New book by Rice anthropologist sheds light on sexual rights in Nicaragua

A new book by a Rice University anthropologist offers an account of how Nicaraguan activists overturned the most repressive antisodomy law in the Americas.

Cymene Howe’s “Intimate Activism: The Struggle for Sexual Rights in Postrevolutionary Nicaragua” examines how local sexual rights activists balanced global conversations regarding human rights and identity politics with the realities of daily life in Nicaragua.

The antisodomy law was passed shortly after the Sandinistas – the social democratic political party in Nicaragua – lost power in 1990.

“Although the activists were initially motivated to take action by the antisodomy measure, they sought to change not only the law, but also the culture surrounding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Nicaragua,” said Howe, an assistant professor of anthropology.

The activists worked to do this through discussion groups, public protests, mass media and the introduction of Nicaragua’s first social justice telenovela.

“Latin American telenovelas, or soap operas, have become rather famous for their epically emotional sagas of passion, heartbreak and betrayal,” Howe said. “However, this particular telenovela broached many controversial issues, including sexual identity, abortion, sexism, racism, domestic violence and homophobia.”

Since the antisodomy law was repealed in 2007, in part through the work of the sexual rights activists, Nicaragua has advanced awareness and new models of sexual identity and rights and instituted new legislation and federal offices to protect LGBT people in the country.

“By understanding activists’ work and their multiple engagements, we acquire not only a sense of activists’ values and the context of their struggle, but how globally circulated concepts of rights and sexuality become reformulated in local contexts,” Howe said.

To compile this account of historic change, Howe conducted approximately 70 extensive one-on-one interviews and engaged in participant observation at events, meetings, protests, cultural events, the filming of the telenovela and through interacting with individuals on a daily basis. Howe also conducted an extensive survey of Nicaraguan media regarding matters related to sexuality, identity, politics and gender.

For more information on the book published by Duke University Press, visit

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.