Carrie Hamilton: Sexual Diversity in Cuba

International Day Against HomophobiaToday marks the tenth annual International Day against Homophobia, a project initiated by Fondation Émergence in Canada. In honor of the occasion, we welcome a guest post today from Carrie Hamilton, author of Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics, and Memory. In the book, Hamilton presents a comprehensive history of sexuality on the island from the triumph of the Revolution in 1959 into the twenty-first century. In this post, she highlights the history of homophobia in Cuba as well as the policy and cultural shifts of recent decades and the ongoing struggle for change.

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The history of homosexuality and homophobia has been one of the most controversial aspects of the Cuban Revolution. In the 1960s and 1970s, the enthusiasm for building a new society and “new men” (in Che Guevara’s famous phrase) brought millions of Cubans together in mass organizations and voluntary work brigades. The social and economic inequalities and injustices typical of the pre-1959 period lessened dramatically. But revolutionary fervor and dogmatism also created new “others,” people deemed a danger to the Revolution. Some of these were self-declared counter-revolutionaries who either fled to Miami or attempted to launch a counter-revolutionary guerrilla war inside Cuba. But others who choose to stay found themselves accused of not living up to revolutionary standards. These included religious believers and men and women who had, or were suspected of having, same-sex relationships.

During the first two decades of the Revolution, homosexual men, and to a lesser extent lesbians, were subject to a range of discriminatory policies and acts of violence: expulsion from universities, political organizations, and the Communist Party; censorship; detention in forced labor camps; and imprisonment. The association of homosexuals with traitors (gusanos or worms, the damning Cuban epithet for exiles) reached a sinister height in the mass demonstrations against emigrants who left the island in 1980 as part of the Mariel exodus to the United States.

By the 1980s official campaigns against homosexuality had petered out, though popular and police harassment continued, and the formation of compulsory sanitoria for HIV/AIDS patients indicated ongoing prejudice. The real changes in official rhetoric came after 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it much of the Cuban economy. The “Special Period” in the 1990s ushered in not only extreme austerity, but also some opportunity for reflection on some of the Revolution’s past (a process already initiated with the “Rectification” program of 1986). It would be a mistake to say that Cuba’s revolutionary leaders came clean on the history of anti-homosexual discrimination and violence. But there were public signs of a willingness to revisit that history in a new light.

Strawberry and ChocolateThe most famous example was the 1993 release of the film Strawberry and Chocolate by Cuba’s most prominent film director, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, a friend and ally of Fidel Castro. Hardly a cinematic masterpiece, the movie nonetheless made political waves inside Cuba and outside for its sympathetic portrayal of a friendship between the homosexual artist, Diego, and a young, straight member of the Communist Youth organization, David. Ostensibly taking place in 1979, Diego’s emigration to the United States at the end of the film is an allusion to the departure of gays and lesbians at the time of Mariel, and a not-so-tacit recognition that state-sponsored homophobia had left many Cubans with little choice but to leave the country.

In policy terms, the real changes came later in the decade, when the National Centre for Sex Education (CENSEX) initiated a series of AIDS education programs as well as support groups for transgender people and gays and lesbians. CENESEX, enthusiastically headed by Mariela Castro, the youngest daughter of the current Cuban leader Raúl, has become the base for a dynamic campaign to promote tolerance for sexual diversity inside Cuba and to lobby for changes to the law, including in the areas of sex reassignment surgery, same-sex unions, and same-sex adoption. It’s important to remember that as a one-party state, Cuba continues to prohibit independent grassroots organizing of the type common in liberal democracies. So although there are certainly friendship networks of transgender people and people who have same-sex relationships, there is not a “queer community” in the common Western sense of the term.

In interviews conducted for the “Cuban Voices” oral history project, Cubans of different sexual orientations and generations show different levels of awareness of the country’s history of homophobia, though the Mariel exodus in particular is a general landmark in the national memory, one that could be described as traumatic. Young Cubans who identify as gay or lesbian and/or have same-sex sex have often heard about the homophobic campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, but as with many of their compatriots, they are more focused on the economic and political insecurities of today. Many recall Strawberry and Chocolate as a turning point in terms of popular attitudes to homosexuality and gay and lesbian Cubans, but they also speak about the ongoing problems of finding places to hang out with friends, and the persistence of police harassment in the public areas where gays and lesbians gather.

Today, May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia provides the opportunity, in Cuba like elsewhere, not only to remember past victims of homophobia, but also to continue the struggle against anti-homosexual and anti-transgender discrimination in the present. This year CENESEX marked the event with a series of discussions, debates, art shows, and music Havana and the provincial city of Cienfuegos. It’s a sign of ongoing struggle for change in uncertain times that affects all Cubans, but has particular ongoing impacts on those whose sexuality continues to mark them as different.

Carrie Hamilton is reader in history at the University of Roehampton, London and author of Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics, and Memory. Read her previous guest post on this blog, “New Cuban Women.”