Also see: Caribbean Anti Violence Project
Travel Special for Dec-Jan 2007-08: Queers to Cuba Tour (non-profit educational agency) Click here
14 Queers to Cuba Tour 7/07 (non-profit tour in December ’07)
January 17-23, 2003
Cuba Libre? Guess Again! (A Criticism of Travel to Cuba)
by Henry E. Scott
In early March, as the rest of us frost-bitten New Yorkers start wondering if this nasty winter will ever end, a fortunate few lesbian and gay activists will be doffing their down parkas and shedding their shearlings for a week under the tropical sun. Fresh from a successful battle in Albany to secure civil rights for lesbian and gay New Yorkers, members of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) will be frolicking on the beaches of the most repressive and homophobic country in the Western Hemisphere.
"We thought it would be nice to get out of the city, especially now that it’s so cold," reads a flyer announcing the trip to ESPA’s members. "Somewhere exciting and warm, somewhere unusual and exotic, not too far. We decided to go to Cuba!" Exotic, to be sure. Exciting and warm, without a doubt. And so unusual is Cuba that it warrants special mention by Human Rights Watch, an organization that opposes the U.S. trade embargo and yet still notes: "Cuba’s Fidel Castro maintains control through intimidation, repressive laws, and by imprisoning dissidents."
For those lesbians and gay men more familiar with Heywood Wakefield furniture than international politics, Cuba is undeniably chic. There’s Havana’s beautiful 1950s architecture, which stands less because of an interest in historic preservation than because poverty means no one can build anything new. And there are those sexy 1950s U.S. cars, patched and re-patched so they can continue to share the potholed roads with Soviet-era Ladas. Travel agents boast that laws confining the HIV-positive to hospitals against their will were rescinded in 1993, making moot the legacy of that annoying Reinaldo Arenas.
Activists on the left note that homosexuality is not illegal and cite a 1992 interview in which Castro said official homophobia is a relic of the past. And gay tourists interpret the appearance of underground house parties and those propositions from attractive young men on the street as signs of government tolerance. But readily available sources, including many with a leftist slant that would not otherwise predispose them to be reflexively anti-Castro, paint a different picture.
For example, the International Lesbian and Gay Association, a worldwide federation of more than 350 LGBT rights organizations in over 70 countries in all continents, reports that Cuban laws banning "publicly manifested" homosexual activity still are arbitrarily applied to punish lesbians and gays even for their form of dress. The penalties range from three months to one year in jail. In an article in June 2001 in The Gully, a leftist online magazine, Juan Perez Cabral, while celebrating a private gay wedding in Havana, also describes a resurgence in repression that has driven much Cuban gay life indoors. Cabral attributes that in part to an anti-gay tirade by the editor-in-chief of the weekly Tribuna de La Habana, which, like the rest of the Cuban media, is government-owned.
And the proliferation of those men who proposition tourists along Havana’s famed Malecon is described in a report by G. Derrick Hodge, a medical anthropologist at Harvard Medical School, as less a gay revival than a reaction to an influx of tourist dollars by impoverished young men.
Of course, lesbian and gay people aren’t the only ones persecuted in Cuba. The respected Committee to Protect Journalists reported last March that an independent Cuban journalist was brutally assaulted by police while covering a story. Two other journalists who protested the attack were detained. The Digital Freedom Network reported that same month that the Cuban government has banned sales of computers for personal use in an effort to restrict access to information that might help dissident groups. And in June, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a dissident group, reported an increase in suppression of political dissent as evidenced by a growth in the number of Cubans imprisoned for their beliefs.
It’s clear why Cuba welcomes well-connected and affluent lesbians and gay men. Tourist dollars are the hard currency this island nation needs to import food and other supplies now that Soviet subsidies have stopped. And visits by Westerners with official connections give an aura of legitimacy and respect to the Castro regime.
But why would well-heeled ESPA members, who presumably could choose an equally lush and more-democratic Caribbean isle for their winter getaway, visit Cuba? (The trip costs $3,200 a person, by the way, with profits going to ESPA.) Matt Foreman, ESPA’s executive director, defends the trip in language reminiscent of that offered to explain away those trips to Cape Town beaches during South Africa’s apartheid era, or to excuse those ski trips to Aspen or Vail when the Colorado boycott was on. "Regarding the Cuba trip, I have dealt with many people, including my own partner, who have gone on trips there and met with local HIV/GL activists, not just the government-spokespeople types," he said, in response to my query. "That is what will happen on this trip, in addition to some relaxation."
With a published agenda packed with tours of museums, an artist colony, a print workshop, fine restaurants, and shopping in a cigar store, the trip sounds less about social activism, or relaxation, than a day shopping Madison Avenue. But Foreman, sounding like Sean Penn in Baghdad, insists that meeting with the locals is important to understanding what’s really going on. "The local activists want this interaction very much," he said. "The last thing they say, over and over again, they want or need is more isolation. The more international contacts, the less repression. This is also what I was told the folks who participated in the last [Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network] trip to Cuba learned."
Perhaps Matt Foreman and Cuba’s other visitors from ESPA will turn up information about gay freedom in that nation that has eluded the diligent investigators of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Maybe they’ll even be inspired to put down their Cohibas and Cuba Libres and risk a night in a squalid Havana prison by making a public stand for lesbian and gay civil liberties on the Malecon. But what’s more likely is that the group’s winter break on the beaches of this oppressed black and Latin nation will feed the perception that ESPA stands for "Empire State Party Agenda." That’s an image that ESPA, known for its expensive fundraisers in Fire Island Pines and the Hamptons, and already bruised by its refusal to include the transgendered in its fight for civil liberties, can’t afford to foster.
On the other hand, maybe ESPA will see the myopia in believing its responsibility to promote lesbian and gay civil liberties ends at the borders of the Empire State. A public announcement that it is canceling the Cuba trip, with an explanation why, would go a long way to restoring the pride in the Empire State Pride Agenda. .
Henry E. Scott, a former journalist, is a media consultant in New York City.
February 14-20, 2003
Sleeping With the Enemy? Tourism and Gay Cuba’s Changing Face (A Trip to Cuba)
by Michael Luongo
It was the giant red star that so intrigued me, a remnant of Cuba’s ties to the Soviet Union. Forty long years ago, that connection nearly brought the world to nuclear war, but now the star is faded and chipped, barely hanging onto this government building. I was only a block or two from Coppelia, the ice-cream palace made famous by the 1994 gay Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate. It was Coppelia that grabbed the attention of most of the tourists on La Rampa, as a sign of what Cuba is becoming. Its reputation as a local gay hangout draws tourists here looking for more to lick than an ice-cream cone. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw several jineteros and pingueros, the men who offer services to tourists, leaning up against the fence surrounding Coppelia. Some tried to catch my attention, but on my first day in Havana, I preferred to walk around the city. This was supposed to be an architecture night.
But then a young man stepped behind me and said, "This is the government information office, but it’s closed now." Of course I knew what it was – I could read the sign – but also realized it was probably the easiest thing he could say to start a conversation. I hadn’t intended on hooking up with anyone that night, but I figured why not let him keep talking so I could see what the city was about. His name was Angel – which made me laugh a little – and he claimed to be a student at the University of Havana in the same department as my hostess, Laubel Pimentel, a professor there, but he had no idea who she was.
In fact, Angel looked more like a tourist himself than a local, light haired and blue eyed. He wore the granola gear of a Vermont vegetarian, a burlapy shirt, loose pants, a Guatemala belt, and Birkenstocks. He was hardly the image I had in mind of a suave Havana lover. Angel kept trying to hold my hand as we walked along, which worried me, far away as I was from Chelsea. "Can you do this?" I kept asking. "We’re in Cuba." To which he simply answered, "But this is Havana." That made some sense to me, though Reinaldo Arenas’ stories about official repression nagged at me from the back of my mind. We arrived at the decrepit house of an old ballet star who rented a room for people seeking short trysts.
His living room was small, dirty, and cramped, but adorned with photos of his days as a star. He was handsome then, but it was hard to see the same face in him now, so many decades of life later. He never told me his name, but Angel said you can look at old pictures of Havana theaters and there he is on many a marquee. This was all in the 40s and 50s, the man said. "Before Castro," I added, as he nodded, petting a small dog he had chained to the chair in which he sat. When we were done with our business in the man’s house, Angel said he was buying new schoolbooks the next day that were very expensive. Would I be able to help him out? I also needed, he told me, to leave a little something for the old man.
I left feeling more than a little dirty, especially when Angel said he could not be seen exiting the house with a foreigner, that he’d be shaken down by the police. That certainly wasn’t his fear earlier when we strode past policemen while holding hands. Angel said he would look for me the next day at Coppelia. I hoped we wouldn’t see each other again. Real gay nightlife in the American or European sense doesn’t much exist in Havana. But if you look, you can find gay parties virtually every night of the week. The easiest way to do this is to head to the "Corner" and – no surprise – it’s near Coppelia.
The intersection of La Rampa, or 23rd Street, and L in Vedado is one of Havana’s busiest hangouts, gay or straight. On one corner is the enormous Hotel Habana Libre, formerly the Havana Hilton. Having opened just months before the Revolution, it was one of the first American properties Castro seized when he came to power. Now the building is full of Spanish and Italian tourists looking for the decadent lifestyle that made Cuba famous under Castro’s predecessor, Batista. People drink mojitos in the lobby and shop in the adjacent mall for hip-hop sneakers and imported perfume while starving women in ripped clothes beg for milk for their babies outside.
On another corner is the 1950s Yara Cinema, which was playing Minority Report. Frankly, Tom Cruise was not what I had expected in Havana. In front of the Yara in the evening, you can almost always find dozens of young gay men and women chatting, hanging out, and making plans for the long night ahead in a secret location miles and miles away. This ain’t your father’s Cold War Cuba, I quickly realized.
One evening I headed to the Corner looking to make some new friends. Fortunately, I instantly fell in with a trio that included Magdelena, who defined herself by saying, "I look like a woman but I think like a man." She struck me as very daring in her high hair, heels, low halter, and make-up. The two men with Magdelena were her butch foils – Reinaldo, whose eyes were constantly scanning each new tourist, and his slightly older and very handsome uncle, Fernando. They were fascinated by the fact that I was a journalist writing about gay life, but I wasn’t their first. Only a few months earlier, a writer from Madrid had spoken with Fernando. Later, Fernando would proudly show me the Zero magazine article he helped the Spaniard with. It wasn’t just young gay men and the tourists who loved them on the Corner though. There were several policemen who played a game, shooing us away when the crowd became too thick. Sometimes that game results in some of the locals spending a night in jail.
But Magdelana mostly ignored the police, and held my arm as she introduced me to other friends. Many were handsome but slightly rough men in their early 20s. A few seemed on the make, eager to meet tourists as I had been told would be the case. Still, others were just crazy club kids, wearing J-Lo sunglasses and tight shiny outfits, the same as guys their age at the Roxy back home. Special taxis lined up around the Corner, and the drivers all knew the secret location of the evening’s gay parties. Getting into a cab was not a simple matter though. My new friends spoke with the drivers, but avoided the glare of the police as they did so, and when it came time to hire a cab, we made a mad dash away from the police to another street. The police in pursuit began whistling and waving to stop us from getting in a cab. "It’s like a joke" explained Magdelana, when I asked her about the police once we were safely on our way. "At times it’s too much, but I think, honey, we have the real power."
But later, stopped at a roadblock in the middle of nowhere, just shy of the party, the police forced the driver to get out, show his ID, and answer questions for several minutes. Even as Fernando kept his arm around my shoulder, making me nervous once again, the police were signaling that they had the upper hand. They obviously knew where the "secret" party was, and we were given access at their discretion. The party was in a courtyard between some small houses, and in time, hundreds of locals and tourists were dancing to music I could have heard at home – Whitney and Britney, with some Latina divas thrown into the mix. A few men wore U.S. flag bandanas on their head, which Fernando said could get them arrested. I asked Magdelana why people living in the complex didn’t call the cops. "If I pay you, you say nothing," she responded.
My friends tried to introduce me to the man who ran the party, but when they told him I was a journalist, he refused to talk to me. We left at 4 a.m., returning to the Corner to hit the bar La Arcada. Though Fernando said many tourists in Cuba are disappointed when they can’t find the sorts of gay bars they’re used to at home, this place comes close. The odd thing is that it’s owned by the government. Gays used to hit a bar called Fiat on the heavily traveled Malecon nearby, but its visibility was proof that homosexuality existed in Cuba, so something had to be done. As long as gays stay inside the cramped, smoke-filled Arcada on a dark side street, the police are happy. When I asked the waitress about all the gays in a government-owned bar, she responded, "They come in, they buy drinks, what’s the problem?"
Each night I returned to the Corner, I would see the same thing. The police would periodically clear the streets, hauling unfortunate young men away for the night. Officially, they were never taken away because they were gay, but rather because they did not have their ID cards with them. Fernando said many of his friends had spent a night in jail. But every gay person I met assured me that life improved in Cuba after the release of Strawberry and Chocolate. I wondered how bad it must have been before and also how the movie ever got made. Then again, the movie sure serves as great publicity for Castro in the rest of the world. Yet, in spite of the terrible harassment I saw, I also encountered other contradictory signs throughout Cuba.
When meeting me, many Cubans in fact would mention Strawberry and Chocolate, seeming to invite me to come out to them. For ordinary Cubans, even in some of the smaller towns, it seemed to be a non-issue. I even found the contradictions at institutions run by the government. The explicitly homoerotic art in the Fine Arts Museum was unexpected. A drawing by Luis Peñaluer on the second floor shows two men having sex while a woman jumps over them. The mood is very Basic Instinct and a knife lies under them. A painting of a Cuba versus the U.S. boxing match depicts the American down on the ground, his head just at the crotch of the Cuban, as if performing oral sex. There’s also a multi-media work by a group of artists called Los Carpinteros with peek-a-boo openings showing wood carvers casually working in the nude, their penises just inches from each other’s mouths.
I asked the employees whether there had ever been controversy over such exhibitions and they said the idea that works of art would be repressed was unthinkable. Bringing culture to the masses was one of Castro’s premiere desires, they said, a cornerstone of the Revolution. Indeed, in a temporary exhibit I saw in Old Havana, one of the largest pieces showed the island of Cuba with a giant wall around it. In the waters between Cuba and Florida, there were dozens of people in tubes and rafts avoiding sharks. It was clearly a stab at Castro, but there it was.
Officially, tourism is used to further the aims of the Revolution, that nearly crumbled with the collapse of the Soviet Union. My hostess Laubel told me of the terrible times the country suffered in the early 1990s, which are well documented in exhibits at the Museum of the Revolution at the former Presidential Palace. Opening the country to tourism was a way to bring in hard currency for healthcare initiatives and educational programs, two of Castro’s bona fide achievements. To the tourist with an open mind, many examples of the social benefits of this approach are evident throughout Habana Vieja, the city’s colonial core. Tourist taxes are used to build low income housing throughout the area, as well as to provide funding for a maternity clinic. Contrast this with redevelopment of Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan, where revitalization forced out the poor. "[The poor] have the right to live in that part of the city," according to Rafael Rojas, director of the Master Plan for Old Havana. "I believe that the social ideas will remain, to change things for the better."
Rojas argued that limited capitalism can go hand in hand with socialism, and discussed the Benetton on San Francisco Plaza as a good use of a capitalist store to pay for the cost of preserving a building. Someday, he said, Gaps will be all over former shopping areas like Paseo del Prado, transforming them into thriving hubs like Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road. But the poor will remain in the apartments above, their living situations vastly improved by this influx of money. Yet tourism has created instability at odds with socialist values.
Luis, a guide for one of my tours, explained that his family had all been doctors. But now, with prostitutes able to make in ten minutes what it took his father a month to earn, the profession no longer garners the respect it once did. Doctors and professors, often with larger than average homes, have opened up casas particulares, private apartments for tourists. This helps them so much financially, it’s hard to see them continuing to dedicate time to their fields. How many students and patients will suffer then, damaging the Revolution’s two most important achievements? In some ways, society under tourism is beginning to replicate the problems of Batista, when foreigners ruled the country. Except, it’s not sugar that’s for sale anymore, it’s the people themselves.
To see examples of two worlds co-existing, however awkwardly, stand outside of the restaurant El Conejito in Vedado. This fancy restaurant is across from a row of half-collapsed slum dwellings. The residents sit on their porches looking longingly at the rich crowds of tourists waiting to get inside. Or head to El Floridita in the city center, an expensive restaurant made popular by the mystique of Hemingway’s time in Cuba. You’ll see several women with push-up bras and tight skirts pressed against the glass, hoping a tourist invites them inside. Many say that coming to Cuba only helps Castro maintain his power, that touring this country supports totalitarianism. I am not sure that I agree with that assessment. As American and European music and movies are rapidly introduced into the country, the locals are being exposed to new ideas.
I felt privileged, as an American journalist allowed to travel to Cuba legally, to witness the country and speak with its people directly, unfiltered by our media and the opinions of exiles in Miami. As a gay man and a writer, I believe that new ideas can change Cuba. Fernando had never heard of the rainbow as a gay symbol. When I gave him a rainbow necklace and told him that hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians take to the streets in New York every June, many wearing things like this, it was completely unfathomable to him. I also gave him an HX and a Next to take a look through. He is a 32-year-old man, yet his eyes widened like a child’s as he looked at the photos inside. How long can a regime last when the dreams of its people are unleashed this way?
It was legal for me to visit Cuba as a journalist, but there are other legal entrees as well. Cuban-Americans may visit family each year, and doctors, writers, artists, and various other professionals also may obtain travel licenses under certain circumstances. Visit www.ustreas.gov/ offices/enforcement/ofac/speeches/traveltocuba.html for further details and a list of authorized travel agents. It’s also possible to go to Cuba on guided educational programs. The Center for Cuban Studies arranges trips with various themes throughout the year can be contacted at 212.242.0559 or www.cubaupdate.org. The Center has a large research library, so it’s worth a visit before your trip. For gay specialized educational tours of Cuba, I recommend Coda Tours. They run several every year, and their itinerary includes Havana and other cities. Contact them at 212.741.5040 or www.coda-tours.com.
August 26, 2002
Gays struggling to find a place in macho, authoritarian Cuba: Government, cultural intolerance a fact of life despite recent progress
by Tracey Eaton
José Miguel climbed into a ’58 Ford with a half-dozen friends, and it roared into the night. Fifteen minutes later, the lumbering jalopy reached the outskirts of Havana, left the main highway and stopped at a steel gate. Inside was an open-air lot the size of a basketball court where a sea of people danced, laughed and drank beer. It was the night’s clandestine "floating party," reserved for gays. "Tomorrow the party will be somewhere else," said José Miguel, a 27-year-old publishing company employee who asked that his last name be withheld for fear of reprisals. "We have to keep it moving."
Nearly a decade after the debut of Strawberry and Chocolate, a landmark film that opened new horizons for gays in Cuba, gays are still struggling to find a place of their own. Literally. Gay discos and clubs are banned under the socialist regime. Gay marches are taboo, and so are gay magazines and gay organizations. "Right now there is no place for gays to go, and when a gay club opens up, the authorities usually close it down," said Victor Fowler, a Cuban scholar and author of a book about gays. Gays say there is no doubt that there have been advances over the last 10 years. Cuba’s traditionally macho society has grown more tolerant of homosexuality, and some gays are even in charge of Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, responsible for neighborhood security. But, José Miguel and others say, Cuba has a long way to go. "I think we’re accepted by society, but not by government and definitely not by the police," he said.
A week and a half earlier, police tried to break up a fight between two transvestites at Fraternity Park in Old Havana. During the scuffle, one of the transvestites stabbed an officer in the neck with a pair of scissors, killing him. Since then, José Miguel and other gays say, the police have been especially harsh. José Miguel says police have said they have instructions to go after gays. "But most of us don’t cause any trouble," he says. "We’re not violent. We go to parties to dance and drink, not to break the law, prostitute ourselves or take part in orgies." Even so, he said, police routinely stop and question people they think might be gay. "You sometimes see girls and pimps on street corners, but the police pay little attention to them. They go after the gays," José Miguel said. "The police should realize we’re human beings just like the officers. It’s not our fault we like members of the same sex." Cuban police say they pay special attention to gays to try to keep prostitution in check.
But they deny discriminating against gays and say they treat everyone alike. Official obstacles What few doubt is that gays face daunting challenges in Cuba, where machismo and communist doctrine have traditionally shunned them. Even before the 1959 revolution, Cuba’s 1938 penal code punished "habitual homosexual acts" and "ostentatious displays of homosexuality in public." After the revolution, Fidel Castro’s loyalists equated homosexuality with the brothels and pornography that were widespread in Havana in the 1950s. And gays were considered "agents of imperialism." No gay person will ever "embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary, a true communist," Mr. Castro told an American journalist in 1965. That same year, the Cuban government created the now-infamous Military Units to Help Production, UMAPs by their Spanish initials. They were camps where young men considered unfit for military service were forced into hard labor. Many were gays. At the same time, the Communist Party required parents to report children who engaged in homosexual activities.
Not informing on gay children was considered a crime against the revolution. "When Cuba adopted Soviet-style communism, it also adopted Soviet-style prejudice and Puritanism," said Peter Tatchell, an Australian-born gay activist. "Communist orthodoxy dictated that homosexuality was a ‘bourgeois decadence.’ This became the Cuban view." The heavily criticized UMAPs were disbanded after two years, but bias against gays continued. At Cuba’s First National Congress on Education and Culture in 1971, Castro supporters approved laws banning gays from jobs where they might influence children. The Congress referred to "the social pathological character of homosexual deviations" and vowed to prevent "all manifestations of homosexual deviations … from spreading." An easing stance Some of the hard-line policies began to soften in the mid-’70s, and by 1979, Cuba decriminalized homosexual acts. In 1987, the government prohibited police from harassing people based on their clothing or appearance.
Mr. Castro also began taking a more liberal view of gays, blaming past intolerance on machismo. "We got our machismo from the Conquistadors, just as we received other bad habits," he told former Sandinista official Tomás Borge in 1992. "I’m not going to deny that, at a certain point, this machista thing influenced" Cuban policies toward gays. "I personally … do not suffer from this type of phobia against homosexuals … and have never promoted it." A year later came a breakthrough for gays when Strawberry and Chocolate was released. The movie, set in 1979, told the story of Diego, an intellectual homosexual, and David, a devout communist. Its message wasn’t just that society ought to accept gays but that people should fight all forms of intolerance, said Senel Paz, who wrote the short story that led to the film. "The problem before the movie was that people in Cuba didn’t even talk about such things as homosexuals," said Mr. Paz over dinner at La Guarida, a private restaurant where most of the film was shot. "The movie triggered debate," said his wife, Rebeca Chávez, a movie director. "People realized there was a problem." Strawberry and Chocolate was a runaway hit, and more than a million Cubans saw it, making it the most popular movie since at least 1959. Some advances for gays followed.
The government stopped forcibly quarantining all HIV-positive patients, most of whom were gay men. And the Cuban Association of Gays and Lesbians was founded in 1994. But change in Cuba is rarely smooth and steady. In 1997, authorities broke up the gay association and arrested its members. They also began cracking down on several gay discos that had sprung up. One police raid that gays still talk about occurred in August 1997 when authorities swept into El Periquitón club and arrested about 800 people, including Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar and French designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Almost all were fined 30 Cuban pesos, little more than a dollar, and released.
But they had to sign statements promising not to frequent "places of perversion." Today, gays say, discrimination against gays continues not only on the streets, but in the state-run media. In February 2001, a Tribune of Havana newspaper editorial said the "pimps, prostitutes and other extravagant characters" who showed up at a popular spot along the Malecón, Havana’s seaside highway, displayed "all kinds of deviant behavior." "These characters may have all the right in the world to their … harmful vices, but not to … project an image that is totally alien to the spirit of work and struggle." About that time, police banned gays from the gathering spot. It wasn’t just the editorial, one gay person said. A Mexican tourist allegedly killed a gay Cuban during a fight there in January 2001. Despite such episodes – and undercurrents of machismo – many Cubans are fascinated by gays.
A milestone event That was clear in June 2001, when two gay male couples took part in a wedding ceremony in Havana. Juanito and Alejandro, and Michel and Ingel, exchanged vows at a neighborhood recreation center. A friend of the couples called it "historic, never before seen" in Cuba, according to Agence France-Presse. And some residents climbed on their roofs to get a better view of the event. Cross-dressers and transvestites also attract plenty of attention, and people – straights included – pack into private homes for illegal but tolerated lip-sync shows. Still, discrimination remains. Said Onelio, a 27-year-old gay prostitute: "You’ve heard that saying, haven’t you? ‘I’d rather my son be a thief than a queer.’ Well, a lot of Cubans believe that." . E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
March 16, 2003
Homosexuals in Cuba: Invisible no more
by Vanessa Bauza
Havana – Is Cuba ready for a safe-sex ad highlighting gays? That was the question on AIDS activists’ minds recently as a small crew filmed a 30-second public service announcement featuring a svelte brunette transvestite and two men exchanging condoms. The government has not yet approved the television ad to air. But if it finds its way into millions of Cuban households, it would be a sign of change in a society where gays say they were virtually invisible only a decade ago. "We are writing history, though we still don’t know whether anyone will read it," said Nelson Joel Valdez, 30, a volunteer at Havana’s AIDS prevention center, who helped develop the ad.
"Sometimes we don’t know how far to go, or whether we aren’t going far enough." Like most changes in Cuban society, acceptance of gays has been tentative. Ten years ago the breakthrough film Strawberry and Chocolate was the first to hold a critical mirror to this macho society’s homophobia and portray the friendship between a gay man and a young communist. Gay topics are mostly taboo in the state-run media and homosexuals in Cuban soap operas are largely depicted as flighty buffoons. Still, many gays feel society has become more open-minded and tolerant. "Before Strawberry and Chocolate there were no transvestites," says Kiriam Gutiérrez, 28. Gutiérrez, the transvestite who appears in the safe-sex commercial, began dressing as a woman in public in 1993, the year the film debuted. Like many, he draws a direct line between its release and a positive change in his personal life. "People used to throw eggs, tomatoes, whatever," Gutiérrez said. "Now things are different. People who were hidden before are not anymore."
There are still many barriers, however, say those who have come of age in the past decade. Gay clubs, marches, magazines and organizations are nonexistent. Hangouts adopted by gays are sometimes temporarily closed or their hours are limited to control attendance. Clandestine parties held in parking lots, secluded fields or private homes are now the most common way for gays to get together. Many gays say police often break up the gatherings, ask partygoers to leave and in some cases issue fines for being in an inappropriate place at an inappropriate hour. "I can’t tell you whether the first justification is to combat delinquency or to combat homosexuality," said Raúl Regueiro, 33, a bank worker. "What we need is a place where we can get together peacefully in public, without fear." A survey released last week of 300 Cubans across the island found that 71 percent of those questioned defined homosexuality as an "inclination toward people of the same sex" while 22 percent called it an illness and 7 percent viewed it as a personality disorder.
Conducted by a group of Cuban journalists and presented at the 16th annual World Congress of Sexology conference in Havana, the survey found slightly more tolerance for gay men than lesbians. About 58 percent of those interviewed said they would treat a lesbian "like any other person" compared to 61 percent who said they would treat gay men the same way. "When people see a woman making an independent life with another woman, they fear it," said Malena Perez, 23, a student. "It’s as though they think we might have the power to convince other women to be lesbians." During the 1960s, gays, priests, some artists and others considered unfit for military service were put into labor camps, known by the Spanish acronym UMAP, or Military Units to Aid Production. Homosexuality was considered a capitalist import and gays were excluded from some university careers because they were considered untrustworthy.
In the 1980s, a law against publicly flaunting homosexuality was removed from the penal code. Today, many gays focus on societal rather than institutional discrimination. Gutiérrez, for example, says he endures daily confrontations, insults and whispered name-calling because he dresses like a woman. But he has also received free treatment for a hormone imbalance as well as psychiatric therapy sessions at Havana’s National Center for Sex Education. "It’s a common misconception that gays are not revolutionaries or socialists," Gutiérrez says. "I believe in socialism. But as long as I don’t commit a crime no one has the right to rule my life." . Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at email@example.com
September 5, 2004
Cuba’s Transsexuals Get Powerful New Friend
by Andrea Rodriguez
Havana – In the four years since she began her transformation, life hadn’t been too difficult for Gillian. But this summer, she says, she was detained twice by police who threatened her with prison for the crime of “peligrosidad” – dangerousness. Her “dangerousness,” apparently, is her dress and makeup.
Cuban transsexuals say police have come to their homes lately to warn them to dress “in a corresponding manner.” Gillian, 19, says she is afraid to go outdoors dressed as a woman. But help is on the way. Mariela Castro Espin, an internationally renowned sexologist who happens to be the niece of President Fidel Castro, wants Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police to undergo gender-sensitivity training.
“The police take measures – that’s what they are there for – but they interpret things with their own way of thinking,” she said in an interview. “They have learned over their lifetimes that transsexuals and homosexuals are intrinsically bad.”
Indeed, for decades, that was the general attitude toward anything non-heterosexual in communist Cuba. Homosexuality was derided as an illness of the capitalist past, and in the late 1960s some artists were sent to labor camps simply for being gay. But with the limited economic and social liberalization of the mid-1990s came a new wave of tolerance, highlighted by the hit movie Strawberry and Chocolate, about the friendship between a naive young Communist and a highly educated gay Cuban who is in love with his country but at odds with his government.
Alarmed by the recent complaints, Espin is working with the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, to hold a seminar about gender this month. “The idea is to explain sexuality and its distinct expressions,” she said. She hopes to help police understand “that these people should not be excluded from society.” The Health Ministry’s National Center for Sex Education, which she directs, is already running a pilot program at the Dragones police station in Central Havana with “positive” results, said Castro. Other than numbers to report emergencies, the force is not listed in telephone directories, and has no known spokesperson who might comment. Castro’s center has been busy for years organizing support groups and safe sex seminars for transvestites and transsexuals.
Through vigorous research, the center has identified 23 people in Cuba as transsexuals and another 62 cases are under study, Castro said. Due to a lack of expertise in the area, no sex change operations have been performed in Cuba. But those ruled officially to be transsexuals receive free psychological counseling and hormonal treatments and can even change their name and gender on ID papers. That’s not the case for for non designated transsexuals or transpeople who do not want to go through a full transformation such as Gillian, who was born and is still listed on official documents as Leinier Diaz. She hasn’t assumed a false surname, but feels “Gillian” better expresses who she is.
Gillian said many police wrongly assume all trans people are prostitutes, or simply people whose lifestyles are “incompatible with socialist morals.” Still living at home with her grandmother, she hopes to sign up this fall for a government program that trains young people without a trade or university degree to become student teachers and social workers. Carla, a 19-year-old trans woman who wears a miniskirt to her job at the sex education center, said she dreams of a world where she can be herself. She declined to reveal her full legal name. The ideal society, said Carla, would “see the best of me as a person, without caring whether I dress as a woman or a man.”
ILGA representative reports from Cuba
Carlos Sanchez, ILGA’s male representative for the Latin America and Carribean Region, reports on his recent trip to Cuba to participate in the Third Hemispheric Meeting Against the ALCA (Area of Free Commerce of America).
The ALCA is an initiative of the United States and of multinational companies that can seriously harm the weak economies of the region, worsening the reality that people live in the Latin American and Caribbean countries. It was an excellent meeting: many ideas arose to resist that American strategy and to show that lesbians and gays also are affected by these agreements in various ways. It became obvious we need to have a much clearer and better-defined position regarding the economy in our region.
My intention to go to La Havana had an antecedent though: the vote of the Latin countries in the UN Commission on Human rights in the United Nations and the possibility of creating a lesbian and gay organization in Cuba. Some time ago I already had a contact with lesbians in Cuba through a Spanish friend. In our mails, we could see their strong desire to get information and contact with other groups in South America. I thought something needed to be done. I also had taken contact with the Cuban embassy in Chile in June 2003. I wanted to understand why Cuba abstained when the UN Commission on Human Rights voted to delay the debate on the Brazilian resolution. Those antecedents allowed me to elaborate a workplan in Cuba.
All this allowed me to get support from the Political and Gender Commissions of the Communist Party of Chile, as much to make contacts as to suggest the best way to have the Cuban government consider our observations. This is the result of my queries: a) Regarding the vote in the United Nations.
The Coordinator of the negotiations in the Commission of Human rights of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Cuban government said homosexuality is not sanctioned, nor punished in any way since 1994. Nothing is done to prevent lesbians and homosexuals to participate in the social and political life of the country. Therefore, the recognition of the rights of lesbians and gays is a question of principles; and, if no major impediment arises, Cuba will vote in favour of the Brazilian resolution. Otherwise, they would abstain; but in any case, they would not vote against the proposal of Brazil.
The difficulty they see in the proposal submitted by Brazil is a question of international conjuncture and opportunity. That is to say, in front of the North American aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq, they believe it is not very advisable to present a proposal that would open a new flank for attacking forces, leading to a greater isolation of the Arab countries. Arab countries see the Brazilian proposal as a initiative consistent with the US attempt to isolate them, and for that reason will shut themselves and not even want to debate it. This seems to be the main preoccupation of the Cuban government regarding this debate. They think Brazil should choose another moment to present their proposal and believe it would be better postponing the debate until a better conjuncture.
I urged the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explicitly express those explanations to the international lgbt community. Cuban officials said they are aware of that necessity and for that reason will possibly write up a declaration of principles and an explanation if they are themselves forced to abstain again. At the moment, they do know that it is necessary for them to do it, but have not yet decided how that shall be done. b) The second subject is the possibility of creating an organization in Cuba. With respect to this, it is very difficult that Cuba changes its policy of not allowing the creation of new organizations in the short term.
Those that already exist are connected with the local organizations "de base" (on the ground – Committees for the Defense of the Revolution). Cuba is constantly being threatened by the United States government. There have been several attempts at terrorist acts within its borders, promoted by the U.S. intelligence organisms. At the present time an open provocation on the part of the Bush government exists that maintains the country on permanent alert. That is why, I was told, the creation of new groups would distract their attention from this alert. Cuba’s priority since the 60ies has been the defense of the country.
Nevertheless, there are a few civil organizations and state institutions that are working on sexuality and sexual minorities; and it is possible to establish a very direct relationship with them. Among those organisations: the National Center for Sexual Education, the Federation of Cuban Women, the Martin Luther King Center, the Center for Hiv/Aids Prevention and the Felix Varela Center. The two first ones are state institutions. The latter are a Protestant Church and two NGOs.
We agreed to begin to work with a group of lesbians and gays in the National Center for Sexual Education. We talked about consolidating this work and its relationship with ILGALAC in the medium term. This aims at persuading and convincing the administration and the politicians that lesbians and gays need a space of their own to generate cultural change regarding "machismo" and homophobia that are so deeply rooted on our continent.
Talking with the lesbian and gays there, we were able to see: a) Neither institutional nor penal repression exists against lesbians and homosexuals. b) There are no legal sanctions against lgbt people. c) People are afraid of meeting and organizing themselves. It is mainly based on their experience in previous years, but one can assume that this feeling will disappear in the future if lesbians and gays start to work and keep working and eventually get support from the government. (The National Center for Sexual Education is offering this support). d) "Transformismo" is well accepted by the majority of the Cuban population e) There is indeed a change in the way people view homosexuality, but this does not mean the end of discrimination and homophobia. The population is just more tolerant with lesbians and homosexuals. f) Lesbians and gays do not consider fighting for the right to marriage, because that institution in Cuba does not have the same value that it has in other countries.
Unmarried and married people enjoy equal rights. We were able to learn much and on very important matters as well. For instance, Maternity and paternity are issues the National Center for Sexual Education is ready to work on. If lesbians or gays want to, they can access a program of assisted fertility.
The Federation of Women of Cuba, also offered a space to support the initiatives and concerns of lesbian women. The Martin Luther King Center, which depends on the Baptist Church, develops a program for liberating sexual minorities and for the acceptance of sexual diversity. Felix Varela Center gave us a very interesting video that tells of the process that sexual minorities have made in Cuba. Sexual minorities seem to be living better times now in Cuba. In the medium term, even better than the rest of Latin America. There is much I could say on this, but time does not permit now.
December 27, 2005
No Turning Back on Gay Rights in Cuba – Sexual Diversity Cinema Week held in Pinar del Río in western Cuba
Dalia Acosta, Havana
As hundreds of same-sex couples in Britain – including singer-songwriter Elton John and Canadian-born filmmaker David Furnish, his partner of 12 years – are taking advantage of a new law that allows them to enter into civil partnerships with the same rights as heterosexual marriages, gays and lesbians in Cuba are still struggling to achieve a bare minimum of social acceptance.
The British "gay wedding" boom has erupted more than two years after César Cigliutti and Marcelo Suntheim of Argentina became the first same-sex couple joined in a civil union in Latin America, after the passage of legislation that provides for this right exclusively in the city of Buenos Aires. Gay and lesbian organisations around the world are fighting for the legalisation of same-sex marriage and other rights like the ability to adopt children, but in Cuba there is still no such thing as gay bars or publications, or even official organisations of gays and lesbians that could fight for the same rights enjoyed by their counterparts in other countries.
Nevertheless, the issue of respect for sexual diversity has become increasingly visible in this socialist Caribbean island nation since the early 1990s, as part of a process that now seems to be irreversible.
" There are things in life that can only happen when the right conditions have been created, but once the path is cleared, there is no going back," remarked Nelson Simón, a leading figure in modern Cuban homoerotic poetry, in an interview with IPS.
With several published volumes of poetry to his name, the 40-year-old Simón is one of the few Cuban intellectuals to openly profess his homosexuality.
" I am here as an artist and above all as a gay man," he declared while moderating a discussion session at the Sexual Diversity Cinema Week held this past October in the western Cuban city of Pinar del Río, 140 km west of Havana. The problem is not only a lack of public spaces. "There is no need to assume homosexuality from a group stance, since society has led us to believe that this is not necessary, and that to do so would be a means of self-marginalisation," he commented. At the same time, he believes that Cubans are ready for a change in their view of sexual diversity.
" Although it continues to be a machista and ‘manly’ country with a very phallocentric culture, Cuban society accepts changes very easily, it is very mutable, very open and acts like a sponge when it comes to incorporating everything that comes along," he added.
The reasons for this, he believes, include the high level of education among the population in general, the minimal influence of Catholicism, and the island’s geographic location, which has always made it an important gateway for movement between nations and regions and thus for cultural exchange.
This viewpoint is shared by historian Julio César González Pagés, chair of the Gender and Peace Committee of the non-governmental Cuban Movement for Peace and coordinator of the Masculinity Forum created in 2004. " I’ve held workshops with the police, social workers, prisoners and university students, and the subject of homosexuality is uncomfortable at first, but not traumatic," he told IPS. González Pagés commented that these discussions largely centre on the lack of knowledge and information about homosexuality, but he has never encountered "outright rejection of individuals based on fanatical convictions about sexuality."
There are still nine countries in the world where homosexual relations constitute a crime punishable by death, while the Catholic Church leadership and other conservative forces continue to fiercely oppose any progress towards the full recognition of the human rights of gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities. Despite its strong Catholic tradition, Spain joined this year with the Netherlands, Belgium and Canada as the only countries to have fully legalised same-sex marriage until now, while countries like Germany, France and Switzerland, and now Britain, allow same-sex couples to enter into legally recognised civil unions or partnerships.
In Latin America, the Argentine Homosexual Community (CHA) submitted a bill to the Senate on Dec. 21 that would extend the rights granted by the Civil Union Law of the City of Buenos Aires to the entire country. The world map of state homophobia drawn up in 2000 by the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) classifies Cuba as a country where homosexuality is "legal but repressed". Cuban gays and lesbians interviewed in an ongoing study largely concur that "the worst times are over" and that there is a general sense of greater tolerance, although perhaps not yet understanding, of homosexuality.
After the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959, the "worst times" are associated with the so-called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPs), forced labour camps in the countryside to which hundreds of homosexuals were sent in 1965 and 1966. In the 1970s, artists and intellectuals suffered the impact of a process know as "parmetración" which established strict parameters to be fulfilled by all those involved in the development of Cuba’s upcoming generations. Until the early 1980s, homosexuality was viewed as a form of deviation incompatible with the principles of the Cuban revolution and sufficient grounds for exclusion from university studies or job positions demanding high degrees of trust. Changes in these views came about gradually, and coincided in part with the general opening in cultural policies that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and included a critical analysis of the "parametración" process.
The overwhelming box office success of the 1993 film Strawberry and Chocolate, co-directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (Titón) and Juan Carlos Tabío, marked a turning point by bringing the theme of homophobia into the sphere of the general public, although it was a subject that had been addressed to a growing extent in Cuban literature, theatre and visual arts for a number of years.
" Phenomena like that of Strawberry and Chocolate don’t happen overnight, they gradually arise. In fact, the story told by the movie was already a part of the past. It was set in the 1970s, and the reality faced by homosexuals in Cuba was no longer the same (when the movie was released)," commented Simón.
Over recent years, the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), a government agency, has been working to promote awareness and respect for sexual diversity, while the Ministry of Public Health promotes and finances programmes to prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the gay community. An official Cuban delegation attended the 3rd Latin American ILGA Conference held in Chile in 2004, while in 2005, gay and lesbian film festivals were held in a number of Cuban cities, Pinar del Río hosted the first sexual diversity cultural festival, and CENESEX submitted a proposal for legislation on transsexual rights to the Cuban parliament.
Nevertheless, Strawberry and Chocolate has never been shown on Cuban television. " There is still a great deal of fear. Homosexuality continues to be seen as a danger, as something highly contaminating," and that influences the way it is treated on television and in the written press, remarked Simón. Meanwhile, although an ever growing number of gays and lesbians publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation, they are fully aware of the established limits and the need to behave in accordance with a "restrained and respectful" model of homosexuality imposed by Cuban society. " And those limits are not set by those of us in the minority; they are set by the majority, the machista, phallocentric and manly majority," stressed Simón.
June 04, 2006
Helping Cubans realize `what it means to be gay’
by Gary Marx
Havana – It was bad enough when Belkis suspected that her husband, a construction worker and loving father named Yassel, was having an affair with another woman. Then she learned the truth: Yassel was in love with another man.
" You’re not a man, not a woman, nothing!" Belkis shouted. "I don’t want to see you again!"
The confrontation between Belkis and Yassel was a dramatic high point of a groundbreaking soap opera titled "The Dark Side of the Moon," which in recent months has captivated and roiled this intensely macho nation. While the soap opera’s five story lines all focus on HIV infection and AIDS, Cuban gays describe the second narrative capturing Yassel’s sexual awakening as a pivotal moment in this country’s long history of discrimination against homosexuals.
They say it is the first time Cuba’s state-run television has portrayed homosexuality openly and realistically, let alone during a prime-time soap opera, a must-see event for many of the island’s 11 million residents. " Ten years ago this would have been impossible," said Daniel Hernandez, a gay 22-year-old student. "A lot of things have evolved." Magda Gonzalez, chief of the drama division for the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, which oversees the nation’s television stations, said the series has been among the most-watched in Cuban history. Viewers have responded with a flood of mostly favorable e-mails, she said, and Yassel’s relationship has been grist for radio talk shows and newspaper articles.
" If you are going to talk about AIDS, then you have to deal with the theme of sex between men," Gonzalez said. Not everyone is pleased. Ramiro Navarro, a 44-year-old security guard from Havana’s Regla neighborhood, said he was glued to the soap opera yet sickened by its portrayal of a married man involved with a male lover. " The message of the soap opera is that you should accept people for who they are," Navarro said. "I don’t agree with that. I am against homosexuality. It’s immoral."
But Margarita Parrado, 35, of Havana said the soap opera’s message of tolerance is a step forward for Cuba. "Each person has their own way of living and you have to respect them," she said. "Homosexuals are human beings too." While Cuba’s socialist government portrays itself as being dedicated to equality and justice, its leaders often have displayed little tolerance for those who do not fit their definition of a proper revolutionary. During the two decades after Fidel Castro’s triumph in 1959, men sporting long hair, rock musicians and other Cubans deemed anti-social by Communist Party leaders were ostracized.
Cuban authorities viewed homosexuality as deviant behavior, and openly gay men and women were barred from top political positions and other jobs. Some homosexuals were sent to rehabilitation camps. Official attitudes began to change in the late 1970s, and today Cuban gays say they suffer far less discrimination. Yet there are no prominent gay or lesbian organizations in Cuba, and no gay rights movement to speak of. Homosexuals say they are mostly tolerated rather than accepted. "This is a macho society where, even now, a gay man hides being with another gay like me," said Juan Miguel Mas, a 40-year-old dancer.
One of the few places in Cuba where gay men are not afraid to gather is along a narrow stretch of the Malecon, Havana’s sweeping seaside boulevard. On a recent Saturday evening, dozens of men chatted, flirted and drank rum and cola from white plastic cups. Two of them kissed as uniformed police strolled by, checking identification and arresting those suspected of prostitution. Perched on the seawall, Oswald Alarcon and several friends said the portrayal of Yassel’s homosexual relationship on television means that Cuban officialdom, which approves all programming, finally has acknowledged reality.
Even the award-winning 1993 Cuban film "Strawberry and Chocolate," which told of the relationship between an intellectual homosexual and a devout communist, never was broadcast on Cuban television. " There was never any space in the public discourse (about homosexuality). It’s as if gays didn’t exist," explained Alarcon, 26, a biochemist.
" This is an important step in terms of getting the message about homosexuality to the people," he said. "We’ve seen it in movies, but everyone watches the soap opera. It helps people understand what it means to be gay." Alarcon and his friends hope the series will lead to a broader acceptance. But the circumstances surrounding the telenovela, or soap opera, show how much ground needs to be covered.
The series is broadcast at 9:30 p.m. so fewer children will watch. The producers also were careful how they portrayed Yassel’s homosexual relationship. Yassel and his lover, Mario, are never shown kissing, hugging or holding hands. " Images are very powerful," said scriptwriter Freddy Dominguez. "There is a way to get the message across without offending the viewer."
At the same time, the soap opera captured the homophobia that persists in Cuba and other Latin American nations, with the characters employing the derogatory word maricon to describe homosexuals. In one emotional scene, Yassel’s mother, Marcia, pleads with her husband, David, to allow Yassel to live with them after his wife throws him out. "This fairy is not my son," responds David, his face twisting in anguish. "I raised a man, a man. … Tell him to leave here and go far away."
But David eventually accepted his son after learning Yassel had been infected with HIV. In the end, Yassel also seems at peace with himself. "You don’t know what it’s like living with a mask, Belkis," he says to his wife, "trying to please everyone in the world, repressing your desires and annulling who you are."
June 18, 2006
Cuban soap’s gay story starts dialogue
by Andrea Rodriguez
Havana – Once persecuted, then excluded, and finally tolerated, Cuban homosexuals have seen the debate on sexual diversity expand in recent weeks as a state-sponsored soap opera featuring some gay characters has riveted the nation.
In a recent episode of ”La Cara Oculta de la Luna,” ("The Dark Side of the Moon"), Yasel, who is married and the father of a little girl, is as surprised as viewers are to discover he is physically attracted to another man named Mario. The attraction leads to a sexual relationship and Yasel’s subsequent contraction of the HIV virus that causes AIDS. The series on state television is intended to educate Cubans about AIDS by telling the stories of those with the virus. But it also has sparked a more open debate about homosexuality in a society where macho attitudes persist. And while some Cubans have welcomed the debate, others have been offended, questioning why such subject matter is even discussed on ”revolutionary” state television.
”From now on, these themes will have to be discussed with more frankness,” said Fredy Dominguez, script writer for the telenovela that has sparked discussions among Cubans of all ages and walks of life. Reactions from some viewers were so intense that the government brought together a panel of experts to discuss the show. One viewer called in, outraged that homosexual relationships were presented ”as if they were natural.” ”It compels us to be better people, to be more tolerant,” said panelist Manuel Calvino, a well-known psychologist. ”The show isn’t a work of art; a lot of criticisms could be made,” Mariela Castro, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, said in an interview. ”But the debate is satisfying.”
Castro, whose center works to educate the public about sexual diversity, said an open discussion of such issues can help ease persisting prejudices and stigmas. ”Before, it would have been unthinkable to show this subject on Cuban television,” agreed Tomas Fernandez Robaina, a 65-year-old gay professor.
But some other gay Cubans worry the show could perpetuate the idea that AIDS is punishment for homosexual activity. ”In the end, it treats homosexuality from an unhappy point of view. It’s a sad story,” said Olivia Prendes, a 34-year-old lesbian. ”It’s a continuation of the same silence.” What Cuban gays need is not just tolerance, but acceptance and respect, Prendes and others said. Still, things have changed greatly since the 1960s, when gays were placed in work camps to be re-educated along with political dissidents, Jehovah’s Witnesses and hippies.
The camps were phased out in the 1970s, but gays continued to live on society’s margins, kept away from young people and key government jobs. The exclusion gays suffered during those years was famously described by the late Cuban exile author Reinaldo Arenas in his memoir, Before Night Falls, which was made into a film released in 2000, and other works. The film led to an Oscar nomination for actor Javier Bardem, who portrayed Arenas.
After losing his job and being jailed in the 1970s, Arenas left the island during the Mariel boatlift of 1980 and settled in New York, where he later died. In the 1990s, the Cuban film ”Fresa y Chocolate,” or ”Strawberry and Chocolate,” did much to confront the stereotypes of homosexuality on the island. Nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category in 1995, the movie by Cuban filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea told the story of Diego, a sophisticated gay writer, and his non-sexual friendship with a naive young man named David who begins to question his long-held prejudices.
”Discrimination against homosexuals is a problem that now has been largely overcome,” President Fidel Castro said in a recently published interview. Cuban gays generally agree with that assessment, saying they no longer fear they will be arrested or lose their job because of their sexual orientation. But many say they still lack associations and public spaces where they can express themselves with official approval, rather than gathering somewhat clandestinely.
Some would like official approval for clubs where transvestites can stage shows using female impersonators. Although some such clubs exist, and are tolerated, they are still illegal. ”What would be best today is that the work of … transvestites be officially recognized,” said transvestite performer Abrahan Bueno, whose stage name is ”Dark Imperio,” or ”Dark Empire.” ”That’s what I would ask for as a gay person.”
June 29, 2006
Castro niece fights for new revolution
by Esteban Israel
Havana – Mariela Castro is leading a Cuban revolution less well known than her Uncle Fidel’s: one in favor of sexual tolerance within the island’s macho society. Castro, 43, is leading the charge from her government-funded National Center for Sex Education, based in an old Havana mansion. As director of the group, she promoted a soap opera that scandalized many Cubans in March by sympathetically depicting bisexuality. The controversial show depicted, among other story lines, the life of a construction worker who leaves his wife and children for the man next door.
Now President Castro’s niece is pushing for passage of a law that would give transsexuals free sex change operations and hormonal therapy in addition to granting them new identification documents with their changed gender. A draft bill was presented to parliament last year and was well received, she said. It is expected to come up for a vote in December. If approved, it would make Cuba the most liberal nation in Latin America on gender issues.
Castro says her goal is to bring the revolution her uncle and father, Defense Minister Raul Castro, fought 47 years ago to the terrain of sexuality. Her group has also campaigned for better AIDS prevention as well as acceptance of homosexuality, bisexuality and transvestites.
" I want to bring the revolution’s humanity to those aspects of life that it hasn’t reached because of old prejudices," she told Reuters. Much has changed, she says, since the 1960s when homosexuals were sent to work camps, or the 1970s when gay men and women were denied certain jobs as "ideological deviants." " None of that exists anymore," she said. "But that is not to say the same for homophobic attitudes." Cuba eliminated the crime of sodomy in 1979. Cuba is also a country where abortion is a constitutional right and divorce a simple procedure.
A POWERFUL FAMILY
Mariela Castro says she isn’t a leader, but simply part of a movement for greater tolerance. Nevertheless, she admits her access to the two most powerful figures in the country has helped her cause. Castro says she has the support of her 75-year-old father, who is second in charge of the all-powerful Communist party and as first vice president in line to succeed Fidel.
" Of course, I talk with my father whenever I have the chance. He is one of those in the party that supports our work. He thinks it is useful, good, just," she said. Castro sees her uncle less often. " Fidel is very sensitive to these issues," she said. "He is a pensive man and when the subject is one of justice it gets his attention. He asks for more information, more elements to consider."
Castro sees herself as continuing the work of her mother, Vilma Espin, head of the Cuban Womens Federation for the last 45 years. Eighty-seven percent of the island’s women are members. Espin, considered one of the most influential personalities of the Cuban revolution, is the originator of the Cuban family code adopted in 1975, which calls on men to share household chores and child care.
Castro said many people ask her if she plans to push legalization of gay marriages. " We do not know what we will propose. It depends on what we identify as homosexuals’ and lesbians’ main needs," Castro said. " Marriage is not as important in Cuba as in other more Catholic countries. Here consensual pairing is more important," she said, "What matters is love."
November 08, 2006
Cuban soap operas with gay story lines draws to an end; some see show as increased acceptance
The Cuban soap opera The Hidden Side of the Moon aired a story line this past spring about a married man who falls for another man and then contracts HIV. The show has been the most-watched soap in the history of Cuban television. Now, as the show draws to an end, Cuban gays and lesbians say the show is symbolic of the communist island’s government and people becoming more accepting toward them, reports the Miami Herald.
”In 1980, during Mariel, we were thrown out of the country with the crazy people and criminals—the useless,” said 42-year-old restaurant manager Alex, who declined to give his last name. “People threw rocks at us. I was forced to have girlfriends and do things that were beyond me.” In the 1960s and ’70s Cuban gays and lesbians were considered criminals within the communist ideology and were forced into Military Units to Help Production facilities, where they endured hours of strenuous labor and were expected to refrain from homosexual practices.
“ Suddenly in the last two years, there has been a concerted effort by the Cuban government to push a movement that had been going slowly for the past 20 years," said Emilio Bejel, author of Gay Cuban Nation. “They are trying to make up for the damage of the past…. I think they realize it was really horrible what they did.”
Even though a lesbian couple was featured on a soap opera two years ago, The Hidden Side of the Moon represents the first time Cuban television has dealt with gay issues in a mainstream manner. The program has also generated a negative response, with one member of the LGBT community saying it’s playing to an unwanted stereotype. ”The simple fact that they put a gay issue on TV shows a lot,” said restaurant worker Oilime, who also declined to give his last name. “But it promoted the idea that if you sleep with a gay man, you will get a fatal illness. That helps us?”
In other related news, last year saw gay and lesbian film festivals take place all over Cuba, with the island holding its very first sexual diversity cultural festival in western Pinar del Río. Additionally, the government has recently been sending delegates to Latin American International Lesbian and Gay Association conferences.
Enroute to the forbidden country: Cuba
by Chris Wilson
Havana – Settling into my seat on the brief flight, the reality began to sink in. A hasty repetition of instructions in Spanish, then English from the sole flight attendant, who seemed unusually perky given that it was almost midnight, and we were airborne. Cancun had merely been a brief stopover, but up until this point, we were simply ordinary Americans dragging luggage and eating stale airport nachos reminiscent of those found at a high school football concession stand.
Now, however, we were enroute to the forbidden country: Cuba. An American passport can take you anywhere in the world without question except this place. We were privileged to be traveling legally in order to do professional research, but woe be unto the curious who simply wish to see for themselves the land that Hemingway loved, where the casinos and nightlife once flourished and where everything changed on January 1, 1959. They might end up with a ten thousand dollar fine from their own government in the “land of the free”.
The lights of Havana began to appear. I was actually surprised to see how large the city was. Most in our group had never been here before and, as we touched down, we all shared a collective excitement. After landing, the still-perky flight attendant explained the need to spray the floor with disinfectant before we deplaned. It seems that travelers are welcome on this island, but apparently not whatever organisms might stow away on their shoes.
Inside Jose Martí International Airport, we were greeted with an array of booths through which all visitors must shuffle in order to gain entry. I followed along behind a member of my group who had shown the woman behind the glass his full itinerary as well as his tourist card and passport, assuming that I could simply say “"I’m with him." But, no such luck; my duplicate itinerary was passed between the woman and a man who appeared to be her supervisor and I was questioned politely about my visit. Then, with a welcoming smile, my tourist card was stamped and I was buzzed through the door leading into my new adventure.
Once in the baggage claim area, the only visible officials of the Cuban government were two clean cut young men in beige shirts with epaulets, accompanied by their drug sniffing cocker spaniels. The understated style of dress and the use of friendly looking dogs seemed purposeful; a means to get the job done without scaring the tourists. And, unlike many of their American counterparts, these men actually smiled at the incoming passengers and flirted with our flight attendant as she made her way through the terminal.
There was a brief moment of uncertainty when I noticed that four suitcases had been deemed worthy of attention by the men and their dogs. One of them was mine, and it happened to be the one containing my allotted 10 kilograms of medical supplies, including some prescription medications, all of which were to be delivered to the local pharmacy. Had I unknowingly included some contraband? Would I be seeing the hotel or a Havana jail tonight? I mustered up my most puzzled look and boldly walked over to the young men standing beside the case. May I take this?
I inquired politely; he smiled and nodded. I wondered then if he had sent some silent signal to a more intimidating compatriot, but I decided it was best to smile and take the suitcase away. At that point there was a small room to the left where it appeared that some passengers were having their luggage searched but, as I had not been directed to go there, I moved with the flow of the crowd through several glass doors and soon was inside an ordinary looking airport terminal with rows of ticket counters. Apparently, I had cleared Customs.
During the bus ride to the hotel I looked out the window and marveled at the 1950’s American cars that would occasionally pass by. Even though by this time, it was well after midnight, the city was still wide awake. The buildings were a jumble of modern architecture in some places and crumbling old world elegance in others. Painted images of Ché Guevara accompanied by revolutionary slogans reminded us that we were not in Mexico any more.
The Hotel Parque Central was very European in character with a courteous, efficient staff. The room was impeccable with a wonderful array of satellite television channels, many of them the same English language stations as those with which I was familiar in my own country. I settled in for the night in a comfortable king sized bed after lingering for a while beside the balcony window looking out into the Havana night. It was still only beginning to sink in that I was really there.
Although the primary purpose of my journey was professional, I could hardly wait until the next day when I would also be able to pursue my personal agenda. Through the magic of the Internet, and particularly globalgayz.com, I was able to make contact with a gay man named Miguel whom I planned to meet for dinner on my first full day in Havana. Aware from my pre-trip research that there were many shortages on the island, I had asked Miguel what he would like me to bring. He replied without hesitation that he would like some English language books. Given my own love of reading, I knew that he and I were kindred spirits. When I later became more acutely aware of the things Miguel lacked it made an even greater impact that books were first on the list.
When Miguel had originally asked for the books, I was aware that I could only bring in 20 kilograms of luggage other than the medical supplies. So, I advised that it would be good to know what kinds of books he would like to have since the capacity was limited. To my surprise, he gave me a detailed list with author and publication date. The overwhelming majority of these were books about the early stars of the American film industry: Merle Oberon, Lawrence Olivier, Clark Gable, etc. However, there was one such person concerning whom the request for several biographical books was placed at highest priority: Doris Day.
After a day of interesting yet somewhat dry professional meetings, I was free to meet my new friend. “"I will be wearing a silly green hat,"” he told me. And, sure enough, there he was in the lobby of the Parque Central – in a vivid bright green baseball cap that would bring heart palpitations to the gay fashion police in West Hollywood or on Castro street. The man in the green hat was accompanied by his partner, Pablo; both greeted me like long lost friends.
It was a pleasure to explore the streets of Havana with Miguel and Pablo. Both were old-world European style gentlemen who insisted on walking on the outside of the walkway, pulling out my chair at the table and otherwise demonstrating protective chivalry. After beginning with mojitos in the plaza Habana Vieja, we set out to see the sights of this bustling, contradictory and fascinating city. My tour guides shared a wealth of information about the Havana’s history. The hours flew by and we returned to the hotel far too late, given the fact that my next days meeting began at 9AM sharp.
Not wanting to end our time together, I invited Miguel and Pablo in for an espresso at the hotel bar. It was there that I began to learn more about the life of an ordinary Cuban. Cuba has two monetary systems: one for locals and one for tourists. It takes 26 of my new Cuban pesos to equal one Cuban “convertible” peso (CUC). As I tourist, I was able to purchase a CUC for approximately one American dollar plus a 10 percent tax levied by the Cuban government. Adding more difficulty to the life of the ordinary Cuban, the local pesos are not even accepted in the shops where the better quality merchandise may be found. Those shops are primarily for tourists or for locals who are fortunate enough to have relatives abroad who send them Euros or American dollars that can be exchanged for CUCs.
Miguel and Pablo were taken aback by the prices for espresso in the hotel bar. After all, $3.75 CUC translates to about 1/5 of their monthly government retiree pension. Obviously, there was no question that I would be funding all of our Havana night time excursions and I could see how much these two gentlemen wished that they could reciprocate. We made a joke out of it; I told them that “CUC” translated into English meant “Chris Will Pay”. I also teased that the two of them were together because Pablo didn’t drink coffee and, therefore, Miguel was able to have not only his personal four ounce ration every month but Pablo’s as well.
I went up to my hotel room to bring down the suitcase full of books Miguel had requested. He was elated. I would have invited him to go upstairs with me but, unfortunately, Cuban citizens are not allowed to visit any level of a tourist hotel other than the first floor. Even in the bar, it was evident to me that Miguel and Pablo were slightly uncomfortable, as though they were being watched. The rule barring locals from tourist hotel rooms is ostensibly to guard against prostitution (which is obviously available on the streets of Havana). However, since my room had not only fine linens, towels and toiletries but international cable channels including CNN, BBC and MTV and local residents only have government supplied television, it did give me reason to doubt the veracity of this explanation.
So, I asked Miguel, “why Doris Day?” Surely there were other American actresses more highly regarded by serious movie buffs and most gay men I knew fancied Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and several notable others. He replied, in a most serious and dramatic tone: “The others may be great actresses, but Doris Day is a . . . STAR!”
We made our way through the pedestrian filled streets of Havana most evenings during my week long stay. We had dinner in Havana’s Chinatown (every city must have one) where I had, believe it or not, one of the best pizzas I have ever had in my life. Yes, pizza, in Chinatown, in Havana. One of those “you had to have been there” experiences.
Miguel and Pablo seemed to me to be fairly open about their relationship with one another. I also noted in one of the Havana shop windows a public service poster encouraging people “’valorar a tu hijo’” (to value your son) and to understand and accept his “preferencias sexuales”. Miguel explained that the two had many friends and the subject was simply not discussed in the macho Cuban culture. His shared his perspective that Cuban gay men do not have the same concept of community and being “out” as those in the U.S., however, men like Miguel and Pablo who are not flamboyant nor effeminate have no real difficulty with harassment.
The only moment of trepidation (actually it is better described as sheer terror challenging even my usual nerves of steel) was the night I became stuck in the elevator of the Parque Central at midnight between floors. When I picked up the telephone inside the elevator to alert someone to my predicament, there was no answer. Actually, there wasn’t even a dial tone nor could I hear any ringing. I pressed the buzzer, and, since I heard nothing, fervently hoped that it was a silent alarm. Pounding on the door seemed to simply echo throughout the elevator shaft. I wanted to evaluate my options but there did not seem to be any other than to figure out how to make myself comfortable on the elevator floor in between rounds of door-pounding. As it turned out, I was rescued within about 20 minutes by a very apologetic hotel staff who had been calling out to me that they were there but whom I could not hear through the heavy exterior metal doors.
The week in Havana ended too soon. I said goodbye to Miguel and Pablo as we sat, once again, in the hotel lobby drinking our espresso. I made sure that I had far too much money in CUCs which could not be cashed back in for dollars and explained to the two gentleman that I simply had to leave it there as it would be useless to me in the United States. Pablo, who used to work for a major bank prior to the 1959 revolution, gave me a beautifully illustrated book documenting the history of Cuban currency as well as a number of pre-revolution Cuban bank notes. I last saw them walking away from the hotel into the Havana night; the next morning I flew home.
The opportunity to travel to Cuba was a long term dream come true. If you want to get me riled these days, just ask me what I think about the blockade (the Cuban term for the U.S. embargo). Although it sounds trite to say that one week in Havana changed my life, the fact remains that it did. I am certain that it is like no other place on earth. I am also certain that one day I will return.
28 January, 2007
Havana transvestite cabaret helps bring tolerance: Transvestite Samantha de Monaco at Rogelio Conde’s cabaret in Havana.
Wrapped in a figure-hugging sequined dress, the statuesque Chantal sways languorously in the steamy Havana night during a transvestite show that reflects Cuba’s slowly growing tolerance of homosexuals. Patrons sing along as the green-eyed drag queen belts out a sensuous rendition of a Latin hit in the attic of a hair salon, which at night becomes an illegal transvestite club tolerated by the Communist Government.
Chantal draws cheers and catcalls from dozens of Cuban gays and a few foreigners who pack the cabaret. Some shimmy up to the stage to drop a bill in the star’s garter in exchange for a sonorous kiss. But outside the club’s closed doors, patrons are more cautious.
Many homosexuals say their lives are getting easier but they still face a lot of prejudice.
"You can walk hand-in-hand with your boyfriend in Havana, but you shouldn’t," says Leonardo, a 27-year-old schoolteacher. Two years ago, he and his partner were each fined 60 pesos _ about a quarter of the average monthly salary _ for kissing in a Havana shopping centre. The 1959 Communist Revolution made efforts to stop discrimination, notably against blacks, women and the disabled. But gay men occupy a delicate place on this Caribbean island where Latin-style "machismo" is strong and many Cuban men still expect their wives to stay at home to cook, clean and raise children.
The 1938 Cuban Penal Code, which was based on Spanish law and is similar to legislation elsewhere in Latin America, penalised "habitual homosexual acts" and public displays of homosexuality. In 1979, homosexuality was legalised but public displays of such behaviour remained banned until 1987, when that clause was also dropped. "This country has a long way to go towards accepting homosexuals," says Josmar, a muscular 23-year-old student clad in a tight camouflage-print lycra shirt. He says his father, a member of the Cuban army, is not aware of his sexual orientation.
"There is a lot of censorship," says 40-year-old stylist Boris, but "minds have opened up a little". "The state doesn’t want to have problems with this issue, but police sometimes repress and harass gays," he says. In January 2005, Mariela Castro, who leads the National Centre for Sexual Education and is the daughter of acting president Raul Castro, proposed legislation that would legalise sex-change operations. At the time, she noted that only one such operation had been performed in Cuba, in 1988, when a man underwent surgery to become a woman.
The bill is still in Parliament, but Cuban gays feel any movement on it will take time. "We don’t expect anything radical to happen in the next few years. Changes are slow everywhere, and more so in Cuba," says Leonardo. Cuba has nevertheless come a long way since the 1960s, when many gay men were rounded up and sent to military work camps. In the 1970s, homosexuals still faced discrimination when trying to get state jobs. In the ’80s and ’90s, arrests of homosexuals were still fairly common, and establishments such as the cabaret where Chantal performs were often shut down by police.
But the past decade has seen huge steps forward. A soap opera shown on state television drew the highest number of viewers in 2006 when it had a happily married athletic carpenter discovering his bisexual inclination. At the Havana transvestite show, Maridalia, a 150-kilogram beauty clad in a tomato-red dress, serenades the crowd with a wide smile and gritty voice. "These are modern times," says an attendant seated in front of a Cuban flag and a gay pride rainbow banner.
Cuba Information link: http://www.cuba-junky.com
June 18th, 2007
Cuba Going Queer? Activist Push For Family Rights
Cuba may become the first Caribbean nation to recognize gay civil rights. Of course, such fag freedoms will only come about if the communist nation’s Parliament reforms the Family Code, a big ‘if’ to say the least. Caribbean 360 reports: Drawn up by the non-governmental Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) with support from CENESEX, the draft reform of the Family Code has been presented to the Political Bureau, the highest body of the ruling Communist Party… The proposal would give homosexual couples the same civil and inheritance rights as heterosexual couples. However, it does not mention gay marriage, because a change of that magnitude would require a lengthy process of reforming the constitution, which was last amended in 1992. While certainly gay marriage’s ideal, activists assert Cuba’s not ready for such a cultural shift.
National Centre for Sex Education director Mariela Castro comments: "That proposal will be made when the time is ripe. For now, it is sufficient to reform the Family Code, which is recognised as a branch of Cuban law." Post-communist Cuban law prohibited homosexuality for years. In fact, gays were often rounded up and sent to labor camps. Restrictions were later lifted in the 1990’s, when the government reformed homophobic legislation, including 1992’s reversal of anti-sodomy laws. Despite the political progress, many Cubans still discriminate against gays, a trend Family Code reformers hope to truncate:
"The Family Code, which was originally approved in 1975 and submitted to a review process by the FMC since about 15 years ago, would now stipulate that the family has the responsibility and duty to accept and care for all of its members, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation." If the initiative is approved, gay and lesbian couples would enjoy the same civil, patrimonial, inheritance, housing and adoption rights as heterosexual couples. Though hopeful, Castro and other gay activists aren’t holding their breath for the reform’s passage: " I can’t guarantee that it will reach parliament this year.. That is our hope, but it does not depend on us, and of course, it is facing a great deal of resistance."
Though seemingly accepting, many Cuban politicos aren’t down with the gays. In fact, the government has banned any type of gay pride movement or other queer congregations, organizations or celebrations.
Queers to Cuba Tour (non-proft educatoinal agency)
On December 27, 2007, a group of North Americans will make history by flying to Havana on the first ever Queers to Cuba Tour.
They’ll spend eight days experiencing the island’s rich cultural heritage and meeting representatives of Cuban organizations working for sexual dignity.
Activists from CENESEX (the National Center for Sexual Education), the Cuban organization advancing queer reforms and AIDS
awareness, will brief tour members on the island scene. Program highlights include joining the throng celebrating the 49th
anniversary of the Cuban Revolution in Old Havana, attending an authentic drag show, swimming at the gay beach, learning salsa dancing from island pros, and sampling the city’s exciting nightlife. Tour participants will explore colonial and modern Havana, sample museums of art and history, and visit the eco-community at Las Terrazas in Pinar de Rio.
The farewell dinner will be at La Guarida Restaurant where the famous 1995 movie "Strawberry and Chocolate" starring Jorge Perugorria and Vladimir Cruz was filmed. In the movie, a young Communist Party activist learns the meaning of live and let live from a gay artistic director. The tour is being conducted by Sonja de Vries, co-founder of San Francisco-based Queers for Cuba, the first LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) group to be officially invited to Cuba. Ms de Vries studied race and gay issues in Havana from 1993 to 1994, and her groundbreaking documentary "Gay Cuba" remains the last word on the subject.
" The Queers to Cuba Tour comes at an exciting time for LGBT equality in Cuba," says Sonja de Vries. "The Cubans are drafting legislation to allow same sex unions, lesbian adoption and insemination, and transgender reassignment surgery. These changes are being broadly debated by the population, yet North Americans hear very little about this kind of popular democracy." The tour is being organized by Cuba Education Tours of Vancouver, Canada, whose coordinator, Marcel Hatch, insists, "The image of Cuba as a gulag for LGBT people is false. It’s a myth invented by opponents of revolutionary Cuba. As a gay, I feel safer in Cuba than in Canada or the States. Soon island queers will enjoy greater rights and freedoms than their counterparts in the USA."
Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, has said, "We have to abolish any form of discrimination against those persons. We have to redefine the concept of marriage. Socialism should be a society that does not exclude anybody." Sonja de Vries recalls, "When I visited Cuba last December with a group, we met with CENESEX president Mariela Castro Espin and she told us about the concrete work being done with transgender people, with lesbians, and with families to encourage support of their LGBT kids. Several members ofmy group were in tears. To see these efforts being carried out in a way that is so respectful and compassionate is not something most of us have experienced with institutions, much less government!"
The inaugural Queers to Cuba Tour will run from December 27, 2007, to January 3, 2008. Participants will stay at the Hotel St John’s in the heart Havana’s Vedado entertainment district. The services of a multilingual Cuban guide and a professional bus chauffeur will be provided throughout. It’s an event LGBT people and their friends from Canada, the United States, and beyond will not want to miss. Ms Sonja de Vries and Mr Marcel Hatch are available for media interviews.
To arrange a time, call 877-687-3817 toll free or email
firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
About Cuba Education Tours
Cuba Education Tours has been promoting healthy, entertaining, and ethical travel to Cuba since 2000. Examples of its programs include baseball tours, study abroad programs, a VIP presence at the Havana Jazz Festival, and volunteer opportunities for ESL teachers. The organization’s website is http://www.canadacuba.ca with specific information on the Queers to
Cuba Tour at http://www.gaycuba.ca and photos of Cuba on http://www.cuba-pictures.com
Cuba Education Tours
708 – 207 West Hastings Street
Vancouver, British Columbia
V6B 1H7 Canada
Tel 877-687-3817 toll free
14th December 2007
Castro’s girl seeks legal protection for Cuban LGBT
by Joe Roberts
A Cuban sexologist has shocked her communist country by suggesting that gays, lesbians, transsexuals, transvestites and transgender people should be granted legal protection under forthcoming reforms. Mariela Castro, director of the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), is calling for new measures including non-discrimination on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity. She also advocates the introduction of same-sex unions and adoption rights, and major reforms relating to health care and treatment of trans people.
Speaking to www.IPSnews.net, Miss Castro, who is the niece of Cuban Leader Fidel Castro and daughter of current president, Raúl Castro, admitted reform was necessary to address the country’s poor history on gay rights. Speaking of the 1960s, she criticised the Communist party saying: "A revolutionary ideology should be truly revolutionary throughout, not just in some aspects. But the ideology of that era was deeply prejudiced against homosexuals." However she added that the potential reforms marked a gradual change of attitude in the party, saying: "Now they’re adopting more inclusive attitudes. Fortunately, they have learned and become aware of those errors and many others.
"What we are doing is helping it progress along the learning curve. What we have to do is learn from experience and take steps to move forward as a society."
December 26, 2007
Cuba: Elizabeth and Monica’s Wedding
The veils, gloves, roses and dresses are white. Monica and Elizabeth hold hands and exchange rings on this afternoon in Cuba overflowing with symbolism, tears, laughter and hugs from people who have supported them over the last two years. "I loved you from the moment I first saw you. You were the woman I was looking for, and I am the woman of your dreams," says Mónica, 19, who cannot help remembering the hard times their relationship went through. "We were on the point of living under a bridge, but there were always good friends who understood and helped us." Elizabeth, 28, responds, moments before the ring and the kiss. "I always said that every day I discover something new about you. I’m still amazed at your attitude towards life’s challenges. I owe my strength to you. Because of you, I know where I’m going and what I want, and what freedom means. You are my bride, my friend and my lifelong partner."
The words and images of every moment of Sunday’s ceremony were recorded on film by a team of students from the Cuban Higher Institute of Art (ISA). It is not the first symbolic wedding of a lesbian couple to have taken place on this Caribbean island, but it is the first to enjoy support from a state institution. The National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), which for several years has been promoting greater understanding of sexual diversity, loaned its inner courtyard for the ceremony and the celebration that followed for 60 friends, ISA students and a handful of representatives of the institution.
A proposal for legal reform advocated by CENESEX and the Cuban Women’s Federation calls for the recognition of de facto unions between same-sex couples and equal rights for heterosexual and homosexual couples, as well as eligibility to adopt children and, for women, access to assisted fertilisation services. The legal machinery is already rolling and the initiative may reach parliament in 2008, but no one can predict how long it will take to come to a vote. Meanwhile, CENESEX was advised by the ruling Communist Party to make efforts to prepare the public through a media campaign.
"This should be seen as absolutely normal. Each to his or her own. I’m heterosexual, but that doesn’t prevent me from understanding people who are different. What this couple is doing is really courageous, at the present time," Aldo Díaz, an old friend of Elizabeth’s and best man at the wedding, told IPS. Díaz read the "essential requirements" before sealing the union: "may you never lack the commitment, honesty, courage and intelligence to enjoy the good and accept the bad in your partner and in yourselves. From this moment you are to speak your thoughts aloud to your other half, and this is the best gift and the highest encouragement."
"May there always be a warm kiss on your lips, a sweet and ardent look in your eyes, a gentle caress in your hands, and in your minds thoughts of affection, admiration and concern for the needs of your other half," added the other best man at this marriage which, for the moment, requires no lawyers or legal registry. Mónica and Elizabeth look forward to the day that their union can be legalised, but for them it will only be a bureaucratic procedure. "We’ll go and sign, and that’s all. And that day will come, because we have made great progress on these issues, in spite of the lack of understanding. We are a living example," said Monica.