By Irina Echarry
HAVANA TIMES, May 15 —Human beings react in drastic ways when faced with the unknown, when confronted with anything different. Societies define norms that individuals should meet to the letter, and if these are violated there are prices that must be paid.
Cuban lesbians and gays have suffered the island’s political vagaries and those repercussions in society. At one time the government acted as the “chosen one,” holding the absolute truth in its hands and taking charge of “protecting” the people from evil at any price. Many people suffered during those years.
Though homophobia continues to be a curse, though the rights of homosexuals are still not fully respected, and though the authorities don’t allow Gay Pride Day (June 28), for the past few years a “Day against Homophobia” (May 17) has been celebrated in an attempt to predispose the public to support tolerance.
We approached a young Cuban woman who leads her sexual life according to her preference, standing up to her family and against her own taboos. Ever since she was a little girl she called herself by a male’s name – but without consciously knowing what she was doing, she explained, taking back what she said with a devilish smile. Now Ivet tries to live without being concerned about “what people say.” She lives as a human being, free to choose her partner and her form of experiencing her sexuality.
How do you define yourself sexually: homosexual or bisexual? Were you like this from the beginning?
I define myself as 100 percent homosexual. I wasn’t like this in the beginning, I had heterosexual relationships and I felt fine, though I always knew in my inner-self that this wasn’t what interested me. What greatly attracted me was sensitivity, gentleness, and I didn’t always find that in men.
At what age did you begin to feel attraction for women? What did you think about yourself in that respect? Did you feel bad upon that discovery? Did you find anyone with whom you could express your concerns, your worries, regarding what was happening to you?
I believe that ever since I was a child I was attracted to my same sex. The first kiss I gave to a woman was when I was 15. I experienced fear, desire, and pleasure. I didn’t have the support of anybody at that first stage, because the people I knew didn’t share my sexual leanings. I felt very alone; no one told me if it was good or bad. At that time I wasn’t prepared to face the prejudices. I also suffered a lot because my parents are homophobic; I knew that if they found out they would try to “cure” me.
Did you receive any professional support? Would you have liked for there to have been some center where they wouldn’t have tried to “cure” you” – where they would have clarified your concerns? – Where you could have met other young woman such as yourself?
In the beginning, I didn’t have the luck of having someone to tell me what to do. Fortunately, in 98, a friend began to support me. She’s heterosexual but we forged a friendship that continues today. She understood me, and I’ll thank her eternally for being there, because she was on my side in very difficult situations and without her I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to continue.
I would have liked to have gone to some center, to have had a social life and to have known someone with whom I could have gone out with. Though I knew a lot of people who in one way of another offered me not only their company, but even their homes, still I was stuck because this was only about one-night-stands. I established a way of life in which sentimental relationships were occasional. I found it difficult to break out of this, but I succeeded because in the end the alternative wasn’t what I wanted.
When did you tell your parents? What was their reaction? And what about your friends?
I told my parents when I was 16, and they punished me. The insults rained down. They told me that it was immoral and asked me what the rest of our family, friends and neighbors would think. I was a very young girl, and they created a huge guilt complex in me. I tried to continue living like them, at least in appearances, though I lied often. I hid my true desires until I couldn’t do it any longer. I only began speaking to them again when I was 26, by then I had met the person who I truly loved.
Those were very difficult times in my house. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and would go out with the worry of getting back home early so as not to continue worsening the situation. I couldn’t concentrate when visiting friends with my partner or when we had the opportunity for intimacy… I even tried to commit suicide.
I had thought about it on several occasions; I even talked about it with my mother on several occasions, but she never paid me any attention. The sole thing that concerned her was that I be “happy with a man,” that I continue carrying the crosses that had been shouldered by all my ancestors. So what right did I have to break that chain?
I tried to commit suicide because I didn’t want to keep being manipulated by my parents, but also because I had no chance of leaving the house. When were they going to understand that I didn’t like men? Was it so difficult? Would it change something in my mother’s love for me? I was confused. I took a bunch of pills and rum. Thank goodness my mom came home early that day; otherwise I don’t know what would have happened.
At the polyclinic they pumped my stomach, and later some psychologists came to visit me at home. I went for daytime psychiatric treatment at the Guanabo Hospital, where I realized there were people with problems more serious than mine. Still, I was real aggressive, I cried a lot, nothing motivated me. The sole person on my side was my friend, along with my ex-girlfriend, who found out about my situation through my friend.
My parents attended many of the sessions. I know that my mom suffered a lot, not only due to what happened but because I had ruined her plans.
My friends understand my preference, we have discussed this together and we respect one another. I have hetero friends and they accept me as I am.
Right now I have a good relationship with my parents, the same as with my family.
I have experienced stages in which I had low self-esteem, doubts, stages that all homosexuals go through. I didn’t have the support of my family to talk through all this and not feel like some freak.
How did you feel the first time you made love with a woman?
My first time was a disaster. I had a lot of complexes and I didn’t like the person I was with enough, but I wanted to break barriers, to explore to fullness of my body, to know myself. I thought a lot about the consequences. My parents had instilled in me the fear of “what will the neighbors say if they find out.” I was extremely worried before and after the act, not only because it was criticized and I was afraid of being so different, but because I wasn’t sure what I would feel.
It was like a force of attraction that I felt, until I finally decided. I wish I had a better recollection of my first time, but I don’t. That’s the sad part of the story. My self-esteem was on the floor, blaming myself for betraying my mother and ending up not feeling any real pleasure. Later I discovered myself; I knew what I wanted, what I liked and what I had to distance myself from in my life in order to be happy.
Have you felt disdain on the part of co-workers or neighbors when they learned about your sexual identity?
I haven’t felt any rejection from my neighbors or at my job. I respect the preferences of each person, and what interests me most is that they value me as a human being, as a woman. I don’t go around waving flags or shouting about my sexual orientation, though I don’t hide it either. I’ve now overcome that stage. The most difficult thing for us is to accept ourselves; if we don’t accept ourselves for who we are then we’re lying to ourselves.
Has any man ever tried to “cure” you? How do you believe men see you in our macho society?
I had relations with men, and I admit that on occasion I felt pleasure. Then, when I came out, I had problems. In this society there’s too much machismo, but I think women have now upended many old patterns and established other ones, ones that are less rigid. When changes are introduced in society, a backlash will always be encountered; not everyone is prepared for what’s different.
Lesbians continue being the most excluded, the most marginalized. Some people don’t understand that it’s merely a sexual orientation, that we’re human beings with a rich spiritual world, with experiences that count, that we have virtues and defects just like heterosexuals.
They say women who have sex with other women are trying to copy the macho prototype of “I’m the man and you’re the woman.” For many, the lesbian couple is defined as the woman (the submissive part, which does a better job taking care of the home) and the man, (the strongest, the one who takes the sexual initiative and controls the house). Is this true based on your experience?
I’ve known couples who act out the prototypical definitions of “man and woman,” but I believe that every person has their likes and shouldn’t be criticized for that reason. Personally, I haven’t been in any situations of that type, but I do indeed know many couples who have established that type of relationship and have turned out even more macho than men in heterosexual relationships.
If you were allowed to legally get married, would you do it and why?
Yes, I would like to marry my current partner. It would be great, especially if they approved gay marriages in Cuba with equality of rights, eliminating sexual discrimination. Modifications in the Family Code are presently being reviewed in parliament at the request of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), and I’m sure that we’ll soon have that right. I’m optimistic.
Have you suffered abuse by anyone in the street stemming from your sexual orientation? Has anyone spoken to you disrespectfully, looked at you with disgust or attacked you physically? Do you know anyone who this has happened to?
In the street there’s always someone who says something that isn’t particularly pleasant, mainly men, though there are also women who are homophobic. Yes, I have friends who have had problems in the street and have even been stopped by the police.
There is still much misunderstanding about homosexuality. It’s necessary to continue working so the problem is brought out into the light. Not everyone knows what gay and lesbians go through when they’re victims of homophobia. There remains a lot to do and to work out. I think the need is for everyone to enjoy their own sexuality, without prejudice.
Do you feel free to walk down the street holding hands with your partner, to demonstrate signs of affection in public?
I feel free and I’m brave enough to conduct myself like I am. So sometimes we walk down the street holding hands and from time to time we show signs of affection.
Do you believe that gay men are more socially pressured or suffer more police persecution than gay women?
We all are socially pressured, and not only through police harassment but also from social rejection, gestures or expressions, and when we don’t receive proper treatment in some place because someone is a “too mannish” or “too loose,” and consequently they’re discriminated against. I don’t know if lesbians or if gays are the more rejected. I think lesbians are harassed more; men tend to give looser reins to their ghoulish instincts without realizing that it doesn’t please us. On the other hand, they humiliate us by subjecting us to their obscenities, often in public.
Would you adopt a child if they allowed you to? If you had a son how would you explain to him why he has two moms instead of just one or a mom and a dad?
At one time I wanted to have a child, then I don’t know what happened but I dropped the idea. My partner lives in Pinar del Rio Province and I work in Havana. For the time being I want to be free to go on trips whenever I want. If I couldn’t give birth for some biological reason and I still wanted to have a child, I wouldn’t have any reservations about adopting one. Though here is the thorny issue: I doubt they would prioritize a lesbian couple. We have a long way to go before we’ll get to that point.
I would tell my son or daughter that love is what’s most important; or better yet, I would show them. When one is educated in love, words aren’t so necessary.
What do you think of people who protests when some TV series or soap opera shows the conflict faced by homosexual couples? Are they right in not wanting their children to see such programs?
When a lesbian couple is presented in soap operas, it always winds up in some dramatic ending and not at all happily ever after. Right now they’re airing a telenovela that has a lesbian couple in it. I haven’t heard anything positive from people when they talk in the street about them. I think that a great deal of lesbiphobia still exists, given patriarchal influences and sexual discrimination. A lot of people don’t understand, and when you ask them why two women cannot love each other, they say that women were born to have children and be mothers. However, many lesbians don’t aspire to that role, yet the media starts showing a series on conflicts that’s not easy to digest or to understand by people who are homophobic.
On the program “When a Woman…”, sponsored by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), they dealt with the issue of lesbianism recently. I also went to see a play titled “Of Hydrangeas and Violets,” by Estrer Suarez, which approaches the issue of a young lesbian couple that wants to have a child. It raises quite interesting points of conflict for debate. Gradually it takes steps toward acceptance and harmony.
Would you like it if there existed in Cuba some club, disco or recreation center where lesbians and gays could meet and have a good time without social pressure from those who don’t understand their demonstrations of love?
I would like for there to exist some or space where I could go with my partner and no one would chastise me whenever I gave her a kiss or simply danced with her. I belong to a group called Oremi (a Lukumi word that means girl friend), which is affiliated to CENESEX. It’s an open group that welcomes not only lesbians, but also women who are bisexual and heterosexual. We discuss many issues relating principally to woman.
Within the group we have an activity called the “Literary Café,” which is held at the Plaza Cultural Center and in cinemas to discuss the issue of free sexual orientation and the prevention and struggle against STIs and HIV-AIDS, in addition to organizing other recreational and cultural activities. I would like for there to be clubs or some evening activities, if not exclusively for homosexuals then at least places where there is “admission by couples,” where we’re accepted and not looked at like we’re a pair of extraterrestrials.
How do you view the work that CENESEX is carrying out in Cuba? Do you believe that its celebrations in support of sexual fairness really help to combat homophobia?
The work of CENESEX in Cuba is developing an educational program that advocates respect for free and responsible sexual orientations and gender identities. It also carries out many debates against homophobia. The idea is great, but it’s not enough. Most of us who attend the activities for the Day against Homophobia are homosexual; so the objective is not being met. The campaign is directed fundamentally at intolerant heterosexuals, but they don’t attend, they don’t engage in dialogue with us. It’s necessary to educate them, we gays understand each other and we only want for them to respect us.
For Ivet, what is most important is self acceptance. She believes that tolerance is something superficial. That’s why she smiles at life, because she has known what it is to be faithful to her desires. She has been able to overcome obstacles and enjoy a full sexual life, without the fear of prejudice.