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Positively Gay Cuban Refugee Task Force

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Stephen Kulieke (center bottom) with Cuban refugees

Stephen Kulieke (center bottom) with Cuban refugees at Fort McCoy, WIsconsin. Printed in GayLife, Friday, August 8, 1980. Original caption: "GayLife's Stephen Kulieke became the darling of the refugees. They followed him all day as he shot all the photos of Fort McCoy." From the Thom Higgins papers, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Founded in Minneapolis by activists Thom Higgins and Bruce Brockway, the Positively Gay Cuban Refugee Task Force helped ninety gay Cuban men fleeing the regime of Fidel Castro find new homes in Minnesota in the summer of 1980.

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 a facility with rampant sexual assault.

In response, Higgins and Brockway formed the Positively Gay Cuban Refugee Task Force, named after Brockway’s newspaper Positively Gay (later renamed 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, the friends drove to Fort McCoy and, with the help of a refugee, identified and signed up seventy gay Cubans willing to be sponsored through Positively Gay. A month later, on July 15, Higgins and Brockway reappeared at the fort with a borrowed RV and a car to take Rene 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 last 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 twenty-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 thirty-two 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 ninety Cubans, they offered a way out of detainment by connecting them to sponsors. And they offered a first step in the challenging journey to American citizenship that lay ahead.

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Campbell, Tim. “Bienvenidos A Los Cubanos: Minnesota Gays Aiding Refugees.” GLC Voice, August 1980.

——— . “Cuban Refugees: Where To Now?” Twin Cities Reader, July 9–16, 1980.

De la Rosa, Elena O. “Sponsors Find Themselves Poorly Prepared For Cubans.” Minneapolis Tribune, March 9, 1981.

“Fort McCoy: What Are The Responsibilities Of A Sponsor?” GayLife, August 8, 1980.

Interview with Gustavo Gomez at his condo in Minneapolis, May 7, 2019
Britt Aamodt interview collection, Elk River
Description: Gustavo Gomez immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1961. In the 1970s, he moved to Minneapolis to work for 3M. He discusses his work helping the newly arrived Marielitos in 1980 and his long-term friendship with one of the Marielitos, Rene Valdes.

Gonzalez, Diana Ettel, and Randy Furst. “Many Problems Follow Cuban Refugees To State.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 12, 1984.

P2155
Thom Higgins papers, 1950–1994 (bulk 1970–1989)
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Personal papers and miscellaneous related material.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00715.pdf

Higgins, Thom, and Bruce Brockway. “The Cubans In Wisconsin: This Country Is A Land of Marvels.” Rough draft of “Cuban Refugees: Where To Now?,” Twin Cities Reader, July 9–16, 1980. Private collection of Kristen and Anthony Trelles.
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1gQah_1xc3g8idMJBbJGBA-LUnzi5FUKI

Kulieke, Stephen. “‘Homosexuals Por Favor!’: Cuban Refugees Trapped In Waiting Game For Freedom.” GayLife, August 8, 1980.

Interview with Alan Lessik by phone (San Francisco and Elk River), October 8, 2018
Britt Aamodt interview collection, Elk River
Description: Lessik discusses the life of Rene Valdes, his partner from 2000 until Valdes’ death in 2012. This includes a discussion of the events that led to Rene’s decide to flee Cuba on the Mariel Boatlift, his time at the Fort McCoy detention center, and his relationship with Bruce Brockway.

Lijo, Lydia Villava. “Minnesota’s Cubans Travel Hard Road In Years After Mariel.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 10, 1990.

Positively Gay. “Gay Refugees From Cuba Face Obstacles.” GLC Voice, June 1980.

Positively Gay. Press conference announcement, July 23, 1980. Thom Higgins papers, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul. Editor’s note: Thom Higgins and Bruce Brockway held the event at the Hennepin County Government Center to brief media on the Cubans refugees detained at Fort McCoy and their task force’s efforts to find sponsors to get the Cubans out of detainment.
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1gIMJAgm5k27HwpXWCPLdvdwPwI7cG8BM

Richey, Walt. “Cuban Resettlement Unsettling.”GLC Voice, October 1980.

Interview with Anthony and Kristen Trelles at their home in Minneapolis, May 18, 2019
Britt Aamodt interview collection, Elk River
Description: Husband and wife Anthony and Kristen Trelles discuss their friendship with Thom Higgins from ca. 1978 to Higgins’s death in 1994. Anthony and his mother Jeanne (pronounced Jean) Sanders went with Higgins on his first trip to meet the Cubans detained at Fort McCoy.

Valdes, Rene. “Talking To Bruce.” Personal essay, August 19, 1998. Personal collection of Alan Lessik.
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1Q_JIX8VmeEsong5xpyd4d1VZ3KpIH5kH

John R. Yoakam papers, 1947–2010
Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Description: Personal diaries and papers related to Yoakam’s work in Christian ministry and counseling.
https://archives.lib.umn.edu/repositories/13/resources/2008

Related Audio

Alan Lessik interview (part 1 of 2) | Details
Alan Lessik interview (part 2 of 2) | Details
Anthony Trelles interview | Details
Gustavo Gomez interview | Details

Related Images

Stephen Kulieke (center bottom) with Cuban refugees
Stephen Kulieke (center bottom) with Cuban refugees
Bruce Brockway
Bruce Brockway
Sponsorship meeting announcement
Sponsorship meeting announcement
Positively Gay Cuban Refugee Task Force roster
Positively Gay Cuban Refugee Task Force roster
Camp McCoy, Wisconsin
Camp McCoy, Wisconsin
Inside Fort McCoy after the Mariel Boatlift
Inside Fort McCoy after the Mariel Boatlift
Calixto Martinez, Mike Bergeron, and Edwardo Rodriguez
Calixto Martinez, Mike Bergeron, and Edwardo Rodriguez
Ira Jones with Cuban refugees
Ira Jones with Cuban refugees
Cuban refugees inside Fort McCoy
Cuban refugees inside Fort McCoy
 Cuban refugees at Fort McCoy
 Cuban refugees at Fort McCoy
GayLife cover
GayLife cover
Bruce Brockway and Rene Valdes at Bde Maka Ska
Bruce Brockway and Rene Valdes at Bde Maka Ska
Rene Valdes at Control Data
Rene Valdes at Control Data
Alan Lessik and Rene Valdes
Alan Lessik and Rene Valdes

Turning Point

In June 1980, Minneapolis gay activists Thom Higgins and Bruce Brockway form the Positively Gay Cuban Task Force to help release gay Cubans detained at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, by connecting them to sponsors in the Twin Cities area.

Chronology

April 1, 1980

A bus crashes into the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana, Cuba. Its passengers request political asylum, which, when words gets out, encourages 10,000 more Cubans to squeeze into the compound over the next few days, also requesting asylum.

April 20, 1980

Cuban President Fidel Castro announces that any Cuban citizen who wants to immigrate to the United States may do so through the port of Mariel Harbor in Havana. The next day, the first boatload of refugees, called Marielitos, arrives in Miami.

May 1980

The influx of Marielitos is so great that Miami can’t handle them. The federal government upgrades military bases around the country to serve as temporary detainment camps. Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin is selected as a site.

May 29, 1980

The first 127 Marielitos (of an eventual total of some 14,000) arrive at Fort McCoy to begin in-processing, which includes medical and dental exams and interviews with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the FBI.

June 1980

With a press pass from the Twin Cities Reader, Minneapolis gay activist Thom Higgins enters Fort McCoy with Jeanne Sanders as Spanish interpreter and her son Anthony Trelles as photographer to find and talk to the gays among the Cuban detainees.

June 12, 1980

Higgins returns to Fort McCoy with Bruce Brockway, the co-organizer of the Positively Gay Cuban Refugee Task Force, to take down the names of gay Cubans interested in having the task force find them sponsors, a prerequisite for leaving the fort.

July 9, 1980

Higgins and Brockway publish their co-authored article, “Cuban Refugees: Where to Now?” on the Fort McCoy Marielitos in the Twin Cities Reader.

July 15, 1980

In one of many trips, Higgins and Brockway pick up Cubans at Fort McCoy and drive them to Minneapolis and their waiting sponsors. Among the passengers is Rene Valdes, whose first taste of American life outside the fort includes a tornado.

July 23, 1980

The Positively Gay Cuban Refugee Task Force holds a 1 p.m. press conference and a 7 p.m. informational session for potential sponsors at the Hennepin County Government Center. To date, the task force had resettled thirty gay Cubans.

October 1980

The Mariel Boatlift ends. Altogether, 125,000 Cubans immigrate to the United States between April and October. Rumors that Castro emptied his prisons and asylums during the Mariel Boatlift continue to hurt Marielitos looking for work.

December 12, 1984

An article in the Minneapolis Tribune estimates that, after the Mariel Boatlift, between 700 and 1,200 Cubans resettled in Minnesota.

November 1986

The Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee publishes The Freedom Flotilla Six Years Later: From Mariel to Minnesota. The report examines the plight of Marielitos who ended up in the limbo of indefinite detainment in prison.

June 10, 1990

Ten years after the Mariel Boatlift, Thom Higgins tells the St. Paul Pioneer Press that his friendship with Brockway had fallen apart over disagreements about the task force in 1980. The work, he recalls, had sometimes been overwhelming.

February 2, 2016

After a distinguished career at companies like Control Data and Microsoft, former Minneapolis resident and Marielito Rene Valdes dies in San Francisco.

August 2016

Alan Lessik, Rene Valdes’ partner from 2000 until Valdes’ death, publishes The Troubleseeker, a fictionalized re-imagining of Valdes’ life story. It describes the Mariel Boatlift, Valdes’ relationship with Brockway, and his history in Minneapolis.