Cooperation and Co-optation in Transnational Activism
Cooperation and co-optation, despite their shared prefixes, seem to suggest very different approaches to establishing coalitions, politics and sociality. Where cooperation suggests prioritizing collective knowledge - shared ways of thinking, being and doing - co-optation is often understood as a kind of political thievery, usurping the politics, ideologies and practices of one collective in order to advance the goals of another. The cooperative impulse to create a synergy of skills, seems to find its reverse when we talk of co-optation; it is instead the appropriation of those synergic skills, or put differently: hitching one’s political wagon to another’s in order to reap the benefits therein. While co-optation is often invoked in the negative as an inappropriate, or at least uninvited, form of borrowing, I would like to recast the notion of co-optation in a more positive register as that “process of placing one’s political goals within a larger rubric of political success.” What I would like to elaborate here, based on my anthropological fieldwork among sexual rights activists in Nicaragua, is what I am calling the “strategic co-optation” of lesbian and homosexual identity. While Nicaragua is a country likely still remembered for the Sandinista Revolution, what is less well known is that following the end of the Sandinista regime in 1990, the country instituted Latin America’s most repressive anti-sodomy law (Article 204), which mandated that “anyone who induces, promotes, propagandizes or practices in scandalous form sexual intercourse between persons of the same sex commits the crime of sodomy and shall incur 1 to 3 years imprisonment.” My research has been an attempt to understand how advocates of sexual rights in Nicaragua, and their cooperantes (often in the form of feminists) have worked—discursively and practically—to overturn their country’s anti-sodomy law. Many activists have indeed wed their struggles to the categories of “homosexual” and “lesbian” subjectivity. However, I will argue that we ought not see this as an example of colonial discursive dispersions where Southern subjects are victims of an assimilationist logic handed down from the North. Rather, I want to suggest that as activists invoke these political terms—ones that certainly have traction in the transnational  world of human rights advocacy—they have done so in ways that allow for creative and flexible appropriations of the terms themselves. These categories are, in other words, spacious signs with political teeth that are being strategically co-opted to address locally relevant concerns, both political and cultural. First, let me outline some of the scholarly concerns about transnational gay and lesbian rights and identity before I then turn to the work of Nicaraguan sexual rights advocates.