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Queers without Borders: Sexual Segregation and Manifest Destiny in Lucy Holcombe Pickens's The Free Flag of Cuba

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Abstract:

What happens when demands for sexual freedom take on an imperialist tendency? The privileging of heterosexual practices within U.S. culture has led to the purging of queer behaviors not only from public space but frequently from the private space of the familial home. Proscribed from so much of both private and public existence, queers have had to reclaim spaces for sexual liberty where they could, though ultimately the demand for freedom seeks to proliferate queer sensibilities—what Michael Warner calls “the ethics of queer life”—throughout the larger populace. But in the Nineteenth Century, when notions of “manifest destiny” seemed a reality, the possibility of territorial expansion meant a corresponding potential for new spaces of freedom, both in outlying regions and in transitional domestic spaces.
Lucy Holcombe Pickens’s recently recovered novel, The Free Flag of Cuba, relishes in the sexual segregation that resulted from the U.S.’s imperialist ambitions. Ostensibly the story of participants in Narciso López’s 1851 filibustering expedition to Cuba, the novel is in truth a perversion of domestic fiction, exploiting the queer potential of the homosocial spaces produced when men disappear for the front, leaving women home alone. Amy Kaplan’s landmark essay “Manifest Domesticity” elucidated the imperialist orientation of domestic ideology; I would like to build on her ideas, noting the ways that women in Pickens’s novel desire not only the extension of national borders but the conversion of homosocial domestic space into homosexual erotic space. To her mind, the project of manifest destiny and the production of female homosexuality are entirely codependent. Evacuating Cuba of Cubans, manifest destiny allows the play of queer desire both abroad and at home.
In the queer logic of the novel, proper gender performance, rather than reinforcing a heteronormative status quo, leads necessarily to sexual segregation, thereby providing opportunity for same-sex intimacy. While there is no explicit homosexuality in the novel, Mabel, the more radical of Pickens’s two female protagonists, plays the confounding dual role of both policing gender performance and initiating homosexual intimacy. She feels titillation partaking in the discourse of imperialism, and she converts that energy into sexual desire for her best friend, Genevieve. The association between imperialism, female intimacy, and the heroic death of husbands repeats itself throughout the novel. The women’s discussion of marriage and the departure of their future husbands for the filibustering expedition alternates equivocally between expounding the virtues of heterosexual marriage, the necessity of male participation in filibustering, and pleas for intimate female contact. Amidst declarations of her intent to marry and to send her husband off to fight, Mabel continually “kiss[es] the sweet face hushed on her bosom” and repeatedly commands Genevieve to return her kisses; while Genevieve frets over the potential of her fiancé dying in battle, Mabel can imagine no higher aspiration in life than being the widow of a freedom fighter. Ultimately, manifest destiny proves the enabling factor for queer liberation, and, until the hyperbolically comedic ending, intimacy is only enacted in same-sex relationships, enabled by the operations of imperialism.
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Lamm, Zachary. "Queers without Borders: Sexual Segregation and Manifest Destiny in Lucy Holcombe Pickens's The Free Flag of Cuba" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186093_index.html>

APA Citation:

Lamm, Z. , 2007-10-11 "Queers without Borders: Sexual Segregation and Manifest Destiny in Lucy Holcombe Pickens's The Free Flag of Cuba" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186093_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: What happens when demands for sexual freedom take on an imperialist tendency? The privileging of heterosexual practices within U.S. culture has led to the purging of queer behaviors not only from public space but frequently from the private space of the familial home. Proscribed from so much of both private and public existence, queers have had to reclaim spaces for sexual liberty where they could, though ultimately the demand for freedom seeks to proliferate queer sensibilities—what Michael Warner calls “the ethics of queer life”—throughout the larger populace. But in the Nineteenth Century, when notions of “manifest destiny” seemed a reality, the possibility of territorial expansion meant a corresponding potential for new spaces of freedom, both in outlying regions and in transitional domestic spaces.
Lucy Holcombe Pickens’s recently recovered novel, The Free Flag of Cuba, relishes in the sexual segregation that resulted from the U.S.’s imperialist ambitions. Ostensibly the story of participants in Narciso López’s 1851 filibustering expedition to Cuba, the novel is in truth a perversion of domestic fiction, exploiting the queer potential of the homosocial spaces produced when men disappear for the front, leaving women home alone. Amy Kaplan’s landmark essay “Manifest Domesticity” elucidated the imperialist orientation of domestic ideology; I would like to build on her ideas, noting the ways that women in Pickens’s novel desire not only the extension of national borders but the conversion of homosocial domestic space into homosexual erotic space. To her mind, the project of manifest destiny and the production of female homosexuality are entirely codependent. Evacuating Cuba of Cubans, manifest destiny allows the play of queer desire both abroad and at home.
In the queer logic of the novel, proper gender performance, rather than reinforcing a heteronormative status quo, leads necessarily to sexual segregation, thereby providing opportunity for same-sex intimacy. While there is no explicit homosexuality in the novel, Mabel, the more radical of Pickens’s two female protagonists, plays the confounding dual role of both policing gender performance and initiating homosexual intimacy. She feels titillation partaking in the discourse of imperialism, and she converts that energy into sexual desire for her best friend, Genevieve. The association between imperialism, female intimacy, and the heroic death of husbands repeats itself throughout the novel. The women’s discussion of marriage and the departure of their future husbands for the filibustering expedition alternates equivocally between expounding the virtues of heterosexual marriage, the necessity of male participation in filibustering, and pleas for intimate female contact. Amidst declarations of her intent to marry and to send her husband off to fight, Mabel continually “kiss[es] the sweet face hushed on her bosom” and repeatedly commands Genevieve to return her kisses; while Genevieve frets over the potential of her fiancé dying in battle, Mabel can imagine no higher aspiration in life than being the widow of a freedom fighter. Ultimately, manifest destiny proves the enabling factor for queer liberation, and, until the hyperbolically comedic ending, intimacy is only enacted in same-sex relationships, enabled by the operations of imperialism.

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