The last of six installments from “Cuba Since the 1959 Revolution”
HAVANA TIMES, Dec 23 — The widespread sexism that has existed in revolutionary Cuba, particularly against gays, has long been an uncomfortable issue for supporters of the Cuban regime, particularly in countries such as the United States where vital and influential women’s and gay liberation movements developed in the wake of the 1960s.
Susan Sontag, the prominent cultural critic (among others), tried during her Fidelista political phase to minimize the problem with a false cultural relativism full of condescension.
As Sontag put it in 1969: “Suspicious as we are of the traditional puritanism of left revolutions, American radicals ought to be able to maintain some perspective when a country known mainly for dance, music, prostitutes, cigars, abortions, resort life, and pornographic movies gets a little up-tight about sexual morals and, in one bad moment two years ago, rounds up several thousand homosexuals in Havana and sends them to a farm to rehabilitate themselves. (They have long been sent home.)”187
Many left-wing activist gays have had much more difficulty reconciling the sympathy they harbor for Castro’s government with their own interests as gays and loyalty to oppressed gays in other countries, let alone the widespread hostility to Castro’s government among gay communities all over the world.
Left gay writers have tried to reconcile these conflicting sentiments with various interpretations of the Cuban regime’s homophobia.
Allen Young, a left-wing American gay writer and activist, put forward in 1981 a kind of “third world” explanation blaming Cuban homophobia on an ideology that according to him did not arise from Cuban political experience or Cuban culture. Instead, argued Young, the official Cuban ideology came “from the external tradition of European Marxism” as transmitted to the island by the PSP—the old Cuban Communist Party.188
Years later, in 1996, Ian Lumsden, a gay Canadian left-wing academic and activist, developed an explanation similar to Young’s, attributing Cuba’s antigay persecutions not to Fidel Castro’s views but to the influence of Soviet thinking, which considered homosexuality “a decadent bourgeois phenomenon.” However, unlike Young, Lumsden pointed out that the Soviet position was a creation of Russian Stalinism and had been adopted after the decriminalization of homosexuality by Lenin’s Bolshevik government.189
The 1917 Russian Revolution in fact removed all legal restrictions on sexual activity as such. In the particular case of gay sex, all voluntary homosexual relations for persons age fourteen and over were legalized. Beyond legalization, Soviet representatives maintained relations with the Institute for Sexual Science in Germany, which campaigned for the repeal of sodomy statutes and against homophobia in all its expressions.
Moreover, as Soviet commissar of public welfare, Alexandra Kollontai campaigned for women’s liberation against the enslavement of continuous childbearing and the burdens of domestic labor and child care.
Communal restaurants, laundries, and child care facilities for working women were set up at her urging. In addition, laws against abortion were repealed, and contraception was made available to all. Divorce was greatly simplified, and equal pay for equal work was made a principle of the new state. The early Soviet courts even approved marriages between homosexuals, and, amazingly, there are recorded instances of sex change operations in the Soviet republic in the 1920s.
It is true that many of these legal and political gains meant little in practice, given the lack of material resources to implement them and the sheer poverty of the country. However, it wasn’t until the Stalinist thirties that homosexuality was recriminalized, abortion was outlawed, and a general offensive against many social advances of the twenties was carried out.
Contrary to the clichés tying “Marxism” with homophobia, the Bolsheviks were not the first socialists in the Marxist tradition to have defended gay rights. Far from being hostile to gays or to women’s liberation, this tradition has a long history of struggle on these issues.
For example, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) had, before the Bolshevik Revolution, played a leading role in the campaign against the German antisodomy law and popularized gay issues in the pages of Vorwarts, the party newspaper.190
As convenient as it might have been for North American left-wing gay writers influenced by New Left ideology to blame the old Cuban Communists for the antigay venom on the island, Cuban reality points in an altogether different direction.
Although the old Cuban Communists provided much of the ideological language to defend and justify such practices, the thrust and dynamism of those policies came primarily from Fidel Castro and the new Cuban Communist leadership.
The new Cuban Communists were influenced, particularly in matters pertaining to gender politics, by ideologies and practices that had nothing to do with classical Marxism.
In 1965, two years after his attack against gays in his speech of March 13, 1963, Castro clearly spelled out his position on various matters critical to the treatment of gay Cubans. First, homosexuals were to be banned from positions with a direct influence on young people, particularly in educational centers.
Castro acknowledged that a homosexual could profess revolutionary ideology and exhibit a correct political position, in which case he should not be considered politically negative. However, he held that “we would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary, a true Communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant Communist should be.”
Castro insisted on banning homosexuals from any position that could influence young people and strongly argued for the need, under the existing conditions in Cuba, to inculcate Cuban youth with a spartan spirit of discipline, struggle, and work.
To encourage that spirit, Castro recommended the promotion of “activities related in some way with the defense of the country, such as sports.”191
It is worth noting in this context that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused to serve in the military, were persecuted by the Cuban state and were even driven underground for some twenty years after they were forced into illegality in the mid-seventies.
Implicit in this perspective were notions predominant in the traditional Hispanic culture on the island that gays were weak, ultra-sensitive, and even cowardly.192
A similar set of attitudes led Che Guevara to contemptuously refer to the prominent gay Cuban playwright Virgilio Piñera as a “maricón” (faggot) when he saw one of his books at the Cuban embassy in Algiers in 1963.193
Significantly, this was the same Virgilio Piñera who publicly admitted to his fear at the famous 1961 meeting when Fidel Castro proclaimed that everything would be permitted to intellectuals inside the revolution, but nothing outside of it.
Fear was certainly not going to be an emotion easily accepted among the new tough and virile youth to be created in Cuba. Gays were seen as incapable of the tough, combative, and monolithic military culture averse to critical thinking (disguised as “revolutionary unity”) that the revolutionary leadership wanted to promote in the country. Moreover, “studies” conducted in 1965 by the Ministry of Public Health had concluded that the homosexuals’ alleged ideological weakness and vulnerability to imperial propaganda were socially contagious.194
As the historian Lillian Guerra has pointed out, the Cuban government had, starting in the 1960s, also associated gay life to the dreaded disease of “intellectualism,” since as groups suffering from nonproductive, self-absorbed conditions they both subverted the high value that the leadership placed on manual labor.
Thus, during the university purges in the sixties not only were homosexuals attacked but also male intellectuals who thought, read, talked, or debated too much.
The greatest defects of the “intellectualized” students were their obsession with debating Marxism, disdain for agricultural labor, taste for abstract art, proclivity toward reading, inclination to share their opinion with others, and strong interest in other countries.
In early 1966, Jaime Crombet, secretary general of the UJC (Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas—Union of Communist Youth), identified a range of anti-social tendencies related to homosexuality.
These included intellectualism, “discussionism,” egoism, autonomism, Trotskyism, and reunionism (the habit of holding many meetings to decide a question rather than taking action).
It was clear all along that the remedy for all these kinds of defects was, as Fidel Castro had advocated for the “extravagant” manner of living of some young people, hard manual labor in agriculture as punitive “reeducation.”195
In the last analysis, the problems of youthful “extravagance,” homosexuality, and “intellectualism” had a common root in the decay and degeneracy of urban life. The regime’s ideologues contrasted to this the mythical and archetypical “virile” virtues of the rural world.
This was a theme hardly typical of the Stalinist “Marxism” of the old Cuban Communists, and far more in tune with the homegrown machismo of the new Fidelista Communists, which in some ways resembled the ideological style of Spanish Francoist traditionalism.
A 1965 editorial in the daily newspaper El Mundo (seized by the government a few years earlier) is worth quoting at length:
On a certain occasion, Fidel let us know that the countryside does not produce homosexuals, that this abominable vice does not grow there. True. The conditions of virility found among the Cuban peasantry do not permit it. But in some of our cities it proliferates . . . Against it, we are struggling and we will struggle until we eradicate it from a virile country, wrapped up in a life-and-death struggle against Yankee imperialism.
And in this super-virile [virilísimo] country, with its army of men, homosexuality should not be and cannot be expressed by homosexual or pseudo-homosexual writers and “artists.” Because no homosexual represents the Revolution, that is a matter for males [asuntos de varones], of fists and not of feathers, of fury and not of trembling, of sincerity and not of intrigues, of creative valor and not of meringue-coated surprises [sorpresas merengosas] . . .
Unfortunately, this has become an alarming political and social matter . . . We are not talking about persecuting homosexuals but of destroying their position in society, their methods, their influence. Revolutionary social hygiene is what this is called.196
Starting in the early sixties, then, the most representative figures of the Cuban state proceeded to tap into traditional hostility and discriminatory cultural attitudes toward gays and to exaggerate and politicize their supposedly worst features.
Thus gay oppression, which in prerevolutionary days had been an almost exclusive product of the “silent” working of civil society, became political, explicit, and often strident.
Although this was not necessarily a fully conscious or cynical strategy, it was totally compatible with the political aims of the revolutionary leadership to use machismo as a tactic to further the “unity” of the country in support of their aims.
In any case, the overall record of the Cuban government, particularly during the first thirty years after the 1959 victory of the revolution, clearly gives the lie to the notion that Cuban homophobia is simply or primarily a “cultural leftover” of the prerevolutionary period.
Mariela Castro Espín herself has claimed that the “homophobic and machista culture, fundamentally inherited from Spanish colonial domination, has conditioned human relations and political decisions” and that the creation of the UMAPs “was a reflection of the social handling of those prejudices.”197
187. Susan Sontag, “Some Thoughts on the Right Way (for Us) to Love the Cuban Revolution,” Ramparts, April 1969, 14.
188. Allen Young, Gays under the Cuban Revolution, San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1981, 15.
189. Ian Lumsden, Machos, Maricones and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996, 64–65.
190. Thomas Harrison, “Socialism and Homosexuality,” 19–21, and Sherry Wolf, “LGBT Political Cul-de-Sac: Make a U-Turn,” 34, New Politics 12 no. 2 (Winter 2009).
191. Lee Lockwood, Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel, rev. ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990), 106–107.
192. Ian Lumsden discusses cowardice and how it has been attributed to Cuban gays. Lumsden also points out that the exaltation of physical bravado, which is such an important feature of Cuban machismo, has been relatively absent in Costa Rica, a country that has been involved in fewer military struggles. Lumsden, Machos, Maricones and Gays, 53.
193. According to one eyewitness, the prominent Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, Guevara contemptuously threw Piñera’s book across the room as he exclaimed, “Who the fuck reads this faggot here?” (“¿Quien coño lee aquí a ese maricón?”). Juan Goytisolo, En los reinos de taifa (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1986), 174–75.
194. Lillian Guerra, “Gender Policing, Homosexuality and the New Patriarchy of the Cuban Revolution, 1965-1970,” Social History, 35, no. 3, (August 2010), 271.
195. Ibid., 271, 283–84.
196. Samuel Feijóo, “Revolución y vicios,” El Mundo, April 15, 1965, 4, as cited in Guerra, “Gender Policing, Homosexuality and the New Patriarchy,” 281–82.
197. Mariela Castro Espín, “Pedir perdón sería una gran hipocresía,” Agencia Suiza para el desarrollo y la cooperación COSUDE, 6 octubre 2010, www.cooperacion-suiza
198. This is the title of chapter 9 of Lumsden’s Machos, Maricones and Gays, 178.
CUBA SINCE THE REVOLUTION OF 1959
A Critical Assessment
Copyright Samuel Farber 2011.