Steven F. Butterman

Queering and Querying the Paradise of Paradox: LGBT Language, New Media, and Visual Cultures in Modern-Day Brazil

Rowman & Littlefield, 2021

318 pages


Reviewed by Joseph L Rojas, Jr.

In Queering and Querying the Paradise of Paradox,  Steven F. Butterman assembles a broad array of analyses about the sociopolitical and cultural state of queer and trans life in Brazil. He provides an in-depth discourse analysis of the largest Pride Parade in the world; an assessment of the utility (and potential drawbacks) of language as a performative tool for developing a sense of belonging and community; a purposeful inclusion of the T in LGBTQ; and examinations of cinematic representations of gender and sexual diversity during the first two decades of the early twenty-first century and the curation of the Queermuseu (Queermuseum). Building on preeminent gay Brazilian scholar Silviano Santiago’s “space-in-between,” Butterman views the historical and ongoing trajectory of Brazil as ambiguous in nature, and the construction of brasilidade (Brazilianness) as perpetually in flux. In this sense, he theorizes Brazil as an “idyllically queer space” and argues “that it becomes virtually unnecessary ‘to queer’ the Brazilian imaginary since the cultural landscape of this space is inherently and quintessentially queer.”

The first three chapters constitute a chronological discourse analysis of coverage of the São Paulo Pride Parade in major news outlets from its emergence in 1997 to its latest COVID-era, and thus virtual, iteration in 2020. In what is perhaps the book’s most significant contribution to the field of Brazilian studies, Butterman analyzes not only the formation of The LGBT Pride Association of São Paulo (APOGLBT), but the changes in the official name of the parade (e.g., placing the L before G or the one-time inclusion of the letter “I” for intersex and its subsequent re-exclusion thereafter), and their employment of discourses of citizenship, diversity, family, and rights in the slogans they choose each year. He also considers the extent to which parade organizers anthropophagize (i.e., Brazilianize) this originally North American event, with a particular focus on “carnivalization.” While taking seriously the development, perils, and promise of the ever-changing and contested identities embedded within the acronym LGBTQIA+, he tackles the recurring debates over whether São Paulo’s Pride Parade is merely a spectacular carnivalesque party or a call to militant political action. As he parses this carnivalesque/political dichotomy, the reader reckons with the paradox of (in)visibility. Butterman’s reading makes it clear that there are certainly elements of the mass performative collectivity of the parade, however ephemeral, that both have political potential and in some ways have already had beneficial sociocultural impacts. Nevertheless, this coexists with the risks (which have proven to manifest with regularity) of backlash, co-optation, and profiteering.

The fourth chapter focuses explicitly on language, which serves as a clear throughline throughout the entire book. Butterman explores the lexicon of three self-styled reference works, including a “sexual autobiography” comprised predominantly of homoerotic poetry and two compendiums of terms and phrases associated with homosexuality. The first is a book written by Glauco Mattoso and published in 1986, which he translates as Manual of an Amateur Foot Fetishist: Adventures and Readings of a Man Obsessed with Feet. Butterman argues that it is a queer text that, “in a productively contradictory process,” seeks to depathologize sexual deviance and praises the transformative power of perversity. He goes on to analyze two other texts which, “As innovative as [they are] problematic,” are faux dictionaries passing as instruction manuals for “gayspeak” in Brazil. Butterman does seem to recognize the value of so-called gayspeak for in-group identification or for self-protection, as in the case of bajubá (a once-secret language with West African origins used among travestis to keep each other safe). However, his critical contributions are an acknowledgment of the male-centricity and invisibilization of lesbians and women in the English-language literature on language and sexuality thus far; an investigation of how some gayspeak reproduces classist, misogynistic, and racist discourses; and questioning any purported universality of such speech among LGBTQ Brazilians. In the fifth and sixth chapters, Butterman seeks to include the T in LGBTQ in his analysis. The former delves into the difficulties of translating transness across cultural and linguistic contexts. Emblematic of this is the term travesti, which in Brazil is distinct from transgender and transexual such that one may see the acronym LGBTTT. Many scholars have defined and theorized

the meaning of travesti, most of whom emphasize the occupation a liminal (and quite trans) space “between sexes” in the sense that they choose to maintain their male sex organs, as well as how their bodies are a system of language and the unique sociality and subcultures among them. Butterman identifies at least seven potential pitfalls that (especially cisgender) activists and scholars who deal with transness must be aware of: 1) Fetishization, 2) Paternalism, 3) Moralism, 4) Vampirization, 5) Trendy scholarship, 6) Excessive generalizations, and 7) The use of travestis to exoticize and idealize ambiguity. In the latter chapter, Butterman raises important questions about art and activism, particularly through photography that seeks to “humanize” trans populations. He describes how even well-intentioned images can result in objectification or further stigmatization. At the same time, he highlights the agentive actions of travestis and trans women who alter their appearance and bodies, make use of activist photography for professionalization (whether it is to better market themselves for sex work or in another sphere), and migrate. Lastly, he suggests The Red Umbrella Fund, which is run by and for sex workers, as a potential model for other organizations to follow.

The book’s final chapters round out Butterman’s analysis of language and visual cultures in Brazil, moving from coverage of the Pride Parade, reference works, and photography, to cinematic representations of queer and trans life in Brazil and the curation of the Queermuseu. As Butterman analyzes seven feature-length films and three shorts, he elucidates the myriad “pathways of queer diaspora for the LGBT Brazilian protagonists who choose (or are forced) to leave Brazil” and explores themes of queer belonging, home, migration, return, and utopia. Finally, Butterman uses the Queermuseu as a prism for understanding contemporary issues in Brazil related to censorship; fascistic employments of the apparatus of the state under disgraced former president Jair Bolsonaro; metronormativity and regionalism; and religious fundamentalism, as they pertain to gender and sexual minorities.

A wonderful (and I imagine unsung) aspect of the book is how Butterman incorporates class into his analysis. For example, he demonstrates how class shapes beauty standards and contributes to discrimination among attendees of the São Paulo Pride Parade, as well as how some uses of the term bicha are inflected by class. Furthermore, in dialogue with Viviane Namaste, he foregrounds the class dimension of the experiences of trans populations (in addition to drug users, prisoners, and prostitutes), underscoring poverty as a trans-inclusive feminist political priority even as he is “interested in breaking through the stereotype that would hold sex work as the only viable form of gainful employment for Brazilian travestis.” 

In Queering and Querying the Paradise of Paradox, Steven F. Butterman has provided a solid foundation and framework for scholars of gender and sexuality, language, and visual cultures in Brazil. He mentions the chasm between the Northeast and the South and Southeast regions of Brazil on multiple occasions throughout the book. Brazilian studies and queer studies stand to benefit from scholars building on this commendable work by migrating away from the queer metropoles of Brazil (i.e., São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) to call attention to and destigmatize queer and trans cultures and lives not just in the Northeast but also in the oft-forgotten Central-West and North.