Mariel boatlift crucial to cementing national gay movement, says FIU historian

Jan. 18 marks the 35th anniversary of the Dade County Commission approving a law that outlawed discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing and public services.

On April 20, 1980, Fidel Castro proclaimed that any Cuban who wished to immigrate to the United States could leave.

During the ensuing months, more than 125,000 Cubans fled from the port of Mariel. Among them several thousand self-identified homosexuals the communist nation deemed anti-revolutionary “undesirables.” The United States admitted the Cuban homosexuals even though homosexuality was officially grounds for exclusion into the country until 1990.

In the Journal of American Ethnic History’s Summer 2010 issue, Julio Capó Jr. ’11 – who graduated from FIU with a Ph.D. last summer and wrote his dissertation on the history of gay Miami – addresses the tension of welcoming anti-communist exiles and the U.S. immigration policy barring homosexuals.

The subject of Capó’s article, “Queering Mariel,” was a main focus of Capó’s award-winning doctoral work at FIU. He found the Mariel boatlift not only changed the South Florida community but also cemented a new, politicized gay movement throughout the United States.

“This was a crucial moment,” says Capó, “because so many in the United States ultimately welcomed the homosexual Marielitos as part of their community.”

The gay community in Miami embraced the newly arrived immigrants, teaching the Marielitos English and helping them integrate into American culture. National lobbying efforts by the gay community were boosted when so many homosexuals were able to stay and assimilate in places like Miami.

“Miami’s unique history as a safe haven for refugees throughout the world, and of course, throughout the Caribbean, really also extends to the homosexual population,” says Capó, who is currently doing a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale University.

One of Capó’s doctoral advisors and founding faculty member Darden A. Pyron says Capó’s work distinguishes itself in the field of queer history. “His work is relevant and important in focusing on the way affairs in Miami tended to reflect and reshape the entire political discourse… making it a political activity in the same way that Civil Rights ‘mainstreamed’ blacks.”

The Immigration and Ethnic History Society honored Capó for his research with the 2009-2010 Carlton C. Qualey Memorial Article Award. His work also received FIU’s first University Graduate School Provost Award for Outstanding Paper or Manuscript.

“Our history graduate students tend to be very good,” says Pyron. “Capo was different in simply exaggerating the norm. I have always instructed my students that because no one is very familiar with FIU’s history department, that they simply have to work harder. Capó worked furiously hard. He won every grant the university offers, applied for every grant I ever heard of and some I hadn’t heard of, planned panels at the most important historical conventions – and got them accepted, and was writing articles and publishing out of all this material.”

Following a lead

Prior to joining the graduate program at FIU, Capó worked as a broadcast news writer and producer for Miami’s ABC (WPLG) and FOX (WSVN) affiliates. He says the same thing that drove him as a journalist drives him as a historian – following a lead.

A self-professed archive geek, Capó meticulously combed through the city’s archives piecing together the history of a community that was purposely hidden.

“One of the major obstacles of studying the history of gay Miami,” says Capó, “is finding a way to document a community that in many ways could not afford to be discovered without facing serious social and political repercussions.” Capó used police records, mainstream and underground periodicals, novels, films, and letters.  He also used other untraditional historical sources, such as piggy banks, photographs, and souvenir ephemera to uncover this forgotten history.

“We encourage this kind of diversity and range,” says Pyron. “We are also very happy to push people into unconventional topics.”

Adds Pyron, “[Capó ] came to me and said he was interested in New York nightlife.  ‘Huh?’ I said. He was interested in doing something queer, and I suggested he do a history of gay Miami. Gay historians don’t do this too much. They’re too interested in theory to dig in archives. He liked the idea, began digging, and it’s been achievement after achievement since then. He’s told me he couldn’t have done anything like he has done at a ‘standard university.'”

Capó admits a topic like gay Miami may not seem like a traditional route to take to write your dissertation and eventually get a job but FIU offered him a unique perspective on history as well as the freedom to explore.

To mark the 35th anniversary of the Dade County Commission approving a law that outlawed discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing and public services, Capó wrote an op-ed that ran in the Miami Herald on Jan. 15.