Intro: This story is a compilation of reports, stories and news that I stitched together from numerous sources before I visited Cuba. It will give you a good idea about how controversial the homosexual issue is under socialism.
Fidel Castro died on November 25, 2016 evoking sadness and joy among native and expat Cubans. His effect on the LGBT community is expressed in this report: http://archive.globalgayz.com/caribbean/cuba/this-is-how-fidel-castro-persecuted-gay-people/
by Richard Ammon
Updated July 2015
In the News & Reports 1995-2002 and 2003-13 on this site there are 20 news stories, essays, book and film reviews each purporting a point of view about gay life in Castro’s Cuba forty-plus years after ‘la revolucion’, which was supposed to bring the good life to an oppressed people.
Each of the writers looks at Cuba through the lens of their desire and passion, whether political, artistic, racial, sexual, gender (or cross-gender) or personal. Seven of the articles are pro-Castro in theme, five are balanced between pro and con while eight others are decidedly anti-Castro. Even with this scatter, reading through these testimonies and analyses, a reader is not likely to come away with a decided impression of how well or poorly gays are living in Cuba.
For the individual with curiosity, adventure, intrigue or pleasure in mind the appropriate step is to set foot in the heart of Havana and walk the streets and have lunch with some ‘maricones’ (gays) who wake up every sunrise to walk through dilapidated streets to a poorly paid job—where they are closeted–and who look forward to the evening when they can be with like-minded friends to relax, have a smoke and wiggle to some music.
This personal contact is clearly the most ‘real’ feel a visitor can get of the inner experience of lesbigays in Havana today. For this reason, the News & Reports starts off with ‘raw’ interviews of everyday gays as they express their experiences, feelings and hopes. With the recorded words of their testimonies, writer Lorenzo Gomez, (Report #1) sets the tone for the remaining 17 articles: life for gays is daunting, overcast with apprehension and uncertainty, yet with some recent opportunities for modest fun.
The various perspectives put forth in the articles revolve around a commonly reported history of political repression and persecution in the 60’s and 70’s with a softening in the 80’s and continuing into the 90’s, although not without incidents of cruelty and homophobia toward those who dared to speak or act out.
The most famous rebel, brought to bigger-than-life in the recent popular film ‘Before Night Falls’, is Reinaldo Arenas, a writer persecuted and imprisoned by Castro in the 70’s for daring to publish his disillusionment and criticism of Castro’s revolution. Apologists and critics alike have seized on this film as evidence for both the nightmare hell brought upon gays in Cuba as well as a touchstone through which to see today’s gay life as much improved. Art is like that—an experience as well a measure of the times, both highly interpretive.
Another film about gays in Cuba appeared in the early nineties, ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’. The film was produced with the blessing and participation of the government cultural affairs office and was a very popular hit across Cuba for months. The film is revolutionary in it own way in that it presents a leading gay character, one with a complex personality who thinks and feels deeply about life, art, love and freedom from censorship. Homosexual Diego is played against heterosexual David, a patriot and student of the revolution who is both politically and sexually frustrated, and without a distinct passion of his own.
In the cat and mouse game of their friendship, David—the devout but wavering communist– is the one who is seduced by Diego’s cosmopolitan sophistication—his books (Wilde, Donne, Lorca), his religious sculptures, his Maria Callas records, his passion for freedom. In the end, Diego is forced to leave Cuba and David loses his virginity as he falls in love with a woman whom Diego has urged on him. But the last scene portrays how far the revolution—through David—must travel, with no small difficulty, to reach out and embrace a more humanistic life: David fully and willingly wraps his arms around the distraught Diego as tears well up for both friends whom they are about to lose.
(The film was such a watershed cultural event that in 1994 Sonja de Vries produced a documentary ‘Gay Cuba’ which recorded the “ecstatic reactions of Cubans pouring out of the cinema after watching the film.”)
Has the ‘revolution’ been reborn with a new heart? Not likely, but several writers feel it has changed and that life for gays in Cuba is now better than ever.
Pro: Cuban Gay Life is Better
As recently as 2010, the online‘Time Out’ magazine (Report #14) reported, “Cuba is now probably the most easy-going of all Latin American and Caribbean countries in terms of its acceptance of gay culture and lifestyle.” Another essay, this one in the ‘Swedish Cuba’ magazine (Report #11), proclaims “Given its limitations, Cuba’s sexual education scheme, and society’s attitude towards homosexuals is a model in Latin America, and it is clear to see that homophobia is beginning to loosen, although there is not yet an active government program to fight it.”
Still more pro-gay Cuba is Larry R. Oberg (Report #8) who, after touring and talking around the island country, claims “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.” He goes on to defend Cuba against what he sees as unfair prejudice from hardened expats. “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!).”
Pro and Con: Cuban Gay Life is Better-Not Better
Several articles (Reports #3,6,15.16.18) acknowledge the grim past and the hard-handed policies toward gays yet they also see a brighter present tense expressing itself in the light of a more tolerant regime. A 1997 book by Ian Lumsden, a Canadian, writes (Report #3) “the current situation of Cuban gays is much more oppressive than the Cuban government is willing to acknowledge. Yet it is also much less restricted than it was a decade ago and much better than many émigré gays and lesbians are willing to concede in public.”
About the same time, Gary Morris (Report #18) quoted a native gay Cuban: “”Many of us live our lives in the closet. This works against our human development…” On the other hand, he continues, we have a young Cuban lesbian who insists on holding hands with and kissing her girlfriend in public, “right in front of the police,” daring them to intervene. The film ‘Gay Cuba’ shows that a society that encourages its people to think and examine their prejudices can change for the better, and this is what’s happening there, according to the film.
One story (Report #19) about HIV health care in Cuba celebrates the country’s socialistic and efficient approach to protecting the public as well as offering effecive medical care to those who are infected.
Con: Cuban Gay Life is Not Better
The largest portion of the articles, however, are those written by authors who are critical and damning of what Castro has done to his country over four decades of ‘delusion’ governing in the name of a mythical utopian socialism. In the first two decades after Castro’s 1959 takeover, a painful attack on gays ensued. They were targeted as political symbols of impure revolutionary doctrine and miscreants of western decadence. ‘”The Castro regime has also been ferociously anti-gay”, writes Dale Carpenter in his review of ‘Before Night Falls’ (Report #9). Decrying the lack of personal freedoms, he says we should be under no delusions about the repression gays suffer in Cuba despite the appearance of a political thaw.
Continuing this critical theme, Agustin Blazquez (Report #12) writes “The nightmare for gays and lesbians in Cuba–despite the well-orchestrated Castro propaganda, which includes tours of gay life in his ‘paradise’, is hardly over…Unfortunately, many naïve gays and lesbians, as well as members of the U.S. media, fall prey to these deceptive tours and they return praising the open gay life on the island. I marvel at their ‘observations.’ It reminds me of the many American tourists and reporters who visited Hitler’s Germany and failed to see the horrible reality of the Nazis.”
Finally, the internationally respected gay rights activist Peter Tatchell (who has twice tried to make a citizen’s arrest of Zimbabwe’s repressive president Mugabe) writes his critical view of gay Cuba today in his analysis of ‘Before Night Falls’. He observes (Report #15) that even lthough things have softend in recent years, this is mostly cosmetic: “Although homosexuals are no longer savagely repressed, it is nonsense to suggest that there is no discrimination in Cuba today. The claim that Havana has none of the death squads that murder queers in Bogota is hardly proof of Castro’s liberalism”… “Most gay bars are semi-legal private house parties and are subject to periodic police raids. Homosexuals are still deemed unfit to join the ruling Communist Party (being gay is contrary to communist ethics) and this can have an adverse impact of a person’s professional career when senior appointments depend on party membership. Lesbian and gay newspapers and organisations are not permitted. The Cuban Association of Gays and Lesbians, formed in 1994, was suppressed in 1997 and its members arrested. Gay Cuba? Not yet!”
So the volatile debate about gay life continues about a small but highly politicized country in the Caribbean, a debate unmatched by any other country I have visited or researched. Why? Perhaps because Castro (as seen from those who oppose him) is Cuba; he is a man who betrayed the people’s dreams of democracy; so Cuba is country betrayed. And betrayal evokes a special kind of passion for revenge that will not dissolve. Forty-plus years later, half of south Florida would likely give their lives to rid their homeland of this scourge. But in spite of their rage, ‘el presidente’ still blows cigar smoke in the faces of his adversaries. Not surprisingly, feelings about Cuba remain high; everything seems important, from 6-year-old Elia to the treatment of ‘maricones’ in the barrios of Havana. So many causes keep the embers burning.
There is no single answer as to what the gay Cuban elephant is really like; it’s a multiple of experiences and interpretations.
Castro died November 25, 2016.