Sex & Relationships

Gay and Proud in Havana: Celebration of Diversity Brings Out Best and Worst of Cuba

The Cuban government is beginning to take homophobia seriously, and people are starting to respond.

HAVANA -- We are on a main city block early Saturday morning. People gathering are high-spirited, almost giddy. 

As people begin to form a line, I exhale deeply, imagining it is just one of the everyday lines that are the Cuban reality. This line, however, is different. It begins to shift, snake, jump and dance. This is a conga line. There are hundreds of us, perhaps even a thousand, and we are dancing down one of the central streets of Havana. And we are not just some random group of people -- we are a group of lesbians, gay men, transvestites, transsexuals and bisexuals, along with heterosexual friends, and sometimes even families, all gathering for the International Day Against Homophobia.

For over a week, activities have been taking place throughout Havana -- as well as in a few provinces in the country -- to educate about sexual diversity, and to celebrate it.  

While the events that have been taking place have the feeling of Gay Pride, they are also Cuba’s version, meaning it is organized for the people, not by the people. But this is Cuba -- a place where all passions cannot, and are not, controlled from above.

I felt the contradictions that are Cuba surface in a palpable way on the Saturday of the conga line. I saw some of the things I love most about this contradictory island, and some of the things I like least.  

The main event Saturday began first thing in the morning, something not typical of a weekend celebration in Cuba, or, better said, a country where things typically begin early, but people attend late. But on this day, despite the early hour, by 10 a.m. thousands were flowing in and out of the Pabellon Cuba, one of Havana’s main exhibition centers. It was an important and strategic decision to locate the main event in the Pabellon. For this reason, let me contextualize it for you. 

Its history goes back to the first years of the revolution. It was built with the intention of being a central pavilion for art, music and politics. Since the early 1960s, book fairs, art and artisan exhibits, concerts and musical performances, almost always free, have taken place here. It is an open-air pavilion, where all can see and hear what is taking place.

The Pabellon is located centrally on “la Rampa,” also known as 23rd Street. La Rampa is the sort of midtown Manhattan meets city hall meets the Village region of Havana. Many of the most important government buildings are here, with the exception of the Organization of Popular Power and the Communist Party headquarters (both of which sit in the Plaza of the Revolution). Press agencies, health ministries, and the political apparatus are located in buildings up and down la Rampa.

Two blocks away, on Calle N, is the Hotel Nacional, which hosts some of Cuba’s most important international dignitaries, from Presidents Cristina Kirshner of Argentina and Hu Jintao of China, to Queen Elizabeth, Kate Moss and Jack Nicholson. A little farther up la Rampa on L Street is the Habana Libre, previously the U.S. Havana Hilton, transformed after the triumph of the revolution into the headquarters for the leadership of the revolution, who aptly renamed it the Free Havana Hotel. It was there that Che Guevara’s parents came to see him after the guerillas took power. Airline and tourist offices line both sides of the street, along with tourist shops and an artisan fair, mixed together with food to be purchased for national currency or convertible pesos, and tons of movie theaters.

Two blocks from the Pabellon is the world-famous Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor, where Cubans will sometimes wait hours on line for the best ice cream ever made (and I will swear to it being the best). The opening scene to Fresa y Chocolate, the award-winning Cuban film directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, about gay oppression in Cuba, takes place here. (The screenplay writer for Fresa y Chocolate, Abel Paz, attended a number of the events for sexual diversity and against homophobia.)

This central political, cultural and tourist drag is where the main event for the International Day Against Homophobia took place. The visibility of thousands of gay men, lesbian women and transvestites flowing in and out of the Pabellon and up and down la Rampa, all attending the events of the day, many dressed in a way that was openly gay, including some wearing or displaying rainbow flags, was in many ways a scene not dissimilar to any Gay Pride event around the globe.

But this is Cuba. And this is la Rampa. It was not even a decade ago when young gay men would come and find one another outside one particular cinema on la Rampa, their dress not so flamboyant, people learning by word of mouth which theater it was, and then continuing on to the late night roving rooftop parties. These parties were always broken up by police, when found, under the pretext they were not legal.

Over the years this scene has continued and has become increasingly public, often on the Malecon, the famous wall along the sea edge that runs the length of Havana. This area, too, is only a few blocks from where la Rampa meets the water. This is a long way from the 1970s, when there were jails specifically for the re-education of those who were "counterrevolutionary" and "sexually deviant."

While the harassment of gays and lesbians is nothing like what it was in Cuba’s past, it does still exist, from the formal harassment by police on the street, to discrimination in workplaces and at school, and that doesn't even speak to the cultural and social taboo. These were the main topics people spoke out about in the open mike sessions at the Pabellon.

One man spoke forcefully with anger and frustration: "In a country that says all are equal, I still have to be afraid! I don’t have the same rights! I cannot kiss my partner! I can get kicked off the bus! I can lose my job! That the police always harass me! It is wrong!" His words were met with applause, whistles and a lively standing ovation from the hundreds participating.

This was an exciting and inspiring space, the diversity and openness with which people were claiming political space and equal rights was powerful. People were simultaneously celebrating identity and diversity and shouting for more space and rights. Rights they want respected in their day-to-day lives. Another man shouted, "I want diversity everyday! I don’t want one day or one week of acceptance! I want a life of acceptance! A country of equality!"

A friend of mine, who identifies as a lesbian and has attended all of the past events related to sexual diversity, had more tepid enthusiasm. She commented, "Sure, this is good, sure. But it has happened before, and it is not enough. What is going to happen? People will go home, and things will not change."

I don’t know. In all my years living in or visiting Cuba, I have never seen such a display, and especially in such large numbers and in such an important public space. I have also never heard the central leadership of the state take on the question of sexual diversity with such seriousness.

Not only is Mariela Castro Espín, the director of the National Center of Sex Education (CENESEX), speaking out and organizing, but the president of the Organization of Popular Power, Ricardo Alarcon, said to Prensa Latina on the day after the main Saturday event, "the essence of Socialism is the inclusion rather than exclusion of people for their sexual orientation or religion."

In addition, the intervention in popular culture reflects the seriousness with which the state wants to reach people who are not already involved or thinking about these questions. There is a  television ad for sexual diversity along the same lines as a poster and postcard campaign, the slogan of which is, "Dos Iguales Tambien Hacen Pareja" (Two of the Same Also Make a Couple). The Spanish word, pareja, means both "the same" as well as "partner" or "couple." One poster has a photograph of two white china cups on white saucers, each with lipstick marks on the lip of the cup. Another poster has two similar, though different, old-fashioned soap brushes used by men for shaving.  

Does this mean complete sexual diversity in Cuba? No. But does it mean the state is taking it more seriously, and people are responding? Yes. How far will the state take this new approach to diversity? Unclear. How much people continue to organize, without the state, is, I believe, the most important, and still outstanding question.

This past week of events was a sign that space is opening and that people are beginning to enter it, with caution sometimes, and at others with shouts and a song, but it is a step, and an exciting one. 

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