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Beyond Carnival: Male homosexuality in twentieth-century Brazil. (Reviews).

Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil. By James N. Green (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1999. xiii plus 408pp.).

James Green's Beyond Carnival explores the creativity and resilience of the gay male subculture in Brazil from the late 19th century to the end of the 1970s, when the Brazilian gay rights movement emerged. The setting is Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil's two major cities, and mecca for gay men from the nation's hinterland as well as from abroad. Himself a resident of Sao Paulo from 1977 to 1981 and participant in the emerging gay rights movement, Green draws on interviews with a wide range of gay men, as well as a variety of written sources, including: medical records; depositions of transvestites arrested during police sweeps; the discourses on homosexuality by medical and legal "experts;" materials from the mainstream press; two generations of gay journals; and works of literature and popular culture. From these sources, Green paints a rich and complex picture of gay life across boundaries of race, class, and generation; and he maps the geography of homoerotic sociability within the parks, cabarets, mo vie theaters, cafes and bars, boardinghouses and cheap hotels that gay men shared with the larger population of Rio and Sao Paulo. Despite Brazilian homophobia--evident in police harassment, pseudo-scientific research, brutal hate crimes, social ostracism, and economic marginalization--Green exposes tensions between toleration and repression that afforded gay men opportunities to carve out spaces and prominent social roles for themselves.

Green questions the degree to which Brazil's hierarchical sexual/gender system determined the actual sex role behavior of gay men, rigidly dividing them into two mutually exclusive categories: the homen ("real" man who takes the active role) and the bicha (effeminate male who plays the passive role). Earlier studies have argued that it was not until the 1960s that middle-class gay men in Brazil adopted a new sexual identity based on sexual-object choice rather than gender roles. Indeed, Green demonstrates that Brazilian physicians who studied homosexuality from the 1920s to 1940s tended to associate male homosexuality with effeminacy and passive anal sexuality, largely ignoring the "active" partner. But in these same medico-legal studies, Green finds evidence of gay men whose behavior did not fit neatly into the bipolar categories of homen/bicha. The most famous case is "Madame Sata," whose image as a "queen" contradicted his reputation as a dangerous criminal willing to fight and even kill to defend his hono r. Other men switched roles from "real" men to bichas, sometimes shocking their partners as well as unsettling the medical and legal professionals who assumed the necessity of the active/passive model. Although all gay men drew from stereotypical images of masculinity and femininity to fashion their gendered personas, Green shows how some used these images in ambiguous ways and engaged in fluid and shifting erotic behavior that defied categorization. "Reality," he reminds us, "proves richer than the construct."

Green devotes one chapter to describing and analyzing the homosexual appropriation of Rio's Carnival, from the elite masquerade balls of the 1930s, to the drag balls of the 1950s, to the samba school parades of the 1960s and beyond. Contesting DaMatta's interpretation of Carnival as a temporary inversion of roles and leveling of social differences, Green sees Carnival as providing gay men the "opportunity for an intensification of their own experiences as individuals who transgress gender roles and socially acceptable sexual boundaries the entire year." (203) For three days, they can discard the masks they wear for the other 362 days and join together in solidarity with other homosexuals apart from (rather than with) the larger community. Their participation, Green argues, has not only transformed Carnival, but has increased public awareness of homosexuality, undermined rigid normative definitions of masculinity and femininity, expanded acceptable manifestations of sensuality and sexuality, and fostered socia l toleration. Nevertheless, their success was only achieved through decades of protracted struggle, and thinks to large doses of humor as well as jesting responses to police harassment. If they have definitively asserted their presence within Brazilian national culture, they have not escaped continuing social hostility and violence.

In two chapters tracing cultural changes from 1945-1968, and 1969-1980, Green explores the changing identities of gay men as Brazil became a mass consumer society. Increasingly visible, gay men took over sections of Copacabana Beach as well as certain nightclubs and bars. They invaded the annual Miss Brazil beauty pageant and formed fan clubs which flocked to radio studios to listen to their favorite female singers. More privately, they came together in turmas (groups of friends that provided an alternative family) to socialize, support one another, and define and celebrate their alternative identity. By the mid-1970s (despite military dictatorship), they enjoyed a wide variety of opportunities for socialization, benefited from access to information about the international gay movement, and won growing sympathy among artists, androgynous entertainers, journalists, and political activists critical of Brazil's machismo. Examining O Snob--one of numerous newsletters published by different turmas during the 1950s to 1960s--Green suggests that a marked shift in identity began in the mid-1960s away from the rigid homen/bicha model toward a more fluid, "egalitarian" model of same-sex behavior. The book ends with a new beginning: the consolidation of this new identity during the late 1970s when political liberalization allowed for the publication of a second generation of gay journals and the rise of Brazil's gay rights movement within the larger context of political mobilization.

Easily accessible to those unfamiliar with Brazil, Beyond Carnival should interest a wide range of readers interested in gender relations and homosexuality as well as Brazilian culture. In looking at Brazil through a new lens, Green expands our understanding of the variety of ways in which Brazilian culture often tolerates (or even embraces) social differences while still preserving the rigid hierarchies and social exclusions that perpetuate privilege. The study also raises important questions about the political significance of gay men's festive and humorous subversions of normative gendered behavior. What role culture can play in the creation of a more just society remains an open issue.
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Author:Besse, Susan
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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