Homosexuality in Latin America
One thing about history is it is tainted by those who rule. The mix of influences that create history is told from the leading perspective, sometimes missing important individuals, groups, or events.
One group that has been significantly underrepresented in Latin American history is that of the LGBTQ+ community. In particular, this article will explore the history of gay individuals and perceptions of them throughout Latin America’s pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial periods.
The Pre-Colonial Period
As for the public’s perception, ancient Latin America is relatively accepting of homosexual relationships. Certain tribes used non-binary social structures and did not have strict gender roles like those we see today.
Of course, that does not mean that it was acceptable to be gay during this time. Still, given the existing literature of the colonial period (most of the literature available from this period is from inquisitors), it is safe to assume it was more commonplace in certain places like Mexico City, Puebla, and even Brazil. In fact, according to scholar Serge Gruzinski’s book titled Las Cenizas Del Deseo, one of the conclusions that can be made from the literature available from pre-colonial Latin America is that networks of men “who sought out other men for sexual relationships did exist in the [pre]colonial period.”
The Colonial Period
So, how did homophobia take hold in Latin America? According to Luiz Mott, anthropologist and sexual freedom activist, “Homophobia is a result of machismo and slavery.”
Homophobic rhetoric did not begin to take hold until the Spanish Inquisition. There were a few known cases of homophobic laws passed before colonization, but most of these cases were mainly for power purposes and not against the nature of homosexuality.
Laws Against Homosexuality
With that being said, homophobia began to proliferate during the colonial period. In particular, one can turn to the diary of Gregorio Martin de Guijo for one of the earliest cases of homophobia. De Guijo shares a judicial case from 1658 where 123 men were accused of partaking in homosexual relationships (or as De Guijo states, “the abominable sin”).
Despite laws against homosexuality, these relationships did not cease. Luiz Mott, in a study of Inquisition documents, notes that a person’s social status played a large role in the outcome of their judicial cases when they were accused of sodomy. There were multiple cases in which judges imposed more lenient penalties on individuals accused of sodomy.
Robert Aldrich, who wrote Infamous Desire: Male Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America, also notes many other cases in which offenders of this law “confessed to multiple sexual partners, sometimes over a long period of time, despite the interdiction on sodomy." Despite best efforts to outlaw homosexuality, many people persisted in same-gender sex.
Punishments Against Homosexuality
Eventually, the laws imposed during the colonial period took hold, and homosexuality was outlawed. With this, homophobic rhetoric took hold and became widespread. Homophobic acts became far more extreme. For years, many individuals accused of committing “the sin of sodomy” were exiled or placed into forced labor. Some were even killed, such as a slave in 1678 who was whipped due to accusations of sodomy.
The Post-Colonial Period
The Spanish Inquisition continued, and strides in the gay rights movement were not made until the early 19th century. According to Anna Azevedo and Luiz Mott, it was at the end of the Inquisition in 1821 that homosexuality was no longer considered a criminal offense in Brazil. However, that does not mean homophobia was no longer prevalent in the world.
Decriminalization does not mean legalization. It’s taken nearly 200 years to go from the decriminalization of homosexuality to the legalization of gay marriage. With that being said, there were still notable events in Latin American queer history.
Gay Rights Movement
One of the important firsts to note in history is the first gay candidate for public office, Jose Julio Sarria. There were also many other activists during this time, such as Sylvia Rivera, a trans, Puerto Rican activist who helped spark the Stonewall riots. She also helped to create the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with Marsha P. Johnson.
Socially, the first gay pride movement in Latin America was Argentina's Nuestro Mundo in 1967. There were also movements taking place throughout the next decade, in which Chile’s first gay group, Integracion, was created in 1977. In Mexico, the Homosexual Liberation Front was founded in 1971.
Despite the many movements made towards gaining rights for the LGBTQ+ community in Latin America, there is still much progress to be made. Even so, we must remember the history of those who came before us and how the homophobic rhetoric that claims our contemporary society came to be. The only way to decolonize the perspective many people have on homosexuality is to speak out and understand how these views came to take hold.
Aldrich, Robert. Review of Infamous Desire: Male Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America. Ethnohistory, vol. 51 no. 1, 2004, p. 216-217. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/53484.
Azevedo, Anna, et al. “The Colonial Roots of Homophobia.” Goethe, Zeitgeister, July 2021, www.goethe.de/prj/zei/en/art/22303917.html.
Foster, David William. “The Homoerotic Diaspora in Latin America.” Latin American Perspectives, vol. 29, no. 2, 2002, pp. 163–89. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3185132. Accessed 2 Jan. 2024.
Fiorini, Erin. “A Brief History of the LGBTQI+ Movement in Latin America.” teleSUR English, teleSUR, 21 June 2018, www.telesurenglish.net/analysis/A-Brief-History-Of-The-LGBTQI-Movement-In-Latin-America---20180621-0014.html.
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Tortorici, Z. (Ed.). (2016). Sexuality and the Unnatural in Colonial Latin America (1st ed.). University of California Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt19b9jgt.