Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 652-657
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Gay Cuban Nation. By Emilio Bejel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. xxxi + 257. $50.00 (cloth); $19.00 (paper).
Gay Cuban Nation is an intelligently written piece of scholarship that contributes to the ongoing debate concerning the problematic space in [End Page 652] modern Cuban society assigned to the homosexual by those in power. Emilio Bejel's methodology in this work is closer to cultural studies than traditional literary criticism, thus explaining the variety of texts (literary, cinematic, journalistic) that he analyzes, texts by renowned Cuban writers (e.g., José Martí, José Lezama Lima, Severo Sarduy, Reinaldo Arenas) as well as relatively unknown authors (e.g., Ena Lucía Portela Alzola, Pedro de Jesús López Acosta, Sonia Rivera-Valdés). Bejel's goal is not to explain why some texts aesthetically resonate and dynamically challenge readers to (re)consider human existence but rather to "examine the relationship between the definitions of homosexuality and Cuban nationalism" in whatever text, be it marginal or canonical, for each is a valuable cultural artifact that can reveal a society's ideological beliefs; hence Bejel's statement that "although there are undeniable sociological and historical implications in each of the chapters, my work and objectives fall under neither category" (xxii). Like other cultural studies practitioners who attempt to distance themselves from the social sciences, it is evident throughout Gay Cuban Nation that Bejel must rely heavily on them, especially on the disciplines of history, sociology, and psychology.
As Bejel documents in his book, from the beginning of modern Cuban history Cuban nationalist leaders have presented homophobic discourses as part of their nation-building strategies; these discourses have presented the homosexual body as a dangerous threat to the health and well-being of the Cuban nation that must be eliminated. Indeed, modern Cuban history illustrates the problematic relationship Cuban society has had with issues of homosexuality. That homosexuals and lesbians were oppressed in prerevolutionary Cuba as they have been in other societies around the world is undeniable. Yet there is also no doubt that after the triumph of the revolution in 1959 this primarily social oppression was replaced with a nationwide political agenda intent on regulating sexuality and gender. Gay Cuban Nation documents these events. From 1959 until 1980 homophobia was institutionalized to the point that the mere perception of an individual as homosexual or lesbian could land him or her in jail. The homophobic campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, including the redadas (police raids) and recogidas (mass arrests) of homosexuals, the infamous UMAP concentration camps from 1965 to 1969, the homophobic resolutions of the 1971 Congress on Education and Culture, the 1979 Penal Code's prohibition of "public ostentation" of any "homosexual activity," and so forth, all point to a systematic persecution of the queer body. The doctrinaire rigidity of the Cuban revolution led the government to adopt Stalinist ideological tenets that saw homosexuality as a decadent bourgeois phenomenon that had to be eradicated. (One has to keep in mind that even in the homophobic pre-Stonewall days in the United States there was never a nationwide initiative supported by the government to wipe out homosexuals, as was the case in Cuba.) [End Page 653]
Gay Cuban Nation studies the construction of homosexuality in the course of modern Cuban history. Bejel is aware of the fact that definitions of homosexuality vary according to the specific historical moment and the discursive point of view within which they were constructed. Thus, part 1, "The Building of a CondemNation," carefully traces the roots of Cuban homophobia from the 1880s, specifically, the rejection by José Martí, considered by Cubans as the "apostle of the fatherland," of the "effeminate man" and the "manly woman." Part 2, "New Spaces and New Subjectivities," examines the period from 1920 to 1940 and the emergence on the island of a feminist movement that questioned patriarchy and challenged the rigidity of traditional gender prescriptions. Ultimately, according to Bejel, Cuban feminism presented a new perspective that brought about the possibility of new...