LGBTQ Politics in Nicaragua: Revolution, Dictatorship, and Social Movements (Review)

Karen Kampwirth’s new book examines nearly five decades of LGBTQ organizing, culture, persecution, and resistance in Nicaragua.

February 17, 2023

LGBTQ Politics in Nicaragua, University of Arizona Press, 2022

Drawing upon years of political engagement and research in Nicaragua, as well as a deep network of contacts, Karen Kampwirth’s book LGBTQ Politics in Nicaragua: Revolution, Dictatorship, and Social Movements offers a compelling, in-depth examination of lesbian, gay, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) politics. Taking a historical approach to LGBTQ organizing, culture, persecution, and resistance, Kampwirth also offers the reader new insights into Nicaraguan politics, particularly in terms of the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s (FSLN) more subtle use of clientelism and cooptation.

Kampwirth’s command of the subject is extensive and her analysis is incisive. Having conducted 120 interviews and nearly two decades of fieldwork, especially in Managua between 2011 and 2017, she contextualizes Nicaraguan LGBTQ politics in relation to Latin American and global organizing, but maintains that each country’s LGBTQ history is unique in identity construction and organizing (Kampwirth cites “LGBTQ” as the term used most recently in Nicaragua). This includes an exploration of local usage of terms such as cuir, gay, and cochón. As Ana Victoria Portocarrero from the collective Operación Queer explained, “for many of us Cuir is not the same as queer. I think Cuir is a way of placing ourselves in that which is queer but within the Latin American experience.” Elyla, also of Operación Queer, takes an intersectional approach to differentiating between “gay” and “cochón.” “A gay is a homosexual with a car, with a house, with a job," Elyla explained. "A cochón is someone who lives, who struggles, who is in the street…who does not get work because he does not fit into the classist logic…because he is very black.”

Kampwirth then turns to chart the ebbs and flows of LGBTQ organizing and rights from the guerrilla uprising in the 1970s to contemporary politics. Her work traces the contradictory position of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) on LGBTQ issues, which has ranged from repression and intolerance to celebration and cooptation. During the FSLN’s first period in power (1979-1990), the party did not have a clear or consistent LGBTQ policy, and individuals had diverging experiences. For example, for some, military service during the Contra War was liberating, while for others it was oppressive and even dangerous. In the mid-1980s, a group of LGBTQ Sandinistas discreetly began to meet and discuss their own rights. When the state security agency found out, it came down hard, accusing them of working on behalf of imperialism and forbidding future meetings. Many members were detained and threatened with imprisonment and violence, expelled from the Sandinista party, and fired from their jobs. Several years later, some reorganized under the Health Ministry to carry out HIV-AIDS education.

The FSLN lost the 1990 elections, and Sandinista Daniel Ortega handed over the presidential sash to Violeta Chamorro. Under her conservative administration the LGBTQ community faced a backlash, most notably with the passage of Article 204, an anti-sodomy law that was the hemisphere’s most extreme anti-LGBTQ legislation at the time. Nonetheless, the LGBTQ movement grew and became more visible, continuing HIV-AIDS advocacy but also branching out into other forms of organizing and rights-based work.

Kampwirth’s insights regarding the post-2006 Sandinista era especially stand out as significant contributions to our understanding of both LGBTQ and Nicaraguan politics. With the return of the FSLN’s Ortega to presidency in 2007 and the steady concentration of power in his hands, Kampwirth compellingly argues that Ortega’s embrace of the LGBTQ community took the form of clientelism and was a means for the FSLN to establish legitimacy. Under Ortega’s leadership, the FSLN was now a Christian, anti-feminist party that, counterintuitively, incorporated LGBTQ organizations. The FSLN overturned the anti-sodomy law in 2008, and anti-LGBTQ repression declined, providing more space for LGBTQ organizing. According to Kampwirth, a LGBTQ boom occurred between 2007 and 2017, as new groups formed and flourished.

In contrast, the Ortega administration harassed feminist groups, apparently as payback for feminist “disloyalty” in response to Ortega’s stepdaughter Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo’s 1998 revelation that he had sexually abused her from a young age, as well as feminist opposition to Sandinista support for an abortion ban without exceptions in 2006. Payback took many forms, including ransacking offices and attacking feminist organizations. A more subtle ploy was to co-opt LGBTQ organizations and activists in order to undermine the historically strong feminist-LGBTQ alliance. Many LGBTQ organizers felt that the FSLN imposed a for-us-or-against-us dynamic, in which proving loyalty to the FSLN meant distancing themselves from feminist organizations.

Not only did the FSLN seek to benefit from disrupting the LGBTQ-feminist alliance, its veneer of tolerance for the LGBTQ community also helped clean up Nicaragua’s international image. As Kampwirth suggests, this functioned as a form of pinkwashing, in which the Ortega administration publicly emphasized a pro-LGBTQ stance—thus appearing to be modern, progressive, democratic, and revolutionary—as a means of distracting international attention from its troubling record on other progressive and human rights issues.

After detailing the 2007-2017 “LGBTQ boom,” Kampwirth identifies four factors explaining why and how the boom happened. First, she points to the FSLN return to power, its new Penal Code banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the elimination of the anti-LGBTQ Article 204. Second, she notes that compared to the 1980s, the FSLN exhibited greater LGBTQ tolerance and support, including some funding and positive Sandinista media coverage. Third, this period saw increased international funding for LGBTQ organizations and events. A final factor was the role played by Zoilamérica, daughter of First Lady (and now Vice-President) Rosario Murillo and step-daughter of President Ortega. Though estranged from her family, she was a prominent and experienced political organizer who focused much of her energies on the LGBTQ community.

In 2009, the Ortega administration named the first state Ombudsperson for the LGBTQ community in Nicaragua (and first in Central America), which introduced a human rights approach at the state level. This signal of state support also helped attract foreign funding. However, as Kampwirth details, with this higher profile and state support came the danger of cooptation, as some LGBTQ activists questioned the intent behind establishing an Ombuds—was it to promote LGBTQ rights or to buy off and silence an increasingly powerful LGBTQ movement? For some, the Ombuds office guidance felt more like control than support.

The 2012 Miss Gay Nicaragua pageant was a high-profile manifestation of the LGBTQ boom. Described by one organizer as a beauty contest with a human rights focus, it was held in a prestigious venue, televised, sponsored by the Norwegian embassy, and supported by the ruling Sandinista party—the first notable form of government support for an LGBTQ initiative. Yet Kampwirth finds that a number of LGBTQ activists were concerned that their community was valued solely as a form of entertainment, and that the focus on social events such as “Miss Gay” contests and drag shows reproduced harmful stereotypes. One trans woman identified as Martina argued, “Trans women have always been utilized for a show,” and they are asked to participate in events, wear their gowns, and be recognized by the mayor. “But when they need something and they go to the mayor’s office, they deny their request.”

Several LGBTQ groups approached Zoilamérica and the nongovernmental organization that she led, Centro de Estudios Internacionales (CEI), for support. One key CEI initiative was the development of Casas de Diversidad Sexual (Sexual Diversity Houses) in several cities, offering shelter from sexual harassment and abuse, psychological attention, legal support, education, leadership training, and space to socialize and foster community.

Despite LGBTQ progress under Ortega, Kampwirth argues that improvements in civil rights slowed and even stalled. LGBTQ people do not have the right to marry or adopt, for example. Furthermore, the Ortega administration began to harass CEI and its director Zoilamérica, with “little effort to disguise the confluence of family and state.” The LGBTQ movement in general was caught up in the broader effort by the Ortega administration to coopt and control civil society, which especially targeted independently successful, high-profile groups. Techniques included interfering with and placing conditions on foreign financing, which could deal a fatal blow to LGBTQ groups.

In 2013, the state blocked the Norwegian embassy from funding CEI’s LGBTQ program, instead requiring all Norwegian funding for LGBTQ causes to be under the guidance of a state agency. The Ortega administration, in targeting CEI, also pursued a divide and weaken approach. Soon after CEI lost its support from the Norwegian embassy, several LGBTQ groups marched on the CEI offices demanding computer equipment and other resources purchased by the original Norwegian funding. Despite the harassment against CEI, Zoilamérica remained in Nicaragua until she and her partner, a Bolivian citizen and advisor for CEI, were taken into custody several months later. Her partner was immediately deported, and Zoilamérica soon followed him into exile in Costa Rica. With her departure, the CEI closed, along with several CEI-affiliated LGBTQ programs in various cities.

Kampwirth’s research ends with the Ortega-Murillo consolidation of power in 2017 and the last mass outdoor celebration of Pride Day. In April 2018, the government initiated a brutal crackdown against retirees and students protesting social security reforms, which grew into a massive country-wide movement resulting in beatings, arrests, and hundreds of deaths. Members of the LGBTQ community were prominent participants and victims of the repression, with trans women particularly targeted. Following this, demonstrations were banned and many NGOs were forcibly closed down, feminist and LGBTQ organizations among them. 

In this captivating book, Kampwirth strikes an effective balance of empirical detail and analysis, filling gaps in our understanding on both fronts. Her book serves as a model for future inquiries, particularly in the nuance and detail with which it contextualizes LGBTQ politics within Nicaraguan politics. In covering roughly 50 years of LGBTQ politics, she also presents new insights into Nicaraguan politics, including how the Sandinista party— formed in popular revolution and purportedly progressive—sought to legitimize and strengthen itself on the back of the LGBTQ community. This occurred at first through repression, next through clientelism and cooptation, and most recently through repression once again. The FSLN’s 2018 authoritarian turn brought Nicaragua’s LGBTQ boom to an end. Yet despite the current repression, Kampwirth looks towards a new and stronger movement that will one day reemerge, “as it always does.”

Lorraine Bayard de Volo is a political scientist in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder whose work centers on gender, sexuality, and race as they relate to militarization, war, and revolution in Nicaragua and Cuba. Her most recent book is Women and the Cuban Insurrection: How Gender Shaped Castro’s Victory (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

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