By Dariela Aquique
HAVANA TIMES, May 3– The issue of homosexuality in Cuba was and continues to be complicated. Thank goodness new times have brought with them an entire outpouring of good will in relation to the question. The history of Cuban society versus LGBTs (Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people) has had some dismal chapters.
New times, new customs
I am attempting to establish comparative stages of the attitudes toward that issue. Analyzing it but not from a distance; rather, from the position that it’s something that involves all of us.
Our country suffers from an incurable tendency towards exclusivity. We have an exclusive social-economic model and philosophy as well as exclusive tactics of life (though what’s exclusive here is not the same thing as appropriate).
Here, we have well-rooted sexist and homophobic ideologies, characteristic of Latin American and displayed especially by our male compatriots, where prejudice and looks of aversion have always been directed toward men and women who are different from others for the sole “sin” of having a sexual preference that’s not the norm.
There was always greater intolerance under dogmatic regimens. Since remote times, the church established enmity and an unforgiving rejection of people who were attracted to their same sex. This is paradoxical when contrasting it to what is known today of the large number of Catholic and Protestant parishioners who practiced it on the sly, and sometimes not homosexuality.
Uncompromising and dictatorial systems added to the other part of the phobia. These were societies that could not allow within their numbers those people possessing this “reprehensible and sick attitude.” These are societies that have aspired to the creation of a model “new, exceptional and perfect being” – something that has not resulted with great difficulty.
Cuba did not escape from a rather extensive period of engaging in this type of intractability in terms of its vision and acceptance of its gay community. For many years they preferred to live in the closet, publically feigning their predilection for sameness, fearing bloody witch hunts, reprisals, rejection or confinement.
Today it’s common to find groups of transvestites that behave casually, uninhibited, without fear and interacting with everyone else. No one attacks them. No one bothers them. The most that can happen is that someone — to accentuate their difference in testosterone — might laugh at them, with this being no more than an attempt to poke fun of them, or perhaps as a flirtatious gesture.
Today one can be gay and an activist in the Communist Party, or gay and a priest. In short: In new times, new customs. Medical papers and psychological studies have demonstrated that sexual orientation has nothing to do with any pathological dysfunction.
The world opened the doors of tolerance to those formerly stigmatized individuals. As a result gay weddings now take place since such marriages are allowed in many parts of the world. Gays and lesbians can even adopt babies and undergo sex-change operations. And of course Cuba cannot be last in adopting these changes.
In an interview (in Spanish) with Fidel Castro, conducted by Carmen Lira Saade for the Mexican newspaper La Jornada last year, he said:
“If anyone is responsible, it’s me. It’s true that in those moments I couldn’t oversee that matter. I was immersed principally in the “Crisis of October” [the Cuban Missile Crisis], in war, in political questions.
… “I couldn’t be everywhere. I didn’t even have a place where I was living.” Betrayals were the order of the day, and I had to stay on the run. “Escaping from the CIA, which bought so many traitors, sometimes among your very own people. It wasn’t a simple thing; but, in short, if it’s necessary to assume responsibility, I assume mine. I won’t shift the blame onto anyone else…” the revolutionary leader maintained. He only regretted not having corrected those errors at the time.
I couldn’t go without sharing these words by the Cuban commander-in-chief with our readers, where he only indirectly blamed himself. As he outlined, his position was in response to circumstances determined by the US siege against the revolution. Therefore the direct responsibility for sexual marginalization in Cuba in the 1960s was the hostile policies of the US government under various administrations.
It turns out now that homosexuals paid the consequences for the difficult social-political conjuncture. I imagine that it was something like that, with the rope braking at its weakest point.
What’s remarkable in all this is that in the past he wouldn’t have spoken in such a way. He would have given millions of reasons to demonstrate how noxious homosexuals were back then.
Let’s look now at another vision of the matter, that of Mariela Castro Espin, a sociologist, sexologist (as well as the daughter of Cuban president Raul Castro) and director of the National Center of Sexual Education (Cenesex). Speaking about that institution, she said:
“It has been able to improve the image of Cuba after the marginalization of the 60s.”
I highlight this because she says “to improve the image of Cuba” and not to compensate people for the years of segregation and outrageous violations or for the tooth and nail struggle for respect of the rights of this social group. So, what’s the real social objective of this office: social justice or the image of the country in the eyes of the international community?
At a “Gay Pride” parade in London, Mariela stated: “For the time being there won’t be parades of this type in Cuba, since our socialism seeks to be original, which also relates to our concepts regarding self-determination.”
It’s undeniable that in the terrain of sexual identity in Cuba, we’re on the same plane as anyone else, bursting with expectations of reason and justice, but in fact still very far from these. Discriminatory expressions persist; police repression of gays, lesbians and transvestites still occurs. Now it’s not in the name of government policy but as the initiative of some retrograde police and extremists. What’s happened is that only the epochs are different, the customs too, but one cannot stop being at least a little consistent in their principles.
Seeing to believe it
I can only imagine what would have been the expression of Virgilio Piñera (1912-1979), our most famous playwright, if he had seen with his own eyes the social opening and acquiescence that is practiced today in Cuba toward gays. Less explicit, but with the same sentiment, would have been Jose Lezama Lima (1910-1976), the author of the sole Cuban literary work considered to be within the best five books of the 20th century.
Both writers suffered from a sort of literary ostracism by official Cuban authorities mainly due to their sexual orientations. Piñera faced this because he never hid his homosexuality; and Lezama Lima, despite living in a marriage with his secretary, only partly managed to conceal his preference.
Many others could be mentioned who had to wait long periods for their works to be published. A good part of them remained on the island and today justice has been served in relation to them: gay writers have been granted the National Literature Award and other important acknowledgements. Another sizable portion left and went into exile however.
I know of many of them. Some years ago I even had co-workers who suffered the most horrible humiliations because of their “dubious morals.” Some of them were in the sadly celebrated UMAP [Military Units to Assist Production – discussed presently].
Today such individuals have been compensated to a certain extent and enjoy “privileged” social situations, such as being named “figures of national cultural life,” though they wouldn’t risk giving me an interview for a non-governmental website. They’re satisfied with the fact that they have been left in peace.
But one cannot speak of homosexuality in Cuba without talking about UMAP. According to an article by Pablo Alfonso that appeared in El Nuevo Herald:
“The Military Unities to Assist Production were forced labor camps that existed in Cuba between 1965 and 1968. About 25,000 men were confined, basically military-aged youth among whom were religious believers, homosexuals and dissidents – those who were classified as parasites, vagrants and anti-social elements…
“… they were transferred to agricultural areas to perform hard labor, especially cane cutting. They were housed in unhealthy barracks in barbwire-enclosed camps that were guarded by troops of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR)…
“… Faced with the protests of the Writers and Artists Association of Cuba (UNEAC), international organizations and renowned foreign intellectuals, UMAP was finally shut down. According to former internees (who currently have an association in Miami), everything went on in those camps: summary judgments, self-mutilation, suicides and all types of abuses by the guards. It’s said that the documentation on those concentration camps was destroyed…”
Clearly, I have absolutely no guarantee of the trustworthiness of this source, but as I have no material from this country — neither unofficial nor official — I needed to use the data offered here so that the readers would have an idea of how painful this episode was.
Scorned yesterday, rewarded today, once banned, now published, some were accepted and belatedly rewarded, others left and are prey to an enduring bitterness. Personally I would have liked it if the correction hadn’t been delayed as long as it was. Virgilio and Lezama would have seen how their intellects were venerated and how their works would have spread. They would have experienced being recognized as outstanding figures of Cuban letters, without genteel adjectives being used to describe their sexual identity.
Either they don’t make it or they go overboard.
As we have seen previously, today Cuba is climbing in the carriage of consent and Cuban LGBTs are not openly imprisoned for merely being themselves. This doesn’t mean that discriminatory attitudes have been completely eradicated. As Mariela Castro said when inaugurating the third Cuban celebration of International Day Against Homophobia, escorted by transsexuals who held up a Cuban flag and another multicolored one representing the gay movement gay:
“Here we are, male and female Cubans continuing to struggle for inclusion…”
In today’s Cuba, efforts for homosexuals include initiatives such as identity changes for transsexuals and proposals for civil unions between people of the same sex. Since 2008, sex change operations have been performed free of charge.
Since the 1990s, homosexuality on the island has been de-penalized, though incidents of police harassment have not ceased completely. I don’t fully understand where the order comes from, since it’s well known that the police don’t act without consulting their the government leadership.
Barely a year or two ago, one could still witness “round ups,” which consisted of dispatching several police wagons and patrol cars to parks frequented by homosexuals. In Santiago de Cuba, especially in Dolores and Cespedes parks, this would sometimes be done without the least hesitation, as gays were snatched into police cars by officers using the most unorthodox methods.
Celebrated in all the provinces, and with ample financial support, are dates like International Day against Homophobia or Gay Pride Day. There also exist groups of health promoters involved in comprehensive efforts to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, with the gay population in particular being the largest at-risk group.
This came about from the isolation suffered for years by members of this population group, since settings didn’t exist where they could meet without being subjected to harassment (this remains a non-resolved problem). Engaging in sex in secretive places and under poor conditions, the high rate of promiscuity (which shows how the prohibited temps) resulted in extremely high numbers of HIV positive adolescents, gays and bisexuals across the country.
As is logical, all abrupt changes generate controversy. After so many years of prohibitions and repression against homosexuals, this degree of opening has created a wide range of differing opinions:
– Seemingly brilliant work on the part of Cenesex in raising awareness among the majority that gay people are not “creatures from another planet.” One can really notice less repression compared to a few years ago.
– Considering how bothersome certain attitudes of depravity and exteriorization of one’s preferences are. Only being discreet, if in the end “each one enjoys what they like.”
– Opposing and holding onto the opinion that being gay has always, and will always, not be viewed well. Having expressions such as: “Homosexuals don’t respect anyone any more. They go around on dressed up like women and if you don’t pay close attention you could wind up buying a beer for one of these masqueraders. It’s crazy!”
– Believing that we’ve never in fact been as homophobic — with some more so, others less — since there were never big demonstrations of the rejection of homosexuals or acts of violence against them. Discrimination practiced since the ‘60s was by the government, not by the people.
– Reasoning how fair the new policies are toward homosexuals who ultimately are owed for the injuries and damage done in the past.
– Proposing to find fair measures; for example, dedicating a considerable budget to sex change operations when the unresolved problems of consultations and the treatment of infertility are confronting a population that is declining due to aging, a lower birth rate and young people leaving the country.
I understand that gay people have their needs, but right now the conditions of health centers are worse than poor; it’s necessary to repair hospitals and clinics though we’re spending an enormous amount of resources on campaigns against homophobia. Anytime you need to get any type of operation is super complicated, but now it’s becoming easier for a gay to get a vagina than for some sick person to get a magnetic resonance scan.
This demonstrates that there was no gradual social work to instill in the great majority of people an awareness of the need for inclusion and acceptance of the LGBT community. We skipped the intermediate and necessary stages between the Cuban homophobia of the first 30 years of the revolution and a tolerant Cuba.
A once satanic expression, “gay pride” is now used daily. Personally I believe that being gay should not imply shame, but not pride either. The fact is that here in Cuba people either don’t make it, or go overboard – as the saying goes – while in the middle one finds virtue.