Homophobia Is the Problem, Not Gays

By Irina Echarry, photos: Caridad

Homophobia is the problem
Homophobia is the problem

HAVANA TIMES, May 19 – Havana’s 23rd Street was a grand fiesta on Saturday as people of all ages and sexual orientations formed a winding conga line that extended to Pavilion Cuba, the place where Sexual Diversity Day was formally initiated. Havana Times was on the scene to listen to speakers, capture photos, and talk with several participants.

In her opening words, Sexual Education Center (CENESEX) director Mariela Castro Espin noted, “This it is not a gay pride march, that’s not our intention at this time.  In reality, we’re identifying with a proposal made by a French activist to designate a World Day against Homophobia.  Gays are not a problem, the problem is homophobia!”

CENESEX-supported by other institutions across the country-encouraged discussion and reflection within families about sexual diversity on Saturday the day before the World Day on May 17, said Mariela.

The aim was not to question the family structure that predominates in Cuban society, but to consider other forms, which people are less accustomed to, but are part of the country’s reality.  Lesbians, gays, transsexuals and their families all had their chance to speak and exchange experiences-some bitter, others buoyant.

Thanks to educational campaigns such as this, the issue of homophobia is being addressed at some levels, though generally Cuban society continues to be homophobic.

Mariela Castro Espin, director of CENESEX
Mariela Castro Espin, director of CENESEX

During the first years of the Cuban Revolution, homosexuality was harshly repressed. There are countless stories about incidents occurring in forced internment centers.  Felix Luis Sierra’s book, El ciervo herido (The Wounded Deer), is only one example of the ordeal of someone who was in the Military Production Support Units: forced labor camps set up in the 1960s in Camagüey Province, where homosexuals and believers of different religions were taken, along with other “anti-social elements.”  A harrowing book, the work reveals testimonies of intolerance and hatred.

That’s homophobia: a feeling that repels people from gays, who are viewed as a threat.  Typically, Cuban society does not recognize homosexuals, and when it does, it is through usually negative stereotypes.  Little tolerance is shown for erotic homosexual relationships, jokes are made in bad taste, and they are pointed out and accused of anything.

The cost of this disparity remains high in this 21st century era of post-modernity.  It continues to be paid when some intellectuals and artists undertake work aimed at introducing us to themes of sexual diversity, or as current fashions favor the influence of one sex over another in terms of styles of dress or hairstyles.  Discrimination continues to reign supreme.

Day-to-day anecdotes are abundant, from people recounting stories about a group of women harassed by policemen at the beach, or nighttime soap operas that caricature gays, putting them on public display to be judged for their “immoral behavior.” These shows imply that HIV is a punishment for being gay, as their poorly focused characters become recorded in the public’s minds.

Homophobia is not limited to one strata of society.  There are professionals who hate homosexuals because they “go against nature.” These individuals recognize that gays are the same as other human beings, but also that they are “misguided.”  So what’s to expect from people who are less educated?

Prisoners of Fear

Oremi, a group space of work and reflection
Oremi, a group space of work and reflection

Where does a female teen go who begins to feel something strange for her female math teacher, despite knowing that this is “not normal”? What does a young gay or lesbian person do who hates military life and is surrounded by people who constantly humiliate them? Where does a person go who is kicked out of their house by their own family?  There are many questions and few answers.

Many times people who feel attraction for their same sex repress their feelings so as not to be mistreated. Prisoners of fear, they are denied the right to love and be loved freely.

Jackeline is lesbian, though few people know it.  She has not been very lucky in her love life, she is afraid of being ostracized.  “My position is quite healthy with respect to others. I’ve tried to follow the canons that society imposes, to not complicate my life. Seeing the situations of my friends, I believe that it’s better like that way.  I believe discrimination continues. It’s contradictory, but the more people learn that homosexuals are asking for social recognition, the more they reject them; it should be the other way around, but that’s how it is.

“I don’t want that to happen to me. Despite these campaigns, there’s no change taking place. I come here and see people applauding. I recognize myself in those who speak and say with pride that they’re gay or lesbian, but then I think it through, and I realize that this isn’t going to work. It’s going to be a long time before we see any progress.”

The lesbian group Fenix from Cienfuegos Province doesn’t think the same way. They have a place at what’s called the Health Palace in their city where they meet to give and receive seminars on the inclusion of homosexuals in the active life of society as they work to seek greater acceptance. Vivian and Miyita told HT: “We’re doing a study on lesbophobia, which consists of socializing lesbians with the family, and vice versa. The objective of the initiative is to ensure that society understands that the woman has always been the matriarch of the family, whether or not she has children or is married or divorced.

“We see the woman as a primordial link in society, from the creative point of view, as a creator, incorporating society, independent of her sexual orientation.  Our families have come all the way from Cienfuegos to give support today.  In a past we had problems with heterosexuals, now there’s a bit more understanding.  We are advancing little by little, step by step.”

Twenty-five years in an undesirable marriage

Amparo: “They forced me to marry when they saw something different in me.
Amparo: “They forced me to marry when they saw something different in me."

A moving testimony was given by Amparo, a resident from a town in Pinar del Río Province who was obligated to marry a man she didn’t love.  She was a member of the Catholic Church, almost the right hand of the town’s parish priest. She had had “that feeling” for a long time, but it was repressed by her parents, who were much older and did not understand anything.

“They forced me to marry when they saw something different in me. In a rural community, everything is more complicated. I was married for 25 years, and I suffered a great deal. The only good thing from that time are my two children. Then came a person who made me realize my sexual orientation; we fell in love and I decided to break with everything.

“My parents had already died. I understood that this was the moment to give myself a chance. At what other time was I going to do it? I had waited long enough. I thought about myself for the first time in my life, and I acted. I was ostracized by the church, but I knew that would happen. I dropped out on my own, I stopped going to communion. I believe in God; God is love, and I think that if I feel love for a person, even though they are of my same sex, then God is still there.

Homophobia is the problem
Homophobia is the problem

“But that goes against the commandments of the church, and people put us down a lot. They say it’s not right if a woman loves another woman, and she feels sexual desire for her. I advise all people who have that type of feeling in their heart that they not hesitate for anybody. Life is yours and there’s only one. There’s no reason to waste it for the sake of being accepted, people will always talk. I worried about my children a great deal, but they are wonderful, they’re mine.

“No one can take away my being a mother, on the contrary. My older child is now 24, and he is very loving with my current partner, he very respectful. My daughter is 13 and is my best friend. They accept me because I’m their mom. Like I say, when there’s love everything flows. They love me as a mother, as a woman, as Amparo.

“The sexual relationship is something that’s yours; you don’t have to share it with anybody. It’s like when somebody prefers a certain flavor of ice cream; why would you take the flavor that somebody else wants? I suffered a lot when I made my decision; I broke a lot of chains, but my children supported me, as did my partner back then. I finally overcame it all, and today I’m a happy woman. At my job I’ve been accepted as a human being, and that’s the fundamental thing.”

Many Homosexuals Face Cruelness

Homophobia is the problem
Homophobia is the problem

The life of homosexual people in Cuba is not rose-colored; they have to face prejudices, dogma, labels, hate and machismo.

Raydel, a 40-year-old professional, talked about his experience as a person who is gay: “I went to eat with my partner and we were stopped up by the police more than five times in less than 15 minutes, each asking us for our IDs.  They dealt with us badly, even though we were not in a gay place or dressed in women’s clothes. They looked at us as if we were robbers or murder suspects.

“Bad behavior exists among all social groups.  Once I was held an entire night for riding on a bike with my partner. And then when you’re in jail they’ll accuse you of anything; they can say that you were in a park naked having sex openly with another person, or they’ll say that there is a law against you, against male prostitution.  It’s your word against theirs. The police of the Ministry of the Interior do not wear badges, so you can’t identify them or accuse them. Without proof, you can’t do anything. When they want to, they can destroy you and screw up your life.”

Injustice Goes Unanswered

This information doesn’t come out in the press; there is no coverage about the injustices committed. It is difficult to sensitize a population that doesn’t know that these persons suffer or what they must endure.  Gays are often rounded up; the truck arrives and takes them away even though they have not done anything.  These are only stories that circulate by word of mouth and don’t make it to higher-ups, to people who could do something to improve the situation.

Be careful, when you hate you can hurt someone you love.
Be careful, when you hate you can hurt someone you love.

Homophobia among police, soldiers and officials is a thorny issue. Groups like Cenesex have been trying to sensitize them but it’s a difficult slow process. There is no stipulation in Cuban law against someone dressing in the clothes of another sex, nor is it illegal to express one’s homosexual orientation openly, the 1997 criminal code modified a previous article. What the police do stems from their own prejudices, from their macho perceptions that have failed to change.

In the ongoing campaign “Diversity is Natural,” focus is being placed on university students, those who will one day be able to change the thinking of society. The drive is also appealing to the family as the fundamental base for the creation of values, feelings, and principles among the next generation.

According to Mariela Castro, “An effort is being made from the grassroots. You cannot go directly to the army and impose measures on those who are not prepared.  If through educational campaigns it is possible to influence the family, subsequently soldiers, officials, and police officers who are a part of Cuban life will also change, and they themselves will introduce transformations in military institutions.”

To affect change we must continue working for people’s mutual respect in all spaces. We must work for harmony between people, and especially not forget that there are human beings who discriminate and are discriminated against, those that humiliate and those humiliated. There are people who accept or don’t accept their neighbor. Homophobia is a wrong that can be eradicated, although it will take time, tenacity and persistence.

It is a complicated matter, but not impossible.

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11 thoughts on “Homophobia Is the Problem, Not Gays

  • If you don´t like homosexuality then don´t be a homosexual and you don´t get to choose for our lives, you have your own and i wish it was a more educated one.

  • of its unfettered rational and moral prerogative and common sense. Societal toleration for homosexuals is in fact a possibility and a reality, but not legal entitlement to gay marriage which is an empirical, logical and evolutionary absurdity contrary to the very nature of sexuality and natural evolution.

  • The problem of course is not ‘homophobia’, but homosexuality itself and the notion of gay marriage as a valid institution. One might try to fabricate some kind of scapegoat in the form of a right-wing bugbear to try to shift the conversation away from scientific, evolutionary, biological, ethical, moral, legal, social or religious considerations which render homosexuality as an utter aberration, and disingenuously center it on left or right-wing ideology so as try to make it appear to be a mere matter of political expediency or policy, but this is entirely self-delusional. I happen to be a progressive liberal and voted for Obama, but there is not the slightest chance of persuading me or anyone at all by such pretense and false rhetoric and this is your most evident mistake. It is not by government mandate, either in the US or Socialist Cuba or anywhere, that gay marriage will forever be rightfully proven to be a delusional proposition, but by society itself in the natural exercise…

  • Where i agree that the rights will come forth in cuba, what i will stand by is the fact that the Castro Adm will not be forced or bought to make changes. Change will come and when it does..trust me there will be other problems for the gay community and other hurdles..i still say..agitate and have a plan..keep your self respect and your cool..Don’t bite the hands that will help

  • I live in a country (Québec) where gays and lesbians have been granted equal status with heterosexuals and homophobia has decreased enormously over the past few decades. This is fair and just. And it will happen in Cuba as it is happening throughout much of the world. The counter arguments about “special rights” and complaints that homosexuals are “shoving their lifestyle down our throats” have all but disappeared and are no longer tolerated. Cuba has accomplished so much in so many areas…

  • Excelente trabajo es el que ustedes están llevando a cabo!!! Y nos sirve de motivación a que nuestra ONG, la cual trabaja por y para la comunidad GLBTH en la región Este de la República Dominicana: “Grupo Este Amor”, a mejorar cada día mas mienstras logramos nuestras metas y objetivos. EXITOS!!!
    Johmar Eró Estrella- Director Ejecutivo-Grupo Este Amor.

  • ahaaaaaa, Milagritos, gracias por dejarnos saber tus pensamientos, seremos mejores personas gracias a ellos, y gracias a la ausencia de homofobia.

  • Thanks for your article, Irina, and the fotos, Caridad! I wonder why Cuba has been able to advance light-years from the unenlightened attitudes of the 1970’s and 1980’s? Does the weakening of such intollerance have anything to do with the Church never being as powerful and influential in Cuba as it was in Mexico, Central- and South America?

  • discrimination does not hurt as much as lack of self respect

  • Second

    I am a Cuban woman who is strictly a man lover, and i have never fantacized about being in the arms of a woman. There is no jealousy, hate or even dislike for homosexuals. However, i am so tired of the ACCEPT ME, ACCEPT ME, ACCEPT ME insanity..when Self RESPECT should be the call of the day
    So i ask, what are homosexuals doing in Cuba to gain respect.? Clean up your act before you start to blame others..Get some SELF RESPECT.. i don’t hear you!!!!! Discrimination doesn’t hurt…

  • The problem in my opinion is that many flaming homosexuals feel that they must push thier lives on to others and that others must accept them as Gays vs human beings.When the heck will Homosexuals just begin to live thier own lives, and deal with it as it is. This is the real world and if someone is a homosexual it does not bother me until they make an attempt to get in my face and force thier will.

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