Fairyland was a term coined by civic boosters in Miami to establish the city as a resort whose tropical exoticism was linked to the Caribbean. While obviously alluding to the queer connotation, it referenced the tourist fantasies of a place that was somewhat removed from the mundane aspects of everyday life.
The book reads like a dissertation, with a lengthy introduction that lays out the basis for the historical work that follows. It instantly brought to mind George Chauncey’s epic work “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940.” Both books end with the same date. In fact, Chauncey’s work is cited in “Fairyland” as reference for some of the observations about Miami’s own queer history.
There is a lot to unpack in this book. The overlapping sociological, cultural and sexual history is shaped, and dependent upon, an understanding of broader historical issues.
The influence of Bahamian culture was among the most interesting sections. Many Bahamian men immigrated to South Florida for the economic opportunities afforded by the development boom. While higher wages certainly helped support their families at home, it created a vacuum of male authority and influence on the islands. Women left behind assumed many of the formerly male-dominated aspects of society. In turn, the preponderance of men in early Miami created another vacuum of female influence that resulted in male-centric societies.
Racism was very evident during the period as cultural attitudes toward immigrants, particularly people of color, was of a group whose loose morals were assumed. Native-born people of color seemed to be viewed in a better light, but just barely.
Originally, the civic powers wanted to attract wealthy visitors from the Northeast and Midwest. They did arrive in droves but the economic downturn and real estate busts greatly curtailed the tourist trade. A later shift to attract more working class and middle class visitors filled part of the void. It is interesting to read how flexible ideas about morality become when they collide with economic realities and interests.
James Deering, a wealthy white tycoon from Chicago built Vizcaya, the opulent home that was essentially a Versailles or Biltmore of its day. It is widely assumed that Deering was homosexual and this book furthers that assumption. John Singer Sargent, the noted society painter, visited Vizcaya and produced some stunning watercolors of men, nude or at least semi-nude, that are included in the book. His homoeroticism of black male beauty is evident.
Prohibition and the temperance movement resulted in cultural battles that ensnared the many factions coexisting in the state, including the queer community. Miami was always considered a bit outside the moral code and used that perception to its benefit. It faced stiff competition from the islands, including Cuba.
With a broad historical study, Capo’ has produced a comprehensive record of the area that documents a fascinating time and place.
Julio Capó, Jr., is Assistant Professor in the History Department and Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940 (UNC, 2017) and is writing a book on the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre and the history of violence on queer Latina/o/x communities. A former journalist, he often contributes to mainstream media and has written for Time, Washington Post, Miami Herald, and El Nuevo Día (Puerto Rico).
REVIEW: STEPHEN COY