MA Thesis Prospectus: Queer Cuban Nationalisms

May 9, 2008

I wanted to share my preliminary thesis prospectus to show you what I have been working on for the past few weeks. This topic may change over the summer when I visit Montreal and Paris, but we’ll see what happens.

btw, I strongly believe in intellectual property and collective knowledge–I think you get the point I am trying to make.


Countermemorias: Queering Nationalism, Sexuality and Gender Performance in Revolutionary Cuba

It was rolling sounds of song and dance, cries of liberation, “¡Viva Cuba Libre!” that provoked Cubans to rise from their beds and toss off their rough American-made sheets to fill their balconies with the bodies of a new citizenry. January 1, 1959 marked a new year for Cubans all over the nation, but also marked an entrance to a new world: a liberated nation. The dream of José Martí was finally realized, a united Cuban nation under her own self-determination. Yet, as the citizens of Cuba were awoken from their dreams on that morning and arose to enter a half-century old dream, whose beds were they leaving? Whose bodies shared these citizens’ beds as nationalism broke through their windows? In order to work against the modern binaries of public and private, we must first begin to engage with “‘clandestine countermemories’ that bring into the present those pasts that are deliberately forgotten within conventional nationalists or diasporic scripts.”
Nationalisms in Cuba have produced some of the most salient social and political movements in our contemporary history. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 serves as the most documented example of contemporary social and political nationalist movements in Cuba; however, this is not to say that movements have to take on such grandiose forms. Movements in Cuba (and throughout the world) have often occurred underground, yet within a Cuban context, discourses on nationalisms have been quite influential. In a quest for social and political autonomy from various ‘outside’ influences, nationalist discourse has served as an ideological basis for various movements that call us to reconsider the past in constructing a foundation for the future. Nationalism can be understood as a project simultaneously involving construction(s) of memory, history, and identity. But how is this manifested upon the body? This project intends to consider the question of the body, but more directly on queer  bodies within the context of nationalism in Cuba.
This thesis will be an attempt in the direction of scholars like Joan Scott who call us to rethink the way that we consider the past. I will investigate a history of nationalism as parallel to a history of gender and sexuality in Cuba. In this manner, I work to excavate the ways that sexuality, gender, and nationalism are collectively part and parcel of Cuban history. In addition, I seek to not just write queer women and trans people into the Cuban historical record, but elucidate how they were and continue to be social actors in Cuban sexual discourse.  This thesis seeks to consider how nationalist struggles are also linked through paradigm shifts in sexuality and gender performance resulting in queer and feminist social movements from 1959 to 2000 .

January 1, 1959 was the birth of a new nation for Cuba and the beginning of revolutionary Cuba.  Within the first few months after Fidel Castro’s July 26th Movement seized power from General Fulgencio Batista’s regime, significant shifts in political power instituted a contemporary manifestation of Cuban nationalism. Yet, nationalism in Cuba was certainly not a new development.
In the 1820s, when parts of Spain’s empire in Latin America were galvanized by Bolivar’s dream of a united and sovereign Latin America and rebelled to formed independent states, Cuba remained loyal to the Spanish crown. But, as John Charles Chasteen suggest in Born in Blood and Fire,  “Cuban resistance to colonialism begun to take over parts of the island, and leaders were influenced by similar Bolivarian movements throughout Latin America.”  The power of nationalist ideology broke the boundaries of Cuba, and influenced a number of movements including an armed resistance to Spanish colonial rule during the Ten-Years War (1868-1878). While the first national struggle was physically defeated in 1878, the struggle for national sovereignty remained in the dreams of many Cubans.   During this time, the man who would later serve to be the father of Cuban nationalism, José Martí published a serious of articles and essays in Cuba, Spain and the United States on the wrong doings of Spain in Cuba. In April 1895, while in exile in the United States, José Martí, declared a new war against Spain and proclaimed Cuba an independent republic.
In the midst of this struggle, Martí was assassinated and in 1898 the United States suspiciously entered the Cuban battle for liberation. The United States blamed Spain for the explosion that destroyed the U.S.S. Maine, the United States under the guise of solidarity entered for war for Cuban nationalist struggle.  After a peace treaty was signed between the United States and Spain later that year, the United States acquired a number of Spanish territories, including Cuba. For the next ten years, Cuba remained under U.S. governance. It was only in 1908 with the Platt Amendment did Cuba finally assume self-governance—but with a number of limitations in foreign and domestic policy that maintained the centrality of U.S. economic interests on the island.  Yet, as Louis A. Pérez, Jr. suggests in  “Incurring a Debt of Gratitude: 1898 and the Moral Sources of United States Hegemony in Cuba”, for many nationalists in Cuba, the Platt Amendment represented a transfer in power from Spain to the United States and did not sufficiently allow Cuba to live up the dream of a sovereign Cuba. “The Cuban Revolution in 1959 finally cancelled the debt of gratitude to [the United States]”  for their involvement in freeing the nation from colonial rule, and rendered Cuba an independent nation—but were all citizens of the new Cuban nation free?

Scholarship on Queer Cuba can be traced back to the early 1970s when women and men of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) began to think critically about the situation of queers both nationally and internationally. A number of the members of GLF were strongly influenced by Marxism and Marxist academic-activist praxis, and this ideological lens shaped the form of their queer political projects. In 1972, two activist-scholars and members of the GLF, Karla Jay and Allen Young published Out of the Closets: Voices of the Gay Liberation, in which they provide a glimpse at the individuals and ideologies of the nascent gay liberation movement. In a section titled, “Gay as the Sun,” Allen Young expands the scope of the anthology to include the voices of queer Cubans.
In the spirit of the third-world and women’s liberation movements, Young includes the voices of queer Cubans to expand the struggle for gay liberation to address intersections of gender, sexuality and nation. Also, Young sought to form an alliance between queers in both nations while exposing the “anti-homosexualism of the Cuban Revolution and their commitment to creating a society which would have no homosexuals.”  In “Letter from Cuban Gay People to the North American Gay Liberation Movement” (1970) and “Declaration by the First National Congress on Education and Culture” (1971) Young offers readers two invaluable primary sources of early queer Cuban responses to the revolution, but fails to offer any analysis of the documents. In light of this lack of analysis, these documents offer an ideal entrée into scholarly discourse on sexuality in Cuba. In turn, these will serve as foundational voices to this thesis project. Moreover, Young offers no analysis of these documents and I have not been able to come across any published book or article analyzing these documents as primary sources.
In 1982, through historical and sociological research , Allen Young published Gays Under the Cuban Revolution. In this text, Young expanded upon his chapter on queer Cubans in Out of the Closets: Voices of the Gay Liberation. Gays Under the Cuban Revolution to mention the various ways how gay American organizations assisted gay Cuban refugees.  Young directly addresses the plight of queer Cuban men, and the lengths to which the revolutionary government would attempt to stamp out “sexual deviance.” Not only were gay Cubans sent to concentration camps, but so were any person that did not behave according to the “average” man or woman. On the other hand, Young counters his argument about the Cuban government by stating that criminalizing homosexuality was purely a Soviet import. This argument is highly problematic, and does not adequately engage with a history of colonial sexual domination in Cuba.
Over five hundred years after the arrival Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, a lasting impression remains on the social and political situations of Latin America. The most obvious lasting colonial characteristic is the Spanish and Portuguese language, but, the influence of the colonizers is not limited to linguistics. Much of Latin American society is structured according to colonial standards. This includes heavy influence from the Roman Catholic Church and traditional gender relations regulated by machismo and marianismo.  This system of gender relations has often led to the repression and persecution of queers in Cuba (and throughout Latin America) shortly after arrival Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors.
In 1994, Ian Lumsden, a Canadian political scientist engaged with the history of the treatment of male homosexuality under Castro in Machos,Maricones and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality. Lumsden links the cultural history of queers in Cuba, which is often textually based , with a social-political history of the differences between “publicly” or “privately” gay in Cuba. Lumsden also addresses the shifts in women’s roles and gender politics, and effects these have on gay men in Cuba. Similar to the ways that Gay Liberation movements in the United States were heavily influenced by the discourse developed by the Women’s Liberation movement, Lumsden claims that gay men in Cuba have also been consciously influenced by shifts in women’s gender roles in the Revolution. While Lumsden’s text assumes that gender and sexual discourses are not static, he, however, does not directly speak about the dialectic between nationalism and sexuality or gender performance. Finally, his project focuses entirely upon men, again rendering queer women’s experience to the margins.
At the nexus of cultural history and literary studies, Emilio Bejel ’s Gay Cuban Nation offers a textual reading of the topic I am interested in pursuing for my thesis: nationalism and sexuality. Through close readings of writers such as José Martí, José Lezama Lima, Reinaldo Arenas and others, Bejel shows that the anxiety of homosexuality is always lurking in the shadows of nationalist discourse. Often this is communicated though a discussion on gender performances, but his key focus examines “the relationship between the definitions of homosexuality and Cuban nationalism”  Yet, Bejel’s text focuses is exclusively based on literature, and while he does offer historical context to each work he discusses, Gay Cuban Nation is certainly more of a literary analysis of discourses on sexuality in Cuba.

The key conversation lacking from this discussion is namely how nationalism and gender performance affected the lives of queer Cubans. Nationalism often produces gendered discourses of the “new” woman and man that call for people to adapt their gender performance to acclimate with the new nationalist gender discourse. Considering this causal relationship between discourse and performance, it is only when the people allow these gender discourses to govern their gender performance do they become citizens-subjects. What I attempt to convey is that when people transgress gender norms in nationalist and revolutionary contexts, they are labeled deviant and anti-social. This was certainly the case for queers in Cuba.
In this conversation on queers in Cuba, the voices that still remain on the margins are those of queer women and trans people. In making female and trans subjectivity central to a queer nationalist project, it begins to conceptualize nationalism in ways that do not invariably replicate heteronormative and patriarchal structures of sexuality and gender performance.
At this point, most of my sources deal directly with queer men in Cuba. Nina Menendez’s “Garzonas y Feministas in Cuban Women’s Writing of the 1920” in Sex and Sexuality in Latin America offers some example of how I could engage in a textual reading of the cultural history of queer women’s experience in Cuba. Menendez’s text, however, does not directly speak to the salience of nationalism in 1920s Cuba and the author does not offer any indication of the post-1959 situation of queer women in Cuba.
I have yet to find any primary sources that address queer women in Cuba, with the exception of one. In appendix C of Machos,Maricones and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality, Ian Lumsden includes the “Manifesto of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Cuba” (July 28, 1994). Like Young’s inclusion of the “Letter from Cuban Gay People to the North American Gay Liberation Movement” and “Declaration by the First National Congress on Education and Culture,” Lumsden does not offer any analysis of this document, and I have been unable to locate any published scholarship that analytically addresses the manifesto in Lumsden’s text. These three primary sources represent a valuable entrée to this historiographical discourse on queer Cuba. I hope to expand my catalogue of primary sources through archival research in Cuba in October and at other libraries, archives and depositories at the universities with a history of scholarship focused on Cuba. I will also contact the Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York to gain access to any archival documents they may have on sexuality in Cuba. Finally, I plan to visit the Gay Archives of Quebec in June to the hope of locating possible primary sources that may not be located in the United States.   The three primary sources I have mentioned, nonetheless, represent a site for me to contribute to this discussion in tracing how discourses on gender and nationalism have contributed to the knowledge production of queer Cubans .


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