Of Fairylands, Borders, and Charmed Circles: On Julio Capó’s “Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940”

PIONEERING LESBIAN AND GAY historians, like their fellow activist academics and cultural workers in the 1970s and 1980s, were often preoccupied with documenting the presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender “lives” in the past. The more popular versions of the movement dictum, “we are everywhere,” claimed figures who were known to have lived or owned identities around sexual and/or gender practices that were not heterosexual. Many of these scholars pursued projects to illustrate the challenges faced by specific figures in their search for the freedom to experience their bodies and pleasures as they deemed fit, and to support contemporary and future generations in learning from having a documented past.

As important as these early efforts were, a key insight that emerged from the work of historians such as John D’Emilio and Allan Bérubé, among others, is that politics and economic structures have much to do with the organization of an identity around sexual and/or gender practices. Thus, structural and historical conditions, as they shaped family arrangements, population movement between rural and urban centers, and the realignment of gender and sexual possibilities that they spawned, were all conditions implicated in the development, by the middle of the 20th century, of a sense of sexual practices as the basis on which one might conceive of a whole person and mobilize collectively. Although activism around lesbian and gay identities turned out to be politically effective, some of its presuppositions were far from uncontroversial and were heavily critiqued by influential thinkers such as Michel Foucault. Moreover, other evidence began to show that it was not enough to look at the transformations of capitalism through the transition from subsistence to wage labor, and their impact on gender and sexual arrangements, without considering how differently situated populations experienced those shifts. Debates ongoing in fields tied to movement activism, such as women’s and racial/ethnic studies, legal theory, political science, and anthropology, had insistently drawn attention to the myopia of social institutions, movement leadership, and academics unable to grapple with the uneven ways in which differently bodied subjects inhabit categories such as “woman,” “lesbian,” or “black.” Feminist historians had already developed lines of inquiry that took seriously the implications of conceptual innovations such as “intersectionality” in the 1970s and 1980s. By the mid-1990s, some historians of lesbian and gay studies had paid attention to how race and gender difference and hierarchy shaped the formation of specific communities, and several of these examples pointed to the relevance of their findings for the field of history more generally. Historical monographs of the last decade reveal a grasp of the need to remain committed to documenting sexual and gender transgression while developing a firmer grasp on the ways that moral policing acted in the regulation of sexual and gender practices and identities in general. This turn, with roots to the transition from lesbian and gay studies to queer studies in history and other fields at the turn of the century, has had implications for how we understand gender and sexual conformity and nonconformity as well as the regulation and construction of the borders and boundaries of normative heterosexuality.

Sexual practices themselves have often been the subject of heated debate within feminism and early LGBTQ activism and scholarship, leading to important rifts between those who pursue assimilationist politics versus those who see sexual dissidence as a mechanism to challenge the status quo in fundamental ways. One result of this tension was the shift from the early academic field known as “lesbian and gay studies” to “queer studies” in the 1990s, which has often been cast as a move to challenge the “documentary” impulse of one field and engage in a more thorough discussion of the multilayered challenge of bodies, identities, and practices to heterosexuality and patriarchy. In an essay often seen as the moment that inaugurates queer studies, anthropologist Gayle Rubin lays out an overview of hierarchies of power and legitimacy accorded to sexual practices depending on the degree to which they fit within what she calls “the charmed circle” of sex considered “normal” (coupled, monogamous, procreative, and so on). Other works published after Rubin, particularly by scholars committed to “thinking sex” as Rubin bid them to do, while also thinking of its implication in race, class, and gender hierarchies, have helped “queer” move beyond its initial moorings in sexuality as a distinct area for study of power-laden social hierarchies. In this way, much of the writing that emerged in that era also attempted to grapple with the insistence of black feminism that social categories never operate in isolation from one another in structuring life experiences, oppressions, and chances of survival.

Julio Capó Jr.’s Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940 sets out to answer contemporary calls for urban historians to address race, class, gender, ability, and sexuality together, as these categories shape the making of lives as well as the formation and marketing of Miami as a “fairyland.” The term, which was central to “branding” Miami as a “place where leisure and entertainment were central to every aspect of life,” meant different things to differently situated actors. Elite residents and travelers; journalists; moral reformers; the police and medical establishments; immigrants from the Bahamas, Cuba, and Haiti; and working-class communities negotiated distinct implications of the term “fairyland” as it molded their presence and role in the shaping of the city. “[A]t different times in Miami’s relatively short urban history,” Capó writes, “residents and boosters fought hard to both combat and capitalize on the capricious image that facilitated numerous acts of transgression, including same-sex intimacies, interracial encounters, commercialized sex, and gender-bending expressions” by men and, especially, by women contesting their position in patriarchy. Capó’s attentiveness to how various categories of difference operated together in the making of the “fairyland” helps illustrate the productive tensions between seductive transgression and moral outrage for differently situated social actors in the marketing and making of Miami as well as in the making and sustaining of social hierarchies.

While making clear that same-sex desires are part of the story, Capó astutely develops a narrative that keeps the focus on an expansive vision of the transgressions that shaped the making of the fairyland, transforming the project undertaken in this book into a capacious undertaking relevant to LGBT history and to the study of sexual histories more generally. He explains the study’s conceptual and analytical objectives as follows:

Welcome to Fairyland places the man caught performing oral sex on another man, for example, alongside the trousered lesbian, the female and male impersonator, the mannish woman, the sex worker, the brothel-visiting slummer, the woman donning a scandalous two-piece bathing suit, the thrill-seeking tourist, the interracial and intergenerational couple, the surveilled migrant and immigrant, and the vagrant, hobo, and transient. Put another way, this book views them as queer, too, even if they might not have seen or labeled themselves as such.

This expansive definition of what counts as “queer,” to readers unfamiliar with feminist, sexuality, and racial/ethnic studies, might at first glance appear to flatten the distinct groupings cataloged in the list above. Readers more interested in same-sex desires, identities, and communities in Miami during the period of the book might view skeptically a project that casts the net of its coverage broadly enough to implicate the elite “slummer” with the racialized immigrant and the mannish lesbian with the sex worker, for example. What brings these various constituencies together as queer under Capó’s interpretive lens is their shared, if uneven, vulnerability to moral policing, particularly at times when the flouting of sexual and gender norms that was so central to the marketing and making of Miami became a political liability for residents, tourists, and workers. His move is one that also challenges readers to see the points of convergence and relevance of the histories of those marginalized through the axis of race, gender, and sexuality to a general understanding of the history of the fairyland.

One way to appreciate Capó’s achievements through his approach is to take into account that Welcome to Fairyland is also a transnational history. Miami is framed, perhaps more familiarly, as ground for leisure and pleasure in the United States, but also as frontier and borderland, particularly in relation to the Caribbean and to the ascendancy of the United States as an empire at the turn of the 20th century. Consider the discussion of Sam Carey, a Bahamian migrant arrested in 1912 for “committing a crime against nature.” Capó notes that the existing documentation does not allow historians to assert with confidence that Carey was convicted of a homosexual act. Still, the wide net cast around “sexual perversion” by the author suggests same-sex behaviors as linked to “white mythologies of inherent immorality and criminality” among black working-class seasonal migrants while helping unpack the contradictory posture of white settlers in need of cheap seasonal immigrant labor. As Capó documents, Carey departed from the United States sometime after his arrest, only to reenter the country in 1914. Unlike other urban centers in the United States, which attracted European immigrants during this period, the developers of Miami saw themselves having similar needs for cheap labor and having access to male seasonal migrants from the Bahamas. Capó’s analysis, extending his gaze beyond the United States borders to consider how the Bahamas — then a British colony — grappled with the extraction of male labor at this juncture, suggests that male “bachelor societies” among Bahamian immigrant workers emerged due to the moral suspicion cast upon Bahamian women, who were routinely turned away at the US border. Thus, “bachelor societies” fed into the perception and eroticization of Bahamian men in Miami, while, through a transnational lens attentive to the policing of the sexuality of Bahamian women at the border, what becomes visible also is the “breakdown of traditional family models that helped alter gender roles on the islands, at the borders, and in Miami.” The benefit of Capó’s queer and transnational focus, which places demands on the historian including the consultation of primary documents in archives in the United States as well as in the Bahamas, is that it helps situate local and national histories as necessarily tied to geographical proximity as well as the confluence of business and multiple state interests. The regional nuances of US influence and empire-building at the turn of the 20th century suggest that geographical proximity to the Bahamas and other parts of the Caribbean shaped measures to address locally specific needs in Miami that were tied to long-term geopolitical strategy drawing on Miami’s location in relationship to the Caribbean and Latin America.

Capó describes his study as part of the “next urban history,” which he explains as an expansion of “the scope of the urban center by employing a transnational methodology and approach.” Welcome to Fairyland eschews the earlier scholarly impulse in lesbian and gay studies to produce histories of same-sex desire and community-building without grappling with how gender, race, and class inequities structured differential access to spaces of leisure and transgression where those formations might have emerged. Capó’s insistence on the unevenness of the playing field along lines of class, race, and gender, and his attention to broader regional dynamics as they affected local dynamics, results in a narrative attentive to the operations of power and privilege in Miami as they shaped its emergence as a hub of international trade as well as a seasonal “fairyland” of gender and sexual transgression. While documenting and suggesting ways in which same-sex desire began to shape how individuals understood themselves and others, Capó is anything but sanguine about the dynamics of power and inequality shaping these relations, especially for women and working-class immigrants. Bahamian seasonal migrant men like Sam Carey may or may not have been convicted of sex with other men, may or may not have understood that desire (if it existed) as revealing a truth about themselves, and may or may not have seen those aspects of their life as connecting them to a grouping made up of other men with similar erotic interests. Nevertheless, Capó’s study reveals that border-crossing produced spaces of homosociality for men like Carey, while also underlining that their growing visibility as single, able-bodied immigrant and working-class men of color piqued the attention of white settlers and observers, such as painter John Singer Sargent, who collaborated in their eroticization through their art. The goal here is not to deny that Carey and Sargent, or men as distant from each other along racial and class lines as they were, might have found points of convergence with one another. Capó’s study, as it foregrounds the operations of entrenched inequalities in shaping differential access to leisure and transgression in the making of the fairyland, points to the urgent need for LBGT history to contend with the extreme forms of inequality and social asymmetry that shape how social actors move through these spaces to live their lives.

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Carlos Ulises Decena teaches in Latino and Caribbean Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. His first book, Tacit Subjects: Belonging and Same-Sex Desire Among Dominican Immigrant Men, was published in 2011 by Duke University Press.

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