In his autobiography “Before Night Falls” (Antes Que Anochezca), the late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (1944-1990) wrote about his sexual encounters with nominally straight males in 1960s Havana: “These areas were full of recruits and students, single men who were locked up in barracks or schools and went out at night eager for sex. They were willing to settle for the first thing that came along. … Those men enjoyed their roles of active males … Many of these ‘buggers’ (bugarrones), Arenas noted, “had girlfriends or wives, but when they came to us they enjoyed themselves thoroughly, sometimes more than with their wives.” During the 1980s Mariel boat-lift, which brought Arenas to the U.S., the Cuban government only gave exit permits to passive homosexuals, since it “did not look upon those who took the active male role as real homosexuals.”
The notion that men who take the “manly” role in sex with other men are not really queer is one that was commonly-held throughout Latin America, especially among the working class. But it is not a uniquely Latino concept. In the Arab world, the practice of keeping women in purdah encouraged unmarried Arab men to have sex with other men, to the delight of European and American visitors. Even in the United States, as historian George Chauncey tells us in “Gay New York,” “the hetero-homosexual binarism … is a stunningly recent creation. … Only in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s did the now-conventional division of men into ‘homosexuals’ and ‘heterosexuals,’ based on the sex of their sexual partners, replace the division of men into ‘fairies’ and ‘normal men’ on the basis of their imaginary gender status.” The old ways endure in same-sex situations where homosex is the only sex available, such as prisons and seminaries.
Those of us who grew up in a society where butch tops and nelly bottoms are both thought of as gay view this state of affairs with skepticism, and Arenas’ “real men” as closet cases unwilling to accept their sexual orientation. But there are some advantages in dividing the male sexual world between “fairies” and “trade.” For one thing, the opportunities are greater. Arenas — who alleged to have “had sex with about five thousand men” while in Cuba — discovered to his chagrin that in the U.S. “sexual relations can be tedious and unrewarding. … The queer gets together with the queer and everybody does everything. One sucks first, and then they reverse roles. How can that bring any satisfaction?”
“In Cuba,” Arenas wrote, “you did not have to be a homosexual to have a relationship with a man; a man could have intercourse with another man as an ordinary act.” In Arenas’s Havana, as in the traditional Arab world or turn-of-the 20th century Bowery, a “straight” kid can have sex with a fairy and not be branded for life with a big lavender Q. In these “traditional” societies, sex between men was something that any man was capable of doing (though he shouldn’t). On the other hand, in modern society, homosexuality is something only gays and bisexuals do. This makes it easier for the powers that be to isolate and marginalize homosexuality, which they do.
Arenas’ gay life was far from idyllic. He was repeatedly beat up and robbed by “normal men” and was eventually imprisoned by the Castro government for creating a “public disturbance.” The idea that a passive, “feminine” homosexual man can only get sexual satisfaction from a “real man” is something that us post-Stonewall queers would consider to be sexist and self-hating. Though I am a bottom in bed, I consider myself to be as “masculine” as any of my sex partners — who I fully expect to be self-defined, masculine gay men. And I can only love an equal. At the same time, I realize that my opinions are a product of my time and place. Had I lived anywhere else — or at any other time — I might still be queer, but I would have manifested my sexuality differently.
What we know as the gay liberation movement began in Western Europe, spread to the United States, Canada and Australia, and is only now beginning to make headway in what used to be called the Third World. In all of these places the movement only began after the current model of “the homosexual” — as a people and as a community — took hold. By dividing the population into rigid categories based on sex and gender, society encouraged queer people to create institutions of our own making. From these institutions came the idea of the homosexual community, and from that the concept of a self-defined people seeking rights.
In the early 1970s, we had a category called “political lesbians;” women who discovered their affinity for other women through their involvement in the women’s movement. Likewise, it is my belief that the gay movement has “allowed” many men, “political queers” if you please, to accept and explore their own homosexuality. In other surroundings, these men might have been self-defined “real men;” married men seeking surreptitious sex in public toilets. Or they might have been effeminate “fairies” looking for “real men” who would treat them “like a woman.” Instead, we who are gay are here, they are queer, and you better get used to it.
Though male and female homosexuality have existed since the beginning of our species, the social model of homosexuality has changed repeatedly over the years. When St. Paul and the authors of Leviticus condemned men who “lie with mankind as with womankind,” they were not thinking about the men who inhabit the industrialized world at the beginning of the 21st century. Muhammad didn’t like queers either, but some of his followers look the other way when their sons seek sexual release with other males. Sexual paradigms change over the years, and yesterday’s sodomite might find today’s brave gay world a strange place to live in. On the other hand, freeing sexuality from gender and sex roles has allowed more men to take a positive stand and to adopt a forthright gay identity. Indeed, the old gay saying, that “today’s trade is tomorrow’s competition,” is true in more ways than one.