Cuba's rainbow revolution: Surprisingly, the country is embracing LGBT lifestyles - and at a faster rate than some of its neighbours

Fidel Castro's niece is proving a force for progress, although some people are nostalgic for the old, secretive days

David Usborne
Saturday 18 April 2015 21:44 BST
Being gay ceased to be a crime in Cuba in 1979, though changing attitudes to the LGBT community remains a work in progress still today
Being gay ceased to be a crime in Cuba in 1979, though changing attitudes to the LGBT community remains a work in progress still today (AFP/Getty)

Some of the fun has gone out of being gay in Cuba, says Andres as he slips into Las Vegas, a state-owned cabaret bar in the heart of Havana, in time to catch the nightly drag show for the all-male clientele. “I liked it better before. There was more romance.”

By “before” he does not mean the early years of the communist regime of Fidel Castro, when exposing yourself as a homosexual meant running the danger of being shipped to a labour camp as an “ideological deviant”. That was the misery chronicled by Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in his wrenching memoir Before Night Falls that became a film with Javier Bardem.

Andres is looking back a decade, when gay nightlife was vibrant but still mostly underground. Every Saturday, he and his friends would gather at a nearby park and wait for someone to whisper the venue of that night’s party. One night it would be at an abandoned mansion, the next a field behind a factory. So long as they stayed one step ahead of the police.

The journey from rejecting to embracing gay, lesbian and transgender lifestyles has been as complicated for Cuba as it has for many other countries. But the surprise may be that Cuba has indeed gone down that road, and done so even faster than some of its neighbours.

Still more surprising is that credit for the progress is largely given to Mariela Castro, the niece of Fidel and the daughter of Raul Castro. A member of Cuba’s parliament, she is also the director of Cenesex, Cuba’s National Centre for Sex Education – which has vigorously championed Aids prevention and LGBT rights.

Ms Castro may not be universally loved by the gay community, which notes that Cenesex still remains an agency of the regime and has thus prevented alternative grass-roots advocacy groups from growing up. Some suggest the real motivation of her campaign has been to protect Cuba’s tourism industry. Nonetheless, her impact is undeniable.

In May 2013, she received the Equality Forum’s International Ally for LGBT Equality award in Philadelphia, and in October that year she travelled to Montreal to receive a special tribute from the Conseil Québécois LGBT. When parliament passed a law last year guaranteeing protection for gays and lesbians in the workplace, she cast a dissenting vote because it failed to mention transgender Cubans.

The advances have been uneven. Being gay ceased to be a crime in Cuba in 1979, when the locking-up of homosexuals also stopped. Gay people were allowed to serve in the military from 1993. But then when the first cases of Aids surfaced in the 1980s, anyone diagnosed with HIV was infamously forced into quarantine in camps, a policy finally abandoned in 1993. Today changing attitudes to the LGBT community remains a work in progress. There is as yet little sign of Cuba acquiescing to gay marriage.

“Even though there is a revolution, the consciousness has not changed fast enough among many revolutionaries,” Ms Castro told Reuters last May, after attending a gay parade in Havana to mark the annual International Day against Homophobia. “I’d like it to be faster, but I don’t lose hope. I am going to celebrate with great happiness the day that same-sex couples can start to get married.”

Mariela Castro, in hat, leading a protest against homophobia in Havana
Mariela Castro, in hat, leading a protest against homophobia in Havana (AFP/Getty)

But some believe the strides made on gay rights provide a potential model for Cuba to take similar steps to address its record on human rights, something that remains mostly dismal, with the continuing imprisonment of some dissidents and tight media controls.

A turning point came in 2010 when Fidel Castro expressed remorse for how gays were treated early in his revolution in an interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, calling it a “great injustice”. He told the paper: “If anyone is responsible, it’s me. We had so many and such terrible problems, problems of life or death. In those moments, I was not able to deal with the matter of homosexuals.”

Havana is not exactly New York or London for its gay residents. The near-absence of affordable internet or mobile data access precludes online dating. A brief flourishing of lonely hearts ads on Revolico, a wildly popular classified site that many Cubans download weekly on to memory sticks, ended when users started posting obscene pictures.

But the furtive whispering of yore is over. There are choices for going out with your tribe. Nothing, though, is more jarring than the scene at another bar in the shadow of Fidel’s former revolutionary headquarters. Three men take the stage in military-looking garb and black berets adorned with red stars. As the music quickens, the trio begins to disrobe. Finally they are left wearing only underwear and Guevara berets. But what really invites astonishment is where we are. What would Che think?

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