Homosexuality and Cuban Literature

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Tue Nov 19 16:39:12 MST 2002

The note below is by Damian Donestevez,
my next-door neighbor here in Havana and
the translator of the article, which first came
out in LA JIRIBILLA, an on-line supplement
to Juventud Rebelde, one of the three main
newspapers in Cuba's capital city. Not quite
what you'd expect if there were institutional
homophobia in place...

The book WOMEN WITHOUT MEN which
is mentioned here, is in print here in Cuba.
I bought a copy a couple of days ago. It's
a Genet-like novel which came out in 1937,
from what I gather about it.


The article by Marilyn Bobes is really very interesting, I
didn't know many things that I read in it. Of course, I knew
many others like Marlowe, Lorca, Hernández Catá, Virgilio
Piñera, and Senel Paz, but I didn't know that the first gay
novel was published in 1919 and the second in 1929.

Kisses and hugs



An approach to a taboo

Despite Sodom's destruction by fire, homosexuality has been
condemned and ignored by humanity throughout centuries but
it is like any other subject in the literary and artistic
life of human beings.

BY MARILIN BOBES -published by La Jiribilla

Since Lot's wife became a salt statue for challenging the
divine prohibition of looking back at Sodom, homosexuality
has been sentenced to the most severe rejection, both in
life and in arts.

However, that sexual option that cannot spread its name and
that, despite the fact that it's part of nature it's usually
referred to as something unnatural, is another subject to
which many writers of all times and cultures have partially
or entirely dedicated their work.

In our century, writers such as Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman,
Jean Genet or Constantino Kavafis are closely linked to an
issue that, since Homer's Iliad and Sappho's ardent and wild
poems, is frequently and even systematically represented in
the western world's literary heritage, even though the
enormous burden of the Counterreformation Movement
managed to ignore it in the Spanish speaking literature
for a long time, relegating it to the uncertain area of
reference or to subliminal writing.

On the threshold of Renaissance, Dante Alighieri talked
about homosexuals in a great poem. It's true that he placed
them in a frightening circle of hell; but his only inclusion
in the poem gives us a testimony of how frequent this
practice was in the Middle Ages' daily life, at a time when
in one of his famous sermons an over-excited Savonarola
urged Florence priests to put an end to the "hateful vice",
expelling both their concubines and their "beardless boys."

According to researchers, British playwright Christopher
Marlowe wrote the first erotic play in which two men were in
love. The "unfortunate Kingdom and regrettable death of
Edward II of England", in which the king is said to have
waged a war for the trivial issue of loving his favorite
Gaveston, the same thing that Agamemnon had done against
Troy in Homer's Iliad because Paris had kidnapped Hellen.

In the late 19th century, other writers such as Oscar Wilde
or André Gide dealt with the thorny issue again in a
disguised or open way, but it's not until the emergence of
French playwright, poet and prisoner Jean Genet in the first
half of the 20th century, that homosexuals appeared in
European literature with all the courage, cruelty and
challenging vigor with which he earned admiration and
solidarity from figures such as Jean Paul Sartre, Pablo
Picasso and Jean Costeau, whom he owed not only his release
from jail but also his relative acceptance by part of the
public at that time.

Almost at the same time and with a story amazingly similar
to that of Genet, Carlos Montenegro published his novel
Hombres sin Mujer (Men without Women) in Cuba in 1937.

Montenegro was sentenced to life for murder and made its
debut in Cuban literature with a story entitled "El renuevo"
(The renewed), reason why he won the Carteles magazine prize
in 1929.

The award encouraged a group of Cuban intellectuals -like
the French did later- to organize a commission to request
his pardon. The petition was heard and the writer released
from jail.

Some years later, the former convict published his most
important work: Hombres Sin Mujer (Men without Women),
becoming one of the pioneers of gay literature in Cuba. His
amazingly cruel and realistic novel is a testimony of what
he went through while he was in prison, according to what
the author said in the prologue.

In Men without Women the gay issue is subordinated to that
of violence. The prison's tough reality provides the context
in which discrimination against "the weak" and his
subjugation acquire an inhumane nature. In jail homosexuals
are given the role granted to women by a macho mentality in
"the outside world". They become not only an object of
desire but also individuals who go through the most
incredible humiliations.

Therefore, in Montenegro's vision, he feels sorry for this
element of society -the homosexual- to whom the story grants
the right to vindicate his human dignity by becoming an
accuser, only in virtue of his tragic fate.

However, a decade before Montenegro wrote about "La Morita"
in Men without Women, another important novelist Alfonso
Hernández Catá published a reduced number of copies of an
almost unknown literary piece in Madrid. El Ángel de Sodoma
(Sodom's Angel) is without a doubt the first openly
homosexual text in Cuban literature.

Hernández Catá's novel attempts to trap the intimate agony
of a man whose social integration under "respectable"
paradigms is threatened by an uncontrollable homoerotic

José María, whose secret tendencies are unknown by his
relatives and people who surround him, is depicted as a
stereotyped effeminate, whose physical and psychological
efforts will be aimed at "changing" his female tendencies.
"If nature, God or Satan -he tells himself- were going to
make me a woman and, when they had already laid the
groundwork, they gave up and undesirably laid male clay,
what should I do?

In that way Hernández Catá's novel vindicated the homosexual
as an alleged accident of nature, as it was almost common in
Spanish tradition on the subject, and set a distance and
moral difference between this and that "vicious villain whom
lust had made him become a sexual renegade."

Spanish poet Federico García Lorca adopted the same position
some years later when he published his extraordinary Oda a
Walt Whitman (Ode to Walt Whitman) in which he described
"the obscure tearful pansies, fodder for tamer's whip, boot
or bite."

Lorca's poem also carefully distinguished between two types
of gays, only accepting those who lived their eroticism with
guilt, suffering and silence. However, this poem, along with
Hernández Catá's and Montenegro's works, is another great
precursory document in defense of gays in Spanish speaking

On the other hand, no Cuban poet at that time was able to
take the subject to its ultimate consequences. However, in
Emilio Ballagas' work we can find a shy and hidden approach
to the issue, shown in poems such as Elegía sin Nombre
(Nameless Elegy) (with revealing quotations from Whitman and
Cernuda) or an unexplainable regret and guilt in his poem
Declara qué cosa sea amor (Say what love is) -if you don't
appeal to a gay reading.

Other texts by Ballagas such as De otro modo (Another way),
where he calls for a change of life the other way around -
"if things that you hide were right", thus suggest a deep
pain coming from the fact that a kind of love clashing with
a "centuries-old" social and human order cannot be
fulfilled.  On the other hand, this approach is simple
critical speculation since poet and journalist Vladimir
Zamora recently found some of Ballagas' unpublished
poems, where homosexuality is dealt with explicitly.

In the case of the novel, we had to wait for another 30
years to see a Cuban author write about the issue. But this
time the subject is dealt with so skillfully, meaningfully
and profoundly that it's hard for critics to define up to
what extent it becomes another metaphor among the many
metaphors appearing in Paradiso (Paradise), José Lezama
Lima's masterpiece.

(1) In fact, despite its coarse description, the novel's
famous Chapter VIII is a metaphor about knowledge rather
than an esthetic delight in an erotic gay relationship.
Undoubtedly, throughout Paradiso, homosexuality has an
important place as a subject for reflection, and even
extends to what was going to be this monumental work's part
II: the unfinished notes published under the title "Opiano

It's not in Chapter VIII but in IX in which the issue is
extensively dissected by Lezama's omniscient capacity. When
Baena Albornoz's gay episode was discovered, Fronesis,
Foción and Cemí extensively talked about that sexual variant
from a theological, psychological and cultural points of

For Lezama as well as for Fronesis, it's obvious that "sex
is like poetry, it's an unequivocal rather than problematic
subject. Therefore, the issue is dealt with dispassionately
and philosophically. "Man's grandeur -one of the characters
says- lies on the fact that he can assimilate what is
unknown" . "To assimilate in depth -Lezama says- is to give
an answer."

In the chapter the writer also analyzed the subject from a
cultural point of view, both in the myth as well as in music
and literature, including the Count of Villamediana's case,
Casanova's disguise or Gide's so called syncretism.

I think I wouldn't be mistaken to say that Paradiso -as well
as Opiano Lilcario- is the Cuban novel that has dealt with
homosexuality more deeply and in a more unbiased way,
releasing it from both its morbid aspects and the sociology
that intends to turn it into a political rather than an
individual definition.

Such is the regrettable case of writer Reinaldo Arenas.
Arenas turned his testimony Antes que anochezca (Before the
Night Falls) into a political statement in which a trivial
erotic relationship is reduced to a sort of uncontrolled
desire for pleasure cruelly punished by institutions. In his
stories, that desire seems to be socially accepted and
allowed by community members.

This can be seen in his short story Viaje a la Habana (A
trip to Havana), in which the protagonist's only tragedy is
that a court sentenced him for having sexual intercourse
with a minor. The remaining characters, including the
protagonist's wife, seem to naturally understand and accept
the event. The narrator even refers to a homoerotic
relationship between father and son provoked by the latter
without scruples whatsoever and without the slightest
affective and emotional importance for both.

Paradoxically, in previous books by Arenas, in which the
protagonists' sexual trends are not explicitly declared, the
author is very sensitive and in some of them he  reveals
important clues of the sociology of gay children, though
this concept is not consciously expressed. We should
remember his touching books Celestino antes del alba
(Celestino before dawn) and El palacio de las blanquísimas
mofetas (The palace of the very white skunks) which reveal
the tragedy of the "different" child and teenager.

A recent short story by Senel Paz entitled El bosque, el
lobo y el hombre nuevo (The forest, the wolf and the new
man) deals with a similar issue but not in the same way. In
this story, the author also focuses on the institutions'
intolerance to integrate gays into society. But unlike
Arenas, according to Paz, the origin of that "official"
intolerance is a reflection of a collective consciousness.

His main character, Young Communist League member David
rejects homosexuality by conviction. He's biased toward that
sexual tendency. The somewhat provocative attitude of
Diego -the homosexual character- is a reaction to

Diego is not socially accepted, above all, due to the
prejudices prevailing in the individual conscience of his
contemporaries. Of course, this individual conscience
determines the "institutional" rejection, which is more
dangerous, because institutions are made up of people whose
subjective opinions influence general views.

Unlike Arenas' memoirs and some of his short stories, Senel
Paz's El bosque, el lobo y el hombre nuevo is not
ideologically aimed at "politicizing" a conflict which we
have inherited from a cultural tradition that rejects
homosexuality. Its objective is to create awareness in all
spheres of society, including the political sphere, against
the absurd attitude to discriminate people for their sexual

The emergence of the gay issue in Cuban literature over the
past few years is a sign that the curtain behind which the
subject has been traditionally hidden is being drawn back.

Among the best examples of contemporary young literature we
could mention the stories Mi prima Amanda (My cousin Amanda)
by Miguel Mejides, who explores the Lesbian world -even more
taboo than that of male homosexuality-; El cazador (The
hunter) by Leonardo Padura, and Por qué llora Leslie Caron
(Why is Leslie Caron crying) by Roberto Urías. The short
stories are a serious analysis on a difficult and somewhat
thorny theme in Cuban literature and in our societies.

With regard to poetry, a genre less suitable for such a
reading than prose, due to its current characteristics, we
should mention the dramatic and brilliant poem Vestido de
Novia (Dressed as a Bride) by Norge Espinoza, whose courage
and formal values place it among the best texts written on
the subject in our country.

In June, 1990 the magazine Unión published some
autobiographic pages by another great master of the island's
literature: Virgilio Piñera. In the pages he tells how he
came to the conclusion that he was gay. This is done with a
poetic, natural and intelligent language. The discovery of
Piñera's complete biography might enrich a subject which the
author of Cuentos Fríos (Cold Stories) never openly dealt
with in his works.

Before ending, we cannot miss Severo Sarduy's almost unknown
but splendorous and important work. The main theme in them
is the world of transvestites rather than homosexuality. His
characters, including some of them feeling that they are
women, are filled with a marginal Cuban spirit in which
phrases, expressions and the syntax of the Cuban homoerotic
jargon abound.

We should also add to the above mentioned texts another
short story published by the Spanish magazine Quimera in
December, 1982. The story was written by Calvert Casey and
translated from English into Spanish by Rafael Martínez

Piazza Margana(2) seems to be the only chapter that Casey
saved from a destroyed novel, and constitutes a beautiful
and openly gay lyrical and erotic testament. It was
originally written in English -as it's known the author was
born in the United States and English was his mother
language - and because he wrote it in English some critics
have wanted to see a sort of shyness since the statement he
wanted to make was "too compromising" to be released in the
language that the writer chose.

Despite Sodom's destruction by fire, homosexuality has been
condemned and ignored by humanity throughout centuries but
it is like any other subject in the literary and artistic
life of human beings. Recent scientific theories describe it
as a sexual option and old formulas that considered it an
aberration are making way for more tolerant views.

In our country, like in many others, mainly Latin American
nations, in which resistance to accept it has brought about
painful discriminatory consequences and suffering for such a
minority of human beings, gay literature could be a good
exercise for people to learn how to accept a sexual option
which though different is not foreign to human nature.


(1)      Poet and researcher Victor Fowler found Hernández
Catá's novel Sodom's Ángel as the first novel dealing with
the gay subject in Cuban literature. He is preparing a long
essay on the issue.

(2)       Calvert Casey's text was also given to the writer
of this article by Victor Fowler.

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