Impending Hurricanes, Alternative Sexualities, and Tourism: Part I of the 2012 UHA Conference

Welcome to the 2012 Urban History Conference.  Hurricane Sandy loomed over the event like depression in a Tim Burton film, and ToM’s editors and contributors send our best wishes to everyone on the Eastern seaboard. Much like our 2010 coverage, we did our best to cover an array of topics but inevitably the conference’s size and density placed limits on our correspondents. Nonetheless, ToM’s endeavored to bring you several snapshots from the conference. Consider these imagistic academic instagrams rather than a comprehensive take on the event itself.

Part I – Sex and the City

 

Panel – The Sexual City in the Americas: Tourism, Migration, and Race in Mexico City, Miami, and New York, 1945-1975

Ryan Jones – “National Masculinity under Siege: Panic, Homosexuality, and Tourism in 1950s Mexico City

Mexico City circa 1925

When George Chauncey released his foundational Gay New York, in many ways he rewrote modern conceptions of gay life. If one believed that closeted, fearful, isolated lives preceded the repression of the 1950s, Chauncey demonstrated that in many ways Gay Americans, specifically those living in New York, in the 1920s and early 1930s actually engaged the world and emerged as visible, if coded, figures of the period. Likewise, Ryan Jones illustrates that gay men in pre-1950 Mexico City enjoyed more open lifestyles in the decades prior to the repressive 1950s, characterizing Mexico City of the 1920s and 1930s as the “golden age” of homosexuality.

Though Mexico City authorities had outlawed red light districts, an “archipelago social world” emerged to provide the space for Mexico City’s homosexual population. Bohemians, gays, and women cruised Alameda Park and circulated through the dive bars of Garibaldi Plaza. Similar to the Black Cat of San Francisco, featured in Nan Boyd’s Wide Open Town or Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park in Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles, Jones reconstructs these islands of sexual tolerance, emphasizing the role that bars like the Montezuma played in Mexico City’s sexual geography.

Reminiscent in some ways of Chauncey’s Greenwich Village of the 1920s, these spaces were often bounded by working class neighborhoods and were characterized by a diverse mix of peoples from bohemians to sex workers to average citizens.   Futurados (futaros), young men working in bars as hosts (sometimes dressed femininely, other times not), plied clients with their youthful sexuality dancing with men inducing them to purchase drinks.  While clients and futurados frequently engaged in sex or sexual acts, no guarantee existed.

Tourism provided post-revolutionary Mexico with a great deal of income and a diverse array of figures came to imbibe in the sexual freedom of Mexico City from writers like William Burroughs, Hart Crane and Langston Hughes to auteurs like Sergei Eisenstein. While tourism brought in much needed income to post revolutionary Mexico, many officials viewed these foreigners as a sort of contagion, spreading ideas about gender and sexuality that threatened to infect the larger Mexican body politic. Post WWII Mexico experienced a right wing backlash to the liberal reforms of the Cardenas government and its burgeoning position as a leader in the developing world led many officials to promote working class masculinity as a symbol of the larger nation.   The state promoted images of idealized masculine figures like industrial workers and cowboys (perhaps today a bit ironic considering American pop culture figures like the Village People and recent movies such as Brokeback Mountain) and argued that homosexuality remained “inauthentic” for working class identities. Visions of national masculinity thus declared homosexuality a foreign influence embedding homophobia into national consciousness.  Immigrants and homosexuals became dual infections in need of cure.

A stronger ,more organized state cracked down on bars like Montezuma, subjecting patrons to raids that reached a fever pitch in 1959 to be followed by round ups of suspected homosexuals in the 1960s. In this way, Mexico’s “golden age of homosexuality” came to be seen in the popular consciousness as an aberration of foreign infiltration that was paralleled by foreign investment and immigration.

Julio Capo Jr – “Top Talent is Imported from Abroad:  Miami, the Caribbean, and the Ethno-Racial Sexualization of Urban Tourism, 1945-1960”

 

Few nightclubs in the America’s could claim the notoriety and clientele of pre-revolutionary Havana’s Tropicana.  From the sultry Josephine Baker to the paranoid Joseph McCarthy, the club’s patrons only reinforced its international standing.   Sitting 90 miles from Cuba, Miami hoped to capitalize on the island nation’s connection to the US by depending on an ethno-racial sexuality that linked it to Havana and other Caribbean metropolitan destinations. In this matrix, Miami club and cabaret owners promoted “brassy Latin music” and the city itself as a “wide open town” town and capital of Latin America.  Miami wasn’t an American city, it was the city of the Americas in America. Boosters marketed race, ethnicity, and sexuality and promoted an economy based on sexual titillation and degeneracy, which of course, represented a stark contrast and challenge to the era’s conservative heteronormative culture.

 

If Amy Kaplan discussed the gendered implications of nineteenth century American imperialism in The Anarchy of Empire, Capo points to discursive depictions of the island nation that stressed its sensuality.  Under U.S. imperialism, Cuba stood as a heroine in need of rescue by a masculine Uncle Sam.  Even before the 1898 Spanish American War, the Monroe Doctrine expressed paternalism toward Cuba that privileged US capitalism while inscribing an essentialized sexual appetite on its residents.  By the 1930s, Cuba had become a “whore to be plundered.” Miami employed these tropes as a means to promote its own sexual trangressiveness. As American consumerism rose to prominence in the 1950s middle class Americans hoped to spend their way to happiness.  Intimate sexual encounters served as simply one more consumable good. As an article in a 1965 issue of Confidential Magazine noted, “sex was for sale” in Miami, but paupers need not apply: “no romance without finance.”

Technological innovations like air conditioning and improved transportation infrastructure that placed Miami as the origin point for Caribbean destinations bolstered its position. The city’s prosperity and growth from 1945 to 1960 only emphasized this development as it grew from 215,000 to nearly 500,000 becoming one of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations.  For many, Florida’s climate, flora and fauna represented an extension of Cuba.

Though Castro and his fellow communists portrayed Batista-run Cuba as licentious and decadent and suggested Havana’s vice served as a trap for communist hopes, American tropes regarding Cuban sexuality suggested not even the ascetic bearded leader of Cuba could suppress them.  With the 1959 revolution and subsequent travel restrictions, Cubans place in Miami and its connection to Cuba intensified as the Cuban community in the city expanded. According to some media outlets, the arrival of Cuban “senoritas” to Miami caused no small amount of consternation among North American counterparts.  These ladies proved more determined and more ruthless in their pursuit of American men.  Exoticized and sexualized, Cuban women endured accusations of violence (they all carried knives) and infection (they all harbored VD).  Capo, like fellow panelist Jones (above) and Thomas Hafer (below) highlights the convergence of technology, consumerism, and transnational migration to demonstrate how one American city combined them all to create a “wide open town” that bucked dominant heteronormative frames so common in mid-century America.

Thomas Hafer – “Sexual and Cultural Exchanges between Puerto Rican and Queer Bohemian Communities in Lower Manhattan, 1960-1970”

In his 2009 memoir City Boy, writer Edmund White reflected on his discovery of Puerto Rico as a holiday vacation getaway.  “The boys we pursued all lived at home but would slow dance with us in clubs into late into the night and smelled of achiote powder,” noted White. “They were romantic and would make love to us in public parks, since we couldn’t sneak them past the vigilant desk clerk at the Y.” (44) Here White describes the connections between New York’s gay community and Puerto Rico.  Similarly, Hafer demonstrates the importance of interactions between Bohemian artists in New York City and their counterparts in Puerto Rico.  In addition, Hafer illustrates how artists, writers, and filmmakers like Ron Rice, Parker Tyler, Andy Warhol, and Frank O’Hara engaged the island and its people, drawing from their sexual interactions a sort of muse for art. However, unlike Edmund White, these Bohemians chafed when the identity politics of the 1960s/1970s rights movements defined them as gay. Instead, they articulated an alternative or “pansexuality” (in earlier eras referred to as “bohemian sexuality”) that traversed social and cultural barriers but did not identify as singularly homosexual.   Many felt that identity politics limited their work and threatened the unverisality sexuality they embodied.

By the early 1960s, travel to Puerto Rico became much more common.  Improved transportation infrastructure (better airports) and US promotion of tourism along with restrictions on travel to Cuba facilitated this development. At the same time, Puerto Rican migration to New York exploded with many settling on New York’s Lower East Side. ” So many Puerto Ricans traveled back and forth to San Juan that the plane was virtually a commuter flight,” noted White.  With the cheap rents of the East Village and Lower East side, artists too arrived.  The intersection of Puerto Rican migration to New York City and the clustering of these bohemians in the East Village and Lower East side recreated the aforementioned mixed sexual spaces of Chauncey’s 1920’s Greenwich Village but with the added complexity of a racial ethnicity.

Informed by their encounters with Puerto Rican Americans and attracted by the island’s aesthetic beauty, sexuality, environment and weather, Bohemian artists filtered these experiences through their work. Proximity, whether in New York or Puerto Rico, led to romantic involvement.  Sexual contacts between artists/writers/filmmakers and Puerto Rican arrivals often led to artistic collaboration expanding the world vision of white bohemians and creating space in a largely pale art world for Puerto Ricans. For many of the Bohemians Hafer discusses, their sexuality did not exist as an identity but rather a means to artistic expression.

In the end, these interactions spawned films, art, and writings even as the pressures of identity politics led to the dissolution of the Bohemian art world.  In the decade that followed (1970s), artists delivered more sexist nationalist works that appeared at odds with this earlier period.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] at the end via the Cuban Revolution and post WWII Miami.  If you missed Part I click here and for Part II [...]

  2. […] out about this new and evolving work despite not having the time or money to make it to the AHA, UHA, etc.  Past conferences can be found under the tab “Academics in the Wild” above, or […]

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