When we think about Cuba, we envision an insidious political regime exerting dominance over its people. We often speak about its valuable export of rum, tobacco and root beer, but we never vocalize about the people that have transformed the Caribbean island. We never give credit to the LGBT+ community who have brawled for a progressive future in their country.
Located in the far east, Santiago is the heart of the LGBT+ community. Before I go further, I want to note that Cuba was never an accepting place for LGBT+ people. Fidel Castro, the infamous revolutionist, created army labor camps (UMAPs) for gay men in the 1960s. These labor camps were designed to “convert” gay men into straight men by pressuring them to work without compensation and proper nutrition.
“Camps of forced labour were instituted with all speed to ‘correct’ such deviations … Verbal and physical mistreatment, shaved heads, work from dawn to dusk, hammocks, dirt floors, scarce food … The camps became increasingly crowded as the methods of arrest became more expedient.” – excerpt from: Health, Politics, and Revolution in Cuba Since 1898, Katherine Hirschfeld
In April of 1971, homophobia became institutionalized. Gay men and women lost their jobs, were banished from the Communist Party, university students were expelled and individuals were no longer lawfully represented. Feminine boys were forced to receive aversion therapy. As years advanced, the Cuban Ministry of Culture publicized “In Defence of Love” stating homosexuality as one spectrum of sexuality. In 1988, the government revoked the 1938 Public Ostentation Law, which encouraged harassment towards LGBT+ people. Rapid acceptance began to expand in the 90s. Government-paid films and TV shows were produced to inform the public that homophobia is a prejudice. Employment discrimination protection laws were enacted and on June 2008; free sex re-assignment surgeries became open to the public.
In Santiago, LGBT+ organizations are common within the community. Specifically Las Isabelas, an organization for lesbian and bisexual women. It was formed in 2000 and later gained support from Mariela Castro, coordinator of CENSEX and daughter of Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother), in 2003. Las Isabelas mission is to help women have access to mammograms for breast cancer and other health services. Las Isabelas, CENSEX and Sociales Humanidad por la Diversidad all take part in advocating anti-bullying campaigns in universities and primary schools.
Rainbow flags are publicly displayed in private homes for rent and HIV prevention signs are posted on government buildings. However, even though there is a more tolerant attitude within Cuban society, LGBT+ people are not out of the woods yet. Same-sex marriage is still illegal and barely anyone is admitted to undergo sex re-assignment surgery. Within the years of progressive laws, if you were too comfortable with your sexuality the government had the right to arrest you and raid your businesses.
These major setbacks do not discourage LGBT+ Cubans, on the contrary, it motivates them to lobby vigorously for more change. International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, a two-week event running from May 3-May 19 in Havana and Santiago, is on its fourth run this year. It commemorates and celebrates the lives and culture of LGBT+ people who paved the way for a sustainable future. This year’s films, art exhibits and a theatrical festival is headlined by singer Halia Mompie.
Being part of both communities is a blessing and a reminder that Cuban culture is more than 1950s revolution. Older generations in the United States need to open their eyes and gain a fresh perspective on human tolerance. LGBT+ Cubans are here and we are here to stay. Yo Me Incluyo!