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Cymene Howe

Associate Professor
Curriculum Vitae
Email: cymene@rice.edu

From the dynamics of sexual rights in Latin America to the global challenges of climate change and energy transition, my research has centered on a commitment to understanding our collective moral and ethical pressure points. In Nicaragua and the United States, historic triumphs and profound social anxieties have been embodied in the ongoing process to establish sexual rights for LGBTQ individuals and communities. As the “culture wars” surrounding sexual rights have tested moral authorities in both the global north and the global south I have been interested in understanding how activists have served as arbiters of these unfolding social and political dynamics. The political and social crises engendered by climate change and energy transition appear to provoke similar social apprehensions and concerns about global equity in the era of the anthropocene. Climatological threats to both humanity and the greater planetary bios are, as I am seeing in my current research, diagnostic of ethical quandaries about how the future ought to proceed and whose rights, responsibilities and modes of survival should be prioritized. In each of these cases, the larger themes that I have been interested in center on how certain phenomena surface ethical tensions and test our collective social (and ecological) sense of well being.

            I have spent more than a decade working in Nicaragua and my forthcoming book, Intimate Activism: Sexual Rights in Postrevolutionary Nicaragua (Duke University Press 2013) analyzes how sexual rights activists have reformulated their country’s revolutionary history to create new models of sexual subjectivity and rights. During the time of my field research, Nicaragua maintained the most repressive antisodomy law in the Americas. In the wake of the Sandinista Revolution, neoliberalism and social conservatism combined to create an unprecedented anti-gay juridical climate. I wanted to understand how this had occurred, and more critically, how activists—many of whom were reared on the revolutionary ethos of Sandinismo—were attempting to overturn the law and to shift the moral coordinates of the country using the political tropes of human rights and autological liberalism. The book itself tells a triumphant story, as activists were ultimately successful in helping to overturn the antisodomy law. But it is also an ethnography of activism that carefully attends to activists’ projects and discourses, many of which are transnational in form and function. By understanding activists' work and their multiple engagements, I argue, we acquire not only a sense of activists' values and the context of their struggle, but the points of friction where globally disseminated rights and concepts of sexuality become reformulated in local contexts. Throughout this project I have centered attention on the distinct motivations and outcomes of activists’ pluridimensional work, from the intimate spaces of discussion groups, to public manifestations of protest, to mass-mediated forms of advocacy. Overall, I am interested in how recombinant politics emerge as (nominally) northern political forms are recast in the global south; these qualities of movement, flow, mediation and adjacency are of continuing interest to me.

My current research in Mexico—a collaborative project with Dominic Boyer-- focuses on the development of wind parks and renewable energy projects in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, Mexico. What is evident thus far (following more than a year of field research) is that activists opposing the neoliberal development logics that are driving clean energy policies in Mexico are as adamant as the Nicaraguan sexual rights activists with whom I have spent so many years. Proposed developments in the Isthmus are animated by state and corporate initiatives that purport to enhance regional economic development and generate a “green” profile for the Mexican state. However, resistance at the local level is conditioned by histories of abandonment by state actors and transnational capital as well as local genealogies of corruption. In the processes surrounding transitions to renewable energy forms, I have been particularly interested in how the ethical claims of global climate change mitigation are tested by another set of ethical claims that demand local forms of determination: namely, how life is to proceed in the present and in the future. These conflicts around renewable energy are, on the one hand, deeply political economic in nature, concerning dispossession and the debilities of development. But they are also ethical projects that manifest claims for a greater good, though with very different gauges of success and “sustainability.” I am convinced that climate change is the greatest ethical challenge we now face, and in light of this, I hope to think through some of the ways in which ecological authority is constituted in specific contexts as well as how anthropogenic climate change calls for new ways of imagining our collective biotic futures. 


I teach courses in Anthropology and the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality.

ANTH 201 - Introduction to Social/Cultural Anthropology

ANTH 332/532 & ENST 332/532 - The Social Life of Clean Energy

ANTH 449/649 & SWGS 449/649 - Cultures of Sexuality

ANTH 398/598 - Ethnographic Research Methods

SWGS 502 - Gender, the Disciplines and Interdisciplinary: Transnational Sexualities



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Intimate Activism
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Selected Publications

 Intimate Activism: The Struggle for Sexual Rights in Postrevolutionary Nicaragua, Duke University Press, 2013.                                            To save 30% on INTIMATE ACTIVISM, visit http://www.dukeupress.edu/Intimate-Activism/ and enter the coupon code E13HOWE during checkout.

21st Century Sexualities: Contemporary Issues in Health, Education and Rights, Routledge, 2007, ed., with Gilbert Herdt.

“Transnationalizing Desire and Commodified Sexualities,” Ethnos 2009, ed., with Jakob Rigi. ( pdf )

“The Legible Lesbian: Crimes of Passion in Nicaragua,” Ethnos, 2009. ( pdf )

“Spectacles of Sexuality: Televisionary Activism in Nicaragua,” Cultural Anthropology, 2008. ( pdf ) 

“Transgender Sex Workers and Sexual Transmigration,” with Susanna Zaraysky and Lois Lorentzen, Latin American Perspectives, 2008. ( pdf )

“Sexual Borderlands: Lesbian and Gay Migration, Human Rights, and the Metropolitan Community Church,” Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 2007. ( pdf )

“Gender,Sexuality and Revolution: Making Histories and Cultural Politics in Nicaragua 1979-2001,” In Gender, Sexuality and Power in Latin America since Independence, Katherine E. Bliss and William E. French, eds. 2007.

“Undressing the Universal Queer Subject: Nicaraguan Activists, Transnational Identities and Feminist Legacies,” City and Society, 2003. ( pdf )

“Queer Pilgrimage: The San Francisco Homeland and Identity Tourism,” Cultural Anthropology, 2001. ( pdf )