him and he struggles with the newfound responsibility and power he receives. Bellatín’s narrative becomes one of empathy amidst great confusion and uncertainty. It seems that he is reminding us that while gay mass culture can be detrimental to society, many do not have anything else to hang on to. Clearly, incredible displacement of the gay community would result from the abolition of mass culture.

Therefore, Lemebel and Bellatín produce disparate representations of similar queer rights issues. Lemebel calls for an explicit political backlash of poor marginalized homosexual groups against oppressive, hyper-masculine governments and the media-produced ideas of mainstream gay culture, while Bellatín reflects on the effects of losing that mainstream gay culture on those trapped within it (regardless of its place in society). Both present interesting insights into the many facets of gay rights struggles and use vastly different aesthetic strategies in doing so. With the elaborate excess and satire of neo-baroque and slum baroque and the hyper-masculine phallic symbols, Lemebel creates a powerful representation of a key queer battle in Chile. Bellatín resorts to minimalism and ambiguity to create an ethically complex and uncertain world that feels like a lonely, melancholic dream. By and large, both authors succeed in touching the reader whether through humor or empathy, stimulating thought about how we should engage with the many issues of queer rights that still remain today.

Wil Mumby is a pre-law environmental sciences major with an intended minor in creative writing, expecting to graduate in Spring 2013. He has interest in numerous environmental and social issues and wishes to explore these interests in his reading and analysis of various literary works. Writing has been a consistent passion of his since high school, and is one that he hopes to explore further in political and literary analysis, writing for publications like the Berkeley Political Review, as well as UCB CLUJ. In addition, he aims to continue to develop his own short fiction works.

Works Cited 

Bellatín, Mario. Beauty Salon. Trans. Kurt Hollander. San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 2009. Print.

Lemebel, Pedro, and Katherine Silver. My Tender Matador. New York: Grove, 2003. Print.

Palaversich, Diana. “The Wounded Body of Proletarian Homosexuality in Pedro Lemebel’s Loco Afán.” Trans. Paul Allatson. Latin American Perspectives 29.2 (2002): 99-118. JSTOR. Sage Publications, Inc. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3185129?origin=JSTOR-pdf&gt;.

Stavans, Ilan. “The Latin Phallus.” Transition 65 (1995): 48-68. JSTOR. Indiana University Press. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2935319&gt;.

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