Radical History Review 89 (2004) 57-91
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Homosexuality, the U.S. New Left, and the Venceremos Brigades to Cuba
Early in 1969, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest white student organization of the sixties in the United States, stood teetering at the brink of implosion, torn apart by competing factions. Confronted by the potential collapse of SDS, its leaders launched a project that they hoped would rejuvenate the movement. Inspired by Cuba's material advances and resistance to U.S. policy since the 1959 revolution, SDS began mobilizing hundreds of Americans to travel south to cut sugarcane, contributing their labor to the island's export harvest. On these Venceremos Brigades,1 participants would, in the words of organizers Sandra Levinson and Carol Brightman, "gain direct experience with a Third World socialist revolution and a greater understanding of 'revolution' as something which entails much more than guns in the hills, something which means hard work every day."2 Brigade organizers in the United States recognized that the daily work of harvesting sugarcane and living together in the new socialist Cuba offered norteamericanos (North Americans) the potential of sowing a new revolutionary culture to import back home.
Their visions of revolutionizing American culture notwithstanding, the project's leaders operated under deeply entrenched Yanqui (Yankee) assumptions of how Cuban culture worked, especially in regards to norms of sexuality and gender on the tropical island. In the eyes of these Brigade organizers romanticizing their [End Page 57] hosts, the nascent gay liberation movement in the United States represented an unacceptable, imperialist challenge to Fidel Castro's government and Cuban society at large. The organizing committee of the Brigades eventually implemented what amounted to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy that demanded lesbians and gay men not discuss their sexual orientation if they wanted to participate in the work trips. The antigay vitriol and violence of some heterosexual brigadistas (Brigade participants) prompted others to recognize and reject the homophobia so common in the New Left. For queer brigadistas, living, working, and organizing in the arduous intimacy of the Brigade camps, the romance of the Cuban Revolution proved heartbreaking as they were harassed and ultimately excluded altogether from the promise of building a more democratic society.
As part of the 1970 Gay Pride Week festivities in New York, celebrating the first anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots, the newspaper Gay Power scheduled a midnight benefit screening at the Elgin Theater for the night of June 25. But that Thursday evening, as the event's organizers arrived for the event, they discovered that local organizers for the Venceremos Brigades had also reserved the theater to show films on Cuba and Vietnam at the very same late hour. Village Voice correspondent Jonathan Black reported that the brigadistas had learned of Gay Power's prior booking but went ahead with their own fund-raiser all the same, with the blessing of the theater's management. When the gay liberation activists arrived, they turned off the projector, and asked that since this was Gay Pride Week, would the brigadistas hold their event some other night? The pro-Cuba organizers refused, first suggesting the same of the gays, then offering to split the evening's take—a moot proposal, given how few people had arrived at the Elgin Theater to see either group's films.
Tensions escalated as the groups argued without reaching any compromise. The gay activists reported that some brigadistas called them "faggots" and threatened to rape them. Gay Liberation Front (GLF) members proclaimed their solidarity with the achievements of the Cuban Revolution, but strongly denounced Castro's regime for its hostility toward homosexuals. One GLF activist expressed his outrage that "members of the Brigade have the nerve to show us pictures of concentration camps for homosexuals, camps they never saw, and tell us they were just nice health camps, that they were places where homosexuals were being helped to get their thing together."3
As the conflict escalated, Allen Young felt trapped in an untenable...