Distraction Free Reading

When Sex Becomes a Matter of the State: Peciagraphy as a Qualitative Method for Examining Legal Cases

For the past ten years, I have been conducting ethnographic research on the Federal Supreme Court’s (STF) decisions on sexual identities in the Brazilian legal system. Despite the variety within this realm, I have always had the same guiding question: how do the STF and social movements perform sex as a matter of the state?

This question is directly derived from Annemarie Mol’s work (1999). She proposes the concept of ontological politics, according to which we must consider the conditions of possibility with which we live. These are not given as a starting point, since reality does not precede the banal practices in which interactions occur but is molded by them. This concept is intrinsically related to the notion that reality cannot be understood as plural—in which one reality is signified in different views—but as multiple: reality is enacted through its performance. In other words, it depends on the site where is performed. One you change it, the performance of reality and its possible effects are changed. When talking of sexual and gender identities, it is important to focus on how different sites (from a small to a large scale) modify the way in which sex is enacted as a matter of the state. Thus, to understand the Brazilian Supreme Court, I first turned my attention to local practices/spaces that made it possible for sex-related issues to end up being understood/enacted as matters of the state at STF. Thus, the question ensues: how is it possible to track these practices and the changes in the questions of interest at each change of site?

The first part of my answer was to focus my work on a set of legal cases from a pro bono university legal aid group, G8-Generalizando (G8-G). Through the project “Right to Identity: Live your name!,” G8-G innovated by articulating arguments and legal-psychological knowledge to produce a judicial alternative based on the depathologization of trans people and travestis[1] identities. That is, in the process of making sex a matter of the state, there has been a constant effort by G8-G to translate trans people’s and travestis’ movement demands during the six years that the project has been maintained. As part of an active refusal to produce judicial evidence that would seek to pathologize the people assisted by the project—such as the “psychiatric medical report proving the diagnosis of transsexualism (CID-10 F640)” requested by the judge—G8-G produced a legal alternative based on the physical-psychological violence suffered by trans people and travestis when called by their birth name (“legal name”)[2], which they do not recognize themselves by (“social name”).[3] Thus, the central piece of the process was a psychological report that attested to this suffering, justifying that the Brazilian State reiterated such violence by not rectifying the petitioner’s legal name.

At a sunny park, a large banner is held that says "G-8 Generalizando" and "sex and gender rights." A rainbow pride flag stands on a pole next to the banner.

G8-Generalizando at Porto Alegre’s Gay Pride (2017). Photo by the author.

Before explaining more how this psychological report is crafted, I should clarify that a “judicial piece” is a document, written by lawyers, whose annexation in the legal case allows the case to move forward. The main pieces I analyzed were the initial petition (which initiates the judicial process and establishes its aims), the appeal (which allows one to appeal the sentence), and the interlocutory appeal (which allows one to appeal interlocutory decisions of the judge, during the case). In direct dialogue with the judicial pieces, the psychological reports were produced by G8-G’s psychologists to produce material evidence of the psychological violence suffered by the petitioner when called by their legal name. Unlike the judicial pieces, the report is evidence, accepted by the parties as a material representation that justifies the requests presented in the initial petition. By not producing pieces or reports in a pathological way, the G8-G has innovated, bringing a new interpretation of the law.

For the second part of my answer, I return to Mol. Since G8-G legal cases were conducted in legal confidentiality—because they had sensitive data on vulnerable people and their discovery could cause more violence to the petitioner—I needed to create a narrative strategy that would allow me to narrate what I witnessed during my ethnography within G8-G. Briefly, my ethnography consisted of observing weekly meetings, as well as specific activities (group presentations to other entities and participation in LGBT events) and the participants’ formations of judicial pieces and psychological reports. Thus, I was inspired by Mol (1999) and propose “peciagraphy,” a term I coined, as a powerful method for understanding the juxtaposed relations between the judicial pieces and the process of discussion and formulation of the argument within them. Peciagraphy follows the judicial pieces, focusing specifically on the modifications and reformulations that occurs throughout their (re)production process in different legal cases.

To elaborate on this method, I would like to start with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

But what can the biographer do when his subject has put him in the predicament in which Orlando has now put us? Life, it has been agreed by everyone whose opinion is worth consulting, is the only fit subject for novelist or biographer; life, the same authorities have decided, has nothing whatever to do with sitting still in a chair and thinking. Thought and life are as the poles asunder. Therefore—since sitting in a chair and thinking is precisely what Orlando is doing now—there is nothing for it but to recite the calendar, tell one’s beads, blow one’s nose, stir the fire, look out of the window, until she has done. Orlando sat so still that you could have heard a pin drop. Would, indeed, that a pin had dropped! That would have been life of a kind. […] If only subjects, we might complain (for our patience is wearing thin), had more consideration for their biographers! (Woolf 1994, 175-6)

The irony of Virginia Woolf talking about the biographer’s work when she herself has to describe idle moments in which thought is the main protagonist, such as in the writing of a book, resonated with my own anxieties when thinking about working on the relationship between practices and judicial pieces. After all, when we are talking about the act of writing these documents, it seems an impossible and boring task to transform the act of sitting in front of a computer into an interesting description. However, the atmosphere of G8-G’s weekly meetings broke with my expectation in bringing, within its agenda, the possibility of debate and exchange of ideas about the judicial pieces, as well as a series of doubts, desires, and criticisms about them. Not only that, but the group organized regular trainings on the main knowledge that needed to be taught to the younger members. In these moments of learning, it was possible to capture the legal strategies, the engagements between laws and facts, as well as the transformation of the meeting discussions into a judicial piece.

Thus, the praxiography proposed by Mol (2008) became an interesting tool for capturing these modes of ordering and enacting the world through the group’s practices and judicial pieces—especially after being taught that one of the main ways to learn how to produce law is the use of models. During my period of active participation in the group, there were many occasions when they referred to their archive of e-mails to specify that the case in discussion already had a model that could be used as a basis for the production of the piece to be attached to the legal case. In this making of the law, the practice was related to learning an object that brought itself the possibility of reproduction and adequacy.

In this regard, again inspired by Mol’s praxiography, I propose the main method undertaken in my research as peciagraphy, or the description of the process of (re)producing pieces. The name comes from the Latin word pecia, understood as part or piece, and the etymological origin of the word piece in Portuguese. However, more than that, pecia describes an ancient method used in European universities in the 12th and 13th centuries for the reproduction of texts. As a way of providing access to fundamental works to students, the technique consisted of separating the manuscript into sections, which were later copied and authenticated by a committee of experts. The final copies were then circulated among the students. This method eventually gave rise to university libraries and was encouraged until the first printing was created.

Thus, as a form of learning, the production and subsequent reproduction of the judicial piece models was one of the main tools used by G8-G members. In this sense, peciagraphy is the description of these practices juxtaposed to the respective judicial models, bringing the possibility of better understanding how the relationship between the discussion process and the (re)production of the judicial piece is performed. This methodological approach allows for the juxtaposition of anthropological questions with native ones, in a double process of dialogue and reflection. Unlike the original method of pecia, peciagraphy focuses on paying attention to and describing the moments in which, in reproduction, old and new problems arise and how they are dealt with, even ending up modifying the model itself.

Therefore, with a description of the (re)production of judicial pieces from shared models within the G8-G, peciagraphy allows for the possibility of explaining how the relationship between the discussion process and the (re)production of the judicial pieces was enacted, focusing on the moments when old and new problems arose and how they were solved, having as one of the effects the modification of the model itself. By focusing on the description of the (re)production processes of the pieces and together with an extensive ethnography, peciagraphy enhances the underlying narrative of this process and brings to light the changes in the group’s positions and their translation into legal grammar.

So, through peciagraphy, I was able to describe part of the field of political disputes around gender and sexuality in Brazil, or when sex becomes a matter of the state. Here I am thinking from what Judith Butler (2002) proposed: to enter into critical events is to understand these moments of tearing apart the fabric of our epistemological network, in which the categories according to which our social life is ordered produce some incoherencies or entire domains of unintelligibility. In other words, the peciagraphy of these legal cases shows us a moment of possibility in the changing of our domains of intelligibility, not losing their complexity, but focusing precisely on how small changes create a butterfly effect that, in the end, can change our own understanding of sex as a society.


[1] An emic historical term in the LGBT movement in Brazil, Latin America, and Portugal. Travesti refers to someone designated men at birth, but who identifies oneself as a woman, and may or may not include aesthetic and surgical procedures. See Bento (2012).
[2] By “legal name” I mean the name registered in their birth certificate, chose by their legal guardians. By “social name” I mean the name used by travestis and trans people in their social network and daily interactions. In Brazil, we have a multitude of identifications, always referring to one’s “legal name”—making the use of “social names” impossible in these identifications.
[3] The dichotomy between “legal name” and “social name” comes from a very restrictive and bureaucratic use of civil law in Brazil. It is almost impossible to change your “legal name;” the only viable option is to argue that it causes violent events in the petitioner’s life. Thus, the trans and travesti movement invested in legal alternatives, such as the production of identifications using their “social names.” But the issue stood still: when dealing with bureaucratic and legal spaces, those identifications were not fully recognized since the “legal name” is still referred to and used in most legal documents.


Bento, Berenice. 2012. O Que é Transexualidade? São Paulo: Brasiliense – Coleção Primeiros Passos.

Butler, Judith. 2002. “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue.” In Ingram, David (ed.), The Political: Readings in Continental Philosophy. Basil Balckwell.

Mol, Annemarie. 1999. “Ontological Politics. A Word and Some Questions.” In Law, John and Hassard, John (eds.), Actor Network Theory and After. Blackwell/The Sociological Review.

Woolf, Virginia. 1994. Orlando. Faber and Faber.

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