Hybrid Modernities, Modern Sexualities
Here in Brazil, things were always done from the top down. The masses were never the
subject of action, but they have always been the object of action. In light of this, I believe
(and evidently, I could be wrong) that the important thing is to win over the elite and
the “intelligentsia” (Brazilian intellectuals, particularly those linked to the media); in
short, the “Establishment,” and principally in the field where they have the most power,
in justice. . . . You might argue that laws do not change the social mentality and I would
agree, but only in part. Laws do not change the social mentality, but they contribute
decisively to that change.
—João Antônio Mascarenhas, Rio de Janeiro, to G. D., Turin, Italy, 31 August 1982
João Antônio Mascarenhas, a Brazilian gay activist, wrote these observa-
tions to an activist in Italy in the early 1980s, as the gay and lesbian lib-
eration movement in Brazil embarked on its first experiment in electoral
activism and a long trajectory of legislative efforts.1 The letter both reflects
early linkages to a broader transnational movement and echoes long-
standing critiques of liberal representative democracy as an essentially
elite enterprise, not only in Brazil but elsewhere. It also raises questions
about the relationship between formal political equality, as constructed in
law, and its reverberations “from the top down” in the private sphere, or in
changing the “social mentality.”
Since the 1960s Latin America has seen the emergence of activists mo-
bilizing around the banners of lesbian, gay, bisexual, travesti, transsexual,
and transgender (lGBt) rights; homosexual liberation; sexual diversity; the
right to control one’s body; and free sexual choice. With varying success,
activists have sought to question prevailing understandings of family, gen-
der roles, citizenship, and nationhood, marked by the often tacit assump-
tions attached to sexual stigma. What permitted these actors to challenge
these relations of power formally for the first time? What relationship
have lGBt activists established with broader movements for democratic
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