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Contrasting gay rights movements and partial successes in Argentina and Brazil

Out in the Periphery:
Latin America’s Gay Rights Revolution

by Omar G. Encaranción

Published by Oxford University Press

Published February 1, 2016
History (Latin America)
256 pgs. • Find on Amazon.comWorldCat

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

September 12, 2017.

Bard College political scientist Omar G. Encaranción’s Out in the Periphery: Latin America’s Gay Rights Revolution is a stimulating history of state recognition of gay rights, notably same-sex marriage, in Argentina in comparison primarily with the history of failures of the larger gay movement in Brazil, along with comparison of the rapid progress of gay rights in post-Franco Spain with the partial successes (and continued failures) at the federal level in the United States.

Some of the arguments were already made in College of Staten Island sociologist Rafael de la Dehesa’s 2010 Queering the Public Sphere in Mexico and Brazil: Sexual Rights Movements in Emerging Democracies (Duke University Press), a work not cited by Encaranción 1. Both authors showed the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s inability to block same-sex marriage and gay rights protection in the two Spanish-speaking countries (Argentina and Mexico),

2 whereas fundamentalist (/penetecostal) Protestants have been more effective opponents in (Portuguese-speaking) Brazil.

Encaranción argues that the centralization of government and culture in Buenos Aires made things easier for Argentine gay rights activists—though Spain is bimodal with Barcelona vying with Madrid; Brazil’s largest city, which has the largest gay rights movement, is São Paulo, whereas the cultural capital is Rio de Janeiro and the political capital is remote Brasilia; Guadalajara vies with Mexico City; and power and cultural production are more uncentralized in the U.S.

The most important factor in Encaranción’s account of Argentina is that gay rights activists were able to dovetail their message with the strong human rights reaction to the horrors of the “dirty war” military dictatorship (1976–83). The 1994 constitutional reform did not ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but the grant of power to the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires opened the way for judges there to recognize same-sex marriages. Moreover, there is anti-discrimination legislation in/for Buenos Aires. Discrimination in the Argentine military was banned in 2009 (by legislation). Federal non-discrimination law has yet to be passed (though definitely it has been proposed).

Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court ruled (unanimously with one abstention) for same-sex marriage in 2011 (effective two years later). And the constitution prohibits discriminatory state laws. Federal non-discrimination law has been blocked by a bloc of Protestant legislators (in a chaotic mult-multi-party legislature), though such laws have been enacted in multiple states including the two metropolises of Brazil. Thus, the situation of gay rights beyond marriage are similar for Argentina, Brazil, and the U.S. (where 22 states, including the most populous two, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation).

Encaranción argues that the triumph of gay rights organizations in Argentina was facilitated by refusal to be tied to any one party, and slowed in Brazil by being dependent on the PT (the workers’ party) and by jettisoning appeals to sexual liberation (for universal human rights and “assimilation” in contrast to minority distinctiveness). The three Brazilian regions (Rio, São Paulo, Bahia) have been less co-ordinated and not uniformly focused on assimilationist issues.

Encaranción is certainly right that the 1969 Stonewall riots and subsequent formation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) had little effect in Latin American jurisdictions. He does not seem to know how little effect GLF or even GLF and GAA (the quickly splintered-off Gay Activists’ Alliance focused on gay rights rather than leftist coalition building) had even in New York, where sodomy proscription was overturned in 1980 and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation had to wait until 2003, decades after GLF and GAA ceased to exist. GLF may have inspired the Frente Liberación Homosexual before the military dictatorship and was similarly empty-handed in changing laws. (Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico did not have sodomy laws to repeal, as ca. 1961 all US states did.)

Some funding and technical assistance from the U.S. was helpful during the human rights boom in Argentina, but the successes in Spain and subsequent gay rights funding and technical assistance from Spain were more important for Argentine successes. The example of Spain (same-sex marriage in 2005) showed that revulsion at right-wing dictatorship (plus constitutional revisions) could facilitate gay rights.

Though I am not an adherent to resource mobilization theory, I think that Encarnación’s dismissal of it is not based on familiarity with more than the label, since what he describes of the Communidag Homosexual Argentina (CHA) martialing of organizational focus fits quite well. The theory is not primarily about financial resources, and has always also included “moral resources,” of which the commitment to human rights in Argentina is one. What he describes fits even better with Political Opportunity Theory, particularly that of Doug McAdam, but Encarnación seems not to know of this social movement theory (or considers it part of resource mobilization theory?).

Beyond the lack of understanding of resource mobilization theory (which supplanted and irrationalist collective behavior paradigm of social movements), there are two physical aspects of the book that I found very annoying. The first is the cover, which deterred my opening the book for many months after buying it. It shows the familiar image of Che Guevera with bright red (presumably lipsticked) lips. Guevera was born in Argentina but had nothing to do with gay rights enactments there and was a leader in the persecution of gays in Cuba (a supporter of “work camps” to masculinize queens). The cover design may not have come from the author, but my experience with university presses (in contrast to commercial ones!) is that authors can reject cover designs (as I did for Latin American Male Homosexualities).

I hate endnotes, but if they are used, the publisher should at least provide indications on each page of them which pages from the text are covered. Oxford has forced readers to know which chapter is which and find its notes in 32 pages of endnotes.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray



  1. Encaranción’s book does not have a bibliography; de la Dehesa is not listed in the index nor in the notes to the theoretical first and last chapters
  2. Not that the Catholic hierarchy showed any moderation. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires (later Pope Francis), wrote:

    In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family… At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts. Let’s not be naive: This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan. This is not a mere legislative proposal (that’s just its form), but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God…

    Between its collusion with the dirty war and its pedophile priest scandals, however, such rhetoric failed to block enactment of same-sex marriage in Argentina.

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.