Gay Cuban Nation. By Emilio Bejel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001, 257 pages. Cloth, $50; paper, $19.
Literature is taken seriously by theocracies, including those in which peasant revolutions are deified. Emilio Bejel's sensible analyses of Cuban fiction (on page and screen) shows that the project of Cuban nationalism from the last years of Spanish colonial rule to the middle years of Soviet neocolonialism was tightly interwoven with anxiety about weak, effeminate males and assertive, masculine women. The hero of the independence movement, Jose Marti (1853-1895), imaged and prescribed a masculinity for poets, while often suggesting that gender nonconformity was a consequence of modern urban instability. Other late-19th-century Cuban nationalists blamed "foreigners" (recent Spanish immigrants) for debauching heretofore innocent Cubans. Bejel shows that the scientistic, positivist, and self-consciously anticlerical psychiatric discourse that arose in Cuba toward the end of the 19th century combined racial pseudo-science with traditional biblical terms and assumptions about "sodomites."
The literature that included representations of (female as well as male) homosexuality in the decades between independence and the Second World War seems to me little concerned with nationalism, though Ofelia Rodriguez Acosta (1902-1975) was concerned with the "independent life" of what further north was considered to be "the New Woman." She also wrote about what can only be called a gay male couple and their acceptance as "natural" by a heterosexual male friend.
Bejel devotes a chapter to the frame within which was placed the novel El angel de Sodoma (The Angel of Sodom) by Alfonso Hernandez Catawas (published in 1928). The book's prolog was written by a reformist endriconologist and its epilog by a criminologist-lawyer. The former laid out a view that evolution is a process of ascension to human perfection, which reaches its zenith in the heterosexuality of the virile male. His "humanitarian" strategy of replacing punishment with social engineering prefigured what the post-revolutionary regime attempted to do: extirpate the roots of "unnatural abnormalities" by "strengthening of the differentiation of the sexes, exalting the masculinity of men and the femininity of women" (Gregorio Maranon, quoted p. 71). The medicalization of "sodomy," the commitment to bolstering gender dichotomies, and the weak father/domineering mother etiology mixed incoherently with beliefs about congenital "inversion" that were developing in other countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Maranon acknowledged influence by Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, and Iwan Bloch.) The novel itself showed a seemingly conventional man with strong sexual desires for males, who kills himself to preserve the honor of his family name rather than surrender to the "sin not named among Christians" in that capital of sin, Paris.
Cata was born in Spain, but raised (until the age of 16) in Cuba. Carlos Montenegro, the author of Hombres Sin Mujer (Men without Women, published in 1938) and the other pre-World War II writer Bejel devotes a chapter to discussing, was also born in Spain and spent his first 7 years there. "Montenegro spent practically his entire adolescence and youth in an almost exclusively homosocial atmosphere" (p. 79): as a sailor from ages 14 to 18 and in prison from ages 19 to 31. Hombres Sin Mujer is a prison novel with explicit (naturalistic) documentation of homosexual practices and a cross-racial melodrama of the hero killing the youth whom he loves in a fit of jealousy (for what the youth did to get his lover out of the incorrigible criminal cell) and then committing suicide. The book shows that ultra-masculine Cubans--at least in the confines of prison--"don't just desire each other physically but love each other, and their mutual sentiments are full of a sense of sacrifice and even of martyrdom" (p. 87).
Despite the book's title, lack of access to women is not the only reason for males to have sex with other males, because some of the prison guards also seek out sex with males. Bejel concludes that the machismo code in prison only slightly exaggerated the machismo code outside prison, that "the `womanless men' are not really any different from anyone else" (p. 91). This seems quite a leap to me. In addition, both of these Spanish-Cuban novels seem to me neither to represent nor to have shaped the situation(s) of males having sex with other males in interwar Cuba outside prison or paradigms of the Cuban nation either between the World Wars or later.
Fostering a masculinist, nationalist, socialist "New Man" was a manifest policy of the Castro regime. As Bejel notes, "The Cuban Revolution of 1959 was radically nationalistic from the very beginning and aspired to cleanse the country of everything its leaders and many of its people had seen as national ills" (p. 95). (Caudilloism was an exception and cults of Fidel Castro and "Che" Guevara have been prominent features for more than four decades of post-revolutionary dictatorship.) The most notorious attempt to cure effete urban homosexuals through forced agricultural labor was the UMAP camps of the late 1960s. The Castro regime also banned "homosexuals from any position in which they could conceivably `corrupt minors' or have a negative influence on the formation of the `new man'" (p. 103). Such "antisocial elements" were also kept from leaving the country until the 1980 mass exodus from Mariel in which many homosexuals fled.
Virgilio Pinera (1912-79) and Jose Lezama Lima (1910-76), two of the three major Cuban writers of the time, were homosexual and wrote baroquely homoerotic fiction. Both initially welcomed the revolution (as did the young future writer Reinaldo Arenas), but were soon silenced (as was Arenas within Cuba, though his manuscripts were smuggled out and published elsewhere). Pinera was arrested in 1961, and Lezama's masterpiece Paradiso (1966) was banned for a time. They went into internal exile, while other less-prominent gay Cuban writers managed to get out of the country (Severo Sarduy) or committed suicide (Calvert Casey). (Arenas did all three, in succession.)
Pinera has posthumously become something of an inspiration and a martyr for cosmopolitanism to gay Cuban writers born after the revolution. Oddly, Bejel does not explicate Pinera's work.
Bejel's previous book in English (1990) is a study of Lezama Lima, and in a chapter in the current book he provides a succinct analysis of Paradiso and its unfinished sequel as a counter-reformation, anti-Enlightenment imagination of homoerotic Cubanness that was radically at odds with the march of Cuba to a Stalinist vision of "progress" in the late 1960s, consciously bolstered by the "socialist realism" of state-controlled cultural distribution and the dedication to virilizing the revolutionary Cuban male. Bejel claims that Lezama's publications opened new possibilities for the discussion of the social taboo against homosexuality, though it seems to me that other than some genuflections from Arenas, discussions within Cuba of the taboo have not flowed from readings of Paradiso.
Even the exiled writer Severo Sarduy (1937-93) does not seem to have built directly on Lezama. Bejel labels Sarduy "neobaroque," though he seems to me a structuralist turned postmodernist, rejecting mimesis and realism (as did Lezama), denaturalizing gender, and parodying nationalism (as well as other forms of identity).
After questioning whether the games postmodernists play subvert the structures of domination in (any) society, Bejel turns to two works that achieved considerable international distribution: the posthumously published (in English in 1993) memoir of Reinaldo Arenas (1942-90) and the 1993 film "Fresa y Chocolate" (Strawberry and Chocolate). Arenas's book (indeed, his whole oeuvre) is animated by rage at the repression of homosexuals (and other kinds of nonconformists) by the Castro regime, particularly during the two decades of its (mis)rule through which Arenas lived--the same focus as the riveting 1984 documentary "Improper Conduct" (which included a segment of an interview with Arenas).
An officially approved project, "Fresa y Chocolate" provided a more soothing critique of Cuban persecution of gay intellectuals during the 1970s than Arenas's work. The film--in which David, its good young communist, becomes friends with Diego, an older gay man (who is a connoisseur of Cuban culture), and as a result becomes an advocate for tolerance of homosexuals--is a liberal feel-good piece aiding as much as reflecting a kinder, gentler treatment of homosexuals by the children of the revolution than the harsh masculinist rule of the generation that made the revolution.
Arenas would have scoffed at both the film and at the kind of tolerance it preached. Like a number of Hollywood movies from the mid-1990s, the gay character helps his straight friend attain a fulfilling heterosexual partnership. Arenas castigated heteronormativity, particularly in its state-sanctioned forms, but he desired sex only with macho ("real") men, preferably rural ones. In many ways, his ideal was not very different from the compulsory virility UMAP sought to develop, with a similar romanticization of peasant masculinity. Moreover, like Arenas, Diego flees the island he loves.
Bejel is very astute in analyzing the ways in which ostensible critiques of machismo--including those in Before Night Falls, "Fresa y Chocolate," and Leonardo Padura Fuentes' 1997 novel Mascaras--reaffirm the superiority of gender-dichotomized heterosexuality and continue to represent homosexuality as problematic, tragic, and even as unnatural. As a representation of the situation of gay intellectuals in the 1970s, "Fresa y Chocolate" was a whitewash and, even for the situation circa 1993, was propaganda--propaganda aimed at increasing tolerance within Cuba as well as countering the bad publicity about UMAP outside Cuba.
My major disappointment with the book is that instead of examining the work of Pinera or Arenas's fiction, or providing a conclusion about the current relationship between Cuban nationalism and a more tolerated homosexuality, Bejel devotes the final two chapters of his book to a documentary film about transvestites that he acknowledges is "almost unknown in Cuba" (p. 208) and on three Cuban-American writers. What he says about the latter is interesting, but does not fit very well with the rest of the book. A conclusion that takes a stand on the current place of homosexuality within the national consciousness (and consciousness-building) process would have been far more useful.
Bejel includes cogent analyses of the political economy of Cuba before the revolution, but does not delve into the connection between the softening of persecution of homosexuality and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rather than progress to acceptance of diversity being inevitable, it seems to me that a revival of sex tourism (primarily from Canada and Europe) has been one of the ways in which hard currency has flowed to Cuba since aid from the USSR has ceased. AIDS, the new concentration camps (sidaterias--SIDA being the acronym for AIDS in Spanish), and the seemingly different treatment between gay PWAs and heterosexual soldiers who were infected with HIV during military service to the Soviet empire also are not discussed.
There is little in the way of comparison to nationalism in other places in this book, though Bejel acknowledges his debt to Benedict Anderson's very influential 1990 book Imagined Communities with its emphasis on "print capitalism (and, by extension, national communities conjured in newer technologies/media than the printing press) building consciousness of a lingual-national kind. What Bejel has to say about the set of texts he discusses is almost always insightful, particularly about nuances of class differences and the long-running demonization of cities (paralleling the Jeffersonian tradition in the U.S.).
I sometimes lose confidence in the extent to which these texts (with the exception of "Fresa y Chocolate") reflect or have shaped Cuban nation-building (even in the sense of developing an "imagined community"). In addition to some doubts about the salience of some of the examples he selected, I would have found useful more about the reception (especially any incorporation into standard Cuban curricula). Nonetheless, this is an outstanding and insight-filled reflection on homosexuality, homophobia, literature, and nation-building in Cuba from 1889 to 1997.
Anderson, B. O. (1990). Imagined communities. London: Verso.
Arenas, R. (1993). Before night falls: A memoir. New York: Viking.
Bejel, E. (1990). Jose Lezama Lima: Poet of the image. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press.
Stephen O. Murray, Ph.D., El Instituto Obregon, 1360 De Haro, San Francisco, CA 94107; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group