“I would prefer…a gay of the gay movement”

In Queer Latinidad, Juana Rodriguez sets out on a mission: “to document the processes through which these moments of rupture” — dissension from the hegemonic discourse — “are articulated and mobilized.” She does so by looking at three case studies: activism, the law, and cyberspace. I’m choosing to focus on her chapter on the deployment of identity in the courtroom, or more specifically, in the case of Marcelo Tenorio, a gay Brazilian man seeking political asylum in San Francisco.

In the government major, we’ve conceptualized the Judicial Branch as the ultimate guardian of civil liberties. The executive branch often monopolizes power, leading to problematic centralized executive foreign and domestic policymaking and Caesar-ian freezes of our most basic constitutional rights. The legislative branch focuses on democracy, a kind of “institutionalized uncertainty” (heard that somewhere) that allows We the People, the living people, to choose. But it’s the Judicial Branch that is rights foundationalist, that protects our basic liberties above all else. I found it odd that — in the space in which rights are proclaimed to be secured, protected, and expanded — a man’s identity was completely delegitimized, his rights to express himself as a black, Brazilian man of a lower socioeconomic class (Tenorio) stripped from him altogether.

Before further pursuing this topic, I should note, as Rodriguez does, that although the hegemonic discourse does leave a “bitter taste” in readers’ mouths, the two men involved in the trial do “resist and speak against the totalizing implications of the discourses that surround them.” In other words, despite the insidious effects of legal constraint, the case does revolve around a desire for freedom and self-expression. Still, I found the ways in which the case projected certain labels and identities upon Mott and Tenorio highly problematic.

The highly pressurized legal process forced Tenorio and Mott into a kind of frantic scramble for legitimacy in the eyes of the court. In pursuit of a favorable outcome, Tenorio and his councel had to prove that homosexuals were persecuted in Brazil, that he was homosexual, that he was perceived as a homosexual, and that he was attacked for this perception (he, in fact, had to relive his actual attack about four times before the court was satisfied). But perhaps most pernicious was the chasm the legal proceedings drove in between Tenorio and Mott — both gay, Brazilian men. Already marginalized for his sexual orientation, Mott clearly felt pressure to create a hierarchy within this minority group to elevate himself above Tenorio. He testifies: “Honestly I would prefer to be defending a gay of the…of the gay movement in Brazil, but Marcelo Tenorio is a person of a poor…poor origin” (97). In this highly coded statement, Mott essentially equates “real” or “legitimate” gays with those involved in the gay rights movement — a white, upper-middle class movement — and thereby robs Tenorio of any “legitimate” or “real” claim to a gay identity. In this way, he reifies the sexuality injustice against Tenorio while also acting out racial and socioeconomic discrimination upon him. Reading Mott’s testimony initially provoked me to repudiate Mott himself; however, upon a closer reading, I found Mott and Tenorio were fighting the same battle. Tenorio had to prove he was somehow gay enough, persecuted enough to win his case. Mott had to prove that he was somehow legitimate enough, smart enough for his testimony — and him — to be taken seriously. Both had to squeeze identity — which is inherently undefinable and intangible — through the strict definitions the legal process had stipulated in order to achieve the desired outcome. The courtroom left them no other choice. In that way, the courtroom — rather than enforce the justice they were seeking — merely reenforced the stereotypes and discrimination in the world outside it.

Unlike in the spheres of activism and cyberspace, I felt Rodriguez’s account of the discursive space in the courtroom was a disheartening one. It elucidated the sad double-edged sword of the American legal process: even when you refuse to conform, there is a mechanism in place — the courtroom — to secure your most basic freedoms; in order to reap benefits from that mechanism, however, you must check the freedom to express your identity at the courtroom door.