By Yusimi Rodriguez
(Fotos: Juan Suarez)
HAVANA TIMES – Two hours into our first meeting, I knew that Francisco Segundo Martínez Sosa (Frank) is gay (just looking at him tells you that); is a composer and a writer; was nearly successful at suicide; is the father of two children; and has AIDS. His relationship with the disease is like a marriage: it’s been with him for twenty-four years, the same amount of time that he’s been with his partner, Antonio Peña Díaz (Tony).
Although his first book of poems “Animal Rosadulce” (Sweetpink Animal) gave me a clear glimpse of his hurts, joys and vision of life, I didn’t want to wait for its publication to learn more about him and to share it with HT readers.
He begins to talk, interrupting himself to remove a small patch from his face when Juan readies the camera.
Frank: AIDs has caused me some lipodystrophy: [a disorder of the adipose (fatty) tissue, characterized by a selective loss of body fat] and it’s very uncomfortable to have people notice your emaciated face and point at you in the streets. Three years ago, they decided to offer HIV patients with this problem a medication called Perfons, which is very expensive on the international market. Luckily I was among the ugliest, so I was chosen. Several months ago it began to cause harmful side effects: my face became enormous, my teeth collapsed into the gums. I had to stop using it. But now my face looks better, and maybe I’ve gained some weight.
He didn’t want to live
Frank: I’ve had homosexual desires since I was small.
My parents lived for their work – the Revolution, the slogans. We children were sent to boarding schools. I was in boarding school from the time I started kindergarten. I suffered a lot of bullying, and I believe that these boarding schools in Cuba were a mistake and a horror. In the only regular day school I ever attended, a teacher found me with another little boy and threatened to tell my mother. I ran up to the roof and tried to throw myself off. The firemen came. It wasn’t a real attempt at suicide, nor was it pure theater: I wanted to escape the problem. For that reason and because of what the teacher said, the psychologist decided that I had problems and they then sent me to a special school. There, at nine years of age they finished off my sphincter muscles.
In those schools a boy of nine in second grade could be together with a sixteen-year-old with learning problems who was also a minor. There were a lot of abusers. One day, a kid they called Baba did an “eeny meeny miny mo”. Since it landed on me, he piled on top of me.
But you don’t want to be seen as a victim
Frank: I wanted that to happen – not with him, but with someone of my own age. I don’t want it said that I’m homosexual because I was raped. I already was one. Later, the same thing happened with a boy of my age that I liked.
Over time I discovered that I also liked girls, and I began to go with boys and girls at the same time.
Despite feeling good about his sexuality and about falling in love with “people,” he thought about suicide on two other occasions.
Frank: A family member discovered me on the stairs with a man; he told on me, and they threw me out of the house at sixteen. My father screamed at me: ”I don’t want any faggots in this house!”
I wandered through bus terminals, funeral parlors, parks – I was hungry and cold. I approached gays for help. I didn’t always like them, but I needed to eat, to sleep under a roof. I went back home and knocked on the door once again, but they rejected me. I climbed up on the roof, and I invited them to come out and look. Then I threw myself head first against the cobblestones.
My father was so frightened (this is the inspiration for the poem “Papa’s last words”) that he decided he preferred me gay, rather than dead. I spent over twenty days in a coma; I had to have part of my face reconstructed.
I didn’t want to live. A doctor helped me a lot; he tossed onto my bed a little packet of cyanide (it was really water), a noose and a knife. He told me he felt sorry for me. I began to cry and to scream. From that moment on, I reacted.
My father accepted me, but not my mother. I don’t blame her. In her final six or seven years she finally came to accept me and my partner. On her deathbed she said that she would have wanted more time to fix things between us.
Both of Frank’s parents died of cancer; he cared for them.
Frank: I didn’t do this because I owed something to society for being homosexual, but because they needed me.
Before thinking again about suicide, Frank married and had two children that he talks about with pride, although there was a time that their relationship became difficult due to his sexual orientation and how evident it was. The boy, especially, was ashamed to have him come to his school.
The girl is now a musician and lives in Austria; the boy is in the United States. Frank has three grandchildren, one a North American, and another on the way.
Frank: My daughter had her children here; she wanted them to be Cuban. I always instilled in them the idea that we are Cubans no matter where we are.
He never broke ties with his family members there, and he rejoices at the reestablishment of relations between the two countries.
“I’m going to face it”
HT: Why did you get married if everyone already knew that you liked men and your father had accepted you?
Frank: I wanted to have children. Life is a wonderful thing, and I wanted to pass on the gift. But also, because during the 80’s there was a witch-hunt going on. We would go out with lesbian friends so as to avoid going to jail, or we would register at a hotel or lodging as heterosexual couples and later trade rooms. Homosexual couples were not allowed in. A suspicion that you were gay was enough for them to put you in jail. I have friends who spent time in jail for homosexuality. People ask me why I walk with a certain macho swagger. I grew up in Belén and Jesus María, marginalized neighborhoods of Old Havana, and I learned to imitate the cool guys. That’s how I avoided getting picked up by the police.
My partner suggested that we look for fiancés and get married. I had warm feelings for his sister. It wasn’t just a cover: I chose her to be the mother of my children. I liked her and felt pleasure with her, even though during the marriage I had other women – and men. I’m not made for monogamy.
Before our son was a year old I told her the truth about me. She responded that she already knew, but she wanted us to stay together to raise the children. I told her no, that I would help her with the children but that we wouldn’t live together. I accepted a housing trade so that my children could have a house. I never let them down.
Frank obtained a place to live – something very difficult to do in Cuba – because he occupied an empty apartment in a much deteriorated building. Later, a law was passed that gave people who had been in a dwelling without papers for a certain amount of time the right to legalize their situation. Through a series of swaps, he came into a large place.
HT: After the separation, how was your relationship with the mother of your children?
Frank: We remained very good friends over a long period of time.
Although he didn’t continue his studies due to the bullying he had suffered in school, Frank insisted that his children study and was strict about that. However, he’s also very proud that he never lifted his hand to them and that they are both professionals “shaped by this island.” But that wasn’t what caused the differences with his wife.
Frank: I raised them with the idea that they should cut their umbilical cord and see the world. I didn’t want them to be like me, who never left this island.
Their mother was left alone in Cuba and blames him. Frank knows that she loved him a lot and thinks that she still does. A poem in his book is dedicated to her.
After the divorce, he began a relationship that lasted for seven months. They stopped using condoms because his partner assured him that he had been tested for HIV and that the tests were negative. Frank, who worked in Public Health, was required to get periodic check-ups and was clean. His partner claimed to work in Tourism.
Frank: And he did – he was a prostitute. He had been a host at hotel swimming pools, so he had access to those places.
When Frank discovered the truth, he separated from this partner. But it was too late. Months later, he learned that he was infected with HIV, and possibly had infected his new partner, Tony. Frank was 29 years old – Tony, 23.
Frank: I was a public health worker and everyone found out. I don’t know how. It’s supposed to be private, and you’re supposed to have the right to reveal it or not. But here things filter out; from the nineties on, I’ve lived with the stigma.
HT: Which of the two things made you feel more discriminated against: being gay or having AIDS?
Frank: Both, but the illness more. All of my gay friends turned their backs on me as well.
At that time, they would do a second test through the department of Hygiene and Epidemiology to confirm. You were supposed to bring in your partner and spit out the names of everyone you’d been with. I named those who gave me permission. I’m physically weak, but at that moment I was courageous and I resisted the pressure. I had to mention the mother of my children, her brother…
Over the years, Frank has lost a lot of friend to AIDS. Some of them cared for him in the hospital when he was very sick and they were still healthy.
Frank: I’ve had AIDs since the 90s, and I warned them to use protection. But later, I watched them fall ill and die.
In the Hygiene department they treated them like…
Frank: Like animals, dogs. They told me “You have AIDS and you have to tell us everything, because we can’t let this spread all over the country”.
In the beginning, it was traumatic for Tony to know that he might be infected. He hadn’t told his family that he was gay. The first one he told was his sister.
Tony: She told me that they knew, but that she wanted me to be the one to tell her, and not have to hear it from other people. Everyone knew it, from my nephews up to my grandparents. They love me completely. My father never rejected me.
Frank: The two weeks that we waited for the results, we dried up. We didn’t want to eat. I went alone to get them. I didn’t want him to get the news from one of those despotic people. I had seen the way they treated us the first time.
HT: Would it have been different if you’d been heterosexuals?
Frank: When internationalists developed the disease, they received a different treatment. In the end, my test was positive; Tony’s was not. They said that they needed to check my children, their mother, and all the people on my list because they could be infected. While I waited for the bus to return home, a hearse carrying the small coffin of a child parked in front of me. I took off walking to the Almendares Bridge. I wanted to jump off. Then I thought about Tony, my children’s smiles. I turned back and said to myself: I’m going to face it”.
When Frank learned that he was positive and Tony was not, he tried to leave him.
Frank: It was the right thing to do. We’d been together for three months and it was like I had discovered my other half. I called his family and I explained my situation to them. But Tony insisted that it was his right, his heart; that he wasn’t going to leave me. I went months without touching him. It was a very difficult situation. We loved each other enormously; we were perfect lovers.
Tony: A lot of things were going through my mind. How could I leave someone confirmed as sick? Maybe I had it too – we were already a couple. Why not go ahead – maybe using a little more protection. In the future, I could turn out to have it, or not.
Although his test had come out negative, Tony was told to get checked every three months. He didn’t come up positive until ten years after Frank’s diagnosis.
Frank: We’ve been together for 24 years. I say that he was my best bet in love. For five years he had to push me in a wheelchair, carry me up four floors, then go back down to get the chair because no one would bring it up to us.
Tony: People were terrified of us.
HT: Why are you so sure who it was that infected you?
Frank: That young guy was the only one on my list who tested positive. In the analyses, my immune system was still strong because the disease had just started. His was already low.
Tony: We were invited to a party where he appeared with a young man, nearly a minor. I realized that if he had deceived Frank he could also deceive that boy and I got there first. People got into it and separated us.
Frank: They checked my children over a period of two years – very difficult years for me. When they came out negative, I was reborn. From then on I’ve taken on the job of alerting people. It’s not that you stop being “liberal” – I don’t like the word “promiscuous”. I like love, feeling. But you have to be careful.
The love is always there
HT: You have an open relationship. How can you maintain your love?
Frank: The love is always there.
HT: (to Tony): Don’t you get jealous?
Tony: When two people who love each other talk a lot, they can reach an understanding. Love is between two, not three.
Frank: Desire is another thing. We always sleep together. After 24 years we continue to be sexually active because we like each other.
Tony: When the thing ends, the other person goes through the door and out.
HT: Can you be with the same person at once?
HT: A man, I assume?
Frank: Tony doesn’t like women. In past relations with men, I would add in women. This doesn’t mean that we go out looking for someone, but if they appear… It doesn’t have to be a gorgeous gigolo, just someone interesting with whom something interesting might happen: a poet or a crazy street person, or someone who approaches us out of monetary interests.
How good that this exists
HT: Have you paid for sex?
Frank: Tony doesn’t like to. I do like to pay for my pleasures.
HT: Do you think it’s okay that someone is with you out of necessity? You were in that same situation.
Frank: I always try to have the other desire it.
Tony: Money can’t get you a hard-on.
HT: (To Frank): So, you enjoyed what you were doing when you were out on the street?
Frank: It’s very hard to be in the street with days of hunger, and if someone smiles at you: offers you a plate of food; their house. And if that comes together with a caress… I responded, no one abused me. An orgasm is simply a pleasure and I had it. I’m thankful that those people were there.
HT: Would they have given you all that without your body in exchange?
Frank: Some, no. Others openly extorted my services. Sometimes, I took the right to say: “No, I’ll just stay hungry.”
I think that since Cro-Magnon times there’s always been one who was stronger, who found the food, and if the woman was pregnant – Who would do the work for her? I have a poem about that. Further, there were more men than women and perhaps the woman went to the strongest. How did the others satisfy themselves?
HT: So, male homosexuality is due to the scarcity of women?
Frank: No, I believe that it’s a natural thing. The great emperors of the western world were bisexuals, homosexuals. I don’t know who decided that it was bad. I believe it was Christianity.
Today you might appeal to me as a woman, tomorrow him as a man. Why should we limit ourselves? Today we can be two; tomorrow three. The orgiastic emotions are beautiful. It was fine for the great emperors. Even today, in Holland, in Germany, they look well upon prostitution, they tax it.
HT: How do you see it?
Frank: How wonderful that it exists. There are people who are alone, with no physical attractions. Those who exercise prostitution are emperors and empresses to me. They make others feel. And if it costs something, well life is like that.
A cabbage in bed
HT: What do you live on now, after retiring due to illness?
Frank: Due to neuropathic myopathy I don’t have the strength to lift weights, get on buses. Before I was in a wheelchair or beginning to walk with canes. I should use one to go out in the street, but out of vanity I almost never do.
I worked enough years to qualify for retirement, but I haven’t reached retirement age. I’m 54 now. After 28 years of service I retired with the minimum salary: 200 Cuban pesos (US $10) a month. My children help me out.
Frank worked in the Jonson provincial warehouse from 1978 to 1988 and in the Diego Tamayo Polyclinic in Old Havana from 1989 to 1999. He was a model worker in both centers.
The few friends I had left after getting AIDS live outside the country and they help me enormously. I receive money from them every three or four months, and that’s where I get certain comforts I have.
Frank owes these friends a lot more than his current remittances.
Frank: In the 90s when you were diagnosed, they would come look for you and you had to be admitted to Los Cocos, a live-in sanatorium. It was required. I went out on a balcony and asked them if they wanted to carry off a corpse. No one should be locked up for being sick. I said “no” and I paid a price for this. The patients there were assured of their medications, diets. The only thing I received was my medical attention.
We weren’t supposed to work because we were HIV positive. I had to go to Los Cocos to get my certificate so I could be paid at work. I had to support myself because I had children.
The HIV patients weren’t given their freedom until 1995. In ’96 I suffered from all of the opportunist infections. I was a shambles. My wonderful Antonio (Tony) would just finish bathing me and I would throw up all over myself again and get dirty. He would patiently bathe me again. I think I was bathed four or five times a day.
Tony: Look at all that had to happen for getting a third party in a bed.
HT: How did you survive, being so weak by nature and more so with the illness?
Frank: Several times I sent Tony to notify my family because I wasn’t going to make it to nightfall.
Tony: But his family never came.
Frank: The mother of my small children would bring them; but neither my mother nor my brothers came.
Tony: I cared for him by myself for five years, with help from friends.
Frank: My friend David Martinez who now lives in Miami found out about my situation and sent me any HIV medication he could find. I would ask the doctors if it would help me, and they would tell Tony: “Give it to him and we’ll see what happens.”
I came to have a CD4 T-cell count of 1 and 0%, which basically means you’re a cabbage in a bed. Thanks to the medications my friends sent I began to get better, including my will to live.
HT: And to the doctors?
Frank: Yes, to them too. The Cuban health system did help me, despite their errors. I want to clarify that there was a time when I wasn’t the only one lacking medication for my refusal to enter a sanatorium. There was none for anyone. They aren’t made here. During the 90s many AIDS patients died due to the blockade.
Another consequence of Frank’s refusal to be locked in was that they would send people to seduce him, as a way of trapping him into being discovered infecting others. They could then send him to jail for propagating a disease.
Frank: I can’t prove it, but I showed the certificate that I was an HIV patient to one of those trying to seduce me and he said: “You did a good thing. I’m going to tell them to leave you in peace.”
He doesn’t know who was behind this.
Frank: It was a very difficult era. You got in line for something with the rest of the public and announced that you were the last one, and people moved away from you. I once arranged an exchange of living space and they rejected it because the other people there didn’t want to live in the same house with an “AIDS-er.” We took that issue to court. But the entire block found out and when we went by, people would spit on the ground. And you know what was the worst part?
“The gays themselves,” Frank and Tony said almost in unison.
Tony: We were embarrassed even to go to a party or a discotheque.
Frank: But we did go, with our heads held high.
Tony: Many of those who looked down on us later got sick themselves and are in the cemetery.
Tony had been a cabaret dancer and later danced with “Los Guaracheros” from the municipality of Regla. He’s now retired, but not because of HIV.
Tony: I used to be retired, but they took away our pensions. By coincidence I have heart problems and for that reason I still receive a pension.
At the age of 48 he’s had two heart attacks.
Literature in his life
HT: How did this come into your life?
Frank: My mother was a writer. She was never published, but one of her plays was produced. I inherited her genes. In her last years, I would bring her my pieces she would edit them. They were really great years.
I always wrote. A little novel that I wrote in high school caused me great public shame, and from then on I stopped showing my work, although I continued writing. As an adult I began participating in a literary workshop, but a poem of mine was stolen and I never again went to one. I would write and hang onto it. During my convalescence I began going through my poems.
One day, by chance, my daughter saw them and wanted to borrow them. A week later she sent four musical pieces to my cell phone that she had composed with my poems. I took them to a disco and that’s how “They will live” [Vivirán] was born, the first song that I wrote about HIV.
It arose at a time when I was very sick. The patient who shared my cubicle had a father that was very religious. He converted his son and later he tried to convert me. Since I didn’t want to, he kept insisting, pressuring me, playing religious music to me. I began to yell, demanding that they get me out of the room and declaring: “Now I’m going to live, I’m going to live for the kiss, for the flower.” My daughter sang it in a gala event against homophobia in the Mella Theater in 2010, invited by CENESEX (Sexual Education Center). She received a huge applause, and I brought flowers onto the stage.
Frank has composed two pieces for the National Campaign against Homophobia: “Somos Vida” [We are life] and ”Por el linaje del amor” [For the lineage of love], with music by Yoel Espinoza and arrangement by Edesio Alejandro. In this way, his poetry began to be heard and they began to interview him on the radio.
He asked an editor friend to revise his novella, and the friend then introduced him to Dulce María Sotolongo, the editor of Extramuros Publishing. Even though she was initially interested in the novella, she wanted to hear his poems over the telephone.
The publication of “Animal Rosadulce” [“Sweetpink Animal”] was approved for 2017. The short road to publication in Cuba is to win a prize, or to underwrite the publishing costs. Frank’s economic situation wouldn’t allow him to do this, but he has friends like Jesus Suarez, a North American born of Cuban parents. Jesus and two other friends paid the costs of publication.
HT: What life expectancy do the doctors give you?
Frank: Whatever I choose to have. We take very good care of ourselves: we eat well; we try not to stay up late. You make your own life expectancy by loving yourself. I fear solitude more than death. I want to die before Tony does; I know that’s very egotistical.
HT: What other effects has the illness had on you?
Frank: I don’t have any muscle strength; sexually I’m not the same. I don’t respond like I used to. Happily, the little blue pills exist. If you have a muscular dystrophy and “that” is a muscle… I’ve had to make changes in my sexual life that my friend has accepted because he loves me. It hurts, but I’m alive and continue loving. Now I place more value on a caress.
HT: What would you have done differently?
Tony: I’d do the same again for him, and for anyone.
“Animal Rosadulce” was presented on Saturday, May 9 at the Cuban Pavilion during the 8th Cuban Day against Homophobia. Frank thanked his doctors and nurses who were present, since without them he wouldn’t have been there. Also present in the room was Nonardo Perea, a writer and artist, who did the illustrations for the book. Dulce María Sotolongo described “Sweetpink Animal” as a book that begs to be read by many. Jesús Suárez, a US born Cuban-American and also a writer, affirmed that this was the book he should have read during his adolescence. The editor of the poetry book, María del Carmen Sanabria, termed “Sweetpink Animal” an ambitious book that left almost nothing more to add. She herself read “Papa’s last words”, a poem that Frank had dedicated to his father and which still moves him too much to be able to read it in public.
Frank’s next publication will be a homoerotic novella entitled “Nací Así” [I was born this way] which is being edited by the Extramuros Publishing house.