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
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
1959 – July 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
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
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
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
age of consent for homosexuals in Cuba became 16 years, equalling heterosexuals
1993 – homosexuals 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
2004 – FMC-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.
2004 – free gender
reassignment operations begin to be carried out on a greater scale
2006 – popular 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
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
fall behind Cuba’s
LGBTI record on many fronts.
Cuba’s revolution took place 145 kilometres off the US coast of Miami. The nationalisation
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
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
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,
The Inquisition prosecuted thousands.
Records from three cities – Barcelona,
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,
Cuba under Spanish rule
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
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
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
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
(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
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,
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
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:
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
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.
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
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
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
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.)
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
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
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:
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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,
Before the boatlift,
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.”
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
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).
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.)
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
As to critiques from
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.)
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
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:
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
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
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).
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
“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.)
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
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.)
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,
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
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
living out, proud, loud (at last)”, there are now three well-known gay hangouts
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
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,
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
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,
The other Caribbean
countries, including Jamaica,
still have laws that severely punish homosexual relations (Acosta, 2007, paragraph
Cuba, the United States
Cuba surpasses the US
on LGBTI rights. It was only in June 2003 that the US Supreme Court struck down
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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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