SANTIAGO – Students at Liceo de Hombres San Francisco de Quito in Independencia neighborhood refused to read Pedro Lemebel’s works. The students’ reaction, confirmed by parents, sparked debate throughout the community, including mayor Gonzalo Duran. Lemebel is known for being homosexual, and the only male writer who wore makeup and high heels during his time.
Students, backed up by parents, complained about having to read Pedro Lemebel’s work for school. The reason? He’s homosexual. The 11th-grade students of Liceo de Hombres San Francisco de Quito were assigned Lemebel’s book La Esquina de Mi Corazón (The Corner of My Heart), but refused, describing the author as being “disgusting” because of his sexual orientation.
The parents backed the students, saying, “There is a homosexualization of our children happening by making them read this.” according to Radio Bio Bio. They said that it went against their religious beliefs and their freedom of consciousness.
The teacher in charge was left devastated. He argued, “They did not want to do the reading because the subjects of sexuality and diversity have never been talked about before. So, once they are older, in 11th grade, and they have to read books written by authors such as Lemebel who speak about these themes in an open manner, obviously they were left feeling uncomfortable, they did not like it. This is all because of a process that has not been taken care of in many years, added to the fact that the parents themselves are the ones who don’t want to talk about these subjects.”
To “solve” the problem, the school’s principal called a vote with a show of hands. The “no” vote won by majority, and the students who still wanted to read Lemebel’s works could do so. Those who refused were assigned The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
The news of this event reached the mayor of Independencia who was not short of comments about the matter. He stated that “asking to not read Lemebel is of a brutal ignorance.” He went on to add that the manner of resolution was incorrect and only helped to validate discrimination of sexual diversity. Criticizing schools in Chile, he stated that this was a “reflection of the incapacity installed in the majority of schools in the Chilean educational system.”
The Homosexual Integration and Liberation Movement (Movilh) spoke out, too, saying it was “regrettable” and “sad” to see how a group of young students could classify a person as “disgusting” only because of sexual orientation. They commented on the school’s management of the conflict: “They are saying, in other words, that hate, homophobic bullying, and contempt and violence can be promoted if a voting permits it. With this action, the school abandoned its job as place for teaching and learning.”
Lemebel was a well-known public figure who highlighted things that made (and still make) Chilean society uncomfortable. He developed his life around the idea that society makes rules and standards that are meant to be questioned and broken in the names of those discriminated because of these rules and standards.
Pedro Segundo Mardones Lemebel was born on November 21, 1952, in a poor part of Santiago. His father, Pedro Mardones, was a baker married to Violeta Lemebel, who stayed home to take care of Pedro. Soon, he moved into government “social houses” on Avenida Departamental. Here, he attended a school where he was taught metal forging and woodworking for furniture. After graduating from college as a teacher in plastic art, Lemebel taught long enough to be fired for being openly gay.
When Lemebel was 18, the military coup took place. That event, together with his sexual orientation and socioeconomic status, were the foundations of his writing.
Before the 1980s, Chile was an orthodox and highly Catholic country, where anything but the norm was condemned. Lemebel used his writings to create controversy, and according to Agencia EFE , “[He] forced Chilean society to realize its weaknesses, its guilty pleasures, and its perversions in raw descriptions about the sexually discriminated, marginalized and despised minorities.”
The Doors to Writing
Lemebel started writing in his 30s. It was then that he discovered a passion and talent for it after he joined a short story writing workshop. As luck would have it, the course contained alternative cultural themes, dictated by left-wing feminists who opposed the Pinochet dictatorship.
Lemebel subsequently became known for his chronicles about his real life situations. His first piece was a small collection of stories he named Incontables (Countless), released in 1986 and edited by the workshop itself.
Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis
In 1987, Lemebel joined forces with poet Francisco Casas to form a team named “Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis” (The Mares of the Apocalypse). This began his passage from anonymous writer to performance artist, as the team was known for crashing public book and art inaugurations. This is also when Lemebel decided to adopt his mother’s last name, giving way to his future nom de plume, “Pedro Lemebel.”
The team also took part in many demonstrations against society and the government. Among other things, they also started the “velatones,” which paid tribute to the victims of the Pinochet regime, by illuminating public spaces with numerous candles.
When Patricio Aylwin became president, following Pinochet’s downfall and the comeback of democracy, the team even surprised the ceremony with a banner that read “Homosexuals for change.”
With all this, Lemebel gradually became known as a public figure who spoke out in defense of the humble and discriminated. Movilh lauded him, saying, “Lemebel’s pen represents and reflects the strength and vitality of the marginalized, the excluded,” according to daily Emol.
Lemebel’s first published book, La Esquina de Mi Corazón, was a compilation of urban chronicles written previously for some newspapers and magazines. The book spoke about Santiaguinos ostracized because of homosexuality, prostitution, and poverty.
In 2001, he wrote his first novel, Tengo Miedo Torero (My Tender Matador), a gay love story about a man of limited economic means and a younger man who belongs to a secret extremist guerrilla group that is fighting against the Pinochet regime.
Lemebel’s other writings also reflect the sociopolitical contexts of his life and times.
Modern Chilean Society
During the 1980s, there was a quick shift in society mainly brought about by globalization and rise in consumerism. People were more drawn toward commercial ideologies, instead of culturally-based ones that were fundamental in the past.
In the midst of this change in ideologies and social values, Lemebel took the role of writing about “a present represented by a daily display of the social realities and a Chilean culture inserted into a globalized world,” where he “installed a truth that would belie the legitimacy of the order of things ruled, from the mediation of the underdevelopment and specific Chilean history, for the globalization paradigm, and bring to light what is not said, hidden and manipulated.”
As the author of Pedro Lemebel: Gender and Society put it, “Whoever reads him knows very well that his chronicles are not a compliant record of successes of everyday Chilean life, even less a record assimilable by the system.”
During this change in Chilean ideology to consumerism, the government brought television and national channels to the country. Regular hours and religiously-oriented shows with an easy-going language were directed at viewers. Television was used to legitimize the dictatorship as well as influence the public to be more compliant. The shows were mainly targeting right-wing religious groups, who received the message easily, but always with the plan of gaining a more popular audience through time.
Lemebel described shows like those hosted by “Don Francisco” as being something that led a whole country astray with its talkative trickery and “merchant optimism,” “manipulating the consumer happiness of the folk,” “who follow him, love him, believe him like the virgin, and see in the funny mouth of the fat man an optimistic propaganda of the country.”
El Discurso de la Loca
Despite the new social ideologies and norms taking place in Chile, Lemebel had to fight his whole life because of his homosexuality. As he was one of the first openly gay public figures in Chile, Lemebel brought much controversy. He also became a character to the public when he started stepping out in makeup and high heels.
His writings are the first ones represented by a gay voice. He gave the man a voice known as “El Discurso de la Loca” (The Crazy Woman’s Speech). It is described as a “[p]arody of the urban and flirty woman’s speech, appropriating her cliché words, her intonations or typical accents, but at the same time gestures associated with the movement of the body, all inside a common daily language, loose of syntaxes and of a popular lexicon.”
In the end, Lemebel was always looking to seduce the reader with the truth he believed to be most evident; the right to free circulation, the acceptance of his speech as that of a crazy woman as a representation of exclusion or margination of the other for being different.
Face to Face with Power
One of the most important aspects of Lemebel’s writing is that it constantly reveals power to be in a position that divides his characters. He makes two groups of people, the ones on the same side as power, and those on the other side or submitted to it.
Those who are on the same side as power always make the rules as they please, decide what is normal and accepted. Those on the other side of power always need to make everyday life happen in a world that doesn’t seem to belong to them.
This in general seems to be about making the readers think more about the positions they fill in their own society, and how truly free they are (or not) in their own world.
Although controversial in his way of speaking, and even more so in his way of presenting himself to the world, Lemebel was well regarded in the literature world. He received one of the biggest awards of his career, the José Donoso Award, in 2013. In reference to the CLP$ 30 million that came with it, Lemebel joked “I will get boobs done” – sarcastically speaking about Donoso as a public figure who, in contrast to Lemebel, refused to acknowledge his own homosexuality. He also received nominations for the Altazor de Ensayo y Escrituras de Memoria Award and the National Award of Literature.
Lemebel died in January 2015, after fighting laryngeal cancer, which almost took his voice after a surgery to remove it. Even so, he persevered and continued to speak out and give public readings of his works dressed in heels and long feather boas.
Lemebel never forgot his role of exposing the complexities, constraints, and possibilities of Chilean society. His work has always been characterized as a provocative political and social tool.
Maria Paz Rodriguez Zaninovic. Born in Santiago, Chile and moved to the US at a young age. Here she began noticing the differences between societies and her curiosity grew about how people think, how countries work, and how culture affects lifestyles around the world. Although professionally a dentist, her passion for writting and photography has always been a part of her everyday life.