“Genders, Feminisms and Diversities” conference, San Jose de Costa Rica, 20-23 June 2011

The GEFEDI conference brought together academics from across Latin America, and a few from the English-speaking world, and a lot of Costa Rican academics and students, to discuss the state of gender studies and new themes about diversity and plurality.   Costa Rica is not a rich country, and the organizers had made a great effort to assemble funding and make the event inclusive.

It was held in a hotel auditorium – all the sessions in the same room. About 350 people came. The organizers had arranged simultaneous translation between Spanish and English, throughout the conference and not just for a few sessions.  The main beneficiaries were the Anglophones, and for part of the time, just me.  Gulp. 

I met Gloria Careaga, whom I had known as head of the gender studies programme at UNAM – the biggest gender studies programme in the world? – and is now head of an international lesbian and gay peak organization. I also met Marcela Lagarde, who gave the very good closing speech for the conference. She is a most impressive Mexican intellectual and political activist who was elected to the Mexican national parliament and pursued feminist issues there.  

In the regular sessions, I was particularly excited by the work of Laura Velasco, a social researcher from Tijuana who is doing first-rate research about gender issues (and other social issues) in the turbulent development of Mexico’s northern border region.  This opens up the question of how a pattern of gender relations forms as a new social formation comes into being.

Some impressions of Latin American academic feminism as represented in the conference: The colleagues here have no difficulty at all talking about ‘patriarchy’ as the central problem.  Power held by men, and the subordination of women, is a stark reality.  High levels of violence are also a local reality – rape and domestic violence against women, anti-gay violence, and not much relieved by the apparent ending of the civil wars of the recent past.  There is still a lot of deference to theory from Europe and the USA.  There is a very wide range of topics under debate, from identity to human rights to environment.

The conference had ceremonious sessions honouring feminist pioneers in Costa Rica, with speeches by them, and presentation of gifts.  In most sessions there wasn’t much debate on the conference floor - most time was taken by presentations from the platform - though there was certainly a combative tone to some presentations. 

My plenary talk was about Southern perspectives on gender questions, encouraging people to recognize the scale and value of feminist thought across the global South, including the new patterns of transnational feminist networks.  The questions raised in the discussion time included racial inequalities, the concept of the 'South', the specificity of Latin America, the languages of colonialism, the conditions of production of knowledge, the relation of academic feminism to women outside the university world, and the uses of knowledge by social movements.

The day before my plenary, I truanted from the conference, went to the University of Costa Rica, and gave a talk on ‘Understanding transsexuality’ hosted by the psychology dept and a regional LGBT rights organization CIPAC, about 80 people came.  A transsexual/ transgender support group came to the talk and I had afternoon tea with them, a great meeting that exchanged some tough stories of survival.  The local estimate of a travesti’s expectation of life is about 32.

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