Friday, January 22, 2010
Echoes of a past life: Gay Libre / Patria Libre
I wrote this article when I returned from my 1986 stay in Managua, Nicaragua. I didn't consider myself a journalist, though I loved to write. I went to Nicaragua with aspiring journalists -- a writer and a photographer -- who were intending to earn some credibility by gaining real independent experience in a war zone. I learned a lot from my friends, and since I had no responsibilities or real aspirations for my trip, I had a lot of time to observe and to practice. They both taught me a lot about writing and photography, and I wrote this article to sum up a lot of my experiences. I remember trying to get it printed on my return; I still have several copies left over from duplicated manuscripts I sent out. But nobody bit, and it lay in a folder for more years than I care to count; in truth I forgot about this piece. Having rediscovered it looking for things to post on The Cahokian, I'm very proud to present it. Thank God for the mass publishing democracy of the blogosphere, or something. There's a lot of water under this bridge, but this is, I think, a pretty compelling snapshot of its moment.
I must add a kind of apocryphal coda to this story. When I was in Nicaragua I spent a lot of time trying to meet gays there: I met a few, reported herein, and met a number of gay foreigners as well. After the appearance of the "Gay Libre" graffiti the people I met were abuzz with wonder at who was responsible. My friends and I thought it might be cool to hold an actual open meeting to discuss gay life in Nicaragua. I was supposed to rent a room at, if I recall, a college. We started to spread the word about the meeting. Well, to my embarrassment having had no responsibility for several months I completely flaked out on actually renting this room. When the day for the meeting came my friends eyed me with complete and utter disbelief that I could do something so bizarre as not actually follow through with my part of the plan. I remember we waited out front for a while, my friends glaring at me deservedly. Well nobody showed. Or so we thought. We later heard a story that I've never been able to actually verify that a few gay Nicaraguans actually did show up tardily for this meeting after we had gone. In their frustration at the ridiculous foreigners they wound up talking to each other and eventually formed the first gay organization in Nicaragua. Whether or not that's fanciful speculation, gay Nicaraguans held their first political march in 1989 and homosexuality was completely decriminalized there a couple years ago.
The photography included here is all by me, from that long ago 1986 (click on 'em to see them bigger!). I include the byline I submitted this under, yet another pen name as I attempted to merge reputations.
Gay Libre / Patria Libre:
Gay People in Nicaragua
by Ian Daniels Horst
The clock on the huge Spanish-colonial cathedral is stopped a few minutes after midnight, the time over 14 years ago [this was written in 1986--ish], in 1972, that the city around it crumbled under the force of a Richter 7 earthquake. The roof is gone; the murals of Jesus and Christian saints peeling, exposed to the weather. Huge cracks line the walls; rain pools on the once marble-covered floor, feeding the shrubs and grass that creep toward the altar. Its basement reeks of shit, and bats glide and screech in its dark recesses. On the second story, reached by carefully climbing a flight of rusty, garbage-strewn stairs, an 18-year-old boy dressed in mismatched rag-tag live green fatigues bends to caress the sun-browned face of his high-school-aged male lover. The city is Managua, seven years after the victory of the FSLN, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation.
Despite its Howard Beaches and Alfonse D'Amatos, New York City remains a bastion for progressive causes. Well, what pass for progressive causes in the 1980s, anyway. It is home to all stripes of liberals and do-gooders, even a few remaining hardcore radical leftists. And of course, it is home to one of the largest gay communities in the United States. And while it would be at least naive to suggest that New York's progressives and gay people are a model for hegemonic unity and shared concern, both groups benefit from the presence of the other and help make New York the kind of place it is. So it was with delicious irony I purchased my copy of the Daily News a month before I left for Nicaragua. The headline, "Gays, Yes; Contras, No" was perfect. A chance coincidence -- the passing of New York's gay civil rights ordinance and defeat of contra fundings in the House resulted in one of those rare front pages you have the urge to paste on cardboard and tack to a stick to parade around the street with. [The contras were the armed rightwing anti-Sandinista rebels backed by the CIA.--ish].
Yet New York's progressives are perhaps a bit blinded by neat dichotomies. As if responding to the party line of some monolithic progressive central headquarters, the simple paradigms like "Gays, yes; Contras, no" come fast and easy. Homeless people, yes; apartheid no; peace, yes; racism, no. But does the world conform to such a lovely clear image of good and evil? What happens when the good guys on the list commit the bad things on the list? Most progressives don't think about such foundation-shaking dilemmas too much.
What is it like, then, to be gay in Nicaragua? Is it the blissful simplicity borne out by "Gays, yes; Contras, No" or is there a dark lining of another Cuba where 20 years down the road to "socialism and the new man" gay people were willing to risk everything for a chance to leave for the haven of seedy nightclubs in Miami or New York? As both a radical and a gay man, these were top among my questions as I prepared to spend a summer of a lifetime away from New York, in Nicaragua.
While parts of Nicaragua are beautiful indeed, the capital, Managua, is most certainly not. The earthquake that killed some twenty thousand people and levelled the center of the city has left its mark of foreverness on Managua. There is no downtown; the old center of town is today a rambling wasteland of empty lots where lizards scurry and frogs croak at night and where squatters build tin and cardboard and plastic bag shacks, and of empty shells of multi-story buildings and smart boutiques that today house large families without running water or electricity or perhaps a roof or a wall or two. Years of pre-revolution corruption and post-revolution poverty have left Managua at the mercy of time; the money for rebuilding simply doesn't exist.
Instead Managua is sprawling; stores operate out of private homes or pre-fab shopping centers and malls that look like they're transplanted straight from some U.S. suburb. A third of the stores in such places are closed and dusty, and another third lack the stock to sell. There are something like five buildings in operable condition with more than three storeys. You can drive down streets with regular sidewalks and paved roads and beautiful tropical-style houses to look down the side streets and see an abrupt ending of brick and pavement and road and the beginning of rutted dirt paths and dusty shacks and broken banana trees and pigs and chickens and cows. Naked children with dusty brown skin and some with swollen bellies and sun-bleached hair play in these neighborhoods; sometimes clothed in tattered shorts they wander to other parts of town and fight with dogs over scraps of food left by patrons of some street-corner food vendor.
The open air markets are filled with women of all ages hawking fruit drinks or tortillas or vigoron, a fast-food dish of fried pork skin and yucca. The North Highway is lined with the still-functioning remnants of an earlier time: the huge Coca-Cola bottling plant, the half-empty Datsun dealership, the textile factories that churn out Nicaragua's polyester clothes. There too is the now-closed office of the right-wing daily paper, La Prensa.
And everywhere there is the graffiti of the revolution and the counter-revolution and the ultra-revolution: Sandinista red and black painted on doors and walls; calls by the Communists and Socialists for democracy, calls by the rightists for an end to communism, calls by the Maoists for an end to the rightists; calls by most everybody not to let the Yankee pass. No pasaran, they say. On these walls and fences, scrawled in chalk or neatly stenciled in fading paint, "Yankee Imperialism" is called the son of a whore, Nicaraguan children are exhorted to defend their homeland with their lives, and neighborhoods bravely declare their intent to defend each corner and each house from Yankee attack.
There are the occasional bomb shelters and trenches dug out of empty lots near schools and houses. And the stone markers in every neighborhood marking the spot where some young hero or heroine was murdered by the National Guard before the triumph of the Sandinistas.
Managua is a haunting place; a place where the average age of people on the street looks to be about 22; where the average age of the many girls and boys laughing and joking and wearing olive green and carrying AK-47 automatic rifles seems to be about 17. It's a place where the slavery of women is nearly complete -- washing their family's clothes in stone sinks, trudging through dirty markets to haggle down the price of fruit and vegetables to pick and harvest and cook to sell to supplement the men's barely living wage. Amidst all this harsh retrograde reality for women, female soldiers are a common sight.
Managua is a place where people in a crowd can sing their national anthem perfectly in unison and in key without a leader yet without a hint of open emotion; and where a popular song about the FSLN's martyred leader Carlos Fonseca Amador makes people stand and cry; where elementary school children go to demonstrations laughing and chanting, "Here and there, the Yankees shall die." It's a city where the militia trains polyester-clad housewives and designer-jean clad youths alike to lie in the dirt and fire an American-made semi-automatic rifle; where schoolchildren whistle "the Internationale" and washer women marvel over the quality of Polish and Czech detergent and housewives wonder at how to read the labels of canned food from China and Bulgaria. Yet ketchup and mustard are as popular as hot sauce, and Madonna and Tina Turner -- and oh that "Tarzan Boy" from Italian popster Baltimora -- win far out more popularity than a snappy pop singer from Cuba who sings happily about dying in the middle of the road with his gun.
To be sure, Managua is not all of Nicaragua: the countryside is full of crops and vegetation and life, threatened only by centuries-old poverty and by a five-year-old war bought and paid for by that rich nation far to the north, the United States. There are other cities in Nicaragua that would look at home in the alps or on the riviera, and beaches and volcanoes that rival anything the South Pacific has to offer. There are beautiful old Spanish cathedrals and tranquil old parks with a damp and ancient mustiness and amazing wildlife one might see elsewhere only in National Geographic. Yet in each major city there is a section of town with ruined buildings destroyed in the bloody struggle for power in 1978 and 1979.
People in Nicaragua are friendly and patient. Conversations between Nicaraguans and foreigners are easily started, and always rewarding. People will tell you all kinds of things: how much they like the revolution, how much they hate it. People will complain, and brag. There are few beggars, and lots of pride. There is little hostility; the difference between a mere gringo and a Yankee is clear in people's minds and attitudes. Which is not to say that in Nicaragua you can forget that the U.S. and Nicaragua are at war.
While I was in Nicaragua scarcely a week went by without the papers reporting the deaths of women and children in contra attacks. Large portions of the north and east of the country are military zones where the Sandinista People's Army pursues contra units in a never-ending chase. People I talked to more often than not reported on the death of some brother, grandmother, or other loved one at the indiscriminate hands of the rebels. Whatever it is that Nicaraguans want, war is one thing they have all had enough of.
One of the easiest places to meet and talk to Nicaraguans is by the Plaza of the Revolution in front of the ruined cathedral, in the park surrounding the tomb of Carlos Fonseca Amador, the principle founder of the FSLN, killed in 1976. As I sat escaping the heavy tropical sun in the park's rotunda, a 15-year-old boy approached me and asked me where I was from. We discussed the quality of our respective shoes, and of cheap, filterless Nicaraguan cigarettes versus the costly filtered ones imported from El Salvador and the United States.
Nearing draft age, he expressed his fear of military service. "It's two years of life or death; good luck you live, bad luck you die," he told me. As conversations in Nicaragua often seemed to do, we moved from the topics of imported goods and war to sex when he began to point out to me various people sitting around the park. He told me they were cochones, using the Nicaraguan word roughly equivalent to "faggots." As two of these cochones got up to leave the park, he told me they were going off to fuck and give each other sida.
Sida, I asked? "Sindroma de inmuno-deficiencia adquirida," he told me. SIDA. AIDS.
It's a funny thing about Nicaragua. There hasn't been a single recorded case of AIDS in the country, and practically every day a news brief about the disease appeared in either Barricada or Nuevo Diario, the two government dailies. There isn't a case of AIDS in the country and still a 15-year-old knows the full scientific name. Well, there's no AIDS in Nicaragua, but there certainly are gay people.
The Parque Central, in fact. turns out to be one of the main gay social spots in Managua. In a country where a single shack or house might be home for several generations of a single family, there is no privacy. There are no exclusively gay bars or restaurants in Nicaragua; and certainly no Gay Bankers Groups or gay choruses or gay brunch buddies. While certainly there is cruising for sex in the park (and not all of it gay), it serves far more as a place to go in the late afternoons to meet your gay friends and hang out. Such parks tend to have a similar magnetism, in fact, for gays all over the country; within ten minutes in the southern Nicaraguan town of Rivas I discovered a similar park with similar goings-on in front of one of the main churches.
[Photo of a transvestite dancer in Masaya.--ish]
When gay people come to the parque, they come prepared to dish. Mostly youths under twenty, they wear jeans or designer clothes purchased by a friend with access to the dollars-only diplomatic store. They'll swish through the park to the steps of the rotunda or to the benches under the statue of Nicaragua's national poet, Ruben Dario. They dance and gossip in the best traditions of their "sisters" in New york at Christopher and West Streets.
All the paradoxes and seeming contradictions of Nicaragua under the revolution duplicate themselves in this microcosm of gay life. One guy I met came over and talked to me with one of his boyfriends. The boyfriend looked unnervingly like Lilly Tomlin. They had just left the company of another guy, now engrossed in a book which I could see to be a Soviet collection of essays by Lenin. Anyway, Adolfo announced to me that more than anyone else, he admired Boy George. We discussed the appearance in Nuevo Diario of an article which said that Boy George was a heroin addict and had only eight weeks to live. Adolfo rolled his head back and hissed at me through the side of his mouth. "Es una mentira!" It's a lie!
But while all this place takes place right out in the open amidst mothers dragging their two-year-olds along by the wrist and clerks rushing home from work in the nearby National Palace, there is a tension. As Managua filled with foreign dignitaries and tourists for the revolution's seventh anniversary celebration, some officials of the MINT, the Ministry of the Interior, began to complain that the presence of queeny young gays in the park was a desecration and disrespect toward the remains of Carlos Fonseca lying nearby. In early July a beefed-up police and army presence in the park and plaza effectively -- though surely temporarily -- discouraged the gay presence in the park, and definitely halted gay people from using the ruins of the cathedral for sexual liaisons.
Not all gay people in Nicaragua I talked to disapproved of the MINT's complains. The martyred heroes of the revolution are near saints in Sandinista iconography. Naturally those gays who actively sympathize with the Sandinistas share the reverence for the fallen. An 18-year-old shop clerk introduced to me by Adolfo spoke disparagingly of his felow gays who had no respect for places like Fonseca's tomb. In the same tones with which a young effeminate gay man in New York might "read someone's beads," he denounced those gays who would loudly carry on in the shadow of one of Nicaragua's greatest heroes. "Son vulgares," he said. They are vulgar.
The phrase vulgar gets a lot of use in Nicaragua. It is used constantly -- and not just by gay people -- to refer to a kind of Nicaraguan underclass. It refers to the poorest layers of soecty; those who eek out a living from their homes in the ruins selling sodas dispensed into baggies or trading on the black market. Los vulgares, the vulgar ones, are those people who the Sandinistas have not managed to reach in seven year of the revolutionary process. They are the people who by and large do not see the revolution as their own: who watch in bewilderment as the political storm rages past them, offering few concrete solutions to their poverty and disempowerment. To many gay people, those fellow gays who spend their afternoons in the parque central or climb through the ruined office buildings cruising for sex are vulgar. They are defined outside of the revolutionary process, and looked down upon.
Tony, at age 19, is already a veteran of service in the army. He lives with his family in one of the poorest sections of Managua, occasionally helping his father cart and sell soda. He doesn't think too much of the revolution, and one of his most often repeated phrases is, "Antes, cuando Somoza..." Before, under Somoza, the lake was so clean you could swim in it. Before, under Somoza, you could buy good clothes. Before, under Somoza, life was beautiful. Too young to really discern which of these fantastical notions embody reality, he's watched close friends killed and seen his life and that of his family grow no easier. He is one of the vulgares.
Arrested by the police for having sex with another man in one of the ruins, he spent days in jail without being able to contact friends or family. Until his release his family was frantic. What had happened to him? Had he been kidnapped by the contras? Killed? Arrested? After a few days he was released and told never, never to go to the park again. Afterwards, even a block or two away he begins looking nervously around him for fear of being spotted by the same police officers. If asked, Tony will say he was arrested for being gay; that being gay is illegal in Nicaragua.
Walter, however, is also gay. He comes from a better-off family and participates in Sandinista youth activities, and attends college where he learns political history. Walter says it's perfectly legal to be gay in Nicaragua. When told of what happened to Tony, he denies that such a thing could happen. When told of who Tony is, he says, as if it explained everything, "He's vulgar, then." Walter denies hanging out in the Plaza. Instead,he recommends Lobo Jack, a disco in a shopping mall on the outskirts of town called Ciudad Plastica, plastic city.
Lobo Jack is a whole other world from the Plaza and its park. With a cover charge that might be Tony's family's food budget for a week, it's filled with well-dressed young people. It doesn't look like a gay bar. The dance floor is crowded with male-female couples dancing to a tape of alternating North American disco and Latin American salsa. Amidst this crowd of seeming heterosexuals, though, Walter can point out half of a couple here and there saying, "He's gay; I think she is too." At which point Walter goes off to dance with a Sandinista army reservist called Martha, also gay.
There are no red-and-black banners inside Lobo Jack. While some of its patrons are, like Walter and Martha, involved in the revolution, most are what are called "chicos or chicas plasticas." Plastic boys. Plastic girls. They're the children of Managua's very quiet but hardly disappeared upper and middle classes. They come from nice houses. They hang out at Lobo Jack, go to Managua's MacDonald's (yes, there is one), and used to bowl at Bolerama before it closed down; all in Plastic City. One gets the impression that those gay young men and women who hang out in Plastic City are waiting patiently for the storm to pass them by. They're not vulgar, but neither are they Sandinistas.
If gay people in Nicaragua have differing consciousness about the revolutionary process, so do they have different ideas about themselves.
["Soy mujer!" said this man. --ish]
One day as I was walking with two North American friends through the ruins of the old center of Managua, we were greeted by a man sitting on a stoop. He appeared to be in his late twenties, sitting, if not posing, with his legs crossed daintily. He threw out his chest and gestured flamboyantly through the air. "Soy mujer!" he declared, "I am a woman! I am Nicaraguan women! I am women everywhere! I am fabulous; take a picture of me with my bags!" He gathered his bags -- bags that would make a New York bag-lady proud -- and strutted down the street alongside us. An elderly Nicaraguan couple standing in the doorway behind him smiled and laughed; yet, they did not smile and laugh at him. It was if we all shared a great big joke. Here was a man openly and radically effeminate; secure enough with himself and his place in life to act out comfortably in the presence of his neighbors.
I met Ramon sitting on a bench in the plaza. He worked in a large auto repair company, and drove a motorcycle. Yes, he liked to have sex with other men. And while he didn't currently have a girlfriend, he liked to have sex with women too. One day in fact, he looked forward to getting married and having a family. When Ramon visited the Plaza he walked through quickly; he didn't stop to chat with friends, and certainly never sat on the steps of the park's rotunda, cruising the eyes of passers-by. Did he consider himself gay? No. Did he like gays? Of course. What other men would he sleep with?
A friend of Tony's explained it to me. Nicaraguan males who consider themselves "gay" or "cochones" almost by definition take the passive role in gay sexual relations. They do not consider themselves to be fully hombres, or men. Hombres, sometimes called machos, are those who take the active role. Rarely do "gays" have sex with each other. And if they do, never, never do the roles become interchangeable. It is the gays (and the word "gay" is often used in Nicaragua) who are free to act -- as circumstances permit, of course -- effeminate. It is the gays who make themselves visible.
Tico Tico is a bar in a working-clss section of Managua apparently untouched by the '72 quake. Having heard it was a gay bar, we went one evening to check it out. Open air like most bars and restaurants in the city, it consisted of a bar and a few tables. Drinking at a bar were a few big, burly and very rowdy drunks. A youngish, intellectual-looking guy sat a table in the corner. The atmosphere was not friendly, and we left -- in horror, actually -- sure our information was wrong. And though many gay people I talked to had not heard of the place, several assured us it was indeed a gay bar. Which did not mean the drunken rowdies were gay: but it meant that a gay person, if he were lucky, might possibly go there to find a suitable hombre. Frankly I had to admire the bravery of some Nicaraguan gays.
One of the first questions I was asked by many of the Nicaraguan gays was whether I was activo or pasivo. As if before they could relate to me they needed to categorize me, to put me in the right box. And the question was not meant to be a sexual advance; it was simply vital information needed to establish what form our interaction might take. Gays could talk freely with each other; could gossip or talk clothes or talk about past sexual success stories. But when a gay talks to an hombre, the gay begins to defer, to entertain, or to seduce.
What then, about gay women? It must be said that if gay men are visible in Nicaragua, at least to the experienced gay male eye, lesbians are largely not. Certainly there are some very butch women serving in the Sandinista armed forces. We repeatedly asked gay men we met if they had gay women friends. Though many did, all seemed reluctant to get involved in making any introductions. None of the visiting North American lesbians I met had much more success than I in breaking the ice. Very few Nicaraguans remain single past their teens. Marriages, and sometimes marriage-like relationships, are often an economic necessity of survival. If the effect of this on a gay male subcultuer is serious, its effect on a lesbian subculture is profound. What goes on between the incredibly overworked wives and mothers of Nicaragua is simply not possible for a foreigner -- especially a male one -- to intrude upon.
What the future holds for Nicaragua's gay people is an open question. It is widely assumed that two members of the ruling Sandinista directorate are themselves gay: Jaime Wheelock Roman, Minister of Agriculture and once leader of one of the FSLN's more traditional leftwing factions, and Dora Maria Tellez, Minister of Health. This, if true, is surely a tempering factor for the policies of the Sandinista Front. And to be sure, at least, the Sandinistas have issued no direct condemnations nor set up detention camps as did their mentors in Cuba. For many of Nicaragua's gays the hope of the Sandinista revolution is still their own.
Even those gay people unhappy with the poverty and severity of life in a beseiged Nicaragua must know that the contras and their U.S. sponsors offer a poor alternative. The U.S. isn't offering to share its Christopher Streets but rather exert its iron fist of domination over its unruly backyard neighbor. The fate of gays in the U.S.-sponsored dictatorships of Latin America has not been a pretty one; and such a dictatorship is surely all the contras might establish.
To visit Nicaragua is to be struck immediately by the graffiti. It demands attention; an ever-present backdrop urging the taking of sides, the sharing of ideas, and the concept -- from many different points of view -- that Nicaraguans must become brothers and sisters in arms.
Gay people have added their voice to the din. The interiors of Managua's ruined churches and skyscrapers are scrawled with crude and elaborate sketches of cocks and asses and vivid images of gay fornication: the realities of gay life. And in June of 1986, on the wall of a military base along one of Managua's main modernized roadways, the Avenida Simon Bolivar, appeared a slogan in fiery fluourescent orange. It read: "GAY LIBRE," gay freedom, the hope of all gay life.
Shortly thereafter as Managua cleaned itself up for the revolution's anniversary celebration, Gay Libre was carefully painted over in brilliant red to read "Patria LIBRE," or "Free Fatherland," one of the official slogans of the revolution. Yet the orange paint peers through; sharing, even though obscured, a cry for hope and justice, and felt from the very soul.