BAR Book Forum: Andrea Allen’s “Violence and Desire in Brazilian Lesbian Relationships”
Even those who are significantly marginalized act in ways that, unfortunately, inflict pain on others.
“There is no refuge for Brazilians who are not white, male, heterosexual, and wealthy.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Andrea S. Allen. Allen is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Her book is Violence and Desire in Brazilian Lesbian Relationships.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Andrea Allen: My book focuses on the experiences of Black lesbian women in the city of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. In my ethnography, I reveal and analyze a paradox: while Brazilian lesbian women reject Brazilian cultural norms that encourage male domination and female submission through their engagement in romantic relationships with each other, they also reproduce Brazilian cultural ideals that associate passion, intensity, and power with physical dominance through their engagement in infidelity and intimate partner violence. Despite these apparent displays of masculinized power, I demonstrate that lesbian women are nonetheless marginalized as Brazilian citizens through widespread social and political invisibility. Unfortunately, the election of Jair Bolsonaro has only worsened the political and social climate for Black lesbian women, LGBTQ Brazilians, Afro-Brazilians, poor Brazilians, women—basically anyone who is disenfranchised, marginalized, and lacking power in Brazilian society. While the bancada evangélica (evangelical political bloc) in Brazil’s Congress began accruing power before the Bolsonaro regime, his ascendancy further solidified that there is no refuge for Brazilians who are not white, male, heterosexual, and wealthy. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and laid bare extreme disparities that have always existed in Brazil. Black and Brown Brazilians are more likely to be infected by the coronavirus and die from it, similar to the health outcomes seen among Black, Latinx, Native American communities in the United States (as well as among visible minorities and Indigenous peoples in Canada and BAME communities in the United Kingdom). Alongside already established health disparities within these communities, so often their members are also essential workers who have not been able to shelter in place during the pandemic; their bodies are visibly needed even as their pain, and sometimes deaths, are ignored or elided. Similarly, these conditions underscore the betwixt and between circumstances that render Brazilian lesbian women, especially Black lesbian women as invisible, but essential, members of Brazilian society.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Around the world, the experiences of lesbian women, same-gender loving women, and women in same-sex relationships are often de-prioritized within LGBTQ spaces. This phenomenon is certainly present in Brazil. Of course, activists and community organizers who advocate and work with these populations are aware of this problem. Accordingly, my ethnography does not reveal this information to them. However, what it does do is illuminate the factors that influence how and why this invisibility occurs, and the ramifications of this invisibility when lesbian and queer women seek redress from the state. Additionally, the book focuses on intimate partner violence (IPV) in lesbian and queer women’s relationships, which is sadly a cross-cultural phenomenon that traverses demographic boundaries within LGBTQ communities. In the book, I describe how some lesbian activists in Salvador were not immune to the occurrence of IPV in their own relationships. Although the book could be perceived as “airing the dirty laundry” of IPV in LGBTQ relationships, my goal was not to describe in a salacious manner women’s violent behavior towards each other. Instead, I sought to illustrate that victims as well as perpetrators of IPV act in seemingly contradictory and confounding ways, elucidating that interpersonal violence must be understood from a holistic perspective. Moreover, the experiences of Brazilian lesbian women who are victims of IPV indicate that it is necessary to have targeted government and civil society interventions that adequately take into account that sexuality and gender identity affect how lesbian and queer women engage with resources that often are only directed towards women in heterosexual relationships and where cis-gender men are the perpetrators of IPV.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
There are several ideologies that I hope readers unlearn from my ethnography. First, the association of violence with masculinity elides how and why women engage in acts of violence. Physical aggression is more than a masculinist enterprise; the desire to display sentiments, including jealousy, anger—and even love, passion, and strong affection in some women’s minds—through physical force is a human pursuit. Bodily pleasures and passions are amoral forces that influence acts of and responses to intimate partner violence. Thus, while it is important not to ignore these embodied erotic states, their ambiguous nature necessitates an awareness that these emotions are unreliable witnesses in explaining or “justifying” violent encounters. Second, it is necessary that we expand how we discuss the spectrum of Black female sexuality. While the need to delve into the exploitation of and violence committed against Black female bodies is understandable from both historical and contemporary perspectives, it is also necessary to discuss the sexual and erotic pleasures that Black women experience in their bodies. Moreover, the book’s focus on Black lesbian women allows for a discussion of sexuality that is not steeped in pathologizing how and with whom Black women seek sexual pleasure and express their desires. Overall, the book dismantles common frameworks of contemplating violence and the study of Black female sexual subjectivity.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My work has been inspired by Black feminist, lesbian, and queer scholars like Audre Lorde, Gloria Wekker, and Evelynn Hammonds. I name these scholars because each of them has been instrumental in how I think about Black lesbian and queer women’s sexuality and has pushed me to complicate the analysis of my ethnographic encounters. The tensions between Audre Lorde’s emphasis on the significance of a Black lesbian identity as a site of resistance and Gloria Wekker’s focus on female homosociality and relationality invited me to be ever mindful that there is not one correct understanding of Black female sexual subjectivity in the African Diaspora. Audre Lorde’s collection Sister Outsider offers essays that so effortlessly combine the political and personal ramifications of merely being a Black lesbian feminist woman trying to survive in the world. Gloria Wekker’s The Politics of Passion beautifully describes the everyday mati work of Surinamese women alongside historical discussions that contextualize the narratives in the ethnography. Evelynn Hammonds’ unequivocal endorsement of the need for the intervention of Black lesbian scholars in the discussion of Black female sexuality in her article “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality” was a revelation for me when I first read it during graduate school. I was excited to have someone formulate such cogent arguments that described the lack of theoretical attention afforded to Black lesbian and queer female sexual expressions. Together, these scholars truly paved the way for me as I sought to articulate how I as a Black lesbian scholar could also do work among Black lesbian and queer women.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Ultimately, my book re-imagines how we discuss violence, desire, and pleasure as embodied experiences that occur within particular historical, political, cultural, and social milieux. In some ways, imagining a new world in which violence is not the singular or primary purview of cis-gender men is a daunting prospect. However, expanding the conversation recognizes that even those who are significantly marginalized also experience the full range of human emotions and act in ways that, unfortunately, inflict pain on others. Additionally, my book is also about the pleasure and joy that Black women, lesbian women, and queer women experience with each other, which in and of itself is a political act. Rather than a simplistic or even salacious endeavor, a focus on Black female sexual subjectivity provides a much-needed salve for the unyielding wounds that are inflicted on Black women wherever they live, especially in societies that are steeped in white supremacy. My book, in essence, is perhaps not so much a call to imagine a new world, but a demand to recognize the world that some of us already live in that others try to make unrecognizable or invisible. Despite these machinations, this world is still very much real for those of us living in it.
Roberto Sirvent is a teacher living in California.
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