Tentative Ruptures with Heteronormativity in Venezuela: A Conversation with Marianela Tovar

A politically engaged researcher talks about the patriarchal organization of Venezuelan society and LGBTQI+ struggles

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Marianela Tovar (Venezuelanalysis)
Marianela Tovar (Venezuelanalysis)
By Cira Pascual Marquina – Venezuelanalysis.com
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Marianela Tovar teaches feminist epistemology and feminist theory at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) and heads up the History of Science and Technology Lab at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Investigation (IVIC). She has authored numerous articles and books, including “Capitalist Discourse and the Queer Subject” (Revista Venezolana de Estudios de la Mujer) and a chapter in History and Cultures of Sexual Diversity (Fundación Biblioteca Ayacucho). In this interview, Tovar discusses the patriarchal organization of Venezuelan society and LGBTQI+ struggles.

Could you describe the patriarchal organization of Venezuelan society historically and in the present, as well as its heteronormative configuration?

The patriarchal organization of Venezuelan society is a product of the colonization process and was implanted when the Western patriarchal system, in its peninsular [i.e. Spanish] variant, arrived here. During colonization, men of European origin, sometimes with the help of locals, enslaved indigenous peoples and African women and men. They also had the practice of raping indigenous black enslaved women. The natural resources of these territories were exploited and, in some cases, devastated.

This process came with all sorts of violence exercised by the European men, including implanting a hierarchy based on ethno-racial origin, economic power, gender, position within the colonial bureaucracy, etc.

By inheriting the colonizers’ cultural values, colonial society also acquired – with some modifications – the peninsular patriarchal order. Women were conceived as inferior beings, dependent on men, and only relationships within heterosexual marriage were legitimated, although we know that non-compliance with the rules was frequent.

In the case of women who did not belong to the white elite, their subordination was even worse: they were constantly subject not only to discrimination, but also to exploitation and to various forms of sexual violence. Even when mantuanos [name given to the local oligarchy in the 18th and 19th century] established moderately stable sentimental relationships with brown or black women, those women were marked by power relations defined by the hierarchical structures within the society.

Although many women participated in the independence process, it was led by men. In the independence wars, very few women were able to take part. However, the war in this region was tremendously violent, and women on both sides were often victims of sexual and other kinds of abuse and violence. Needless to say, the liberation from the Spanish colonial regime did not break the patriarchal order.

Now we come closer to the present: women began organizing in the third decade of the twentieth century. They achieved some victories in the political and legal spheres: the right to vote, progressive reforms in the civil code and in the laws of the nation, participation in political parties and in social organizations, access to publicly-elected positions, the emergence of feminist political and academic spaces, and progress towards achieving sexual and reproductive rights.

However, despite these important achievements, we continue to live in a sexist, classist, racist, and heteronormative society. In today's society, capitalist patriarchy (with features typical of the periphery) is hegemonic.

During Hugo Chávez’s presidency, many important economic and social changes took place and a large part of the population began to organize. Women were often the driving force behind the social “missions” and other grassroots organizations. Nonetheless, the system of male domination remained intact, even if a mirage of equality emerged. Chávez declared himself a feminist, the participation of women in all spheres of society was recognized, and a woman-centric discourse affirming that women are superior to men became prevalent. Thus there arose the illusion of gender equality.

The capitalist patriarchal organization of life (and of politics) remains intact. In as much as the gender equality mirage breaks, another illusion begins to be shattered. That is the rentier model, which is at the base of the capitalist patriarchal system in Venezuela, and is in a profound crisis.

To sum things up, the local patriarchy, implanted through the colonization process, is heterosexist and heteronormative like all patriarchal systems. The Venezuelan elite, especially the political elite, uses politically correct language, but it is deeply conservative in all matters related to sexuality, sexual diversity, and feminist demands.

In addition to that, the political weight of evangelical groups is growing in Venezuela, and this can become a huge obstacle (even a setback) to the longstanding demands of feminists and sexual diversity groups.

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Women in Caracas perform “The Rapist is You,” the Chilean anthem interpolating the state’s machista character. (EFE)
Women in Caracas perform “The Rapist is You,” the Chilean anthem interpolating the state’s machista character. (EFE)

How and when did the struggles in defense of gender diversity and sexual diversity emerge in Venezuela?

Since the arrival of the Europeans, Western patriarchy sanctioned only heterosexual relations in what we today call heterosexist and heteronormative logics. That meant that the sexual practices of the indigenous societies were put in question, prohibited, and even persecuted by the colonizers. However, historical sources show that these practices persisted and there was resistance to the imposed norms.

Nevertheless, the organized struggle dates back to the 1980s, when the Entendido group took shape in Caracas. Led by gay, young, middle-class, university-educated leftists, the group traveled abroad and became familiar with the gay movement in Europe and the United States. This group of mostly gay men decided to organize and to create a magazine bearing the same name. The goal was to respond to the ongoing discrimination, persecution, and violence to which they were subjected by the infamous metropolitan police.

In addition to that, Entendido was the first non-sexually conforming collective in Venezuela to present a coherent political discourse in the mass media. They also struggled courageously against the disinformation surrounding HIV-AIDS. Entendido became the inspiration and model for future sexual diversity organizations.

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Three spreads from the “Entendido” magazine. The left spread denounces police repression against the gay community in Venezuela. (Archives)
Three spreads from the “Entendido” magazine. The left spread denounces police repression against the gay community in Venezuela. (Archives)

You have stated that queer theory and sexual diversity should be inserted into the rupturist (anti-capitalist) projects: the reorganization of society should not ignore any human issue. In Venezuela, some spaces are opening up, but the truth is that we have a long way to go. Can you talk to us about this intersection between social revolution and sexual diversity struggles?

Today, many anti-capitalist projects include feminist and sexual diversity demands in their agenda. That is, they include an anti-patriarchal program. However, there are organizations, such as communist parties and other movements, that don’t incorporate the demands in a full sense, but rather as mere add-ons.

It may seem to be a contradiction in terms that communists – the paradigm in the anti-capitalist struggle – would not fully include the demands of feminists, gays, lesbians, transexuals, and transgender people in their project. This conservative attitude emerged during Stalin's regime: the issue of sexuality was considered outside politics and was locked in the private sphere.

Additionally, the only accepted sexuality was heterosexuality, and everything that departed from that was considered a petty-bourgeois deviation. The model was reproduced in other communist parties and thus homosexuality, transvestism, and other sexual and gender expressions were considered outside the norm and persecuted. Of course, this past has left its marks on some of the left.

This conservative perspective attempted to erase a socialist past linked to the struggles of the so-called “perverse.” In the first half of the 19th century, Charles Fourier, a utopian socialist, wrote about sexuality and questioned monogamous relationships. Later, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social democrats such as Magnus Hirschfeld not only promoted reforms in the social and legal status of those who fell into the “intermediate sexual stages” category, but also encouraged research in the field. In the early years of the Soviet Union, communists such as Alexandra Kollontai also understood the political dimension of sexuality.

In the United States, the gay, lesbian and transgender groups that emerged in the wake of the Stonewall Rebellion used models, forms of organization, practices, and discourses of the left: their goal was to transform society as a whole. For this reason, “intersection” is not a recent phenomenon.

Here, in Venezuela, the gay activist group Entendido was leftist. Likewise, most of the sexual diversity groups that emerged after 1999 were linked to the Bolivarian Process led by Hugo Chávez. Still, during the Bolivarian Process, the relationship between sexual diversity groups and other organizations such as social missions was tense and sometimes very conflictive.

The root of the conflict is in the prevailing sexist and homo-lesbo-transphobic logic that is in place. I would argue that, while it is true that the Bolivarian Process has made some progress on these matters, it is not the result of a well-defined government policy. I would also claim that those who do not see the “intersection” of left politics with sexually diverse struggles continue to interpret reality in the same conservative terms defined by the former Soviet Union.

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Pride Parade in Caracas, 2019. (Katrina Kozarek/Venezuelanalysis)
Pride Parade in Caracas, 2019. (Katrina Kozarek/Venezuelanalysis)

The weight of the crisis always falls more heavily on the shoulders of working women, and the situation is especially difficult for trans women, racialized women, etc. Tell us about the impact of the crisis in this regard.

We are experiencing a multidimensional crisis that was exacerbated by the pandemic. Its impact is difficult to analyze due to the lack of official statistics in general, and of studies on the situation of the sexually diverse population in particular.

Various research initiatives and collected testimonies demonstrate that racialized women, adolescents, and girls are those most affected by the crisis. However, the information available is not enough, and there is no systematic data on the situation of transgender people, except for some approximations that a few Venezuelan NGOs have collected.

We do know, however, that the situation created by the pandemic has led to a spike in various forms of violence directed against racialized girls, teens, women, and trans people in precarious conditions. The less visible violence is that which is exercised against lesbians and racialized trans women. Although some NGOs record cases of violence and hate crimes against adolescent girls and trans women, there is massive underreporting regarding the constant violence exercised against the sexually diverse population.

According to the Latin American and Caribbean Trans People Network [ReDLacTRans], about 95% of trans women in the continent are sex workers. Presumably, the figures are similar in Venezuela. On top of that, their work and precarity expose them to the violations of their human rights.

There is no doubt that the situation of trans women has worsened during the crisis: the many forms of violence exercised by the patriarchal society, including institutional violence, have intensified. For example, we know that there have been several cases of unrecorded transfemicides in recent months.

Additionally, in these pandemic times, attention and contingency programs for the sexually diverse population are scarce and are especially so for transsexuals. One of the concerns is that trans adolescents and women are facing higher exposure to COVID-19 due to their socio-economic condition.

So, as you can see, the state’s lack of public policies aimed at guaranteeing the civil, sexual, and reproductive rights of adolescent girls, racialized women, as well as transgender people, is quite clear.

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A trans woman shows her ID with her dead or former name. Although trans people in Venezuela can legally change the name and gender that appears on their national ID, the process can take years. (Archive)
A trans woman shows her ID with her dead or former name. Although trans people in Venezuela can legally change the name and gender that appears on their national ID, the process can take years. (Archive)

From your perspective as a researcher into feminist and sexual dissidence issues, what are the main challenges facing the Venezuelan LGBTQI+ community now?

Rather than presenting my opinions about the challenges facing the sexually diverse population, I think it may be more useful to make a diagnosis of the organized sexual diversity groups. I think that will make the challenges that we are currently facing more evident.

You may wonder why I want to focus on sexual diversity groups and not on Venezuelan society as a whole or on the state and government. I believe that one of the key characteristics of current Venezuelan politics is its inability to engage in self-criticism and to make a clear assessment of reality.

Venezuelan sexual diversity groups, like other political organizations, develop their work in a sexist, homo-lesbo-transphobic, racist, and classist society. They do so in the midst of the multidimensional crisis that the country is facing. This situation, in itself, represents a huge challenge. However, many of the problems and obstacles facing organized groups are not the result of the current crisis.

It is necessary to go back to 1998 to make an accurate diagnosis. I begin there because when Chávez became president, a new moment in the political history of sexual diversity groups opened up. There was an explosion of organizations identifying themselves as homosexual, gay, lesbian, or transsexual.

Before 1998, there were only two such groups: Entendido, which I mentioned before, and Movimiento Ambiente. Their proposals were conceived by gay men and their political demands were practically invisible to the governments of the time.

With Chávez, the political and human rights of the sexually diverse population entered into the larger political debate. It happened with great effort and facing big stumbling blocks, but it happened. This shift was due, on the one hand, to the emergence of a political climate that encouraged all kinds of organization and, on the other, to the effects of the globalization of Western agendas.

Through the years, many sexual diversity groups and public figures have emerged. The vast majority have fought for visibility while making demands such as promoting adoption rights for non-heteronormative families, equal marriage, and policies against discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity.

In these years, some goals have been achieved, including visualizing the discrimination against sexually diverse people; recognizing sexually diverse leaders both as interlocutors when formulating political projects and as candidates for public office (in fact, some of them have been elected); the adoption of ordinances and other regulations against discrimination based on sexual orientation, identity, and gender in some municipalities; passing laws with articles banning discrimination based on gender orientation and gender identity; recognizing dual maternal filiation by the National Electoral Council; and anti-discrimination agreements passed in the National Assembly.

However, compared to what has been achieved in other countries, the balance is not too positive. In fact, in the continent, Venezuela is behind in everything relating to the guarantee of human and citizen rights of the sexually diverse population. This situation is particularly problematic in a country with government representatives that identify themselves as revolutionaries and raise the banners of equality, justice, and social inclusion!

How can we explain this contradiction? In other words, how did we get here?

There are many reasons that have led to the current situation. I believe that the following are some of the “internal” problems we face:

  • There is no cohesive sexual diversity movement in Venezuela (divisions based on militancy for or against the government work against having a cohesive movement).

  • There is no sexual diversity agenda in politics.

  • The list of sexual diversity demands is not incorporated into the feminist agenda.

  • Most sexually diverse public figures lack theoretical and political training.

  • There is no vanguard leading the heterogeneous sexually diverse population.

  • The opportunism and narcissism of much of the male leadership prevents the formulation of a common political agenda.

  • Some activists have turned the struggle for sexual diversity rights into a lifestyle.

  • Liberalism is the foundation of the discourse and practices of sexual diversity groups: there has been no reflection on what would be a revolutionary sexually diverse politics.

The theory and vocabulary from which we start to name ourselves and to describe our political practices and discourses come from liberal thought. We define and understand politics through liberalism and its latest fashions. With this in mind, I ask myself: will we limit ourselves to making liberal demands? Will we ever dare to think a sexually diverse socialist politics?

We should not proceed automatically with demands imposed by a minority that does not represent the sexually diverse population without a process of self-critique. We should understand our mistakes and our limitations; we should know our allies, adversaries, and enemies; we must understand where we are in society and in relation to the state/government.

Finally, we should also be able to leave behind who we have been, even if that hurts, or step aside to avoid becoming obstacles to the future of the sexual diversity movement.

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