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Gay Rights and Life in Cuba

by Larry Oberg


It is not without surprise that Kent & Company would announce the film Before Night Falls. Based on a memoir by the late self-exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (Old Rosa, Farewell to the Sea, El Central: a Cuban Sugar Mill), it chronicles Arenas' repression as a homosexual artist by Cuban authorities in the 1960s and 1970s. I would imagine that Mr. Kent expects to get quite a bit of propaganda mileage out of promoting the film version. Recycling old news is, of course, stock in trade for what the island Cubans call "the Miami mafia." To Kent & Company, Cuba stopped changing 30 years ago and nothing has or, indeed, ever will change again.

Over the past year, I have spent nearly three months in Cuba on two different occasions, much of that time in Havana, but also in a variety of other cities, including Santiago de Cuba. As a gay man, it was personally important to me to find out as much as possible about the status of gays and lesbians in Cuba. What I found contrasts sharply with the portrait of gay life in Cuba drawn by Arenas. His take may have been accurate for its time (I cannot claim to know), but I suspect it was considerably exaggerated. (I say exaggerated because Arenas' fantastic claim to have bedded 5000 guys in something like two years is not credible. And, if we are to believe him, every young stud on the island between the ages of 15 and 22 was constantly on the alert to jump his bones. Well, maybe not.)

To prepare for my visit, I read the book, "Machos, maricones, and gays: Cuba and homosexuality," by the Canadian, Ian Lumsden. Lumsden is a luke-warm supporter of the revolution and gives a fairly critical take on Cuban gay history during the early years of the revolution and the current status of gays on the island. It is a useful introduction. I also watched the film "Gay Cuba," made around 1995. It consists mainly of a series of interviews with gay guys and lesbians who speak frankly about their lives. (One of the producers of the film, an interviewee himself, now works as a tour guide and gave me useful background information on the film.) Gay Cuba was shown at the Havana International Festival of Latin American Cinema to public and critical acclaim. However, a few of the Cuban gays who had seen it had reservations and told me that they felt it gives an accurate, but incomplete, picture of gay life on the island.

Gay Cuba is not the only documentary on Cuban gay life. A perhaps more interesting take is "Mariposas en el Andamio," (Butterflies on the Scaffold). Mariposa is a Cuban term for drag queen and the film documents the daily life and the performances of Cuban drag queens in a neighborhood called La Guinera. At my request, I was invited there for a special show. La Guinera was very poor before the revolution and remains what we might call working class. Many of these drag shows are sponsored by the local CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) and play to large and wildly enthusiastic audiences. (If you're wondering, the performers were great!)

What I found in Cuba was a gay community with many parallels to the gay community in North America and a few differences as well. For one thing, there are no laws on the Cuban books that discriminate against gays. (This is to be contrasted with the United States where all too many states retain outdated sodomy laws and where, increasingly, repressive legislation is enacted at the state level.) I have talked with literally hundreds of gays (mostly men) in Cuba and I found none who believe they are being persecuted by their government. Discrimination by individuals is reported, however, and there is also a lot of resentment of the residual macho attitudes that remain stubbornly embedded in some levels of Cuban society, attitudes tht perpetuate highly dichotomized sex roles and prejudice against homosexuals amongst the population at large. But none reported active or systematic repression by the state.

One question that I always asked gay guys was "would you feel comfortable holding hands with your boyfriend on the street?" About 80% responded with a qualified yes. Many stated that they do just that. (Two guys or women holding hands is not an uncommon sight in Havana.) But some also said that they would stop holding hands in front of a police officer. Not unlike societies to the north, Cuba recruits a high percentage of young macho hot dogs to their police force, some with a chip on their shoulder against gays. But, I want to make it clear: No gays that I talked to reported governmental repression, although many older Cuban gays did talk about "the bad old days."

It seems to me that it is important to put Cuba's past record of mistreatment of gays in its proper perspective. For example, thirty-five or so years ago, in Boise, Idaho, hundreds of gay men were persecuted, driven from their homes and families and imprisoned in one of the more infamous anti-gay actions in our history. Florida itself has a dreadful record in terms of gay rights and only about 10 years ago in Adrian, Michigan, the police staked out a public park for months and then arrested over 30 men at their homes, in front of their wives and children and, in a couple of cases, grand-children. (With one exception, all of these guys were married self-identified heterosexuals.) Cuba's past record on gay rights may be no better than our own, certainly nothing to be proud of, but in my experience gays in today's Cuba are better off than they are in any other Latin American society (check the murder rate in Rio) and better off than they are in many states in our Union (think Matthew Shepherd).

Cuban society, like most North American and European societies, is undergoing a profound review and reconceptualization of its attitudes towards gays and lesbians. Most of you probably know about the film Strawberry and Chocolate, the first Cuban film to deal openly and directly with homosexuality. (If you haven't seen it, I recommend it.) What you may not know is that the film was wildly popular in Cuba (indicating, no doubt, a repressed need to talk about this issue). Apparently it played simultaneously at 10 or 12 theatres in Havana for months to lines several blocks long.

Another seminal incident along the road to acceptance for Cuban gays occurred in 1996. Pablo Milanes, a Cuban nova trova singer who has achieved quasi-sainthood amongst the island's population, wrote a song about gay men entitled Original Sin (available on his CD entitled Origines), a song he dedicated to all Cuban homosexuals. Introduced at his annual holiday concert held in the vast Karl Marx Theater in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana, El Pecado original took the audience and the country by storm and did much to advance the cause of gay acceptance.

For me, one of the most striking things I learned about Cuba during my recent visits was the vitality of the cultural and intellectual life, particularly, of course, in Havana. Gay themes are prevalent in the theatre, in lectures and in concerts. For example, I recently saw a play entitled Muerte en el bosque (A Death in the Woods), about the investigation of the murder of an Havana drag queen produced by El Teatro Sotano in its Vedado theatre. Through the investigation of the crime, Cuban attitudes toward and prejudices against gays are examined at every level of society. (It also included a terrific drag show during the intermission!)

On a lighter note, a group called La Danza Voluminosa (voluminosa as in volume; come on, you get it!) produced a marvellously funny and dramatic ballet version of Racine's Phedre, with gender-blind casting. (Yes, Phedre was danced by a man.) And a one-man (yes, one man) stage version of Strawberry and Chocolate played to considerable success this season. It is also worth noting that in last December's film festival in Havana, easily half of the Latin American films shown had gay themes or subtexts.

It may be of some interest to note that theatre tickets cost Cubans 5 pesos (25 cents). Movies cost 2 pesos. To me, a striking contridiction in Cuban society today is the contrast between the rich cultural and intellectual life that is available and affordable and salaries that makes the purchase of a bar of soap an event that has to be planned for. In Havana, gay-run and gay-clientele restaurants are not hard to find, try the elegant French cuisine at Le Chansonnier, for example, or La Guarida, located in the apartment in which Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed. The famous (and rather infamous) Fiat Bar on the Malecon continues to attract hundreds of gay twenty-somethings who, on weekend nights, spill across this emblamatic Havana thoroughfare and line the sidewalk facing the sea.

In sum, I believe that what I have given you in this posting is context. Context that allows the discussion of Cuban libraries and other issues that Kent & Company generate on this and many other lists to be cast in a light that is not shed by Mr. Kent's narrowly focussed torch. Context is, of course, precisely what Mr. Kent wishes to avoid. By insisting upon a discussion of "intellectual freedom" unfettered by the realities of the world, he can set a very high bar for Cuba and easily find her wanting. (So, pick a country, guys, we can all do that.)

I, for one, do not believe it helpful to hold Cuba to an abstract standard that no other country in the world (certainly including my own) can claim to have reached. More useful, it seems to me, is to view this small island nation within the rich context of current reality. How well is Cuba doing compared to the rest of Latin America? How well is Cuba doing relative to our own country? How much progress has Cuba made on a variety of fronts, including intellectual freedom and access to information over the past forty years. A vision of Cuba very different from that of Mr. Kent's then emerges.

Gay culture in Cuba indeed may have been repressed 30 years ago. Where wasn't it in that pre-Stonewall age? But, this is not the reality of what I found in today's Cuba. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Out magazine (a slick and trendy guppy publication) would feature Havana as "The New gay hot spot ... hot boys, drag-heavy bars, and a whole lot more" in its current February 2001 issue if Cuba were as repressive as Kent's colleagues state. By insisting upon a sterile discussion devoid of context Mr. Kent constructs a reality in which any discussion the very real and quantifiable progress Cuba has made since the beginning of its revolution is ruled out of bounds; it also has the advantage of protecting him from discussion of his own highly questionable sponsors and their thinly veiled motives.

My suggestion is not to engage Mr. Kent and his agents directly. The most effective way of dealing with provocateurs is to discuss the issues, but ignore the provocations.

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