My recent trip to Cuba was something of a solo trip. Actually, it was a mother-daughter trip (which you can read about soon), but in terms of LGBTQ+ travel, I was there sans wife. Normally I take advantage of the fact that I present in the stereotypical feminine fashion and can use other’s esthetic prejudices as a sort of safety blanket. However, I am trying to be more loudly proud. Perhaps I was feeling extra brave, or perhaps there was something in the Caribbean air that gave me a sense of safety. Whatever it was, I came out as a lesbian to just about everyone I met in Cuba. I will share the details of these experiences further, but for now suffice it to say, that at least I was never met with hostility.
Cuba’s politics regarding the LGBTQ+ community were so interesting that I couldn’t resist digging into it. As with many countries, its history is not a pretty one, but with the support of Mariela Castro, Cuba seems to be making some bold steps on the path of equality.
Gay & Lesbian History in Cuba
Cuba’s history of intolerance towards homosexuality unfortunately does not date back very far. During the 60’s and 70’s, homosexuals, sometimes convicted for something as little as wearing pants deemed to be too tight, were being sent into forced labour camps (Improper Conduct, a documentary made in 1984, includes interviews with men who had been sent to these camps). During the 1970’s, gay and lesbian people were forced out of their jobs, university, and the Communist Party. It was not until 1979 that homosexuality stopped being illegal. However, even today, “publicly manifested” homosexuality can still land a person in prison for up to a year. Furthermore, “persistently bothering others with homosexual amorous advances” is a fineable offence.
In 1986, the National Commission on Sex Education announced its opinion that homosexuality was a sexual orientation, rather than an affront to the revolution, and that homophobia needed to be remedied.
In 1993, when the movie Fresa y Chocolate – with its criticisms of homophobia in Cuba – was allowed by the government to be produced, people living with HIV also stopped being forced into quarantine. Perhaps emboldened by these new apparent liberties, the LGBTQ+ community started to become more out. In 1994, the Cuban Association of Gays and Lesbians was formed. However, in 1997, the association was shut down when its members were arrested.
Further persecutions were made against the LGBT community in 1997 when police raided and arrested people at nightclubs with a known gay clientele. Beatings, arrests, fines, and imprisonment were persistent threats against the community.
Gay and lesbian themes become more prominent in the media in the early 2000’s, including a lesbian couple in a soap opera. Unfortunately, the release of LGBTQ+ media also coincided with police campaigns, including arrests, against homosexuality.
Current LGBTQ+ Politics in Cuba
Mariela Castro, niece to Fidel Castro, has been the most prominent voice for the LGBTQ+ community whose main platform is eliminating homophobia. The Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), under direction of Mariela, is the only official organisation advocating such issues.
In 2004, Carlos Sanchez of the ILGA (International Gay and Lesbian Association) released a report of his findings concerning the LGBTQ+ community. The following observations were included in his summary:
- a) Neither institutional nor penal repression exists against lesbians and homosexuals.
- b) There are no legal sanctions against lgbt people.
- c) People are afraid of meeting and organizing themselves. It is mainly based on their experience in previous years, but one can assume that this feeling will disappear in the future if lesbians and gays start to work and keep working and eventually get support from the government. (The National Center for Sexual Education is offering this support).
- d) “Transformismo” is well accepted by the majority of the Cuban population
- e) There is indeed a change in the way people view homosexuality, but this does not mean the end of discrimination and homophobia. The population is just more tolerant with lesbians and homosexuals.
- f) Lesbians and gays do not consider fighting for the right to marriage, because that institution in Cuba does not have the same value that it has in other countries. Unmarried and married people enjoy equal rights.
In 2008, under Mariela’s direction, the Cuban health system began offering free gender-reassignment surgeries to qualifying people. The process to qualify is a long one. A person interested in gender-reassignment surgery begins with several clinical assessments which occur over the course of two years. Between 1988 and 2007, only one surgery had been performed. With a waiting list hundreds of people long, and only 5 surgeries performed each year, few people have made it all the way through the process. As of 2015, less than 30 people had received the surgery. In 2012, Adela Hernandez was elected as Cuba’s first publicly transgender person in politics.
While people can show their support during the public International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, Cuba does not participate in any Pride events. Mariela and CENESEX act as a voice for the LGBTQ+ community, but there are many who question the motivations behind the organisation and the discrepancy between what is being said and what is being done for equality. Still, any voice advocating for LGBT rights is a step in the right direction. As well, fighting homophobia is not a bad place to start as there is little point in equalising rights if they are not going to be recognised. On the other hand, and this is a question I ask myself on a daily basis concerning LGBTQ+ rights worldwide, why not do both and why not do it now?
Read more about the Progression of LGBTQ Rights in Cuba.
Lesbian & LGBTQ+ Travel in Cuba
While I saw plenty of people heavily making out in public, not once did I see a same-sex couple engaging in even the lightest of PDAs. That being said, I have read that same-sex male couples sometimes hold hands in public in Havana.
My experiences in coming out as a lesbian in Cuba were mostly non-dramatic. My Cuban neighbours here in Vancouver, whose apartment I stayed at in Havana, didn’t comment on my orientation at all. The two female Cubans I came out to in Havana were as equally indifferent. I became good friends with one as these young women – who would make sure the Cuban men didn’t get too close to me on the dance floor:) As for the men in Cuba, me being a lesbian required extra explanation. One male stranger I met at the beach had the attitude, “That’s cool. Sometimes I sleep with men.” Still, it took some time to really convince him, and the two other men I came out to, that I didn’t sleep with men at all. Once convinced of this, one man still made some very forward advances throughout the evening. The other two gave up and tried to set me up with their sisters or friends.
There are no official gay or lesbian bars in Havana. The only officially sanctioned bar is El Mejunje in Santa Clara. This club is famous for its outlandish drag shows and draws a mixed crowd comprised of the LGBTQ+ community and allies. Swin Party in Havana (15th Street, between N and O streets, in Vedado), though not an officially sanctioned LGBTQ+ bar, is popular amongst lesbians and bisexual women. Tables are free at Swin and it could be a great place to meet other Cuban lesbians.
Besides those two establishments, the lesbian scene in Havana is more underground. If you know some Spanish and are feeling brave, the lesbian and gay parties can be found by making friends on the Malecón (near 23rd Street). It’s an invite only, word-of-mouth, affair and depends on who is throwing the house party that night.
Krudas Cubensi, a lesbian hip-hop duo from Cuba, is hoping to raise awareness and tolerance through their music. Songs like My Body is Mine with lyrics Get your rosaries out of our ovaries/Remove your doctrines from our vaginas are used to empower and educate. It’s worth checking out their tour dates to see if they will be playing Cuba during your stay there.
The LGBTQ+ scene is beginning to change the world over, and Cuba is doing its best to keep up. Though there are still many restrictions and fears, the gay and lesbian community, as well as its allies, is doing everything it can to make its voice heard. Big events like the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia and World AIDS Day are a great place to start and gain traction for more forward movement.
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