Homosexuals in Cuba: Invisible No More

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Mon Mar 17 14:06:43 MST 2003

(We can assume the publication of this article
is connected with the recently-concluded world
sexology congress held in Havana. A thousand
sex education professionals attended. Many of
the panels and workshops dealt with issues of
interest to the world LGBT community. We have
a few Spanish articles on the gathering and I'm
awaiting some English materials about this.)

16 March 2003
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

HAVANA  Is Cuba ready for a safe-sex ad highlighting gays?
That was the question on AIDS activists' minds recently as a
small crew filmed a 30-second public service announcement
featuring a svelte brunette transvestite and two men
exchanging condoms.

The government has not yet approved the television
ad to air. But if it finds its way into millions of Cuban
households, it would be a sign of change in a society where
gays say they were  virtually invisible only a decade ago.

"We are writing history, though we still don't know whether
anyone will read it," said Nelson Joel Valdez, 30, a
volunteer at Havana's AIDS prevention center, who helped
develop the ad. "Sometimes we don't  know how far to go, or
whether we aren't going far enough."

Like most changes in Cuban society, acceptance of gays
has been tentative. Ten years ago the breakthrough film
Strawberry and Chocolate was the first to hold a critical
mirror to this macho society's homophobia and portray the
friendship between a gay man and a young communist.

Gay topics are mostly taboo in the state-run media and
homosexuals in Cuban soap operas are largely depicted as
flighty buffoons. Still, many gays feel society has become
more open-minded and tolerant.

"Before Strawberry and Chocolate there were no
transvestites," says Kiriam Gutierrez, 28. Gutierrez, the
transvestite who appears in the safe-sex commercial, began
dressing as a woman in public in 1993, the year the film
debuted. Like many, he draws a direct line between its
release and a positive change in his personal life.

"People used to throw eggs, tomatoes, whatever," Gutierrez
said. "Now things are different. People who were hidden
before are not anymore."

There are still many barriers, however, say those who have
come of age in the past decade. Gay clubs, marches,
magazines and organizations are nonexistent. Hangouts
adopted by gays are sometimes temporarily closed or their
hours are limited to control attendance.

Clandestine parties held in parking lots, secluded  fields
or private homes are now the most common way for gays
to get together. Many gays say police often break up the
gatherings, ask partygoers to leave and in some cases
issue fines for being in an inappropriate place at an
inappropriate hour.

"I can't tell you whether the first justification is to
combat delinquency or to combat homosexuality," said Raul
Regueiro, 33, a bank worker. "What we need is a place where
we can get together peacefully in public, without fear."

A survey released last week of 300 Cubans across the island
found that 71 percent of those questioned defined
homosexuality as an "inclination toward people of the same
sex" while 22 percent called it an illness and 7 percent
viewed it as a personality disorder. Conducted by a group of
Cuban journalists and presented at the 16th annual World
Congress of Sexology conference in Havana, the survey found
slightly more tolerance for gay men than lesbians. About 58
percent of those interviewed said they would treat a lesbian
"like any other person" compared to 61 percent who said they
would treat  gay men the same way.

"When people see a woman making an independent life with
another woman, they fear it," said Malena Perez, 23, a
student. "It's as though they think we might have the power
to convince other women to be lesbians."

During the 1960s, gays, priests, some artists and others
considered unfit for military service were put into labor
camps, known by the Spanish acronym UMAP, or Military Units
to Aid Production. Homosexuality was considered a capitalist
import and gays were excluded from some university careers
because they were considered untrustworthy. In the 1980s, a
law against publicly flaunting homosexuality was removed
from the penal code. Today, many gays focus on societal
rather than institutional discrimination.

Gutierrez, for example, says he endures daily
confrontations, insults and whispered name-calling because
he dresses like a woman. But he has also received free
treatment for a hormone imbalance as well as psychiatric
therapy sessions at Havana's National Center for Sex

"It's a common misconception that gays are not
revolutionaries or socialists," Gutierrez says. "I believe
in socialism. But as long as I don't commit a crime no one
has the right to rule my life."

Vanessa Bauza can be reached at vmbauza1 at yahoo.com

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