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Rainbow Cuba: the sexual revolution within the revolution

March to celebrate LGBTI rights in Havana, May 2009.

By Rachel Evans

December 23, 2011 (updated January 28, 2012) – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- When I was 16, I went to a Cuba solidarity event in my home town. At the end of inspiring speeches about Cuba’s health record, education standards, and the revolution’s policy of sending doctors and teachers to impoverished countries, a rousing “Cuba si! Yankee no!” chant erupted. It was electric. Much better than the fake feeling, singing and dancing we’d experienced in the church hall on Sunday. I was impressed and resolved to visit the country and see the revolution for myself. Years later and having come out of the closet, I decided my trip to Cuba could help prove or dispel the oft-uttered line of Cuba being homophobic.

This work will help put to bed the lies and distortions propagated by the powerful United States (US) propaganda machine: that the Cuban Revolution is undemocratic, homophobic and tyrannical. My visit to and study of Cuba finds that there is no basis to these claims.

Rainbow Cuba timeline

1939 – Cuban Social Defence Code – anti-gay laws

1959July 26 revolution

1965 and 1968 – Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) program

1971 – the first National Congress of Education and Culture

1975 – the limits on employment of homosexuals in the arts and education were overturned by the Cuban Supreme Court

1974 – Federation of Cuban Women demanded sex education in the state curriculum

1975 – new ministry of culture was established, as well as a commission to study homosexuality

1975 – first congress of the Cuban Communist Party agreed on the complete and absolute equality of women, which included sex education

1976 – inauguration of the Family Code which called for equal participation by men in child-raising and household work

1977 – the Cuban National Group for Sexual Education (precursor to CENESEX) was established, headed by a Cuban physician Celestino Lajonchere and East German sexologist Monika Krause

1979 – homosexual acts decriminalised, but failed to legalise homosexual behaviour in the public sphere – leaving intact anti-gay laws dating to the Cuban Social Defence Code of 1939.

1979 – transgender issues began to be discussed

1979 – The life of males and females had been first published in the German Democratic Republic. “Homosexuals should be granted equal rights, respect and recognition, and that any kind of social discrimination is reprehensible.”

1979 – 24 transsexual Cubans won support from CENESEX

1980 – with economic sanctions biting, more than 120,000 Cubans fled Cuba under the “Mariel boatlift”

1981 – Are you beginning to think about love publication was more ambivalent about homosexuality

1981 – ministry of culture produced a publication titled In Defence of Love that described homosexuality as a variant of human sexuality

1981 – AIDS in the US first diagnosed

1985 – first AIDS case diagnosed in Cuba – a Cuban man who'd returned from defending the people of Mozambique

1985 – Cuba screened the island's entire blood supply and spent $3 million to buy reactive agents and equipment to set up labs in blood banks, hygiene and epidemiology centres around the country

1986 – Cuba opened 13 sanatoria that provided care for 99 people – 20% of whom were thought to have contracted HIV through same-sex loving. Involuntarily quarantined

1987 – offence of homosexual acts in public places was removed from Cuba’s penal code and people charged under the law were released from jail

1989 – first transgender surgery performed

1993the age of consent for homosexuals in Cuba became 16 years, equalling heterosexuals

1993homosexuals able to join the Communist Party for the first time

1993 – Strawberry and Chocolate, a film criticising Cubans' intolerance of homosexuality

1995 – Cuban drag queens lead the annual May Day procession

1995 – Gay Cuba produced by Sonia de Vries, a series of interviews with gay and lesbian Cubans and shown at the Havana International Festival of Latin America Cinema to public and critical acclaim

1996 – Pablo Milanes, a popular Cuban singer who’d been incarcerated in a UMAP in the 1960s, dedicated a song about gay men to all Cuban homosexuals

1996 – National program for sex education with gender focus accepted and implemented

2000 – at the film festival in Havana, half the Latin American films shown had gay themes

2001 – four local young males, ranging in ages from 17-22, held a double same-sex marriage ceremony outdoors, in front of loved ones and neighbours, in south-east Havana

2003 – 16th World Congress of Sexology met in Havana

2003 – CENESEX created its own website, www.cenesex.sld.cu

2004 – Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly: “We are trying to see how to do that, whether it should be to grant them the right to marry or to have same-sex unions. We have to redefine the concept of marriage. Socialism should be a society that does not exclude anybody.”

2004 – FMC-CENESEX law reform proposals: assisted reproduction services to single mothers and lesbians

2004FMC-CENESEX national strategy for of transvestites, transsexuals and transgender persons – transvestites and transsexuals accepted into secondary school and institutions of higher learning and has involved awareness-raising efforts among the police.

2004free gender reassignment operations begin to be carried out on a greater scale

2006popular soap opera The Hidden Face of the Moon includes bi-sexual character

2007 – Cuba commemorated International Day of Action Against Homophobia with CENESEX leading a debate around sexual diversity with film screenings. Rallies have been held every years since.

2007 – Sex-reassignment surgery as part of public health care in Cuba as a pilot program

2007 – Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly: “We have to abolish any form of discrimination against homosexuality.”

2008 – Sex-reassignment surgery institutionalised on a larger scale

Introduction

The revolution in Cuba bought hope for people suffering from a legacy of colonial and imperialist domination. A wave of people’s power against the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, culminated in a general strike on January 1, 1959. A new chapter in dignity opened up for the small Caribbean island. Landless peasants were granted soil to till and city dwelling toilers granted homes, almost rent free. Copper mines, agricultural, telecommunication and electricity firms run by foreign companies were nationalised by the new Cuban government. With resources returned to the country, wages increased for many workers and health care and education were provided free. The revolution lifted the mass of Cubans out of poverty and gave them a political voice. Decisions previously made in homes and parlours of the rich were now made in mass assemblies of workers and peasants in city plazas.

After the revolution, women and Afro-Cubans were granted equality in law and measures to advance their status were implemented by the new state. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people did not fare so well in this anti-imperialist renaissance. While the uprising benefited the vast majority of Cubans, some early revolutionary government policies reflected the weight of Spanish and US colonial baggage, and discriminated against LGBTI people. These practices and laws began to be removed from the 1970s onwards. Today, Cuba is more advanced in LGBTI rights than many global South nations and, I contend, than many global North countries. In a comparative study in this dissertation – Australia and the US fall behind Cuba’s LGBTI record on many fronts.

Cuba’s revolution took place 145 kilometres off the US coast of Miami. The nationalisation by Cuba of industrial and agrarian enterprises owned by US citizens drew the ire of the world’s most powerful and militarised nation. The US government attacked the revolution militarily, economically and through a disinformation campaign. Claims that the Cuban government is undemocratic, repressive and homophobic continue to be propagated by opponents of the socialist government.

This essay will examine claims that the Cuban Revolution was extremely homophobic and remains so. It will do so first by exploring the history of Cuban LGBTI life. It will examine the conditions for the community before the revolution – during the Spanish colonial occupation of Cuba and the subsequent US ‘sexploitation’ from the early 1900s. Secondly, the research will assess the nature of the Cuban Revolution and the homophobic pressures on it from the US and the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). Three specific phases of Cuban government policy identified as homophobic will be examined. These are the incarceration of homosexuals in “military units to aid production” (UMAPs) between 1965 and 1968, the alleged mass exodus of homosexuals from Cuba in the 1981 Mariel boatlift and the alleged targeting of homosexuals for involuntary treatment for HIV care in health sanatoriums. A study of Cuba’s homophobic laws will also feature.

Finally, this essay will explore the way in which changes in Cuba have led to its very good international position in terms of transgender rights, same-sex sex education, HIV treatment, cultural LGBTI expression and formal legal equality. This study finds that, while institutional homophobia (repressive laws) have been removed, prejudice has not disappeared. As a leading Cuban sexual rights organization, the Centre for Sexual Education (CENESEX), says, work remains to be done to eliminate homophobic and transphobic ideas and barriers for the LGBTI community in Cuba.

This research is a study of same-sex attracted and gender variant/sex and gender diverse peoples. “LGBTI” and “sex and gender diverse” are the accepted terms to describe this group in Australia. In the US, “gender variant” is used to describe transgender, transsexual, cross-dressing and intersex people. Within Cuba, this community is referred to as “LGBT”. In this report I will use LGBTI people, gender variant, and sex and gender diverse interchangeably.

Chapter 1: Cuba’s colonial history

Feudal Spain’s homophobia and transphobia

As a class-divided system, feudalism was the first state structure to actively and voraciously repress sexual nonconformists. State repression of gender variance and homosexuality developed in conjunction with class society. Class society promoted private property, the state and the monogamous family unit, and criminalised the LGBTI community and subjugated women (Brewer 2008, p. 5). Feudal Spain’s homophobia was codified in 13th century Castile law, which punished same-sex sexual practices with castration and stoning (Encyclopaedia of GLBTQ Culture, 2004, paragraph 2).

Spain’s anti-gay stance hardened with the Spanish Inquisition, launched by Pope Sixtus IV in October 1483. The Inquisition was born out of the war to drive the Moors off the Iberian Peninsula (Austin Cline 2004, paragraph 1).

[It] targeted nonconformists with savagery. Since the Moors tolerated a greater degree of homosexual expression, anal sex came to be seen as a Moorish perversion that needed to be expunged from Spanish society. ‘Sodomites’ were burned to death for their sins. (Lumsdan, 1991, p. 16.)

The Inquisition prosecuted thousands.

Records from three cities – Barcelona, Valencia and Sargossa – show 1,600 convictions between 1560 and 1640. A fourth city, Seville, burned 70 people for sodomy between 1567-1616  (Baird, 2001, p. 58).

The Spanish occupation of Latin America and the Caribbean included a war against the sexual nonconformists in that region. Before Spanish invasion, Indigenous Latin America and the Caribbean were sexually diverse, and tolerant of same-sex relationships and cross-dressing. According to the Queer Heritage timeline,

In 1551, Portuguese missionary Father Pero Correia, writing from Brazil, asserts that same-sex eroticism among indigenous women is quite common, in fact as widespread as in Africa, where he was previously stationed. Native Brazilian women, he observes, carry weapons and even form same-sex marriages (Queer Heritage, paragraph 6).

Cuba was invaded and claimed as a Spanish colony in 1492 (Slee, 2008, p. 4). Its inhabitants suffered the same punishment for sodomy as the Spaniards did themselves. Latin sexuality writer Max Mejía notes:

The conquerors treated ‘sodomy’ as a special Indian sin and hunted it down and punished it as such on a grand scale. They orchestrated crusades like the Holy Inquisition, which began burning sodomites at the stake as a special occasion, as in the memorable auto-da-fé of San Lázaro in Mexico City. (Feinberg, 2007b, paragraph 4.)

Queer Heritage’s timeline comments:

During Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s colonial expedition across Panama he saw men dressed like women; Balboa learnt that they were sodomites and threw the king and 40 others to be eaten by his dogs, a fine action of an honourable and Catholic Spaniard (Queer Heritage, paragraph 8).

Cuba under Spanish rule

In Cuba, the Indigenous people were massacred by the Spanish and forced into slavery. Over a period of a few hundred years, the majority of Cuba’s Indigenous people were wiped out (Slee, 2008, p. 4). Colonial Spain targeted Cuba’s sexual nonconformists for particularly vile punishment. Spanish colonial authorities in Cuba castrated those they considered sodomites and forced them to eat their own testicles coated with dirt (Feinberg, 2007b, paragraph 6). Inspired by José Martí, the second war of independence in 1895 broke Spanish rule. A different colonial power stepped into its place. In 1898, the US intervened under the guise of helping the independence fighters. A year later, a military government was established headed by a US general (Slee, 2008, p. 5).

US control of Cuba

From 1898 to 1959, Cuba was a US neo-colony:

US corporations controlled 40% of sugar production, 75% of arable land…  they owned 50% of the railways, 100% of the oil refineries and 90% of cattle ranchers. US banks held more than a quarter of bank deposits (Saney, 2004, p. 9).

In addition to providing cheap natural resources to the US, Cuba was also a holiday resort for the rich and powerful in the US. As a US playground, the Cuban prostitution industry both heterosexual and gay expanded. The nature of US exploitation of the island developed into an explicitly sexual one. Throughout the neo-colonial period, homosexuality remained illegal in Cuba. The 1938 Penal Code was based on Spanish laws and remained in force until 1979. It penalised “habitual homosexual acts, homosexual molestation, scandalous, indecent behaviour, [and] ostentatious displays of homosexuality in public” (Bjorklund, 2000, paragraph 7). The legal prohibition on homosexuality did not supress the homosexual prostitution industry, but it did criminalise sex workers.

Lourdes Arguelles, a Cuban who regularly travels to Cuba from the US, in collaboration with B. Ruby Rich, conducted research on the experiences of lesbians and gay men within Cuban émigré enclaves in the US, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Spain between 1979 and 1984 (Arguelles & Rich, 1984, p.1). They note:

The only occupational sector (prior to the 1959 revolution) showing substantial growth was that connected to tourism, drug distribution, gambling and prostitution. This sector was mostly controlled by American organized crime and members of an indigenous bourgeoisie directly linked to Batista's political apparatus. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 688.)

This industry employed more than 200,000 workers as petty traders, casino operators, entertainers, servants and prostitutes. Leonardo Hechavarría and Marcel Hatch, in a 2001 movie review of Before Night Falls, note that, before 1959:

Life for lesbians and gays was one of extreme isolation and repression, enforced by civil law, augmented by Catholic dogma. Patriarchal attitudes made lesbians invisible. If discovered, they'd often suffer sexual abuse, disgrace in the community and job loss. Havana's gay male underground some 200,000 was a purgatory of prostitution to American tourists, domestic servitude and constant threats of violence and blackmail. The closet was the operative image. Survival often meant engaging in fake heterosexual marriage, or banishment to the gay slum. Existence for queers in Cuba paralleled that of other countries. (Hechavarria and Hatch, 2001, paragraph 12.)

Arguelles and Rich elaborate:

Havana of the 1950… was not easy for the working-class or petty-bourgeois homosexual. Unemployment was high and had been steadily increasing throughout the decade. The scarcity of productive occupations demanded a strictly closeted occupational life. For all women and especially for lesbians, employment almost invariably entailed continual sexual harassment. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 688.)

Under US domination, machismo an arrogance towards the needs of women and a celebration of male virility exacerbated anti-gay sentiment.

Chapter 2: The Cuban Revolution

Cuba throws out US domination

Cuban subservience to the US was broken with a mass uprising on the January 1, 1959, against President Fulgencio Batista. Batista, who seized power in a military coup on March 10, 1952, operated as the “steward of sugar barons, banks, gambling syndicates and the great corporate interests of North America” (Hickson, 1996, paragraph 2). Batista was brutal and:

answered any opposition with assassination, breaking strikes with machine-gun fire and using repression against the Cuban people to maintain the massive exploitation of sugar workers, farmers and women (ibid, paragraph 3).

Batista’s regime killed an estimated 20,000 Cubans (Revolutionary Museum, Havana, 2009). The general strike that unseated the dictator had its origins in 1953, when the July 26 Movement (J26M) a small group of revolutionary guerrillas attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, the eastern headquarters of the military dictatorship (ibid, paragraph 4).

Fidel Castro was one of few who survived the failed attack and was put on trial. He delivered his now famous “History will absolve me” speech in the courtroom and inspired the nation to fight its neo-colonial oppressors. From 1954 to 1959, in liberated areas where imperialist class interests and national capitalists subservient to US interests had been expelled by the J26M and their supporters, democratic institutions flourished. There were aims to eradicate illiteracy in these areas. August Arnold, author of Democracy in Cuba and the 1997-98 Elections, noted:

The liberated areas, known as Territorio Libre de Cuba, were not liberated only in the sense that it pushed the neo-colonial army out. They were liberated because they started to adopt new laws and to build new political, economic and social/political structures in place of the old ones…objectives were to assure the economic, social, and other rights of the citizen, working out the orientation and stimulation of industry, farming, and road improvement as well as the construction of offices and schools.  (Arnold, 1999, p. 164-165).

LGBTI Cubans were involved in the fight against Batista. Transsexuals fought alongside other guerrilla fighters (Motley, 2005, paragraph 5).

The revolution consolidated political and economic power in the hands of Cuban toilers, and took it away from the US. “Lands larger than 1,000 acres…were nationalized with compensation,” noted author August Arnold.  

Between August and October 1960, 41% of land was expropriated, 95% of industry was nationalised, 98% of construction, 95% of transport, 75% of retail and 100% of wholesale trade (Arnold, 1999, p. 174).

With wealth in the hands of the Cuban people, the social wage increased dramatically. The revolution instituted free education, free health care, and cheap housing and public transport. A summary of advances from the revolution until 1999 is recounted in The Cuban Revolution – defying imperialism, building the alternative:

Infant mortality has fallen from over 60 to 6.4% for every 1000 live births, life expectancy has increased by over 20 years to reach 74 years for men and 76 years for women, illiteracy has fallen from more than 40% to 3.8%...Housing rents, which used to absorb over 50% of income, have disappeared with most homes now being owned by their occupants, unemployment has fallen to below 5%. (Democratic Socialist Party, 2005, p. 37)

Mass participation, contrary to myths about the Cuban Revolution propagated by the Western media, was a key feature of the revolution. After the revolution mass assemblies of up to a million and a half people, were held in Cuban town plazas and made decisions on the revolution.

At one point in the mass meetings, Fidel Castro himself introduced the possibility of holding elections, and the proposal was actually booed down by the people attending the mass rally (Arnold, 1999, p. 184).

Arnold explains, “In the minds of the people, elections were associated with the neo-colonial regime's multi-party system or the even more fraudulent elections under the open dictatorship, the last of which took place in 1958” (ibid, p. 185). At a million strong mass Havana Declaration Assembly in 1960, “according to the University of Texas Castro Speech Data Base… the people spontaneously chanted for over seven minutes against the holding of elections.” (ibid, p. 197)

Democratic structures in Cuba were consolidated and formalised, shifting from general assemblies and “committees in defence of the revolution” (CDR) into “organs of people’s power” between 1974 and 1976:

Representative institutions of workers democracy were created on the local, provincial and national levels…These are not legislative bodies on the parliamentary model, but working bodies that combine legislative and administrative functions. (Lorimer, 2000, p. 39.)

This flowering of democracy within the revolutionary process included an expansion of civil and democratic rights that benefited black Cubans and women. Before the revolution, at least a one-third of Cuba’s population was of African descent, yet blacks were banned from many clubs, bars, restaurants, movie theatres and beaches. After the revolution, all laws discriminating against blacks were removed (Spencer, 2000, p. 15). Women’s rights were enshrined from January 1959. Women won near full equality under the law, including pay equity, the right to child care, abortion and to do military service. A number of lesbians benefited from these programs (Hechavarria and Hatch, 2001, paragraph 14). Many LGBTI people, on the bottom of the economic and social strata under Batista, benefited from the revolution’s redistribution of wealth. The mafia-controlled prostitution trade was broken. A massive productive period for the Cuban economy began, democratic participation for the mass of Cubans thrived, and the rights of Afro-Cubans and women flourished.

But civil rights for LGBTI people were not expanded at the beginning of the revolution, as were women’s rights and those of Afro-Cubans. Arguelles and Rich note:

The revolution of 1959 eradicated the Havana underworld and initiated the development of a productive economy… At the same time, the revolutionary leadership rallied against the evils of capitalist vice which were often associated with homosexuality (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 690).

Material basis for homophobia and bigotry towards gender variance

Raising children the next generation of workers is an expensive business. If capitalists were forced to pay for raising children, including child-care, food halls and cleaning, this expense would eat into their profits substantially. Capitalists, and the state that supports them, avoid this responsibility by perpetuating the idea that individual men, and particularly individual women, have a “natural” responsibility for raising their children within individual family units. This is the material basis for women’s oppression in capitalist society.

Class society distorts all human relationships by transforming social interaction into relationships between property owners. Children become primarily heirs and property. Women are reduced to the status of breeding machines and domestic slaves (Brewer, 2008, p. 6).

Analogous to the sexist idea of women’s “natural” and primary role as child-bearers and carers is the homophobic idea of fixed (“natural”) male and female reproductive roles. Men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women challenge this ideology and suffer from the homophobic idea that such sexual and emotional relations are unnatural, deviant and/or immoral. As author Sherry Wolf explains, LGBTI oppression, like women’s oppression:

is tied to the centrality of the nuclear family as one of capitalism’s means to both inculcate gender norms and outsource care for the current and future generations of workers at little cost to the state. In addition, the oppression of LGBT people under capitalism, like racism and sexism, serves to divide working-class people from one another, especially in their battles for economic and social justice. (Wolf, 2009, pp.19-20.)

Furthermore, “the persecution of homosexual behaviour arose as a by-product of oppression of women, as a result of the need to portray the family as ‘natural’ and inevitable” (Brewer, 2008, p. 6).

LGBTI oppression in Cuba has to be contextualised. The island endured 500 years of Spanish subjugation and half a century of US pillaging. Guaranteeing economic independence for women with the flow on benefits for the LGBTI community was not an easy task. Resources were diverted into surviving imperialist attacks (Harnecker, 1979, p. xvi), including the Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) invasion in 1961, the nuclear threat against the island in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, at least 634 assassination attempts on President Fidel Castro (Butler, 2008, paragraph 1), and the world’s harshest economic blockade. The US commercial, economic and financial embargo against the Cuban government, established in February 1962, has inflicted an estimated cost of more than US$ 79.325 billion for Cuba (Nichols, 2005, p. 4). The new revolutionary state’s inability to rapidly socialise women’s work within the home (raising children, cooking, cleaning, caring for the elderly) meant that the structural basis of women’s oppression and homophobia remained.

Chapter 3: Cuban Revolution: vehemently homophobic?

In 1999, the US Department of Homeland Security, Citizenship and Immigration Services produced a report titled Cuba: Status of Homosexuals, which argued:

Freedom for Cuban gays and lesbians continued to be limited. Gay social life remained discreetly centred around private parties in people’s homes and there are no openly gay bars… Moreover, social intolerance remains widespread, particularly outside the capital of Havana, stemming from the strong strain of machismo in Cuban cultural which had reinforced by decades of government persecution. As a result, many gays and lesbians continue to fear being identified as openly gay either at home or in the workplace. (US Department of Homeland Security, 1999, paragraph 4.)

The US government’s critique of gay rights in Cuba is hypocritical. Before 2003, 14 states in the US held that sodomy was a crime. Until 2003, the felony of sodomy in Michigan was punishable by 15 years in jail for the first conviction and life imprisonment for the second conviction (Wikimedia Foundation, 2010, paragraph 6).

US government criticism of Cuba’s treatment of its LGBTI community is parroted by some LGBTI commentators, including some socialists. Gay activist Peter Tatchell incorrectly condemns Cuba in a 2002 article, stating, “in the name of the new socialist morality, homosexuality was declared illegal in Cuba and typically punishable by four years’ imprisonment” (Tatchell, 2002, paragraph 5). Cuba’s new revolutionary government did not institute new anti-homosexual laws; it inherited the 1938 Penal Code from the Spanish. What was introduced by the First National Congress of Education and Culture in 1971 was a “policy of parameters”, which people were to meet to gain employment (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 695). This, and a decree at the congress that “no homosexual shall represent Cuba” (Hechavarria and Hatch, 2001, paragraph 17), discriminated against LGBTI Cubans. The decree was rescinded two years later in court (ibid, paragraph 17).

“The Castro regime has been ferociously anti-gay”, exclaims Dale Carpenter in Outright, an online gay magazine. Agustin Blazquez compares the Cuban government’s treatment of gay and lesbians to life under fascism:

Many naïve gay[s] and lesbians, as well as members of the US media… return praising the open gay life on the island. I marvel at their ‘observations’. It reminds me of the many American tourists and reporters who visited Hitler’s Germany and failed to see the horrible reality of the Nazis. (Blazquez and Sutton, 2007, paragraph 12.)

In International Socialist Review (ISR), Paul D’Amato argues that homosexuals were better off under the US-backed dictatorship of Batista. “While there was terrible anti-gay discrimination in Cuban society before the revolution, homosexuality was never an issue (positively or negatively) of government policy. Only after the revolution did it become a matter of state policy for the worse.” (D’Amato 2007, paragraph 54.) Moreover, argues Hector Reyes, also in ISR, anti-gay laws indicate that Cuba’s revolution is not socialist:

If socialism is about the liberation of all humanity, why did it take the PCC (Cuban Communist Party Spanish spelling) until 1987 nearly 30 years after the revolution to remove the law penalising public homosexual behaviour, which had been in effect since 1938 when Batista ruled the country? The answer again is that the Cuban regime has nothing to do with socialism. A nationalist armed uprising is not a socialist revolution. (Reyes, 2000, paragraph 6.)

The Cuban government did send homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists to prison farms and labour camps (Carpenter, 2001, paragraph 3), but in a context of militarisation against a feared US invasion. This will be discussed in the next chapter. The other charges against Cuba have no basis. Opponents of the Cuban Revolution do not balance their analysis with an acknowledgement of significant rectifications that took place from the late 1970s. The International Lesbian and Gay Association’s Latin American representatives’ March 2003 report on Cuba states: “Sexual minorities seem to be living better times now in Cuba. In the medium term, even better than the rest of Latin America.” (Sanchez, 2004, paragraph 12.)

Chapter 4: Militarism and homophobia

The US tried to undermine the Cuban Revolution. The economic blockade was one tactic, but the US also trained an invasion force of right-wing Cuban exiles. The exiles were taken to the Cuban coast with US ships where, in April 1961, they tried to invade Cuba at Playa Giron (Slee, 2008, p.  31).

Arguelles and Rich note that, after the 1961 invasion:

Realistic fears and objective dangers gave rise to paranoia and (as in the McCarthy years here) anyone who was “different” fell under suspicion. Homosexual bars and La Rampa cruising areas were perceived, in some cases correctly, as centers of counterrevolutionary activities and began to be systematically treated as such… In this climate of post-invasion paranoia, private space was invaded as never before. Not surprisingly, deep suspicion came to dominate the everyday life of Cuban lesbians and male homosexuals-a feeling exacerbated by the fact that legal migration to the United States had been halted by new American immigration limitations and quotas. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 692.)

Military training and conscription became part of Cuban life in this period because, while the US failed at Playa Giron, it launched many more attempts to invade, assassinate leaders and undermine the revolution throughout the 1960s (Saney, 2004, p. 164). In light of the increased military threat, the Cuban government introduced military conscription for young men. Some young men, who were considered unreliable and/or unsuited to life in the army, were assigned to civilian work under military discipline. They were put in “military units to assist production” (UMAPs).

The UMAPs

Between 1965 and 1968, homosexual men were among those incarcerated in UMAPs. José Yglesias, the author of a book about the early years of the Cuban Revolution, noted that UMAPs were:

to take care of young men of military age whose incorporation into the Army for military training was considered unfeasible. Young men known to avoid work and study were candidates; so were known counter-revolutionaries; and also immoralists, a category that included homosexuals. (Lumsdan, 1991, pp. 65-66.)

Ian Lumsdan, author of Machos, maricones and gays Cuba and homosexuality, notes:

Homosexuals were among those most affected by the UMAP camps, but there is no evidence that these were created with homosexuals exclusively in mind. Together with homosexuals the camps contained such sexually incompatible companions as Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, conscientious objectors to military service whose religious faiths are notoriously homophobic (ibid, p. 66).

Lumsdan notes that these were terrifying times for many homosexuals, particularly those in entertainment, culture and education. As one leading designer recalled, they carried within them the “ever-present fear that at any moment there might be a knock on the door to report for an interrogation, or simply to be perfunctorily shipped out by truckload to the countryside” (ibid, p. 70).

Prominent Cubans were incarcerated in the UMAPs. The most famous was Pablo Milanes, Cuba’s well-known singer and songwriter. Milanes remains in Cuba and, in 1996 dedicated a song about gay men to all Cuban homosexuals. UMAP conscripts were paid seven pesos a month and had to work in Cuba’s countryside, mostly in the province of Camaguey. In this period there was a huge shortage of labour in the province. Seven pesos was much less than normal wages and draftees could leave the camps only under military escort (ibid, p. 66). Ernesto Cardenal, who would become minister of culture in Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government, interviewed a former UMAP inmate in his book En Cuba. The interviewee said, “work is hard because it’s nearly always in the sun. We work 11 hours a day (cutting marble in a quarry) from seven in the morning to seven at night, with one hour’s lunch break” (ibid, p. 68). While these are certainly harsh working conditions, on the basis of this testimony, it is unfair to compare these work camps to Nazi concentration camps.

In an interview with Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro said:

We were involved in a mobilisation of almost the whole country...  we created compulsory military service and we faced three problems  education for those joining the army groups of religious people who refused to serve in the army and homosexuals who were not called up for military service. You faced problems of strong resistance against homosexuals [because] the macho element was very strong in our society and ideas prevailed against the presence of homosexuals in military units.

With those three categories of those who for one reason or another were excluded, the Military Units in Support of Production (UMAP) were created, where people of those categories could participate. These units were created in the whole country and carried out work, mainly in support of agriculture. That is, it didn’t only affect those who were homosexual, although there were certainly a group of those, who were called to compulsory military service, an obligation in which everyone participated.

They weren’t units of internment or punishment… However, after a visit I discovered the distortion in some places, of the original idea, because you can’t deny that there were prejudices against homosexuals. I personally started a review of this matter. Those units only lasted three years. (Ramonet, 2006, pp. 253-55.)

The UMAPs were closed down in 1968 following protests to the government by the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists Federation (UNEAC) and Raquel Revuelta who had been a prominent Cuban Communist Party member before the 1959 victory (Roques, 2004, paragraph 2). Arguelles and Rich comment, “While short-lived and denounced extensively within and outside Cuba ever since their abolition, the camps remain a damnable episode in revolutionary history” (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 694).

Chapter 5: The effect of Stalinism on the Cuban Revolution

Historically, the socialist, Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution was very pro-LGBTI. Stalinism, the political counter-revolution within the Russian Revolution, was not. Under attack from its powerful neighbour, the Cuban government reached out for help from the Stalinist USSR. The 1917 Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia was a mass uprising of peasants and workers against capitalist war and hunger. But, from mid-1925, Stalin’s regime led a political backlash against the revolution and its leaders. It

had to imprison or kill literally millions of workers, party members and officials, including the majority of party members of 1917. Purges, imprisonments, exiles, secret trials and executions without trial were constant features of Soviet life from the late 1920s. (Bainbridge, 2000, paragraph 6.)

The 1917 revolution in Russia opened up a new era of rights for women and LGBTI people. The Bolsheviks were heavily influenced by the German sexologists who had established the exceptional German Scientific Humanitarian Committee (GSHC). Under the leadership of Marcus Hirschfeld, the GSHC organised four world congresses of the World League for Sexual Reform, which Bolshevik leaders attended (Brewer, 2008, p. 20). Germany’s influence, combined with other factors, resulted in the Bolshevik revolution being profoundly pro-homosexual.

Within two months of taking power, the Bolsheviks began the process of abolishing all laws against homosexual acts. Homosexuality was completely decriminalised in the new Soviet criminal code of 1922 and treated “no differently than heterosexuality in the clauses dealing with minors or assault” (Brewer, 2008, p. 19). Soviet courts approved of marriage between homosexuals and there are also records of sex change operations in the 1920s (Wolf, 2009, p. 89.) Similar to the Cuban revolutionary experience, cross-dressing women who served in the Red Army were “given positions of authority” (ibid, p. 97).

The Stalinist bureaucracy

betrayed the political program of the Bolsheviks in order to protect and improve the privileges it had secured for itself. Thus soviet democracy was replaced by bureaucratic tyranny; revolutionary internationalism was replaced by the conservative theory of ‘socialism in one country’; and the Communist movement abroad was directed to become a prop for the foreign policy of the Soviet elite. (Bainbridge, 2000, paragraph 9.)

Homophobia was formally embraced by the USSR leadership in 1928, at the International Congress of World League for Sexual Reform.

A USSR delegate referred to homosexuality as “potential social peril” and to abortion as “evil”. In January 1934 the Stalinist state conducted mass arrests of gay men in several Soviet cities. In March the same year all Soviet states were required to adopt a statute punishing homosexual acts with imprisonment. The Soviet press denounced homosexuality as the ‘degeneracy of the fascist bourgeoisie. (Brewer, 2008, p. 22.)

The Stalinist USSR assisted, albeit in a self-serving manner, the Cuban Revolution. The Cubans, in turn, reached out to the USSR for their help to repel the United States. Although wary of an alliance, the Cubans were desperate for aid against the nearby superpower with a demonstrated willingness to use nuclear weapons.

Stalinism compounded homophobia in Cuba and magnified the ideological influence of the Catholicism. Lumsdan writes:

Stalinist ideological tenet was that homosexuality was a decadent bourgeois phenomenon… Much of the public image of homosexuality in pre-revolutionary Cuba, as perceived by its new leaders, would have supported the Soviet belief that it represented "moral degeneration," a legacy of capitalism that could not be "tolerated in a socialist society”. (Lumsdan, 1991, p. 64.)

Arguelles and Rich point to the negative influence Stalinist homophobia had on the Cuban leadership:

Major ideological changes (in 1960) also were taking place. The influential Popular Socialist Party (PSP) moved to fill an analytical vacuum on homosexuality by lending "scientific" credibility to the anti-homosexual harangues of the revolutionary leadership and to the homophobia of the Cuban people. The leaders of the PSP, with an attitude resembling that of Soviet society in the thirties and forties, saw homosexuality as a product of bourgeois decadence. Further, the PSP leaders considered expression of sexuality not a private affair or a personal freedom but a fulfilment of obligation to society. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 693.)

From 1968, changes in the Soviet Union foreshadowed a more progressive LGBTI policy. Flowing on from Germany’s sexually progressive history, East Germany legalised homosexual acts between adults (ibid, p. 11). Combined with the rise of the LGBTI rights movement elsewhere in Europe and the historic Stonewall riots in the US, this had a positive effect on the Cuban leadership’s understanding of homosexuality. From the late 1960s, everyday life for gays and lesbians began to significantly improve (ibid, p. 12).

Chapter 6: The 1970s − positive changes

Three events marked the “gradual but continual improvement of life conditions of gay men and lesbians in Cuba during the seventies” (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p.693). These included the First National Congress on Education and Culture, the promulgation of the Family Code and the creation of a national group on sexual education.

In 1971, the First National Congress of Education and Culture suggested a change of attitude. For the first time in an official document, homosexuality was referred to in medical and psychological, rather than criminal, terms. Transgender issues began to be discussed (Arreola, 2006, paragraph 13). Customary denunciations of homosexuals as decadent were gone; homosexuality was no longer seen by the revolutionary leadership as a fundamental problem in Cuban society, “but instead [as] a form of sexual behavior requiring study” (ibid, p. 12).

Despite these advances, as previously outlined, the congress launched a policy of “parameters”, which required people to meet specific parameters to have access to certain jobs and public positions. The parameters discriminated against homosexuals (ibid, paragraph 9). Another declaration by the congress stated that “no homosexual shall represent Cuba”. However, two years later, the decree was challenged in court by a theatre group, and rescinded (Hechavarria and Hatch, 2001, paragraph 17).

Arguelles and Rich interview a lesbian photographer, Mayra, about these years:

You were not totally accepted by the revolution and there were positions you could not get if you were open about [being gay] unless you were in the arts. Still ... there was no persecution unless you were involved in counterrevolutionary activities. Then you were in trouble, and usually it was blamed on the weakness of being a homosexual. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p.693).

In 1976, the celebrated Family Code, which called for equal participation by men in child-raising and household work, was passed. In 1977, the Cuban National Group for Sexual Education was established, headed by Cuban physician Celestino Lajonchere and East German sexologist Monika Krause. The new Cuban National Group for Sexual Education worked primarily with those involved in health and education (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 695). In 1979, homosexual acts were removed from the Penal Code, however, “ostentatious displays of homosexuality” were still against the law, as were “homosexual acts in public places” (Bjorklund, 2000, paragraph 10). This legislation provided a “rationale for gay paranoia” (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 696), but it was not until 1987 that those crimes were struck down and the people who had previously been convicted of them were released (Bjorklund, 2000, paragraph 11).

Homosexual behavior still suffered minor legal restrictions until the 1990s (Arreola, 2006, paragraph 11), with public scandal laws remaining on the books until 1997 (López-Trigo, 2011, personal communication, Oct 11). As of 2010, there was no reference to the homosexuality in the Cuban Penal Code.

Chapter 7: The Mariel boatlift and CIA extortion of the LGBTI community

Commentators cite the Mariel boatlift as evidence of institutionalised homophobia in Cuba. In the spring of 1980, Fidel Castro threw open the port of Mariel to unlimited emigration to the US. The Cuban government claimed to be ridding the country of criminals and counter-revolutionaries. Amongst the 120,000 people who left the island were a large number of homosexuals.

There is evidence to suggest that the Cuban immigration department did facilitate male homosexuals leaving for the US. In an article by Susana Peña, “`Obvious gays’ and the state gaze: Cuban gay visibility and U.S. immigration policy during the 1980 Mariel boatlift”, she quotes an assessment drawn by Margarita Garcia from 180 interviews with Mariel entrants. Garcia concluded, “who went to the police station and declared him or herself to be a homosexual could get an exit permit” (Peña, 2007, paragraph 12).

The US government used the comparatively large number of LGBT Cubans leaving as a basis to allege homophobia by the Cuban state. However, the US exaggerated the number of homosexuals who left the island.

Reporting for the publication Paris Match, Nina Sutton cited a “non-official State Department source” as saying, “at least 10,000 Cuban homosexuals had emigrated at Mariel” (Feinberg, 2007a, paragraph 7). A more realistic assessment was provided by Julia Preston of the New York Village Voice on December 10, 1980, who stated, “As many as 3,000 gay Cubans passed through refugee camps this summer. Now about 350 are left, almost all men, the others having been sponsored out mainly to gay communities throughout the country.” (ibid, paragraph 24.) Three thousand is still a significant number, but Arguelles and Rich reflect, “for all the gay men and the few lesbians who left, there were many more who chose to stay. Their lives had been constantly improving.” (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 697)

It is also important to note that, in order to accept Cuban homosexuals, the US unofficially lifted part of the 1952 US Immigration and Naturalization Act, which had previously been used to bar and deport those it labeled “sexually deviant”. An exemption to this homophobic legislation was granted only to gay Cubans (Feinberg, 2007a, paragraph 17).

Before the boatlift, the US had a history of using immigration policy as a weapon against the Cuban government. Before 1980, it had allowed Cuban immigrants to travel to and from their old country freely, because, “the visits of ‘the American cousins’ increased consumer envy and added to the effectiveness of counter-revolutionary propaganda” (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 696).

Arguelles and Rich document other methods employed by the US to use the LGBTI community against the Cuban government:

Lesbians and gay men were particularly vulnerable… The CIA targeted the homosexual intelligentsia and worked to persuade its members to defect, promising generous academic grants and publishing contracts. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 696)

Blackmail was also used, especially against those gays less willing to leave, in the hope that political anxiety would force victims into exile. Carlos Alberto Montaner, a Madrid-based anti-Castro writer, for example, published two full pages listing names of homosexuals inside Cuba in an attempt to discredit them and encourage them to migrate. Such cynical “assistance” in coming out continues to be a favoured weapon against lesbians and gay men who are well integrated into the revolution (ibid, p. 696).

Even taking into account exaggeration and the machinations of the CIA, the Mariel boatlift did indicate that there were several factors pushing Cuban homosexuals to emigrate. The boats carried many who had waited years for a visa from the US. These included gays, mostly male, opting for the comparatively more open gay life promised in the US (ibid p. 14). There was another “uniquely gay reason for leaving”: the age-old, pre-revolutionary tradition in which families encouraged gay offspring to emigrate in order to avoid family stigma (ibid, p. 696).

“Significantly, there were few lesbians in the Mariel exodus”, report Arguelles and Rich (ibid, p. 697). They argue that the smaller number of lesbians, compared to gay men, who left points to the fuller integration of women into Cuban society. The increased status and freedom enjoyed by lesbians, as women, under the revolution, meant that fewer lesbians chose to leave.

In an interview with Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro acknowledges this history of discrimination that led to gay and lesbian emigration.

The revolution promoted the struggle against distinct types of prejudices. In relation to women there were prejudices and very strong ones and also in relation to homosexuals... that society emanating from injustice was saturated with prejudices. Certainly homosexuals were victims of discrimination. In other places much more than here, but in Cuba, yes there was discrimination. (Ramonet, 2006, p. 256.)

However, Fidel Castro also noted, “In the more cultured sectors there was less prejudice against homosexuals. In the same way, discrimination and machismo are today inversely proportional to the level of culture and knowledge of our compatriots.” (Ramonet, 2006, p.  256.)

At the end of Arguelles and Rich’s research period (1984), they concluded:

Homosexuals are nonetheless a visible feature of the Cuban social landscape. They appear at every level of the hierarchy in Cuban society, in government and of course in the arts. They are no longer confined to an underworld economy or alienated from the mainstream of social life as they were in the pre-revolutionary era. Particular individuals are well known and pointed to with pride as evidence of revolutionary nondiscrimination. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 699)

Chapter 8: Sex education and HIV treatment

The revolution saw a flowering of democratic organisations for women, youth, culture, Afro-Cubans and defence organisations. The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) established the Centre for Sexual Education (CNES) in 1977. Dr Celestino Alverez Lajonchere, then director of the National Institute of Sex Education in Havana, said, “In 1974, the Federation of Cuban Women has already insisted that sex education had to be done. They had been working on this since the early 1960s.” He continued:

The First Party Congress of 1975 agreed on the declaration of the complete and absolute equality of women. The elaboration of that declaration included the need to organize a system of sex education. (Feinberg, 2009, p. 41.)

Before CNES started its work, “sexual education was a practically unknown phenomenon in Cuba, as in the rest of Latin America… In this light, Cuba’s sexual education is ground-breaking.” (ibid, p.  41.)

The first sex education book published by CNES, in 1979, was Sigfried Schnabl’s The Intimate Life of Males and Females. The book was first published in East Germany in 1978. Bjorklund records that Intimate Life, “clearly stated that homosexuals should be granted equal rights, respect and recognition and that any kind of social discrimination is reprehensible” (Bjorklund, 2000, paragraph 14). This book served as guidance for the work of the CNES and at pedagogical colleges. It was hugely popular. Alverez remembers, “We sold it at about five pesos but in addition the buyer had to have a paper signed by me saying he or she had the right to sell the book. Otherwise the books would have disappeared from the bookstores within two hours.” (Feinberg, 2009, p. 41.)

In 1981, the Cuban Ministry of Culture produced In Defense of Love, which stated that homosexuality was a variant of human sexuality (ibid, p. 43). However, another government publication from 1981, titled Are you beginning to think about Love?, was more ambivalent. It was intended for a broader audience and argued that homosexuals have the same ability to function in society as other people, but “can never be as happy as married people” (Bjorklund, 2000, paragraph 15).

In an article titled “Homosexuality is not illegal in Cuba, but like elsewhere, homophobia persists”, Eva Bjorklund adds that a second edition of Schnabl’s book published in 1989 declared:

There is no cure for homosexuality and it is no kind of sickness. Therefore, nobody should be criticized for his orientation, nor pressured to change. On the contrary, they should get the support they need to be able to live happily. (Bjorklund, 2000, paragraph 10.)

The book stresses that sexual orientation of minors has no causal relationship to sexual orientation and that, “since nobody is responsible for his or her sexual orientation, homosexuals must be just as respected as heterosexuals” (Feinberg, 2009, p. 43).

A national program for “sex education with a gender focus… was finally accepted in 1996 and now its taught throughout the country; since then it has reduced school dropouts from early marriages and childbirth by one half” (Reed, 2006, paragraph 10).

Anderson writes:

A scientific, open approach to human sexuality assisted in Cuba dealing with the HIV-AIDS crisis. Under the Cuban constitution the state guarantees “that every sick person will have medical attention” and that “[a]ll have the right to attention and protection of their health [including] free medical and hospital attention”. (Anderson 2009, paragraph 37.)

Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first diagnosed in the US in 1981. Cuba diagnosed its first case in 1985 when “soldiers, doctors and others helping the South Africans cast off the yoke of apartheid bought HIV back home” (Krales, 2005, paragraph 32). Two years before the disease appeared in Cuba, health workers had begun to prepare for it with the establishment, in 1983, of a National Commission on AIDS to educate the population about the disease (Fawthrop, 2003, paragraph 5). When the first cases presented, the Cubans placed all those infected inside health sanatoria, involuntarily. They:

treated HIV/AIDS as a public health emergency: HIV patients were quarantined indefinitely and their sexual partners traced and tested; Cubans who had visited Africa were tested, as were pregnant women; HIV positive women were given drugs to prevent transmission to their unborn children, their babies were delivered by caesarian section (Fawthrop, 2003, paragraph 4).

Opponents of Cuba charged the revolution with violating human rights and individual freedom. In a November 1988 Los Angeles Times article, New York city health commissioner, Dr Stephen C. Joseph, lambasted the program, stating it “can only be termed totalitarian. They test people involuntarily. They lock up people who test positive. They take away their employment. And they do so knowing that these people will be locked up for life.” (Zonana, 1988, paragraph 18.)

The 2005 UNAIDS executive director, Peter Piot, disagreed. He praised Cuba as, “one of the first countries to take AIDS seriously as a problem and provide a comprehensive response combining both prevention and care” (Krales, 2005, paragraph 5). Cuba enjoys status as a world leader in HIV-AIDS prevention because there has been “no dramatic increase in HIV transmission since the first case was diagnosed in 1986 and the country's HIV infection rate 0.05 per cent is one of the lowest in the world and exceptional in a region with some of the highest infection rates in the world” (Fawthrop, 2003, paragraph 3). By comparison, throughout the English-speaking Caribbean that borders Cuba, AIDS is the largest cause of death among men between the ages of 15 and 44 (Bauza and Collie, 2001, paragraph 6).

As to critiques from the US, this is the country that allowed thousands to die and demonised its victims.

During the early days of the epidemic Ronald Reagan was president [and] he managed not to utter the word AIDS for six of his eight years in office. The media used the word GRID Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), further demonizing gays, even after the Centre for Disease Control coined the term AIDS in 1982. (Krales, 2005, paragraph 34.)

US blood banks used their existing supplies and refused to screen their blood until 1985. Thousands of hemophiliacs became infected and many died through contaminated blood clotting agents between 1982 and 1987 (ibid, paragraph 34). It is no surprise that a 2003 report revealed, “Cuba had an HIV infection rate nearly eleven times lower than [that of] the United States” (Hansen and Groce, 2003, paragraph 3). This achievement was realised largely without access to the modern AIDS drugs, which were available in the global North countries from 1996, but unavailable in Cuba until 2001. Journalist Edwin Krales notes, “even today, the criminal US embargo prevents Cuba from buying any kind of medications anywhere on the world market” (Krales, 2005, paragraph 24).

Media criticism of Cuba’s quarantine program was even more hypocritical given that US states practiced the policy themselves. Dr Tim Anderson notes in his paper, “HIV/AIDS in Cuba: A rights-based analysis”, that “between 1987 and 1990… more than a dozen [US] states brought AIDS within the scope of state quarantine statutes” (Anderson, 2009, paragraph 7).

Cuban patients began to come and go from sanatoria in 1989 and, in 1993, an alternate non-sanatoria based day-care program was introduced (ibid, paragraph 7). Since 2001, Cuba has produced its own generic HIV medication (Krales, 2005, paragraph 31). Currently, Cuban practice is to:

maintain a comprehensive database of those infected and their chain of sexual partners; and although patients are still required to attend an eight-week course in a sanatorium, HIV testing is no longer compulsory though it is strongly recommended for pregnant women and those in high-risk groups (Fawthrop, 2003, paragraph 9).

Anderson refers to Cuban doctor J. Pérez, who states in the book AIDS: Confessions of a Doctor that, “early quarantine practice followed a strong political directive to protect public health and was the result of uncertainty over the nature of the disease… fear of the disease, including among professionals, may have unnecessarily prolonged this quarantine period.” (Anderson, 2009, paragraph 38.) Anderson concludes, “This extension was an unreasonable deprivation of liberty”, but adds that it was not a homophobic policy. “The early period and its privations do not appear to have been directed at gay and bisexual men, who formed a minority of the HIV-positive cohort at that time” (ibid, paragraph 39).

Chapter 9: Developments in the 1990s and the new century

The 1990s and the new century produced public education campaigns, queer films, rallies for LGBTI rights and sex-change operations for transgender Cubans. In 1993, Strawberry and Chocolate, a film criticising Cubans' intolerance of homosexuality, was produced by the government-run Cuban film industry. It was the only film that the state produced in 1993. The film played simultaneously at 10 to 12 theatres in Havana for months, with queues to see it several blocks long (Oberg, 1997-2000, paragraph 7).

In 1995, Cuban drag queens led the annual May Day procession, joined by two queer delegations from the US. Together with members of Cuba's Action Group for the Liberation of Sexual Choice and Expression, they carried a 10-metre rainbow flag at the front of the May Day march (Spencer, 2000, p. 35). In the same year, the documentary Gay Cuba was produced by Sonia de Vries. This series of interviews with gay and lesbian Cubans was shown at the Havana International Festival of Latin America Cinema to public and critical acclaim. In December 2000, at the film festival in Havana, at least half of the Latin American films selected had gay themes (Roques, 2004, paragraph 16). In 2007, Cuba commemorated for the first time the International Day of Action Against Homophobia with the Centre for Sexual Education (CENESEX) leading a discussion about sexual diversity, with film screenings (Feinberg, 2007, paragraph 10).

LGBTI organisation

The International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) is an international homosexual advocacy organisation founded in 1978. It has close to 700 member groups in 110 countries. Carlos Sanchez, the 2004 ILGA representative for Latin American and the Caribbean, noted in March 2004 that there were five Cuban organisations working on LGBTI issues. Two were state institutions: CENESEX and the Federation of Cuban Women. A third was the Protestant church-affiliated Martin Luther King Centre, and a other two were non-government organisations, the Centre for HIV/Aids Prevention and the Felix Varela Centre. (Sanchez, 2004, paragraph 16.) Sanchez met with lesbians and gays at CENESEX and, after talking with them, concluded that, “neither institutional nor penal repression exists against lesbians and homosexuals” and, “there are no legal sanctions against LGBT people and transformismo [transitioning from one sex to another], is well accepted by the majority of Cubans” (ibid, paragraph 19). His study also revealed that, while this was the case, “people are afraid of meeting and organising themselves”. He commented:

this 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 (ibid, paragraph 17).

Sanchez concluded: “Sexual minorities seem to be living better times now in Cuba. In the medium term, even better than the rest of Latin America.” (ibid, paragraph 23.)

The pivotal role of CENESEX and Mariela Castro Espin

CENESEX is the Cuban government organisation that combats prejudice towards LGBTI people, carries out HIV/AIDS awareness programs, oversees education programs in schools, in the community and on television, coordinates rallies, marches and film festivals, and provides a space for LGBTI people to meet and organise.

CENESEX director, 48-year-old Mariela Castro Espin, is internationally renowned. A sexologist by training, she is the daughter of President Raul Castro and late revolutionary feminist Vilma Espin, long-time president of the Cuban Women’s Federation. Mariela Castro also edits Sexology and Society, a medical journal published in Cuba. Espin says that CENESEX’s goals are to contribute towards, “the development of a culture of sexuality that is full, pleasurable and responsible, as well as to promote the full exercise of sexual rights” (Reed, 2006, paragraph 1) .

CENESEX includes a gender educative approach. Castro explains to Gail Reed in an interview published in the journal Health and Medical News of Cuba:

We have to include a gender perspective promotion of new constructs of masculinity and femininity and not just take an epidemiological approach. For example, an epidemiologist might simply say: prevent HIV use a condom. But we have to take into consideration how condoms are viewed in the “macho” framework  as a barrier to full sexual enjoyment, to which the “macho” is entitled at all costs, in a relation in which he’s exerting his power. So, for him to use a condom, he has to begin to construct and define his masculinity in a different way, that doesn’t put a premium only on his own pleasure. In the end, this stereotype is very dangerous to his own health as well as his partner’s and this can be true for homosexual as well as heterosexual couples, whenever a relationship defines that one partner has hegemony over the other. So, you need to combine both an epidemiological and a gender approach to these very intimate issues. This is why, for example, our posters and other materials emphasize that protection of your partner against HIV and STIs in general is a sign of caring and that means it’s a responsibility of both partners in a relationship. (ibid, paragraph 6.)

In the interview, Castro comments on necessary steps forward:

The country now has policies that legitimize sexual orientations and has brought laws in line with a gender perspective. But on the legislative front, there is still a lot to be done. For example, homosexuals now live within the law in consensual relationships, but gay marriage is not recognized, so you have many issues such as inheritance that aren’t fully resolved. (ibid, paragraph 3.)

Advances: transgender rights, reproductive technologies, civil unions and marriage equality

At the 5th International Culture and Development Congress, held in Havana on June 11-14,  2007, the Communist Party of Cuba welcomed an update of the revolutionary Family Code to include same-sex and transgender rights (Feinberg, 2007, paragraph 6).

Within the 2007 changes to the Family Code, CENESEX worked with the public health ministry to help three lesbian couples gain access to assisted reproduction services. The reform, “would also recognise the right of any woman to assisted reproduction services, which are currently limited to married couples” (ibid, paragraph 7). On transgender rights, Cuba leads the world. The first sex change operation to take place in Cuba was on May 22, 1988 (Motley, 2005, paragraph 11). Sex reassignment surgery, as part of public health care in Cuba, “began in 2007 as a pilot program and was institutionalized on a larger scale in 2008. Like all medical procedures in Cuba, it is free.” (Orsi, 2011, paragraph 6.) Changing identity documents is an easy process. The CENESEX trans rights campaign, “has helped to get transvestites and transsexuals accepted into secondary school or institutions of higher learning and has involved awareness-raising efforts among the police” (Feinberg, 2007, paragraph 9).

The CENESEX sexual diversity program operates year-round, but concentrates on the month of May with special attention to May 17, which is the International Day of Action Against Homophobia. The month features, “conferences and debates in different sectors of society, film and video screenings, performance galas including drag artists and a conga against homophobia in Havana” (Acosta, 2011a, paragraph 14). Mariela Castro comments: “Although our activities take place year-round, [May] is the time of greatest visibility" (ibid, paragraph 15). She also noted, “The Communist Party has specifically expressed the intention to involve the media in the effort against homophobia” (ibid, paragraph 14).

A further reform of the Family Code to recognise the family's responsibility and duty to accept and care for all of its members, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, and a recognition of same-sex marriage, is soon to be introduced in parliament (ibid, paragraph 12).

The Cuban government opened up one gay establishment 25 years ago El Mejunje in Cuba’s "gayest city", Santa Clara (a four-hour drive southwest of Havana).

The small open-air venue is an entertaining paradise for the LGBT community. [It is] famous for its outlandishly flamboyant drag shows and party atmosphere. (Orsi, 2011, paragraph 13.)

According to a June 2011 article by Peter Orsi, “Report from Cuba: living out, proud, loud (at last)”, there are now three well-known gay hangouts in Havana. These include:

two gay bars, the Bim Bom and Piropo… the Bim Bom is swarmed on Friday and Saturday nights with hundreds of mostly gay men and transsexuals. A block away, the more intimate Piropo is a popular smoke-filled hang out that has the feel of a café. The closest thing to a gay club in Havana is the "fiesta"  which is held every Saturday night starting around 11pm… In recent years, indicating a remarkable shift in attitudes toward homosexuals, "the fiesta" has settled in either of two open-air parks. (ibid, paragraph 10.)

Outstanding issues for LGBTI Cubans

Three outstanding issues remain for LGBTI Cubans. One is police harassment. Police are known to harass transgender people and same-sex couples who are kissing. Journalist Delia Acosta notes in an article, “Cuba: sexual diversity in a sexist city”, that while:

such displays of affection do not constitute a crime they are still considered offences under decree-law 141 of the Council of Ministers, which imposes a fine of 40 pesos (less than two dollars) on persons whose “indecent exhibitions” offend the public (Acosta, 2011b, paragraph 13).

However, in the same article, lawyer Alexis Batista, and expert with the provincial justice authority, states:

A police officer who sees two homosexuals kissing, or dressed as women and puts them in jail is breaking the law, because those are not crimes (ibid, paragraph 14).

Batista acknowledges that the decree-law “should be changed” (ibid, paragraph 10). CENESEX has been working with the police, the supreme court and the education ministry to move towards the design and implementation of policies and strategies that would help reduce this harassment (Acosta, 2011a, paragraph 12).

Another outstanding issue is that gays in the Cuban military have to be in the closet. No military person can be openly gay (Haydulina, 2009, paragraph 4). Third, statutes in the Communist Party of Cuba need to be clearer about there being no tolerance towards homophobia, and ban sex and gender discrimination, said Alberto Guerra in the opening of a panel on “The family and society” during World Anti-Homophobia Day in Cuba in 2010. Guerra said:

Despite a number of appropriate and positive changes along these lines that we have seen in this political organization, some of its members still believe that “homosexuality is a remnant of the bourgeoisie and contrary to socialist morals…Failure to address this issue in the statutes surely paves the way for discrimination. (Guerra, 2010, paragraph 7.)

These outstanding issues are being aired, campaigned around and are in the process of being acted on. In 2007, Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, stated, “We have to abolish any form of discrimination against homosexuality... Socialism should be a society that does not exclude anybody.” (Feinberg, 2007, paragraph 10.)

Chapter 10: Comparing Cuba with other countries

Cuba, the Caribbean and other Latin American countries

Cuba is a leader on LGBTI rights in its region. In Latin America and the Caribbean, significant laws enabling gay marriage and civil unions have been approved only in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. Draft laws are under consideration in Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile and Uruguay. The other  Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, still have laws that severely punish homosexual relations (Acosta, 2007, paragraph 12).

Cuba, the United States and Australia

Cuba surpasses the US on LGBTI rights. It was only in June 2003 that the US Supreme Court struck down Texas’ same-sex sodomy law. The supreme court ruling Lawrence v. Texas made other US states’ sodomy laws unconstitutional, in regards to private acts between consenting civilian adults (Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest, 2007, paragraph 1). Currently, there are still 36 states in the US where it is legal to fire a person for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (Krales, 2005, paragraph 39).

The Australian government is also an international pariah on LGBTI rights. It amended the Marriage Act on August 13, 2004, barring same-sex couples from getting married (Iqbal, 2009, paragraph 2). Comparatively, Cuba repealed its homophobic laws in 1979 and removed public scandal laws in 1997. There is no reference to homosexuality in the Cuban Penal Code and there is much talk in Cuba’s national parliament about legalising same-sex marriage.

Sex change operations in Cuba are free. In Australia, male to female transitions can cost up to $30,000 (Evans, 2006, paragraph 3). In the US, the costs can be as high as $50,000 for a “mid-range transition” (Cost Helper, 2009, paragraph 3).

Because of the high levels of education and awareness about human rights, gay bashings in Cuba have been absent since 1959, argue journalists Hechavarria and Hatch (2001, paragraph 13). Comparatively, hate crimes in the US and Australia remain disturbingly numerous. In the US, “hate crimes directed at people because of their sexual orientation have risen over the past two years 1,017 were reported in 2005, 1,195 in 2006 and 1,265 in 2007” (Hansen-Weaver, 2009, paragraph 5). In Australia, statistics are not readily available, but individual instances are documented, such as the documentation of the brutal bashing of “Craig” and “Shane” in Sydney’s gay strip, Oxford Street, in 2007 (Stanford and Wilkinson, 2009, paragraph 2). There are high rates of internal homophobic violence in Australia, a result of growing up in a homophobic culture. One study estimates that 30% of Australian LGBTI youth attempt suicide (Nicholas and Howard, 1998, paragraph 33). In comparison, Cuba is promoting internal pride with positive “sexual diversity is natural” advertising on state television (Evans, 2009, paragraph 4). The US and Australian governments have not funded an equivalent program.

Chapter 11: Conclusion

The 1959 Cuban Revolution nationalised agribusiness, telecommunications and petrol, and ended the pillage of the island by foreigners. Previously, Cuba was a US “pleasure island”: mafias made money out of prostitution (gay and straight) and gambling. The revolution threw off this interference and guaranteed free education, health care and food for its population. LGBTI people benefited from those measures. Democratic and civil liberties flourished, with women and Afro-Cubans given legal equality early on in the revolution. But Spanish Catholic influence, machismo, US support of the sex industry, Stalinist ideological pressure and general cultural backwardness meant that LGBTI people did not gain civil rights at the same time as other marginalised sectors.

Cuba’s critics have alleged institutional homophobia by the Cuban state, even comparing the island to a concentration camp (Blazquez and Sutton, 2007, paragraph 12). Three instances singled out by these critics are the UMAP camps, the Mariel boatlift and the involuntary treatment of HIV cases.

Incarceration of homosexuals in UMAPs occurred between 1965 and 1968. This was a “terrifying time” for Cuba’s homosexuals (Lumsdan, 1991, p. 70). However, the camps lasted for only a short time.

The Mariel boatlift did not see a mass of LGBTI Cubans flee the island because of institutionalised homophobia, as claimed by Cuba’s critics. A large number did leave due to factors including pressure from the US government, cultural factors and a desire for adventure. Many more, especially lesbians, stayed, rather than leaving

There were six years of involuntary HIV treatment while the island developed its approach to managing the disease. As a result, Cuba has the lowest rate of HIV infection in the region, which is of enormous benefit to the LGBTI community. The current approach allows people to enter and leave sanatoria freely.

Cuba’s critics fail to consider the evolution of government and public attitudes towards gender variance that has occurred in the small nation since 1959. The repeal of homophobic laws began in 1979 and, as of 2011, none remain in force. Sex change operations are free, there are nationwide LGBTI rights festivals and marches every May, sexual diversity rights are on television, there are limited hate crimes against LGBTI people, and same-sex marriage rights and civil unions are being discussed for implementation. Problems continue with police harassment of LGBTI couples in public, but there are measures being undertaken by CENESEX to address this discrimination. LGBTI Cubans still have yet to gain formal access to the military, but given the overt government support for media campaigns and public discussion about marriage equality, it can only be a matter of time before the military also opens its doors.

There is substantial evidence that the extent of homophobia in Cuba, in state policy and popular culture, is low compared to the rest of Latin America, Australia and the US. Indeed, today Cuba is more advanced in LGBTI rights than most countries in the global South and, on the evidence presented, the US and Australia.

As in all other countries, individual discrimination against LGBTI people existed and persists in Cuba. However, institutional discrimination has ended and the further measures being undertaken by the government and civil society are overwhelmingly positive.

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Documentaries

Anderson, Tim, 2006. Confronting Aids/HIV in Cuba.

Interviews

Cuban Consul-General for Australia, Nelida Hernandez, October 15, 2006, Surry Hills, Australia.

Museums

Revolutionary Museum, Havana, personally visited July 15, 2009.

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