1950s Havana: Imperialist sexploitation
Lavender & red, part 89
Published Feb 11, 2007 7:34 PM
For 400 years of Cuba’s history, the social organization and state
regulation of the sexes, gender expression and sexualities was—as among
all occupied and colonized peoples—in thrall to the brutal systems of
exploitation by semi-feudal landlords, capitalist bosses and imperialist
By the mid-20th century, the impoverishment sweeping the island was the
outgrowth of imperialism’s conversion of the economy into sugar and
citrus plantations and nickel mines that shackled the rural laboring population
to the soil and the earth below it.
Havana exerted a gravitational pull on those who cut cane from sunup to
sundown. By the 1950s, the promise of jobs attracted hundreds of thousands of
impoverished peasants of all sexualities, genders and sexes to the urban
capital, the largest city on the island.
Many tens of thousands whose sexuality or gender expression had made them
publicly vulnerable and without privacy in rural towns and villages found
employment in Havana. Capitalist organized crime bosses ran an interlocking
directorate of large-scale prostitution, tourism, gambling and drug
distribution in the capital city.
In the 1950s, McCarthyite repression in the U.S.—including the
Puritanical purges and state repression carried out under the banner of
fighting a “Lavender Menace”— spurred the expansion of this
lucrative offshore capitalist sex-drugs-gambling industry in Havana for the
rich and powerful to escape the Cold War climate.
“Not surprisingly, then,” researchers Lourdes Arguelles and B. Ruby
Rich stressed, “Cuban homosexuals had preferential hiring treatment in
the Havana tourist sector in order to meet the demands” of U.S.
businessmen and brass.
Arguelles and Rich published their extensively researched report, entitled
“Homosexuality, Homophobia, and Revolution: Notes Toward an Understanding
of the Cuban Lesbian and Gay Male Experience,” in the summer of 1984.
The two researchers added that the illegal prostitution industry was also
created for the patriarchs and scions of the Cuban elite, who sought feminine
male-bodied youth and adults.
In the towns and villages, sexuality, gender and the organization of the sexes
were in the servitude of patriarchal feudal social relations. In the urban
capital, sex was reduced to the nexus of patriarchal capitalist relations.
Arguelles and Rich explained: “Even in the Havana of the 1950s, everyday
life was not easy for the working-class or petty-bourgeois homosexual.
Unemployment was high and had been steadily increasing throughout the decade.
The scarcity of productive occupations demanded a strictly closeted
occupational life. For all women, and especially for lesbians, employment
almost invariably entailed continual sexual harassment.”
Men who had sex with men and women who had sex with women were caught up in the
dragnet of the illegal economy.
Arguelles and Rich noted: “Apart from employment realities, social
pressures made thousands of pre-revolutionary homosexuals part of this
underworld. Even homosexuals such as students (who were differently placed)
were integrated into this subculture through the bars that they frequented: the
St. Michel, the Dirty Dick, El Gato Tuerto.” Most of these bars were
owned by crime bosses.
The researchers emphasized, “The commodification of homosexual desire in
the Havana underworld and in the bourgeois homosexual underground during the
pre-revolutionary era, however, did not produce a significant toleration of
homosexual life-styles in the larger social arena.
Homosexual and gender/sex variant Cubans met with violence and harassment in
the above-ground industries and within the patriarchal family structure.
“If legal sanctions and official harassment were rare,” Arguelles
and Rich explained, “this tolerance was due less to social acceptance
than to overriding considerations of profit and the economic interests of the
underworld that dominated the Cuban political apparatus.”
“The consumer structure of the Havana underworld never spawned a
‘gay culture’ or ‘gay sensibility’ even in strictly
commercial terms, due to its isolation from the mainstream of social life and
the degree of guilt and self-hatred afflicting its members.”
Arguelles and Rich concluded that Santería—African-Cuban religious
beliefs and practices that challenge the colonialist and imperialist sex/gender
and sexuality systems—has been a “favored form of gender
transcendence for many Cuban homosexual men and lesbians.”
Next: Cuban Revolution defeats imperialist mega-giant.
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