Center for Community Engagement building in downtown York

With Open Heart and Open Arms

LGBTQ Cuban Refugees and the LGBTQ Community's Response to the Mariel Boatlift

June 2–30, 2021
Center for Community Engagement, Fireplace Room

From April through October 1980, approximately 125,000 refugees fled their homes in Cuba and traveled by American ships and boats to Key West in the United States. Among those who left from the Cuban port of Mariel (and thus have become known as Marielitos) were a sizable number of LGBTQ+ Cubans. These new residents of the United States were assisted in their resettlement by dedicated members of the LGBTQ+ community, including many from Pennsylvania who assisted at the resettlement camp in Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, or helped those who settled in Pennsylvania.

This traveling exhibit explores the circumstances surrounding the exodus and resettlement, focusing on the personal stories of LGBTQ+ Cuban refugees who have since made their lives in this country. The exhibit commemorates the 40th anniversary of this event through photographs, documents, videos and narrative text (in both Spanish and English). The exhibit also includes video clips from interviews with several of the LGBTQ+ Marielitos, and several members of the LGBTQ+ community in Pennsylvania who assisted in their resettlement.

The exhibit begins with a description of gay life in pre-Castro Cuba, and discusses homophobia and repression under the regime of Fidel Castro including the rounding up of gay men and others and sending them to forced labor camps. The exhibit recounts how gay and lesbian activists in the U. S. began demonstrating in the 1960’s and 70’s against Cuba’s treatment of its LGBTQ+ population. The exhibit describes the sudden change in policy in April of 1980, allowing emigration of Cubans to the U.S. in what became known as the Mariel Boatlift. The exhibit follows the process of resettlement through a few camps around the country, including Fort Indiantown Gap, by federal agencies and volunteer organizations. The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches led the efforts to assist LGBTQ+ Cuban refugees, helping resettle about 10,000. The exhibit also reviews the press coverage given at the time, especially to LGBTQ+ Cuban refugees, the life and challenges LGBTQ+ Marielitos faced as new residents of Pennsylvania, and the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the Marielitos and on those remaining in Cuba. The exhibit ends with a discussion of LGBTQ+ rights in Cuba today.

The exhibit is curated by John Anderies, Director of the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives, William Way LGBT Community Center, Philadelphia, and is produced and managed by the LGBT Center of Central PA History Project for the PA LGBT History Network. It is supported by funding from the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund of Philadelphia, the Schlegel-Deibler Charitable Foundation, the LGBT Center of Central PA History Project and the William Way LGBT Community Center.

For more information about the exhibit and its future showings, visit the Central PA LGBT Center website.

With Open Heart and Open Arms 2021 Exhibition
Garry Lenton, photographer, Cuban Refugees at Ft. Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, 1980. Lebanon Daily News. Lebanon, Pennsylvania.
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