Sunday, May 18, 2014

Out of the Cuban Closet

   This review of Gays Under the Cuban Revolution, by Jim Peron, originally appeared in the October, 1982 issue of Inquiry magazine. 

   The Cuban Freedom Flotilla of 1980 stunned the American people. Day after day, thousands upon thousands of Cubans abandoned their families, friends, and material possessions to start life anew in the United States. While history is replete with instances of masses fleeing war, economic misery, and political repression, such flights have always been conducted by the general population, or by religious, racial, or political minorities. The Cuban Freedom Flotilla, however, involved a little secret that very soon came out. Socialist Cuba had—and has—the distinction of being the world’s only nation to experience a mass emigration based on sexual preference. Huddled in the crowded boats fleeing Castro’s Cuba were an estimated 10,000 homosexuals.

  This most irregular flotilla evoked a great response in the American gay community. Homosexual organizations and churches banded together to sponsor gay refugees. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were privately spent to buy clothes, find homes, and secure jobs for these desperate men and women.
Andre Gide
   Amidst this flurry of charitable activity, the deep questions presented by the exodus remained unanswered. On the whole, the “gay intelligentsia” in the United States, and especially in Europe and Canada, is and has been, left of center, often socialist and even Marxist. Suddenly these intellectuals were facing the living proof of the oppression of their own under the rule of socialism. By and large, the gay left was silent. Horror stories told by refugees were ignored. Political implications were evaded.
  Several decades ago, French writer Andre Gide, himself a homosexual, confronted similar questions. In the early 1930s he had proclaimed his profound sympathy for the Soviet Union, the bright hope of the world’s oppressed. With great anticipation, he voyaged to Russia, “a convinced and enthusiastic follower, in order to admire a new world.” At first, he traveled with the government tour guides and saw the model communes, mixed with the Soviet elite and sat at their lavish tables. But, Gide confessed, “I only began to see clearly when, abandoning the government transport, I traveled alone through the country in order to be able to get into direct contact with the people.” There he found shocking poverty and oppression, in contrast to the luxury enjoyed by the communist new class.
  Above all, Gide was appalled by the sacrifice of human individuality to Marxist conformity. Years later, in his contribution to The God That Failed, this pioneer of homosexual liberation wrote:

I doubt whether in any country in the world, not even in Hitler’s Germany, have the mind and spirit been less free, more bent, more terrorized over, and indeed vassalized—than in the Soviet Union... Humanity is complex and not all of a piece—that must be accepted—and every attempt at simplification and regimentation, every effort from the outside to reduce everything and everyone to the same common denominator, will always be reprehensible, pernicious, and dangerous.

    Not since Gide has any author exposed the consequences of socialist conformism for the homosexual minority as has Allen Young. Young previously co-authored or edited (with Karla Jay) Out of the Closets, After You’re Out, Lavender Culture, and The Gay Report. Like Gide, he was an ardent advocate of Marxism, and as Gide was devoted to the Soviet revolution, so was Young to the Cuban revolution. He also experienced results of socialism first hand; in the tradition of The God That Failed, he published his findings in Gays Under the Cuban Revolution.
   Young describes himself as a “red-diaper baby”—both parents were active members of the Communist Party. He grew up accepting their political beliefs as most children reared in the church accept Christianity. Like many children of religious parents, Young’s zeal eventually surpassed that of his parents.

   During his college years at Columbia, which coincided with Castro’s coming to power, Young began to take an interest in Cuba. Later he studied at the Institute of Hispanic-American and Luso-Brazilian Studies at Stanford, where he worked for the Hispanic American Report. The writers for this journal assigned to cover Cuba “were all partisans of the Castro regime;" Young concedes that “one-sided reporting on Cuba by Cuba’s friends was seen as a legitimate response to the establishment’s one-sided approach; we had no qualms about our involvement in such bias—indeed we accepted our mission.” Young continued his studies, went to Brazil, worked for the Peace Corps in Colombia, and contributed articles to journals like New Left Review. In 1967 he returned to the United States to work at the Washington Post, only to leave it eventually for publications further to the left. All this time he had been a confirmed believer in the Cuban experiment without having witnessed it himself, but in 1969 the Cuban government gave Young and another activist an all-expenses-paid trip to the country. Finally he would see for himself the new society on whose behalf he had been propagandizing for a decade.

   Young was supposed to write glowing articles on the people’s revolution, but he found this difficult. As he traveled with his host and guide, doubts started to hatch in his mind. “Watching his behavior, and that of other officials, I began to develop a notion of privilege under Cuban communism. They had access to cars, air travel, imported wines, and fancy restaurants, for example.” Meanwhile, Young noted the deprivation of the people, the strict control of the press, and the militarization of society. He also learned how socialism oppressed his gay friends. Before Castro’s revolution, persecution of homosexuals existed, of course, but it was sporadic; gay bars, for instance, thrived in Havana. The revolution closed the bars, because of their “decadence.” Sexual preference became a highly political issue in society that was totally politicized.
Allen Young

   Young’s own homosexual con-sciousness had been raised, following the Stonewall Rebellion when the patrons of a Greenwich Village gay bar, instead of meekly acquiescing as the police staged one of their habitual raids, fought back. And his second visit to Cuba, in 1971, intensified his disenchantment. On his return to the United States, he went public with his criticisms, and broke with many of his former allies: “I felt I could not be faithful to myself and continue in the dual role of Cubaphile and gay liberationist.” Since then he has continued to follow the vicissitudes of Cuba’s persecution of homosexuals and the left’s response to it.

   The attack on homosexuality began within a few Years of Castro’s taking power. Long before the crusades of Anita Bryant or Jerry Falwell, Castro stated that “those positions in which one might have a direct influence upon children and young people should not be in the hands of homosexuals, above all the educational centers.” A homosexual was a “deviate” who could never rise to the level of conduct required of “a true Revolutionary.”

   Gays suffered greatly at the hands of the two new socialist bureaucracies. Thousands of them were placed, without benefit of trial, in camps run by the Military Units for Aid to Production. Basically these were forced labor camps, where gay people were mistreated and often assaulted and where it was not unusual for them to be executed or driven to suicide. After a while, international protests compelled the closing of these camps, but the persecution has continued in other forms.

   The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) are neighborhood block committees throughout Cuba consisting of tens of thousands of volunteer police spies. They are “dominated by busybodies, snoops, and moralistic prudes,” who consider it one of their prime duties to harass homosexuals and, frequently, to funnel them into the prison system. (In all the articles in American leftist periodicals praising these institutions of “popular justice,” Young reports, he has never found hint of “the suffering of gay people and dissidents” caused by the CDRs.  Homosexuals are the chief target of the ley de peligrosidad (“law of dangerousness”), which provides for from four to six years for “antisocial behavior.” At the University of Havana, it is the policy to expel gay students “after a public humiliation.” The merciless crusade extends even to Cuban writers of international repute, who might be thought to furnish the regime with a certain cultural respectability:  “Cuba’s greatest playwright [Virgilio Pierna] and greatest novelist José Lezama Lima] were persecuted, humiliated, and forced to live the last years of their lives in ignominy—all because of their homosexuality.”

   As for the response of American leftists to this institutionalized vendetta, Young accuses them—those who have even acknowledged the issue of “grasping at anything to avoid forthright, angry condemnation . . . and, more generally, to avoid coming to grips with the left’s historic role in reinforcing and creating antigay prejudice.” When gay liberation arose in the late 1960, the left opportunistically seized on it, “primarily to illustrate dissatisfaction with the status quo of American society.” The aversion of leftists to dealing with the facts of Castro’s antihomosexual campaign, and their continued presentation of Cuba as “a promise of what the future has to offer,” even in the teeth of those facts, demonstrate the shallowness, if not the hypocrisy, of their “pro-gay” stand.

   Why so many gay liberationists themselves should attempt to hide the facts concerning Cuba and other communist societies is more of a mystery. The eminent scholar Simon Karlinsky concluded, in a communication to Christopher Street, that the most brutal oppressors of homosexuals in this century—even worse than the Nazis have been “the totalitarians of the left—the Marxist-Leninists, to be precise." left-the Marxist-Leninists, to be precise.”
   And yet he confessed that in stating this conclusion, he felt he was “breaking an aspect of the unwritten, but rigidly enforced gay liberationist etiquette, one that says that gay oppression today exists only in pluralistic societies such as the United States and West Germany.” This “etiquette,” Karlinsky observed, has resulted in a “self-imposed brainwashing” in the gay movement.

   His knowledge of what has been going on in Cuba has caused Young, with great courage, to rethink his whole political position. While he remains in some sense a socialist, he has been led, in his words, “inevitably to a questioning of Marxist doctrine itself, especially the idea that central planning by a state apparatus could erase inequities.” Indeed, a new appreciation of the value of capitalist society, especially to those concerned with freedom of personal lifestyles appears to be surfacing among gays. It can scarcely have escaped the notice even of the most doctrinaire leftists that the Gay Pride parades that are now held annually in London and Stockholm, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Toronto, Sydney, and elsewhere, commemorate an event that took place in June 1969 in New York City -- the Stonewall Rebellion. This is a symbol of the central place that the pluralistic, capitalist society of the United States has today in the international gay liberation movement. As another socialist, Dennis Altman, states in his recent The Homosexualization of America, The Americanization of the Homosexual (St. Martin’s Press), the advances experienced by gay women and men over the past decade were “only possible under modern consumer capitalism, which for all its injustices has created the conditions for greater freedom and diversity than are present in any other society yet known.” As the saying goes, “Only in America...”

   As for the gay flotilla of 1980, it may yet become a symbol to set alongside Stonewall. The only ones who came out looking good were the American gays and their own self-help organizations, who sacrificed and worked to welcome the refugees. They gave the back of their hands to the antigay laws of the U.S. government, which exclude homosexual foreigners from this country, and they rescued thousands of the victims of Cuban socialism. The massive relief effort they conducted epitomizes the spirit of voluntarism and liberty.

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