Back in graduate school, I took a seminar on Latin American History. My research project for that class was sexuality in colonial Latin America. It has a fascinating history. I remember that I read, Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil which I found infinitely fascinating. So, when I saw that Dr. Cervini’s Queer History 101 this week was about “Sexuality and the Colonization of the Americas,” I was eager to read it and share it with you.
From Dr. Eric Cervini’s Queer History 101
Even in 2022, we are still seeing an alarming rate of LGBTQ+ content being unjustly censored. In China, an episode of Friends was edited so Ross’s ex-wife wouldn’t be gay. In Hungary, a recent law has banned queer content in schools or kids’ television. And right here in the U.S., dozens of state legislatures have attacked teachers’ ability to teach queer and trans history. But how far back does this phenomenon of censoring queerness go?
Zeb Tortorici, an Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures at NYU, understands the reality and nuances of this suppression more than most. Tortorici’s body of research focuses on the origins, archiving, and censorship of the queer “obscene” in New Spain, which included Mexico and Central America.
“I was directed toward the obscene,” Tortorici told me, “through my first book, Sins Against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain, which is about the archiving of sodomy.” It was during this research of colonial, same-sex criminal case records that Tortorici noticed the repeat occurrence of the Spanish word obsceno, or obscene. But it struck him as odd. “The word ‘obscene’ in the cases that I looked at,” explained Tortorici, “was particularly grafted upon desires that were less legible than something like sodomy.” So what were these “less legible” offenses?
First, Tortorici pointed me to the 1776 case of Manuel de Arroyo from Pachuca, Mexico. “Arroyo asserted that consuming human semen from another man is not a sin,” he told me. “The assertion of this heretical thought is what Inquisitors referred to as ‘obscene.’” Curiously, the act of oral sex wasn’t the obscene offense, but holding the belief was obscene.
Tortorici also cited a second example, the 1803 case of Juana Aguilar from Guatemala. “They were a so-called hermafrodita, or a hermaphrodite. Their body is described as ‘obscene’ in some records, including medical reports published in the colonial Guatemalan Gazette.” Again, the alleged act of Aguilar being a hermaphrodite wasn’t necessarily obscene, but the description of their body was obscene.
“Obscenity is produced in conjunction with other forms of alterity,” explained Totorici. “It’s not simply something that refers to explicit sexuality or sexual desire in the wrong place or in the public sphere.” For Arroyo and Aguilar, moralistic and cultural opinions were “grafted” onto them in a means that further marginalized them as individuals. The Inquisition’s concept of the “obscene” wasn’t solely about being queer; it was a commentary on diversity and how difference itself was anathema to colonial culture. Thus, being different became criminal.
“Sodomy itself was policed in colonial Spanish, Portuguese American, and Spanish Pacific landscapes,” noted Tortorici, “but women and men were judged and denounced very differently for the crime.” Regardless of the type of court–criminal, secular, ecclesiastical, or inquisitorial–colonial Spanish America, despite an effort to standardize punishments for sodomy, allowed gender biases to influence legal consequences. And, in Tortorici’s research, the proof is in how records were kept.
“I spent from 2003 to 2018 in the archives looking for as many cases dealing with the sins against nature as I could, and I was struck by the fact that almost no cases of female sodomy appeared.” Indeed, Tortorici found only one unambiguous criminal case from 1732: it was about Josepha de Garfias, a woman from Mexico City who was punished for the crime of sodomy. But as far as details goes, that’s it!
“All we have is a one-paragraph summary of Josepha’s criminal case, which basically says that she was convicted of the crime of sodomy with other women,” said Tortorici. Apart from that, all evidence was burned and no record of punishment was kept. A leniency toward a female, same-sex crime all but proves, as Tortorici puts it, “the topic of sodomy was not the the axis of the case itself.”
So, as Tortorici asked me, “What is queer? And what does it mean to think about queerness centuries before the term was ever invented?” As Tortorici suggested, “Maybe what makes something queer is in the ways that it is trying to rupture or challenge identitarian claims and politics.” Queer history, in other words, may be much more expansive than you’d think!
For more of Tortorici’s fascinating work, check out:
- Against Nature: Sodomy and Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America (History Compass, 2012)
- Queering Archives: Historical Unravelings, Eds. Kevin P. Murphy, Zeb Tortorici, and Daniel Marshall (Duke University Press, 2014)
- Sexuality and the Unnatural in Colonial Latin America (University of California Press, 2016)
- Sins Against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain (Duke University Press, 2018)
A few more suggested readings:
- Guy, Donna, Sex & Danger in Buenos Aires: Prostitution, Family and Nation in Argentina (University of Nebraska Press, 1991)
- Green, James, Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil (University of Chicago Press, 1999)
- Bliss, Katherine, Compromised Positions: Prostitution, Public Health, and Gender Politics in Revolutionary Mexico City (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).
- Sigal, Pete, Infamous Desire: Male Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America (University of Chicago Press, 2003)
About Eric Cervini
Dr. Eric Cervini is an award-winning historian of LGBTQ+ politics. His first book, The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America (a fascinating read), was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It also won the Publishing Triangle’s Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction, the NYT Editors’ Choice, and the “Best Read of 2020” at the Queerties.
Cervini graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College and was a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, where he received his PhD. As an authority on 1960s gay activism, Cervini serves on the Board of Advisors of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of gay American history. His award-winning digital exhibitions have been featured in Harvard’s Rudenstine Gallery, and he has presented his research to audiences across America and the United Kingdom.
He lives in Los Angeles with his drag queen boyfriend and their dog, Moo Bear.
Here’s a bonus picture of Dr. Cervini, just because…
I think more people would enjoy history if their professors looked like Dr. Cervini. I have such a crush on this man.