Silent Realities – Heteronormative Hegemony & Divisions within the Queer Community in Chile

Shyam Anand Singh is a young academic from Singapore who delved into the Chilean LGBTQ community for his research.

It was 7.30pm at Bellas Artes Metro Station and I was due to meet Eduardo [not his real name], a 24 year old Law student from Diego Portales University. I scanned the staircase next to the ticket counter and sighted an unshaven, precocious looking individual with brown eyes. After exchanging kisses on the cheeks, Eduardo decided that we should dine at a new Japanese-Peruvian restaurant near the “gaybourhood” of Bellavista. Upon settling in, he started explaining his background and his involvement with the gay “community”. Eduardo identifies as gay and bitterly describes the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community as “fractured, divided, and dominated largely by male voices who don’t give a sh**t about lesbian and transgender people”. In 2012 for instance, after four years of collaborating with the Ministry of Health, the Movimiento de Integración y Liberación Homosexual (Movilh) rejoiced when sex reassignment surgeries were included under the country’s national health plan, the Fonasa (National Health Fund).[1] This meant that the cost of the operations would be funded by the state depending on the patient’s income bracket with “the poorest citizens being able to get sex reassignment surgeries for free”.[2] Despite MOVILH’s best intentions, this decree was met with controversy from within the LGBT community, specifically, the transgender community. One of the conditions of this plan was the inclusion of psychiatric therapy, a measure that was strongly criticized by the Organización de Transexuales por la Dignidad de la Diversidad (OTD) for portraying a negative impact on the country’s image of transgender people.[3] This regulation implicated that “transgenderism was still a mental disease”. “It was bad for the transgender movement”, Eduardo reasoned, “as it tainted the image of the community”.

Divisions within the Queer Community

MOVILH’s disregard for the image of the transgender community points to a wider trend of inequality within the LGBT movement in Chile. For decades, criticisms have been mounted against the leadership as being dominated exclusively by men. This is problematic for a movement that claims to advance the collective interests of sexual and gender minorities. Within a marginalized community that comprises a diversity of gender and sexual identities, there are bound to be differing interests between organized groups. Correspondingly, the agenda of each group is contingent upon the degree and form of discrimination experienced in mainstream society. While middle-class gay men, for instance, might be concerned with equal marriage laws, transgender individuals are primarily affected by social and legal discrimination with regards to gender identity. Thus, even though organizations have marched under the slogan of equality (for instance, “Marcha por la Igualdad”), there should be an acknowledgement that not all injustices within the queer community have been treated with equal attention.

However, gender and class imbalances amongst queer elites are emblematic of wider trends of discrimination within the Chilean queer community. Antonio [not his real name], a 19 year old student remarks, “I find it very disturbing that some gay men in Chile discriminate others based on superficial qualities like having dark skin, effeminate behaviour, being too fat or not being rich enough. We are already discriminated against by mainstream society; we do not need to perpetuate more hate”. Laura [not her real name], a 28 year old Masters candidate in a Chilean university mentions, “Discrimination within the [queer] community is very common. In fact, it is rare for two gay people from rich and poor backgrounds to be friends in Chile”. Intriguingly, stories of class and gender divisions within queer communities are synonymous with principal cleavages of class and gender discrimination in Chilean society. As a matter of fact, the replication of societal divisions within queer communities is not unique to Chile. Wherever homophobia is dominant, a “mirroring effect” occurs where the principal divisions that plague mainstream society are reproduced within queer communities. In Chile, this is further exacerbated due to the influence of Machista culture and income inequality wrought on by General Augusto Pinochet’s neoliberal policies. But what accounts for this “mirroring effect” and how does it reproduce societal cleavages within queer communities?

Heteronormative Hegemony

Often taken for granted, this “mirroring effect” has rarely been observed or discussed by queer subjects. Termed as heteronormative hegemony, this phenomenon is a by-product of the emergence of a “gay identity” in recent decades. Due to rising gay consciousness, queer individuals struggling to cope with their sexuality within heteronormative contexts inadvertently internalize heteronormative concepts as a means of negotiating their path to developing their sexual identities. In other words, some queer subjects negotiate through the hierarchy of identity politics and capitalize on privileged identities that society regards as ‘valuable’ as a means of dealing with the personal stigma of coming out. For instance, in patriarchal societies where masculinity is perceived as a sign of status symbol and effeminacy is stigmatized as weak and undesirable, gay men intending to challenge these heteronormative frameworks might do so by appropriating masculine characteristics while deriding effeminate attributes. These norms are subconsciously internalized by gay men for a range of reasons that include gaining personal acceptance by family members or attempting to fit into a gay culture that equates sexual appeal to masculinity. As a result, this perpetuates a sub-culture based on stereotypes, labels, and exclusion.

An example of the appropriation of heteronormative frameworks into gay culture would be the labels of “pasivo” and “activo”, in reference to the sexual preferences of gay men. While “activo” refers to the penetrator, “pasivo” refers to the penetrated. Despite the fact that both agents in this process are male, a power hierarchy exists between the roles with “activo” being equated to masculinity and dominance and “pasivo” relegated to femininity and submissiveness. A study published in 1997 by the Corporacion Chilena de Prevencion del SIDA on homo- and bisexual male populations in Santiago highlights the notion that the act of being penetrated is a source of stigma for many Chilean MSM (Men who have sex with men) as it “represents a status downgrade toward femininity”.[4] Additionally, gay men who identify with being “pasivos” are sometimes ostracized by family members and friends for being a maraco (faggot). As a consequence, some gay men deliberately eschew from openly identifying as “pasivo” or even disparage other gay men for effeminate tendencies in an attempt to enforce their masculinity. Due to such forms of internalized homophobia, a machista culture is reproduced within the gay community where masculinity is exalted as a status symbol at the expense of other forms of identities.

Neoliberalism and the Commodification of Gay Identity

To better understand the system of heteronormative hegemony, we need to ask: what are the power dynamics behind this socialization of gay sub-culture? Why is gay sub-culture more likely to be influenced by machista culture than lesbian and transgender sub-cultures? And, what implications does this have for the queer movement in Chile?

In 2004, a paper published by Daniel Lyons investigated the factors that socially construct gay identity in Chile. According to the study, Lyons posited that in the last decade, there has been a discernible increase in gay visibility in Chile. Nevertheless, this visibility is the result of an expanding neoliberal economy rather than any decrease in legislative discrimination or social homophobia. Chile’s neoliberal economy and close economic relations with North America has extended a global LGBT network driven by consumption. Many Multinational Corporations (MNCs), ranging from fashion stores to gyms, have positioned themselves in the LGBT market. Advertisements and product “roadshows” are common in gay bars and discos. The program guides for some ‘Sexual Diversity’ marches are even lined with product placements that convey a message of gay acceptance in consumer culture. As one gay activist proclaims, “our ‘protection’ is done in the interest of the economy, not in the interest of our rights”.

The incursion of neoliberalism, as a consequence, has led to the commodification of gay identity. In turn, this has deepened class divisions within the gay community in Chile. This is evident in the street of Bombero Núñez, the heart of Santiago’s gay district in Barrio Bellavista. In societies where homophobia is rife, gay districts act as an escape from the oppression of heteronormativity for sexual minorities and provide an avenue for social networks to be forged. The commodification of gay identity, unfortunately, excludes queer individuals from working class and poor backgrounds from participating in the queer sub-culture. Antonio [not his real name], a gay man from a lower-class barrio in Santiago remarks: “Going to one of those clubs on Bombero Núñez is not cheap. Entrance fees can cost between 5.000 to 8.000 pesos and that doesn’t include drinks. Plus, there is a pressure to look good by dressing up fashionably. Most of the people who go there are from Providencia or Las Condes (the richer parts of Santiago) and they often dress in clothes from H&M and Topman. They typically form cliques and rarely talk to anyone who do not dress or talk like them. Hardly anyone from the lower-class barrios goes there”. As Antonio suggests, for those who are gay and of a lower class status, it is difficult to obtain the same identity and acceptance that is purchased by those of a privileged class.

Moreover, as gay identity becomes more commoditized, the concept of a “gay lifestyle” emerges, fuelled by consumption patterns of gay men. As Lyons asserts, “in Chile, as in North America, the ‘gay lifestyle’ is purchased through facets such as fashion, admission into clubs, music played in those clubs, restaurants, cafes, bookstores, movies, television shows etc.”.

Nevertheless, the “gay (men) lifestyle”, is distinct from lesbian and transgender sub-cultures. Consumption patterns within the “gay lifestyle” are largely driven by enhancing an individual’s sexual appeal. This is because like heterosexual women, homosexual men are subjected to the male gaze. The male gaze, a concept popularized by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay seeks to explain the objectification and sexualisation of women in film. A key point about this concept is the gender imbalance inherent between heterosexual women as erotic objects of men’s desires, and the power of heterosexual men to use film as a medium to replace the female gaze with that of men. In other words, by focusing on the sexual imagery of the female body, women habitually look at themselves through the eyes of men, pegging their personal value to their sexual appeal. Within the context of gay sub-culture, the bodies of heterosexual women are replaced with that of homosexual men as the objects of desire. As a consequence of the male gaze, gay men, like their female counterparts, are pressured to conform to narrow definitions of physical attractiveness as dictated by corporations and the media.

Implications for Collective Action: Identities of Exclusion vs. Inclusion

Considering heteronormative hegemony produces gender and class divisions in queer communities, what are its implications for the ‘Sexual Diversity’ Movement in Chile? It could be argued that if heteronormative hegemony goes unchecked, it could adversely affect the capacity of the movement to mobilize followers. This is because as gay identity becomes increasingly associated with the participation of particular “lifestyles”, social norms, and possession of commodities, queer individuals who do not identify with such a commoditized identity would be reluctant to “come out from the closet” and improve gay visibility. Lacking greater LGBT visibility, societal acceptance and inclusion of queer individuals are unlikely to improve.

This makes it much harder for LGBT organizations to lobby for anti-discrimination legislation. In democracies like Chile, the capacity to mobilize followers and resources is a critical factor in endowing political leverage to interest groups seeking to advance bills. With heteronormative hegemony not only affecting gay visibility but also creating divisions among LGBT organizations, this makes coordinating resources and followers difficult.

However, some organizations are attempting to mitigate these cleavages. Fundación Iguales, for instance, often coordinates with other organizations such as the Movimiento por la Diversidad Sexual (MUMS) and Acción Gay during events like Pride Marches. Nonetheless, divisions and animosity between these organizations and MOVILH remain. As Eduardo points out, “until the atomization of these organizations are not addressed and resolved, we still have a long way to go for our rights to be realized”.

More importantly, to enhance gay visibility, organizations need to acknowledge the class and gender privileges extant in queer popular discourse. Instead of employing these popular discourses, organizations should appropriate a more inclusive notion of a collective queer identity – intersectionality. Intersectionality implies an awareness of the multiple and interconnecting identities that experience oppression and discrimination in mainstream society. Appropriating intersectionality produces identities of inclusion, where individuals feel a sense of belonging to an organization premised not through an us vs. them mentality (gay vs. straight), but a more nuanced understanding that sexuality occurs along a spectrum and other forms of oppressed identities (women, working-class, Mapuche) should also be addressed. In such a scenario, criteria for group membership would, at best, be ambiguous. This means, in the case of LGBT organizations, that heterosexual individuals would have much right as homosexual and transgender individuals to become members of such groups. Fundación Iguales and MUMS are examples of how some organizations have opened their doors to heterosexuals. As a consequence of this, and the appropriation of other norms like the use of gender neutral language, a culture of acceptance is created within these organizations where people of different sexualities, genders, ethnicities, nationalities, class backgrounds, and political ideologies are able to come together in support of various policy agendas.

Despite the relative success of organizations like Fundación Iguales and MUMS, more needs to be done to ensure that this culture of acceptance is extended to the broader queer culture. As Antonio mentions: “outside Iguales, you will not find this same culture of acceptance and inclusion. There is a lot of discrimination within the queer community out there.” Until these silent realities are confronted, not everyone may feel safe to come out from the closet.

[1] Pedro Garcia and Paula Ettelbrick Fellow, “Chilean Paradoxes: Lgbt Rights in Latin America” http://iglhrc.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/chilean-paradoxes-lgbt-rights-in-latin-america/ (accessed 24th December 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Baird Campbell, “Movilh-Ization: Hegemonic Masculinity in the Queer Social Movement Industry in Santiago De Chile” (Tulane University, 2014).