Cuba: How Real Is the Thaw?

Published in: May-June 2013 issue.

THERE WERE three of them. The one on the left was a macho boy, all muscles and cool hair. On the right, linking arms with him, was a petite, girly boy, camping it up and twirling a parasol. Trailing slightly behind them came a third, gender neutral. They were Cuba’s new gay liberation vanguard.

I’d been looking for Gay Havana and this was as much as I’d found, these three twenty-something boys out for a bit of afternoon fun in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Some of the locals paused for a second glance, but on the whole the trio didn’t excite much interest for a country as homophobic and macho as Cuba can sometimes be.
In pre-revolutionary times, Cuba was known to tolerate maricones—up to a point. There were a few gay bars in the larger population centers, often with appropriate names like the Dirty Dick. Homosexuality was classified with prostitution and organized crime, both of which were thriving industries at the time, however illegal.

By the late 1950s, when Fidel Castro and his guerrilleros came to power, homosexuality was viewed as a form of capitalist decadence at best and counter-revolutionary deviance at worst. Simply put, GLBT people weren’t welcome to join in the revolution. Little wonder, for it was a revolution whose prevailing ethos was machismo, and one which soon came to be marked by a close alliance with the USSR, another regime fostering openly hostile attitudes and policies toward gay people.

As the 1960s wore on, the climate only worsened. Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban author whose most famous book is the memoir Before Night Falls (1993), wrote about the perils of being a gay Cubano in Pentagonía (1994), his “secret history of Cuba,” before escaping to New York, where he died of AIDS in 1990. Arenas quotes Fidel Castro as having remarked in a 1965 interview that a homosexual could never be “a true Communist militant.” According to Castro, it was a matter of nature clashing with politics.

In that same year, a national program was set up ostensibly to provide an alternative to military duty. In reality, it created concentration camps where forced labor was used to “reform” anyone identified as “deviant.” This category included not only homosexuals but also Jehovah’s Witnesses, hippies, and conscientious objectors. Gay men in particular were targeted for both physical and verbal abuse. And yet, only a few years earlier, many gay men and lesbians had been attracted by the revolution’s promise of a new society, one that would be more egalitarian and sexually liberated.

Times changed. By the 1990s, Castro began to soften his stance on GLBT rights, to the point that he recently declared that the persecution of homosexuals was “a great injustice” for which he accepted personal responsibility. His niece, Mariela Castro, has taken up the rights of transsexuals with gusto. Sex reassignment surgery is now free to eligible citizens. But ordinary Cubans, it seems, are not ready to listen just yet.
Today, there is only one “official” gay bar in all of Cuba, and it’s not in Havana. It’s in Santa Clara, scene of a historic battle that handed Castro control of the country more than half a century ago. The city is now a tourist destination, and the bar in question is famous for its transvestite shows. Think Disney World presents Stonewall à la Copacabana. It’s basically a spot for tourists, not for Cubans.

I asked the gay threesome in La Habana Vieja where the “secret” gay clubs were. They named a few bars, but said that to find gay Cubans you simply had to go to La Rampa, a small tourist area leading down to the Malecón. They also named a nearby city park in the old town that was a cruising ground at night. I asked if it was peligroso—dangerous. The effeminate one laughed. “Los Cubanos no son peligrosos,” he told me. Cubans aren’t dangerous.

What about the park around Coppelia? I wondered, naming the ice cream parlor made famous in Cuba’s first gay-positive feature film, Fresa y chocolate. No, they told me, it was closed at night a causa de los gais (because of the gays). Little wonder: the film made the park a sexual landmark on its release in 1993, and even more so with an Academy Award nomination in the following year. It’s still the center of Havana’s hustler activity.
Despite Castro’s declaration of support for the GLBT community, there are no official gay rights groups currently active inside Cuba. It’s hard to band together in a country where the Internet is strictly regulated, with fines and imprisonment for unauthorized hook-ups. The Cuban Association of Gays was formed in 1994, during a thaw in relations between gays and the state, but disbanded in 1997 after its members were arrested. Pride marches and gay publications have also been banned, lending a very ambivalent tone to what it means to be “state sanctioned.”

On the other hand, I watched a popular Cuban sitcom with a male character in drag. A state-run soap opera, La otra cara de la luna (“The Other Side of the Moon”), features an openly gay character in a relationship with another man. During the annual Havana Film Festival, held each December, many of the films have gay themes, and their posters can be seen in public. And just last year Cuba elected its first transsexual to public office in the central province of Villa Clara.

There is also a well-known gay-themed party, 10 Pesos (named for the cost of entry), which takes place in or around Havana every Saturday, if you know where to find it. That’s not always easy, as it changes location weekly to avoid becoming a target for the police. Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar was arrested at one such party, as was designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Foreigners found on the premises were reportedly released with the admonition not to flaunt their homosexuality or risk further arrest. Some of the locals were beaten.

I had been to a straight nightclub on a previous visit where a gay comedian performed in drag. He was a big hit with the young people, who were mostly in their late teens and twenties. But ask some of the slightly older straight crowd about gay people, and they tend to frown. They don’t like what they see. They may tell you that Mariela Castro is a lesbian and her father Raúl, Cuba’s current president, is gay, a conclusion they base on the latter’s support for tolerance toward GLBT people. To them, gays represent an old style, a pre-Communist “decadence” better suited to countries like Canada and the U.S. Cuban women can be particularly outspoken about their dislike of homosexuality. Yet they will happily turn around and show you pictures of their friends on their cell phones and ask you to guess which are the real women and which the travestis. It’s a double-standard at best.

In La Rampa district, you might experience a bewildering moment looking at all the attractive, fashionable young people and wonder which ones are gay. It’s not the hottie boys in pink T-shirts and tons of gold jewelry, camping it up and singing silly songs to their friends. Those are the straight ones out for an evening of fun.
The gay boys will approach you only once they see you looking around. They usually come in pairs, for protection and support, and are “straight-looking, straight-acting” by North American standards. That’s for protection too. In Cuba, if you’re gay, you usually don’t advertise it. “Are you looking for chicos or chicas?” they will ask, falling in step beside you. If you say chicos, they will smile and offer their services.

I tell them I just want to ask some questions. Business is slow, so “Eddie” agrees to sit down and talk to me for the price of a beer. We have to choose the bar carefully, though, because it’s dangerous for him to be seen in public with a turista. What would happen if the police saw us together? I ask. He would be taken away in handcuffs and fined, he tells me. “For talking?” I ask, slow to comprehend. No. For soliciting. Even if he isn’t.
I wondered if he was exaggerating, but another evening, while walking past Coppelia Park and chatting with a young man named José, I suddenly found myself alone. I thought perhaps I’d offended him with my questions. Then I looked up and saw two police officers heading toward me. I continued walking. A block ahead, José popped out of the bushes and we continued our conversation as if nothing had occurred.
During our walk, I asked José how he found gay life in Cuba. He answered with one word: duro—hard. And this from a country that knows what “hard” means. Another night, he and his cruising buddy took me around trying to find a happening gay bar. We tried several places, but they were populated by straight couples. “It’s the wrong night,” they assured me.

Even without the fight for GLBT rights, life in Cuba is not enviable. That’s why boys like Eddie and José try to make a few bucks on the side. Some of the hustlers will not even admit to being gay—it’s just a job, they will say—but others will proudly tell you they are. They will ask if you are activo or pasivo—a top or a bottom. Or the Cuban equivalent of versatile: completo.

Eddie lives in a small apartment with his sister and brother, as well as his mother and her boyfriend. He can’t afford to live alone. He says he’d like to come to Canada. His English is passable, but he doesn’t have many marketable skills, at least not in the legal sense, and he’s already getting to a certain age, as far as hustlers go. He is pessimistic when it comes to his future in Cuba.

Obviously, gay life goes on. All the boys assure me that Las Vegas Bar operates as an openly gay hangout in Havana. It’s just a few blocks off the foot of La Rampa. It’s another drag show bar. Tourists go there to meet the locals. The night I went it wasn’t busy, or perhaps I was just too early. A couple of drag queens and some lesbians were hanging around outside, looking defiant and ready for trouble. I felt the lure of the forbidden, what it was like entering your first gay bar. It harked back to that rebel spirit in the days of Queer Nation and the sense that it was better to tough things out, bad as they were, than to allow oneself to be beaten down.

In Cuba, the GLBT community knows that the state dominates everything and that the little freedom they have can be taken away instantly. It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened in Cuba. What they don’t know is whether their “Stonewall moment” is just around the corner or, indeed, if it will ever arrive.

Jeffrey Round is the author of five novels, including Lake on the Mountain and The Honey Locust. Based in Toronto, he’s currently writing two books set in Havana.