5 Questions About: Exile within Exiles: Herbert Daniel, Gay Brazilian Revolutionary

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. Today, James Green discusses Exile within Exiles: Herbert Daniel, Gay Brazilian Revolutionary.

Sevil Çakır-Kılınçoğlu’s review of Exile within Exiles: Herbert Daniel, Gay Brazilian Revolutionary is available online and in issue 47.1 of OHR.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

Exile within Exiles is the story of Herbert Daniel, a medical student turned revolutionary, who joined other students to fight against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. In order to conform to heteronormative notions of revolutionary masculinity, Daniel felt he needed to repress his homosexual desires to be an effective guerrilla fighter, which he managed to do for five years. During this period, he was involved in bank robberies to obtain funds for the revolutionary movement; he joined eighteen others in a rural training camp to learn guerrilla tactics; and he participated in the kidnapping of the German and Swiss ambassadors to obtain the release of 110 political prisoners, who had been victims of torture and were lingering in Brazilian jails. He eventually fled the country in 1974 for European exile. While living in Paris and working in a gay sauna, he challenged the Brazilian Left to rethink its conservative positions on gender and homosexuality. Returning to Brazil in 1981, he unsuccessfully ran for the state assembly of Rio de Janeiro in 1986, presenting a radical program that among other issues defended equal rights for gays and lesbians, at the time a pioneering position. In 1989, he discovered he had AIDS, and within months he founded an important association for people living with HIV/AIDS. In the subsequent three years he reshaped the national discussion about the disease, proposing acts of solidarity with those infected as the most effective response to the virus. He passed away in 1993, leaving behind Claudio Mesquita, his partner of twenty years.

This biography of Herbert Daniel offers a unique window into Brazilian politics, society, and culture during the Brazilian military dictatorship and in the early years of democratization, as Daniel challenged the authoritarian nature of the regime, and then later questioned deeply-held conservative ideas against homosexuality that were pervasive within the Brazilian Left. While a unique figure, Daniel reflected a generation of radical youth willing to sacrifice everything to change Brazilian society, as well as those among that generation who over time were capable of rethinking core values for those engaged in social change.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

In order to recuperate the stories surrounding Daniel’s unusual life trajectory, I conducted over seventy oral histories with people who knew him in his youth, during his days as a medical student, and while he operated underground, lived in European exile, and became involved in electoral politics and AIDS activism when he returned to Brazil. Although he had written a memoir about parts of his life, there were many missing elements connected to the five years in which he lived clandestinely that I was partially able to reconstruct through interviews with people who had shared those tense moments with him, including former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was also a member of the first revolutionary organization to which he belonged. Still, there are many mysteries about his life that I was not able to solve.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

Oral histories have been vital sources for all three of the monographs that I have written. They will also be essential for my next project, “Generation 77: Youth Culture and the Demise of the Brazilian Dictatorship,” which will rely heavily on the oral histories of seven activists involved in the movement to end authoritarian rule in Brazil. A core section of my first book, Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-century Brazil (University of Chicago, 1999) relied on oral histories to reconstruct the social history of gay men in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when there were less written sources to rely on. Similarly, We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States (Duke University Press, 2010) used over seventy oral histories to tell the stories of U.S. and Brazilian activists involved in myriad campaigns against torture, repression, and the regime that dominated Brazil for two decades.

As an historian interested in writing about Brazil’s past for US and Brazilian audiences that are not very familiar with the history of the military dictatorship, I have found that oral histories fill in details that cannot be found in written documents and also bring to life individual protagonists whose stories have not been told. Of course, there are many issues related to memory and positionality that one must acknowledge, but this is also always the case with written historical sources. In the specific case of writing about Herbert Daniel, oral histories allowed me to partially recreate moments in his life, especially when he lived underground, that could not be recorded at the time for obvious reasons.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Over the years, I have learned to weave the oral histories that I have conducted into the overall narrative of my works that enliven them and suggest some of the successful ways that I have interviewed people and listened to their stories and then woven them into a unique new reading of the history of a dramatic period in twentieth-century Brazil. Hopefully these voices that recall their pasts will engender interest in people totally unfamiliar with this subject.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

Herbert Daniel was a person who lived his life to the fullest, enthusiastically taking on ever new challenges and confronting obstacles with confidence, so that he could be an agent in changing the course of events. He was notably simple and humble, and at the same time a larger-than-life figure whose story can help us rethink how ordinary people can have a much larger influence on society than they could ever imagine.