This entry doesn't actually start in Cuba. It starts in Miami a few months earlier. I saw a very small notice in one of the gay newspapers in Miami about a documentary called "Gay Cuba" by Sonja de Vries being presented at the community college in downtown Miami. I expected maybe a dozen gay and lesbians in a classroom. When I got there I was surprised to find a huge auditorium filled to capacity with all segments of the Cuban community.
Still from the documentary Gay Cuba
Here's what I wrote in my journal after the film:
The more I hear about Cuba the more I realize I must go there myself to find out what it is really like. There is no such thing as an objective opinion on Cuba. The documentary was quite pro-revolution/government and you could hear the audience bristle at some of the statements. Even without knowing Spanish it was clear from the rumbling in the audience at certain statements and the angry voices at the discussion afterward that people were not happy with that part of the film. "It was a good film but contained many errors" one guy told me.
It certainly was in stark contrast to how the media in Miami portrays Cuba. On the way to the film, I read an article in the Feb 13 New Times which described a locally produced short-wave radio broadcast "La Voz de la Resistencia" whose aim is to "instruct the people of Cuba in the dark arts of sabotage, arson and assassination." The program contains very specific advise on how to disable vehicles ("the best way to disable a government Lada is to pour dirt or sand into the motor"), destroy the sugar mills ("toss pieces of lead pipe or screws into the grinders"), burn sugar cane fields ("pour a little gasoline on an empty cloth sack, set the sack on fire and let it burn a few minutes then put out the fire, at night throw the sack into a field. The next day the heat of the sun will reignite the sack").
A few weeks earlier in Honduras as I was driving and scanning the car's short-wave radio for something interesting to listen to, I came upon a Cuban radio station broadcasting news in English. They were reporting the visit of the Canadian foreign minister to Havana and the resulting agreements that had been signedÃ³including a groundbreaking (depending on who you listened to) one on human rights monitoring. The announcer pulled no punches in his attack on the U.S. and his praising of the revolutionÃ³in fact, I expect that the propaganda would've been more effective had it been couched in a less reactionary tone. Interestingly enough, later that day I heard Voice of America and Radio Canada news reports on the same event. The Voice of America report was no less strident and biased than was the Cuban station.
The film itself was both interesting and often humorous. A lesbian tells of the day she first heard the word lesbian and so knew she was not alone: One day my grandmother was giving me a bath and I asked her what was for lunch. 'Tortilla' she answered. We had had tortillas for lunch yesterday and the day before so I responded 'Grandma, you are a tortillera (Spanish slang for lesbian).' She slapped me so I knew it was a bad word. Later my mother explained to me what it meant.
De Vries' clearly has her sympathies with the revolutionÃ³the treatment of homosexuals since 1959 is treated as an exception that is now being rectified. She does make a convincing case that Cuban gays are better off than most of their Latin American counterparts. Post-revolution Cuba has never had a sodomy law but until 1988 there was a law that declared that the promotion of homosexuality was illegal and that appearing homosexual was considering promotion. This gave the police a blanket reason to arrest and imprison homosexuals. This has improved considerably since the 1988 repeal although there have been other abuses including a mandatory confining of HIV+ people to sanitariums that continued until 1993 and rejection of gays by the communist party that continues to this day. While there are no longer any systematic barriers to full participation by gays and lesbians there remains much individual bias. The release a few years ago of the film "Fresas Y Chocolate (Strawberries and Chocolate)" was considered to be a major turning point as it started people talking about things that were previously taboo. [Note that F y C probably only got made and got so much attention as it was the last film of Cuba's most famous filmmaker]. It was difficult to know whether "Gay Cuba's" selection of "man on the street" interviews was a good representative sampleÃ³while there were some very negative comments the majority were quite positive. The film ended very upbeat with the lesbian from the opening saying the roots of prejudice were seeded by the mistakes of the past but they are not so deeply buried that they can't be pulled out and with a shot of a gay group parading with a rainbow flag at the May day celebrations.
After the film, it was pouring rain and most of the audience hung out in the college courtyard waiting out the rain and continuing to talk and argue about the film. Cubans love to talk as I confirmed in my travels. It is clear homosexuality was one of the things the community was willing to talk about.
Jump forward to March 23, Puerto Plato, Dominican Republic. I was sitting on the Malecon (seawall) with a local guy who I had been hanging out with a bit for 3 days or so when 3 drag queens walked by. These were the first "gay" people I had spotted in the Dominican Republic and, as it turned out, the only ones I would see in the entire 3 weeks. This started my friend and I talking which eventually ended up with him asking if I "preferred boys or girls". Despite his asking the question he still appeared started by the answer as for him gay and drag queen were synonymous–he had never conceived of a masculine gay man. Given that the vast majority of imported movies and TV in the DR was of the Steven Seagal or Kickboxing variety I suppose you couldn't count on the media to change attitudes. His reaction to my admission pleasantly surprised me. He said he wasn't gay himself but that it wouldn't matter to our friendship–it didn't bother him.
And then Cuba. Gay men certainly didn't have the invisibility of the Dominican Republic and nor were they mostly feminine gay men as I had seen in other places in Latin America. Cuban gays were not all that unlike Miami Cuban gays although they did not have any of the same community–gay newspapers, restaurants, organizations, etc. They do have something that their US counterparts lack though–a national education policy that now teaches that being gay or lesbian is a normal lifestyle.
On the first day of my Spanish course I met an interesting woman Suzie who it turned out was a good friend of Sonja de Vries (the filmmaker who made "Gay Cuba") and had helped her make the film. She was staying with a gay friend who was involved with a gay issues in Cuba (he showed me an article in the Freedom Socialist out of Seattle which had a picture of him "discussing issues of interest to gays and lesbians in Cuba"). Visiting Suzie's friend Albertico was like a scene right out of "Fresas y Chocolate". He had a very dainty apartment filled with antiques. He was middle aged and quite feminineÃ³wearing one large earring. He had the boyfriend the character in the film probably wantedÃ³a very machismo guy with a big mustache. He was also the only gay person I met in Cuba who was involved in any sort of gay organization or even knew they existed.
Boys on the "beach" in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana.
That Friday night, I experienced Cuban gay culture in a big way. In the afternoon I met my friend Daniel at the beach in Miramar. I thought he was gay but he also seemed cautious. We agreed to meet at 11pm after the concert I was going to at the Casa de la Americas. When he showed up we took his motorcycle to a mostly straight discoteca which was in the same building as the Karl Marx theater in Miramar. This was fun but pretty much as I expected. Gay men here have some advantages in that the straight culture doesn't consider men dancing together (disco anyway) to be out of the ordinary nor does it shy away from some touching. There were lots of attractive young (many shirtless) men in the disco. The place was not air-conditioned so it was about 110 degrees inside.
We left about 2:00 and I thought we were going home or then for a ride but we ended up at a disco very near the Tropicana. This one was quite differentÃ³outside, almost all men. The men were good looking and young with very few feminine men or transvestitesÃ³very much an Americanized gay crowd just like the music. And the place was huge and packed. Quite a surprise to find this. This lasted until just before 4 when it closed and we found ourselves on the street with many other gay men for many blocks all around.
And so I found out that there was a bar/disco scene in Havana. It wasn't easy to find since there were no guides or papers or signs but it was there. The ballet also seemed to function as a gay community event. What I didn't find was a deeper sense of community. We had a meeting with the director of a community mental health center that did all sorts of work including counseling teens on sex. I asked whether they had peer support groups for gay/lesbian youth. After a long defensive spiel on how they didn't treat homosexuality as a disease and that it was considered a normal choice, I had to ask the question again. The answer was no. This seemed to be the case in the other places I questioned as well. In a perfect world where everyone grew up without homophobia maybe this would be all that was needed. But the Cubans didn't seem to recognize this–perhaps it was too early.
Individual homophobia was common. The one thing that was hopeful was that people seemed to have a more open mind than they might in the US or Canada. For example, an American friend Neil, who was taking the same course as me, had an interesting encounter with 2 of our doormen at the guesthouse we were staying at. Rolando had come up to him after my friend Edel had come over and said that "those kind of people" were bad. Neil challenged him on it and they had a 10 minute conversation which was joined by one of the other doormen and he said at least on the surface they started to change their tune. This made me feel a little bad as I had been discounting Edel's unwillingness to come to the house as paranoia since I had begun to be quite upbeat on gays in Cuba. But it was also hopeful that maybe the roots weren't too deep. Another thing which gives me hope is the incredible progress Cuba has made in transforming itself from one of the earth's most racist societies pre-revolution to the best I have ever seen–all in little more than a generation.
Something else gay and lesbian and all young Cubans have to deal with is a lack of privacy. There is an acute housing shortage and so the norm is to live in a multigenerational family household. I know friends in Canada and the US who have been thrown out of the house when they told their families about their homosexuality and other friends who haven't told their parents until they have financially been able to support themselves. In Cuba you can't ever expect to have your own place so being out to one's parent's is extremely rare. In fact, from the people I met it is exceedingly rare to tell anyone other than one's gay friends.
At the same time, it is very hard here to avoid the issue of one's sexuality. Back at home, I can go almost indefinitely without having to be confronted about my sexuality. Here, I am constantly faced with the choice between lying or outing myselfÃ³often to complete strangers since they immediately want to discuss my opinion on Cuban women in detail and point out every passing young woman on the street. This would be very trying as a gay man living here. I did find that if I just straight out told them that it never was a problem. The exception was a night out I spent with my friend Daniel and his brother and me having to be stuffed back in the closet in order not to out Daniel to his brother. That was very frustrating. It's effect on a Cuban who had grown up with it would probably be to make him a good liar from the get-go and cement his own denial.
Recent visitors to Cuba now say that the place to meet gay and lesbian Cubans is the Cine Yara on La Rampa. On weekends, there are private parties out in the suburbs, and folks convene by the Yara to share a cab out to the party locations. When I was there, the Coppelia Ice Cream and the "beach" (rocky shorefront) at Miramar were also very popular meeting places.
Please do be careful though; the police have been known to crack down on interactions between foreigners and Cubans–interpreting all such interactions as prostitution. This happened to me once in 1997 (it was the Cubans who got in trouble, not me) and there was a much more extensive crackdown in 1999. Read Gaviota, The Last Cowgirl in Cuba for details. Recent reports say the situation has calmed down but caution should still be exercised.
Sonja DeVries, the maker of Gay Cuba, recently contacted me to let me know that the film is available online from Frameline Distribution. She said that the film is still used as an educational tool by the UJC (Young Communists) and other groups. Sonja's DeVrie's website is Reel Revolution Films if you'd like to see her current projects.