In the spring of 1980, thousands of Cuban refugees streamed into Miami as part of a mass emigration known as the Mariel Boatlift. These Marielitos (so called because they departed from Havana’s Mariel Harbor) were fleeing political persecution and economic hardship under Fidel Castro and seeking asylum in the United States. Miami couldn’t handle all the refugees — 125,000 would make the crossing between April and October 1980 — so the federal government set up refugee camps around the country. One such camp was Fort McCoy, a little-used army base in western Wisconsin that was rapidly outfitted with tents, a portable hospital, a chain-link fence, and concertina wire for its new purpose.
Minnesotans Thom Higgins and Bruce Brockway, who had been following the story of the Mariel Boatlift in the newspaper, drove through the gates of Fort McCoy in June. The fort was located just hours from Minneapolis, where the two friends lived. But more significant to these gay activists, it was reported that thousands of gay men numbered among the Marielitos.
Under Castro, gay people were imprisoned and sent to labor camps. In April, when Castro announced that anyone who felt dissatisfied with his government could leave, many felt they had no choice but to join the exodus to America.
Higgins and Brockway wanted to help the gay men detained at Fort McCoy. No refugee could leave the fort without an American sponsor. Religious organizations were drumming up sponsors in the Twin Cities, but their priority was resettling Cuban families. That doomed single gay men to indefinite detainment.
In response, Higgins and Brockway formed the Positively Gay Cuban Refugee Task Force, named after Brockway’s newspaper Positively Gay (later renamed the GLC Voice by its new publisher). They printed up flyers asking for volunteers to sponsor one or more gay Cubans and posted them at Minneapolis gay bars, the Locker Room bathhouse, and the Women’s Coffeehouse. The task force screened and trained sponsors before finalizing matches.
On June 12, 1980 the friends drove to Fort McCoy and, with the help of a refugee, identified and signed up 70 gay Cubans willing to be sponsored through Positively Gay. A month later, on July 15, 1980 Higgins and Brockway reappeared at the fort with a borrowed RV and a car to take refugee Rene Valdes and others to their new homes in Minneapolis. Along the way, they encountered a tornado whipped up by a severe weather system, the Western Wisconsin Derecho.
As turbulent as the storm was, it was nothing next to the culture shock that was about to hit the Cubans. Most could not speak English. Some had spent the past few years in prison because of their homosexuality. Still, the American government expected them to look for work immediately.
The sponsors felt the pressure. John Yoakam had signed up with Positively Gay to sponsor 20-year-old Fidel Guerra. He quickly realized there was little guidance for sponsors beyond connection to English-language classes and some access to medical care. Guerra did get dentures for his missing teeth, but his sponsor spent frustrating weeks working his own contacts to find him a job. In the end, Guerra decided Minneapolis wasn’t for him. In September, he said goodbye to Yoakam and moved to Oklahoma with a friend. Other Marielitos also left — many for Miami and its established Cuban community.
Rene Valdes liked Minneapolis. He was 32 and had a talent for foreign languages, a college degree, and a former career in the Havana Sugar Ministry. Within six months, Valdes found a job at Control Data Corporation working with computers. He’d also fallen in love with Brockway and would remain with him until just before Brockway’s death from AIDS in 1984.
Higgins and Brockway had begun the Positively Gay Cuban Refugee Task Force with a sense of purpose. As gay men, they wanted to help gay Cubans live the open, free life in America that had been denied them in Cuba. But the pressures of the task force soon drove a wedge between the friends. Some Cubans didn’t like their sponsors. Some had no interest in learning English. Some sponsors begrudged houseguests who wouldn’t do chores. There were claims of theft.
In the end, Higgins and Brockway couldn’t fix the problems or their friendship, and the task force was inactive after late 1980. But for 90 Cubans, it offered a way out of detainment by connecting them to sponsors. And it offered a first step in the challenging journey to American citizenship that lay ahead.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.