Many years ago I was given this academic book as a birthday present. My friend said, as he handed it over, “This may look like I’m trying to make some kind of puerile joke, but I’m not. I really think you’ll find this interesting.” And, about five years later, when I finally got round to reading it, I did.
The book was given to me at about the time I became a huge fan of the novels of Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, a Cuban who has written many FILTHY books about Cuba in the “special period”, the time in the 90s where the island’s economy fell apart after the disintegration of the USSR.* Gutiérrez evokes a city of casual sex, Santeria, sex shows, cross dressing and lots and lots of boozing. Although his books are narrated from a heterosexual male perspective, his quasi-autobiographical narrator is friends with homosexuals and is involved in, kind of, the gay culture of Havana at the time that Ian Lumsden’s text from 1994 is all about.
Lumsden is** a Canadian academic who has spent a lot of time in Cuba. His book opens with a potted history of the island, before moving on to focus in great detail on the lifestyles and the lives of homosexuals living there. Aligning homosexuals with women and “blacks”***, he discusses the general patterns and reasons for prejudice in the population of the island. There is a strong culture of machismo (Lumsden states this is a result of both the Latinate and the African elements of the island’s cultural heritage), which tends to (historically) disapprove of men being too feminine, rather than men who have sex with men. He writes of the island having a long history of normalised private gay sex – from the male-only slave plantations in the colonial period through to the split gendered Communist-era training camps. Lumsden’s key point is that it was only when the Communist regime began attempting to legislate for every part of its islanders’ lives that homophobic prejudice became normalised and institutionalised, as suddenly something private was being discussed and dismissed in public. (This is a simplification of his book.)
The most interesting part, for me (other than the often evocative descriptions of parties, drag nights, rallies, cottaging hotspots) is the section where Lumsden discusses the government’s response to the AIDS crisis. His opinions of their actions are clearly conflicted, and this makes for quite entertaining reading. Basically, the Cuban government locked up everyone who tested HIV positive, giving them as much treatment as possible but, as said, keeping them in what was essentially a low security prison. If they ran away, they’d end up in a proper prison and, probably, not be given any treatment at all. So, Lumsden both praises the genuine attempts made to prolong life and improve the quality of death of AIDS sufferers, whilst castigating the incredibly authoritarian methods used to do so. And this, really, is the crux of the book.
Lumsden clearly loves Cuba. One doesn’t have to read very hard into the subtext to realise that it was the location of his own sexual awakening, or to see the classic liberal intellectual’s disappointment at the imperfection of Castro’s regime. But this book is informative, often quite wry and gave me a weirdly specific insight into the lives of tens of thousands of men over the last sixty years or so.
An interesting read. I enjoyed it.
* The most famous is Dirty Havana Trilogy, which I highly recommend.
** Or was. It’s been twenty years, he COULD be dead.
*** Was “blacks” acceptable in the 90s? Is it acceptable now? Surely not, right?