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Shlomo Gleibman: Introduction to Latin America and the Caribbean in the U.S. Homophile Press, 1953-64

 

         The three main U.S. homophile magazines of the 1950s and early 1960s (ONE, Mattachine Review, and The Ladder) published 120 items that referenced Latin America and the Caribbean from 1953 to 1964. This introduction provides a broad quantitative and qualitative overview of these contents.

         It was relatively easy to determine what counted as Latin American and Caribbean content in the U.S. homophile periodicals, although there were some gray areas. All references to Latin America, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and their nations, cities, islands, rivers, and ethnic groups were included. The criteria for inclusion were geographical rather than administrative. For example, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British West Indies were included because of the location of these territories in the Caribbean. We also included references to Latinos and Caribbeans residing in the United States, because these references relate to representations of Latin America and the Caribbean and researchers may be interested in exploring these relationships. Many U.S. contributors made analogies between the experiences of homosexuals and the experiences of Latino minorities in the United States. Other items described Latin Americans and Latinos as typical victims of homophobic attacks in the United States.

         Of the 120 items identified, 58 were found in ONE, 50 in Mattachine Review, and 12 in The Ladder. This partially reflects different dates of publication: ONE began publication in 1953, Mattachine Review in 1955, and The Ladder in 1957. Over time, the number of Latin American and Caribbean items increased, rising from 12 in 1953-56 to 52 in 1957-60 and 56 in 1961-64.

         Mexico was referenced the most frequently—in 44 items. Puerto Rico, Brazil, and Cuba were each referenced in more than 10 items. Argentina, Peru, and the Virgin Islands were referenced in 5-10 items.

         Of the 107 items that referenced one or more specific sexes or genders or were authored by individuals who were identified with typically male or female names, 94 referenced or were authored by men; 26 referenced or were authored by women (note that some referenced or were authored by both). The articles that referenced women tended to emphasize the invisibility of lesbians in Latin America and the Caribbean. Several letters from these regions, however, referenced the presence of females among the authors’ homosexual friends. Some works of fiction referenced female characters. Some news reports discussed female public figures such as Guatemala’s minister of education who transgressed gender norms and engaged in same-sex relationships (ONE, Apr. 1959, 17-20). In 1960-61, The Ladder, in its “Lesbiana” column, published reviews of lesbian novels set in Cuba and Mexico. Several items were authored by women. These included anthropological articles such as Barbara Stephens’s “Transvestism: A Cross-Cultural Review” (The Ladder, Jun. 1957, 10-14), political commentaries such as Ursula von Eckardt’s “A Matter of Civil Liberties” (Mattachine Review, Feb. 1963, 34-35), and letters to the editor (Mattachine Review, Jun. 1957, 34, and ONE, Feb. 1957, 35). Representations of women included correspondence between psychiatrist Blanche Baker and readers from Mexico in her column “Toward Understanding” in ONE in 1959-60 (ONE, Aug. 1959, 26-28, and ONE, Jun. 1960, 27-29).

         Thirteen items did not reference specific sexes or genders and the authors’ names did not provide relevant suggestions about sex/gender. Some items referenced gender-crossing, masculinity in women, femininity in men, and other content that today might be regarded as trans or intersex. Most of the 120 items were by authors who were presumptively lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, but there were exceptions (including reprints of scientific and moralistic articles on homosexuality and gender transgression).

         Of the 120 items, there were 29 features, 21 letters to the editor, 21 reviews, 18 works of fiction or poetry, 15 news reports, 4 editorials, 5 reprints, 4 miscellaneous items, and 3 advertisements.

         The existence of a significant number of readers from Latin America and the Caribbean is reflected in the countries of origin referenced in letters to the editor. In addition, ONE mentioned Honduras, the Virgin Islands, the British West Indies, Mexico, and Colombia in a 1954 count of its subscribers. Beginning in 1955, Mattachine Review consistently included Mexico in its list of subscription rates in various countries and it included the Virgin Islands on its list of newsstands that carried the periodical.

          Some people from Latin America and the Caribbean wrote letters and contributed content to the U.S. homophile magazines because of a lack of comparable publications in these regions. They were also influenced by geographic proximity (some lived in U.S. territories or in countries that shared a border with the United States). Some letters from Latin American and Caribbean countries shared details about their gay and lesbian communities or offered broader information about the political and economic situations in their regions. While the majority of these contributors expressed their admiration for the U.S. homophile periodicals and the U.S. homophile movement, some criticized U.S. colonialism and misrepresentations of Latin cultures. Several stressed their trans-Atlantic ties with homophile groups in Europe.

         The U.S. authors whose work was published in ONE, Mattachine Review, and The Ladder produced “knowledge” about Latin America and the Caribbean. U.S. homophile representations of these regions were often shaped by anthropological frameworks and sometimes by colonial and Cold War frameworks (the latter was of particular significance because this was the period of the Cuban Revolution). Sometimes these representations positioned Latin America and the Caribbean as more liberal and the United States as more conservative; sometimes they positioned Latin America and the Caribbean as more conservative and the United States as more liberal. Some U.S. contributors referred to Latin America and the Caribbean in order to compare and contrast modern western civilization with pre-modern and non-western cultures. The latter were mostly represented as more “primitive” and therefore either sexually uninhibited or sexually repressive. A significant number of items, in their representations of gay life in Latin America and the Caribbean, contrasted gender transgression, bar culture, public sex, and sexual promiscuity with romantic love, domesticity, and respectability.

         Anthropological articles, travel notes, works of fiction, literary reviews, and letters to the editor from U.S. readers produced images of more liberal sexual customs, more liberal social attitudes, and more liberal government policies in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some of the content in the U.S. homophile periodicals represented these regions as idyllic places for gay romance or gender crossing. Many U.S. contributors depicted Latin American and Caribbean cultures as more sexually open and as having more people who were open to same-sex sexual experiences. Several authors referenced divisions in sexual relationships by sex roles rather than by the gender of object choice. Some contributors highlighted open displays of affection between males as a distinctive feature of Latin American societies, thus linking homosociality with homosexuality. Several pointed out the social acceptance of intergenerational sex between males. Others claimed that interracial same-sex sexual relations were prosecuted because of racial segregation rather than because of sexual repression. A significant number of items referenced socially approved or institutionalized forms of gender crossing and same-sex sexual practices among “ancient” Incas, Maya, and Aztecs or present-day Amazon tribes, using these as proof of the cross-cultural nature of homosexuality.         

         Fictional narratives used Latin American and Caribbean locations as backgrounds for stories and as characters’ places of origin or destinations. Non-fictional pieces, too, sometimes referred to these places as ideal places for “gay” vacations. The authors often exoticized Latin American and Caribbean regions. They also tended to associate these places and local cultures with innocence and simplicity, which allowed gender crossing and open expressions of same-sex affection, sex, love, and romance.Often the authors placed homosexuality in the past (typically, in the pre-colonial or colonial era or in the nineteenth century), with an implicit or explicit criticism of the repressive influence of western colonizers, the military, and the Catholic Church.

         The U.S. homophile periodicals also tended to represent laws in Latin America and the Caribbean as more progressive than their U.S. counterparts. Some letters to the editor and features claimed that there were no specific laws against same-sex sexual acts in South America (sometimes, the authors attributed this to the legacy of Spanish law). Other items represented the laws in Latin America and the Caribbean as anti-homosexual but less punitive or they emphasized lesser enforcement of these laws. There were also claims about the absence of censorship in Latin America and the Caribbean (including references that some books of Oscar Wilde and Tram Combs were published or sold in these regions, sometimes in contrast to the situation in the Unites States). Some items represented Communist Cuba as a place of escape for homosexual westerners accused of espionage.

         The authors who shared a view of Latin America and the Caribbean as more liberal did not agree, however, on the nature of gay life in these regions. Several items represented homosexuals in Latin America as effeminate men (and sometimes masculine women); others represented gender transgression as a distinctive U.S. phenomenon, foreign to Latin American gay life. Some items produced an image of a more respectable gay life in Latin America (for example, see Stratton Ashley, “The ‘Other’ Homosexuals,” ONE, Feb. 1964, 5-11); others represented Latin American same-sex sexual culture as more promiscuous (see George Francis, “La Vida Alegre: A Report on Latin America,” ONE, May 1964, 19-23).

         At the same time, the homophile magazines also represented Latin America and the Caribbean as more conservative than the United States. A number of items referred to social attitudes in Latin America and the Caribbean as more conservative, claiming that taboos there were even greater than those in the United States. Several contributors mentioned that there was little or no organized gay life in these countries or that gay life there was underground. Some asserted that there were fewer homosexuals in these regions than there were in the United States. There were frequent references to the machismo of Latin American cultures, in contrast to the greater freedom of gender expression in the United States. Several works of fiction depicted the hostility of the local population toward homosexuals.

Harry Otis, “Only in Lima,” ONE, Feb. 1959, 18-22.

Harry Otis, “Only in Lima,” ONE, Feb. 1959, 18-22.

            A number of news reports mentioned instances of censorship in Latin American countries, stating that these countries were not more sexually liberal than the United States. Several articles and works of fiction described the harassment of homosexuals by police, government, and local authorities (for an example, see Gary Teller’s short story “Papacito and the Jotos,” ONE, Sep. 1964, 22-25). The homophile periodicals devoted significant attention to police raids and anti-homosexual campaigns in Argentina in 1955 and the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in 1963 and to responses to these campaigns from local media and from scientific/medical institutions. Likewise, Latinos were depicted as involved in “queer hunting,” attacks on queers, or the murder of homosexuals in some works of fiction, reviews, and news reports. Along these lines, Cold War narratives manifested in some items by linking communism and homosexuals, especially in references to Cuba. Some items represented communist regimes as sexually repressive and drew parallels between these regimes and McCarthyism in the United States. There was also a critique of the U.S. discourse that associated homosexuality with communism and homosexuals with communist countries, Cuba in particular, and thus presented homosexuals as political enemies of the United States.

          The contrasting representations of Latin America and the Caribbean (as more liberal or more conservative, more promiscuous or more domestic, with a larger or smaller number of homosexuals) served in the U.S. homophile periodicals as sources of pride. The image of Latin America and the Caribbean as more sexually liberal than the United States served as proof that homosexuality was universal and natural and as a critique of anti-homosexual discrimination in the United States, as the title of Harry Otis’s short story “Only in Lima” suggests (ONE, Feb. 1959, 18-22).  In turn, representations of Latin America and the Caribbean as more repressive served to emphasize the achievements of sexual liberalism and homophile activism in the United States.