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In Cuba: Young, Gay, Out
and Married Southeast of Havana

Cuban Association of Gays & Lesbians was Founded in 1994

Anti-Gay Scene Mellowed after Film Strawberry & Chocolate

By Bill Berkowitz

Havana, Cuba--While gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered folks around the world recently finished their myriad celebrations of gay pride, an eye-opening report has come Via - dateline Cuba.

Juan Perez Cabral writes that while their relatives quietly witnessed, and the neighbors gawked, exercising their curiosity, "two gay male couples…made history by publicly holding a gay wedding…. Four local boys, Michel and Angel, and Juanito and Alejandro, ranging in ages from 17 to 22, exchanged symbolic vows before their families and friends at a neighborhood recreation center in one of the poorest sections of San Miguel del Padron, a working-class suburb southeast of Havana."

Reporting about Cuba in the mainstream media in the U.S. tends to follow a fairly predictable pattern. There's either a deluge of attention given to a flash-point issue - last year's Elian Gonzalez case is a good example of this - or there's not much reporting at all. On occasion you'll find a story about a speech given by Cuba's Fidel Castro, and if you're a regular reader of the sports pages you are bound to run across articles about a defecting Cuban athlete. On issues relating particularly to Cuba's gay community, the press has been generally silent -- occasionally reporting on AIDS in Cuba and how people living with AIDS are treated.

Despite the scattered coverage it's no secret that over the years, the Cuban Revolution has had a rocky relationship with its gay citizens - a relationship that can characterized as repressive. In "Gays Wed In Cuba: The Second Revolution," published in late-June by The Gully, an online magazine "for a sharp queer view of international news, U.S. politics, e-activism, race, class, lesbian and gay issues," Cabral terms Cuba's actions towards gays as unremittingly "harsh" (

Over the years, there have been few ups and a considerable number of distinct downs. Cabral reports that "queers were harshly repressed in Cuba in the 1960's and early 1970's, when many gay men were sent to military work camps and anti-gay and lesbian witch hunts were common in universities, high schools, many workplaces, and the Communist Party and its affiliates. Homosexuality was considered 'a bourgeois perversion' and queers were often seen as enemies of the state."

Things started changing between the mid-1970's and late 1980's when the repression eased, although gays were pretty much "kept in check." In the late 1980's, according to Cabral, "references to homosexuality in the Cuban Penal Code were softened," making it punishable by up to a year in jail if it was "publicly manifested." In the early 1990's, the internationally acclaimed film dealing with gay issues in Cuba, Strawberry and Chocolate, helped "mellow" things out a bit. Not long after the film's release, "the government ended the 1986 policy of forcibly quarantining all HIV-positive people." Events were moving quickly, and in response, a small number of people founded the Cuban Association of Gays and Lesbians in late 1994.

Unfortunately, this modest opening didn't last long. According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) the new Cuban Association was suppressed and its members arrested. (The ILGA was founded in 1978 and "is a world-wide federation of national and local groups dedicated to achieving equal rights for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people everywhere" -

During the past decade, the Cuban economy has undergone a dramatic shift. The collapse of the Soviet Union spurred, or maybe compelled, a concentration on the tourist industry. Tourism has become one of Cuba's most important industries - generating about 40% of its outside income. According to an early-July National Public Radio report, Cuban tourism officials hope to host close to two million visitors this year, and are counting on them spending handsomely. Along with the needed tourist dollars, however, has come an explosion in drug use, crime and prostitution. Cuban officials view these developments as a threat to cultural hegemony of the country - virtually the same way it sees homosexuality. e Court to reverse those decisions itself or send them to appeals court.

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In Havana, increased crime in the streets has led to another crack down which recently featured official police sweeps and scores of arrests of young gay people. In February of this year, Angel Rodriguez, editor-in-chief of the government-owned weekly Tribuna de La Habana, wrote a strongly worded anti-gay hit piece, and singling out transvestites for special scorn. He called those gathering in Havana's popular Malecon district, "pimps, prostitutes and other extravagant characters, among which stands out a figure sadly rampant throughout the world, but almost unknown in Cuba: the transvestite."

Rodriguez's concern about gender-bending behavior parallels the work of many of our homegrown Religious Right gay bashers. Peter LaBarbera, of Americans for Truth (a project of the ex-gay Kerusso Ministries), recently published "Gender Games: Homosexual Groups Get Behind the 'Transgender' Revolution." LaBarbera charges "the homosexual activist movement has swung foursquare behind an emboldened 'transgender' movement that is crusading for a new 'right' - to radically violate gender norms without repercussions on the job, family life, or in the rest of society" ( index.cfm?fuseaction=viewcontent&contentid=8)

Against this background, Cuba's first openly gay marriage ceremony is an astounding development - seeming about as unlikely as the Rev. Falwell sanctioned gay marriage at his Virginia-based Liberty Baptist Church. Hopefully, the courage of that these young men are showing will augur well for the future of the Cuba's relationship with its growing gay community.

[For an unusual and remarkable look at life on Havana's tough tourista-driven streets, check out G. Derrick Hodge's excellent and provocative article "Colonization of the Cuban Body: The Growth of Male Sex Work in Havana" in the March/April 2001 issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas. Hodge, a doctoral student in Anthropology at the City University of New York and a medical anthropologist at the Harvard Medical School's Department of Social Medicine, looks at the proliferation of prostitution among gay youth in Cuba and its profound consequences. His lengthy article is occasionally overly academic but overall it is a thought provoking and compelling portrait of the lives of many young gay men living and working the streets of Havana. For more from NACLA, see -]

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