'¡Homofobia no! ¡Socialismo sí!' Identity, culture, gender and sexuality in today’s Cuba
Audio-visual conclusions from a research trip to Cuba in May 2016.
Afro-Cuban ethnicity and culture, Santería religion, gender and sexuality In May 2016, MRG led a research trip to Cuba, which principally sought to investigate the relationship and intersection between Afro-Cuban culture and…
15 min read
Film: A Cuban Conga for Diversity
‘This is not a Gay Pride, this is a Cuban Conga.’ On 14 May 2016 Havana played host to a thousands-strong parade to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Led by an Afro-Cuban motorbike-riding drag queen…
0 min read
Photo story: celebrating trans women
The Cuban Conga in Havana to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia boasted a vibrant and vocal cohort of transgender women. The celebrated guest this year was trans US actor Candis Cayne, who led the parade alongside…
0 min read
Afro-Cuban LGBTQI voices
Yasmin Silvia Portales, Afro-Cuban, Marxist, feminist and LGBT rights activist As a person who identifies as a black, bisexual woman have you experienced discrimination? I’ve experienced discrimination since I was a child. The first time it…
13 min read
Photo story: an artist responds
Creative Director Lyall Hakaraia formed part of the research team who travelled to Cuba for this project. Here he speaks about a piece of wearable art he made as a response. What was the inspiration behind this piece of work? Our aim was to…
0 min read
Film: an academic’s analysis
An interview with Tomás Fernández Robaina, one of Cuba’s most prominent gay, black history scholars, a researcher at Havana’s National Library, and self-confessed francotirador (sniper) of Cuban society ‘I am aged 75 and surprised by…
1 min read
Photo story: iconic spots
The significance of place for Havana’s LGBTQI communities ‘Here we are at a very historic hotspot for all the LGBT people to get together… to socialise basically. They get together here after 10pm. It’s like a tradition.’ Luis A….
1 min read
Afro-Cuban ethnicity and culture, Santería religion, gender and sexuality
In May 2016, MRG led a research trip to Cuba, which principally sought to investigate the relationship and intersection between Afro-Cuban culture and ethnicity, Santería religion, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) communities. We also hoped to reflect both their celebratory and critical voices, at a time of great change for the country and its people.
This introduction briefly looks at the separate elements of that intersectionality – namely, ethnicity, religion, gender identity and sexuality – and sets the context for further exploration of those issues, through interviews with Cubans which delve into how those identities interweave.
A brief history of enslavement, racism and Afro-Cuban resistance
The first enslaved Africans were taken to Cuba in 1513 under Spanish colonial rule, where many were forced to work in mines as replacements for the rapidly disappearing population of enslaved indigenous Taino-Arawak labourers. Mining activities came to an end with the discovery of large supplies of precious metals in nearby Mexico and in South America, but the island retained its importance in the colonial empire as products were shipped to the capital Havana for the final leg of the journey to Spain.
The first recorded uprising of enslaved Africans took place in 1533 at the Jobabo mines. There were frequent uprisings thereafter, with the participants escaping into the mountains and linking with indigenous Taino groups to form independent African maroon (escaped slaves) settlements called Palenques. From these enclaves they mounted raids on Spanish settlements.
Larger numbers of Africans began arriving in Cuba only after the British took the prospering Havana from Spain during the ‘Seven Years’ War’ and occupied both the city and port in 1762. The British brought in 10,000 Africans in less than 10 months, mostly to work in the burgeoning sugar plantations in rural areas. After reverting to Spanish rule in 1763, the Spanish government opened up Havana as Cuba’s exclusive port for the buying and selling of enslaved Africans. Amidst these developments, African resistance continued to grow: in response, in 1796 militia groups were organized to hunt down renegade slaves and destroy the Palenques, which had continued to serve as bases for attacks on the plantations.
The enslaved population grew to more than 40 per cent of the island’s residents by 1840. While Cuba became the world’s largest sugar producer, Havana became the central market for enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, and the country was thus transformed into a highly structured plantation society, with attendant class and caste relationships – a system characterized by routine cruelty towards Africans and Afro-descendants. Although Britain prohibited the Transatlantic Slave Trade from 1807, Africans continued to be sold into slavery in Havana.
In 1886 Cuba finally abolished slavery – the last Caribbean territory to do so. The end of legal slavery, however, did not bring racial harmony to Cuba, and some Spanish continued to warn against the potential ‘evils’ of a racially mixed society. In reality, freed slaves experienced new forms of segregation and exclusion. Despite continued racial discrimination, however, black Cubans became the backbone of the Cuban independence movement and its Liberation Army, playing a prominent role in the War of Independence (1895-8) led by José Martí.
But before Cubans themselves were able to grasp the reins of power from the Spanish, the United States (US) declared war on Spain in 1898 under the pretext that Spain had sunk the US warship Maine in a Cuban port.
The US had never recognized the Cuban people’s struggle for independence or their liberation army as a legitimate force. Just a few hours after declaring war on Spain, the US said they would not recognize the Republic of Cuba as declared by the revolutionary government and forced Spain to hand over the island to their military occupation.
Segregation came to Cuba in 1898 with the occupying armed forces of the United States, who sought to reflect the racial status quo of their own country. Racial discrimination became especially acute at this time: in the parks of many cities, for instance, blacks and whites were segregated in separate areas. Many educational, economic, cultural and recreational establishments were barred to black citizens, denying them the right to study, work, and enjoy culture.
In the 1930s, the United States successfully installed the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who formed an alliance with the pro-US elite in Cuba and was rewarded with a 25-year period in power, notorious for its corruption and repression. Batista was a light-skinned mulatto, but even during his presidency non-whites were still excluded from membership in the clubs of Cuba’s ruling classes – proof of the racism that crippled the island during that time. The Batista period was especially hard for Afro-descendants, as Afro-Cuban religion and music were illegal.
On 2 January 1959, the July 26 Movement led by Fidel Castro took power from Batista and his US masters. However, the mostly ‘white’ Cubans in positions of authority in the many institutions remained where they were.
By late 1959 the revolution had outlawed all forms of discrimination and institutional racism. Its wide-reaching economic and social reforms clearly benefited the majority of Afro-Cubans who were the lowest on the social scale. Access to housing, education and health services improved dramatically, as did the representation of black people among a wider range of professions. Afro-Cuban women were particular beneficiaries of the revolution’s progressive social legislation, gaining much-improved employment opportunities. Yet little was achieved in truly eliminating racial discrimination. Attempts by intellectuals to raise the issue in revolutionary Cuba were harshly dealt with in the 1960s, with the government insisting it had eliminated this particular form of discrimination.
Despite the government’s affirmations to the contrary, the phenomenon of racism has persisted at an individual, family and even institutional level, and critics of official policy allege that educational policy and official culture remained strongly Euro-centric. Afro-Cubans have not, for example, been widely represented in the higher echelons of the ruling Communist Party, nor in the upper levels of the civil service or state industries. And, with few exceptions, Afro-Cuban women have not yet reached the highest professional strata. In an attempt to remedy this, positive efforts are currently underway by artists, academics and members of the National Ministry of Education to integrate Afro-Cuban history, as well as related gender concerns, into the curriculum of the entire school system.
Today however, Cuba finds itself at a crossroads. The prospect of economic openings, particularly with the US, will inevitably bring further inequalities, and could potentially exacerbate racial hierarchies. Yet civil society may well be in a healthy state to combat this threat. Over the past decade, there has been a resurgence of anti-racism organizations, with groups forming in areas of legal rights, youth, culture, communications and community mobilization.
Current estimates of the percentage of people of African descent in the Cuban population vary enormously, ranging from 33.9 per cent to 70 per cent. This is partly a question of self-perception, as census figures are based on how Cubans define themselves, often resulting in under-reporting: according to anti-racism activists, many black Cubans themselves suffer from an internalized racism that leads to them publicly denying their blackness.
Religion – African-inspired
Afro-Cuban religions form part of a long history of African-inspired religions outside of Africa, and have emerged out of resistance and resilience to slavery, imperialism, and colonialism, and the rituals of enslaved black people in the Americas.
They are made up of a series of different religions that are practiced quite prolifically on the island and also internationally, such as Palo Mayombe, Abakuá, Espiritismo, Santería, and Ifá, and are home-grown religions, some of which mix different forms of African traditions with Catholicism, indigenous practices, some Islam, and other forms of prayer and spiritual philosophies. Santería (Veneration of the Saints), in particular, is a syncretic religion created in Cuba by the mingling of Yoruba traditions, brought by enslaved Africans from Nigeria and Benin, with the Roman Catholic faith.
Many attempts were made by Spanish missionaries to convert enslaved Africans to Catholicism, but while they appeared to accept much of their slave-masters’ teachings, they continued to practise their own rituals, which filled the spiritual space in their lives on sugar plantations, distant from their original cultural foundations. Some would say that the name Santería itself was also a way of disguising their practices behind a Catholic façade.
The Spanish allowed organization within each ethnic group amongst the enslaved communities on the plantations, both so they would provide mutual aid to each other as a cost saving measure, and to keep energy diverted from political complaints to cultural expression. Little did they know that this very cultural affinity would form the basis for a politics of resistance. The groups created by slaves, known as cabildos, were more than just clubs: they were religious organisations under the leadership of Babalawo, spiritual figures versed in the lore and rituals of Yoruba culture.
Santería focuses on building relationships between human beings and powerful (but mortal) spirits or divinities called orisha. Followers believe that these spirits will give them help in life, if they carry out the appropriate rituals, and enable them to achieve the destiny planned for them before they were born. This is very much a mutual relationship as the orishas need to be worshipped by human beings if they are to continue to exist.
Orishas can be perceived in the physical universe by initiates to Santería, and the whole community can share in their presence when they are possessed during public drumming ceremonies such as tambores or guiros, which are often held in peoples’ homes. Individual practitioners also have everyday rituals where they consult an oracle to find solutions to problems such as where to live or with whom to be in a relationship. Daily struggles, survival, health and wellbeing are the focus of Santería practice.
Afro-Cuban religions are part of the national heritage. But although they are ‘folklorized’ and celebrated, they have had a fraught relationship with the state – indeed, after taking power the revolutionary government made all religion illegal and did not relax this prohibition until the 1990s. However, since the opening up of tourism and a change in perception towards religion in general, Santería priests are becoming more welcome in official circles, and priesthood is now regarded as employment in the eyes of the state. These days Afro-Cuban traditions are a source of tourism, and therefore income.
Sexuality – Gay rights before and after the revolution
In pre-revolutionary times, Cuba was known to ‘tolerate’ gays up to a point. Large towns had a few gay bars, and homosexuality was classified together with prostitution and organized crime, both of which were thriving at the time, despite being illegal.
When Castro came to power, however, homosexuality was viewed as a form of capitalist decadence at best and counter-revolutionary deviance at worst. In the 1960s, the climate only worsened. Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban author whose most famous book is the memoir Before Night Falls, wrote about the perils of being a gay Cubano, before escaping to New York, where he sadly died of AIDS in 1990. Arenas quotes Castro as having said in a 1965 interview that a homosexual could never be ‘a true Communist militant.’
That same year a national program was set up, seemingly to provide an alternative to military service. In reality, it created infamous concentration camps where forced labour was used to ‘reform’ anyone identified as ‘deviant,’ including not only homosexuals, but also Jehovah’s Witnesses, hippies and conscientious objectors. Gay men in particular were targeted for both physical and verbal abuse, whereas only a few years earlier many gays and lesbians had been attracted by the revolution’s promise of a new society, one that would be more egalitarian and sexually liberated.
After decades of repression, by the 1990s, Castro softened his stance on LGBTQI rights. In his autobiography he criticized the machismo culture of Cuba and urged for the acceptance of homosexuality. In a 2010 interview with Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Castro called the persecution of homosexuals while he was in power ‘a great injustice,’ for which he accepted personal responsibility.
There has been significant change in government policy in recent years, with Cuba’s high quality healthcare system providing free gender re-assignment surgery and services for those with HIV. The daughter of current President, Raúl Castro, has been a strong advocate for LGBTQI rights.
Intersectionality – Gender, sexuality, ethnicity and Santería religion
Santería is by far the most popular religion practiced today in Cuba. Given the country’s past revolutionary fervour and association with strict Catholicism imported from Spain, society’s acceptance of homosexuality within the realms of the Santería religion is somewhat paradoxical.
Although the evidence is inevitably anecdotal, scholarly literature frequently points to a high presence of gay people in Santería, disproportionate to the number of gays and lesbians in the population as a whole. Santería has been seen as a place in which gays, particularly those breaking gender norms of behaviour, are not only tolerated but have (albeit somewhat limited) ritual place of power in its mythology, philosophy, and practice. Although there are still strict taboos in place preventing gays from engaging in certain aspects of religious practice – for example, they are not allowed to perform divination – Santería provides a space for homosexual identity and expression in a society with a relatively recent ‘gay scene,’ and with a history of machismo, persecution and state-induced homophobia up until the mid 1990s.
This does not mean that all Santería believers are tolerant to homosexual practices and behaviour at all times. Accepting it within the confines of the religion does not necessarily mean that it is acceptable within the home, or at work for example.
Ivan*, a gay, Afro-Cuban santero, also puts a historical perspective on the paradox:
‘I don’t agree that Santería provides a safe space for gays. Back in the day, gays were oppressed, but so was anyone who professed publicly to be religious – Catholic or santero – there was nowhere to seek refuge. In terms of the attitudes towards gays and towards religion in Cuba, the state and everyone’s mindset has become much more flexible and tolerant nowadays. For instance, it would have been impossible in the ‘90s to even imagine gay pride celebrations like we have today.’
During Santería ceremonies initiates are often possessed: men by female spirits, women by male spirits, and vice versa. During possession, an initiate is ‘mounted’ by the orisha—an expression that has obvious gendered and sexual implications. Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that non-heterosexual men and women tend to be possessed more often than their straight counterparts, so their presence is highly valued.
The orisha themselves personify nature in multiple ways. Each one corresponds to particular natural elements such as the ocean, which is related to the orisha Yemayá, or the river, who is the orisha Oshún; both black, female deities that represent motherhood, femininity and sexuality. There are also orisha that correspond to masculinity. The orisha Changó is both the ruler of thunder as well as the orisha of kingdoms and of masculinities, and is seen as highly virile.
When a person undergoes the ceremony of kariocha he or she becomes a Santero. The word santero is a syncretised term that indicates ‘one who works with saints.’ Santeros can be male or female as well as gay or lesbian, as long as they act outside traditional gender norms, i.e. men who act effeminately or women who act in a masculine way.. Santeros can perform readings with cowrie shells, communicate with ancestors, give necklaces, crown others in kariocha and a whole multitude of spiritual services. They are effectively a priest or priestess of Santería.
Within Santería, a person is not a Santero or a Santera until they have undergone the initiation of kariocha, but they also need to complete a year as an Iyawo. There are many rules associated with being an Iyawo: the wearing of white, refraining from physical contact with non-initiates, abstaining from alcohol, eating from a special bowl, staying inside after dark and covering the head at all times. They must also spend time understanding and studying the advice from the orisha.
There are limits however to the apparently progressive attitude (in comparison with orthodox Catholicism) towards homosexuals and women in Santería. Babalawos, for example, the consecrated priests of Ifá, which is the sect of the Orisha Orunmila, are exclusively heterosexual men, and the sect in general is dominated by men. Babalawos are diviners; specializing in divination using seed pods or palm nuts and a wooden board. They can also perform cleansing ceremonies, readings for a person to determine their orisha, and they can officiate at sacrificial ceremonies.
Ivan* confirmed this rule:
‘I have all of the right characteristics to become a Babalawo, but I’m gay so I can’t. It would all have to come out in the Ifá ceremony…there is a problem with the religion in that aspect, but at the same time I respect the rules.’
Ceremonial instruments are also taboo. For example, the Batá drums are pivotal to the practice of the religion; but both women of all sexual identities and gay men are prohibited from playing or touching them. Some research has shown however that this prohibition was not necessarily native to Yoruba culture, but is in fact peculiar to the practice of the religion in Cuba.
There are some limited signs of greater gender inclusion. In African lineages they are beginning to initiate women to Ifá and call them Iyanifá. This is a relatively new evolution of the religion, and although not accepted by conservative religious practitioners, it is now quite widespread among one particular but popular strand of Cuban Ifá called La Linea Africana. However, women still do not have the same rights as men: for example, they cannot initiate other men or women.
While Santería has opened up a space for gays and lesbians to participate, women are still marginalized in religious leadership roles compared to heterosexual and gay men. Although only men can become Babalawos, all practitioners become ‘wives’ when they are initiated. As ‘newborns,’ these initiates become the wife of the orisha that ‘claimed their head’ or ‘crowned’ them. This orisha will become the focus of the initiate’s worship, and the ‘wifely’ relationship to the deity is the same for all practitioners, regardless of gender.
BBC Religion; Santeríachurch.org; latinolife.co.uk; Dr. Aisha Beliso, Associate Professor of African American Religions, Harvard Divinity School; Gay and Lesbian Review; Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, Assistant Professor of Sociology, American University, Washington, DC; latinamericanstudies.org; MRG Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples; blackactivistzine.org; Esteban Morales, Professor of Economics and Political Science, University of Havana; Vicky Jassey, Postgraduate Researcher, Cardiff University; The Nation; dailyxtra.com; Pink News; Fiesta de Diez Pesos: Music and Gay Identity in Special Period Cuba; Interviews, Havana, May 2016.
*Name changed to protect the identity of the person interviewed.
Interview and research by Emma Eastwood
Photos by Bex Wade
Informed consent was gained for all of the photographs of the ceremonies. We are truly grateful for the access we were given to sacred spaces by the people who appear in them.
‘This is not a Gay Pride, this is a Cuban Conga.’
On 14 May 2016 Havana played host to a thousands-strong parade to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Led by an Afro-Cuban motorbike-riding drag queen dressed as a witch, Havana’s LGBTQI community and their allies came out in force under a scorching sun to celebrate and claim their rights. We were there to record the day’s events.
Although we had been told back in the UK that the Conga was anything but diverse, and only more ‘elite’ members of the community took part in the celebrations, as you can see from the film this was anything but the case. Also, given Cuba’s uneasy relationship with the church, the symbolic wedding blessings that took place during the celebrations after the parade took us by surprise. Many of them included inter-racial couples, such as Mercedes and her life partner, who narrate the film and point out how the LGBTQI experience in Cuba can be very different, depending on the colour of your skin, or your income level.
Film: Bex Wade
The Cuban Conga in Havana to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia boasted a vibrant and vocal cohort of transgender women. The celebrated guest this year was trans US actor Candis Cayne, who led the parade alongside Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raúl Castro and head of the National Centre for Sexual Education, which promotes rights for and encourages acceptance of the LGBTQI community.
There is still a huge amount of work to be done in order to positively change public attitudes towards transgender people and stamp out transphobia, especially outside of the capital city Havana, but the visibility and celebration of the Conga would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Much has changed since the 1960s and ‘70s when Fidel Castro’s government sent sexual minorities to labour camps. Adela Hernández, an openly transgender city councillor, said in the 1980s she was sent to prison for two years for ‘dangerousness’ after her family publically accused her of being gay. 30 years later in 2012, Hernández made history when she became the first known transgender person in public office.
In another major step forward in 2008 the Cuban government passed a law allowing state-funded gender reassignment surgery and hormone treatment. However in interviews with activists, we were told that the wait for treatment can take years and many transgender people resort to dangerous backstreet surgeons when they run out of patience.
In 2013, lawmakers on the island also passed legislation that banned anti-gay discrimination in the workplace; tellingly it did not provide protection for transgender people, so they are limited as far as what kinds of work they can do. Many transgender women work in performance or doing hair and makeup, but as these kinds of jobs provide little money, they often live in poverty and turn to prostitution to make ends meet.
As these photos show though, for at least one day a year transgender women are most definitely affirming their existence loudly and proudly.
Yasmin Silvia Portales, Afro-Cuban, Marxist, feminist and LGBT rights activist
As a person who identifies as a black, bisexual woman have you experienced discrimination?
I’ve experienced discrimination since I was a child. The first time it was gender discrimination. I was playing in my grandmother’s house and I made a big jump. She said, ‘Girls don’t jump like that!’ I felt sad but didn’t realise then that it was part of how you learn to be a woman. I was always struggling with the constraint and elegance that are supposed to be my companions as a woman.
In terms of race discrimination, I remember a teacher asking me why I was using braids rather than having my hair chemically straightened. She said, ‘You are beautiful, but those braids make you look like a poor little black girl.’ She was Afro-descendant too, but was trying to help me fit in by making me conform to the white, Western look.
In high school, on many occasions I was subjected to suspicions with regard to my sexuality. I wasn’t interested in playing the game of fooling around, so people concluded that I must be a lesbian. Later I hung around with gay men and everyone assumed that the only reason why was also because I am a lesbian. It was complicated and sad, but at the same time gave me a kind of ‘all queers together’ feeling. I don’t remember ever being the direct subject of homophobic violence, and later I went to theatre school; it was a more liberal place.
On the other hand I present as a cis-gendered woman. I had a husband for 10 years and I have a child. I don’t go around with a t-shirt saying ‘Bi and proud’, so some people assume that you are straight and narrow-minded like them. This hurts sometimes…
Has there been a change in the discrimination you’ve experienced over the years?
Now people are speaking about this. Back in the ‘80s no one was talking about it. Homosexuals were people who everyone thought would end up lonely or with AIDS. We are queer people and we have gone from silence to presence. People get ‘out of the closet’ younger these days. I know people who have been living in the closet for 50 years, who spent their whole reproductive life pretending. But young people in urban areas have better conditions now to come out.
However, on the other hand homophobia is becoming more violent. When you go from silence to presence in the public place, you put heteronormativity in a defensive position. The heteronormative monster in Cuban society is trying to fight back and becoming more violent in its expression.
There is a very popular soap opera in Cuba, and for the first time recently a gay man appeared in it. At the same time CENESEX (National Centre for Sexual Education, a government-funded body advocating for tolerance towards LGBTQI issues in Cuba, headed by Mariela Castro, daughter of Raúl Castro, niece of Fidel. They support trans people who want to access gender reassignment treatment), received a letter from a young gay man asking for help because his door had been pelted with stones by locals. That kind of violence hadn’t happened since the ‘70s – and back then it was a state affair, where all the gay men were put in camps.
Most of us are celebrating the advances made by the community, but are not aware of the dangers of the heteronormative empire striking back. Many people will say, ‘I have nothing against gay people but they have to be decent, quiet and discreet. We don’t want queers, transvestites or butch women.’ For me what’s going on right now is that people want to put us back where they think we belong by force. There is increased hate speech in evangelical churches, an increase in homophobic slurs in certain newspapers.
Cuba is a very controlled country, however, perhaps one of the few good things about a police state is that violence is very limited at least! The limitation of freedom of expression in this country in a certain way is advantageous to the LGBT community. For instance the evangelical church can’t organise a demonstration against the queers in the street – they have to remain within the church walls.
Is there racism within the LGBTQI community?
We have racists within the LGBT community because there is racism in Cuba. ‘Normal’ here means white cis-gendered men. In our movement those who are more willing and able to participate are those at the top of the food chain. So, white, middle class, gay men will have the time and confidence to speak out. Trans people or Afro-descendants are just too busy getting on with the basics in life to take a main role in the movement.
The state institutions that try and promote and control our movement haven’t consciously elected diversity in to their ranks and they are reproducing the same old models. The Cuban LGBT community is very influenced by the media in the USA – reproducing the racist and sexist styles that the TV shows project, with an idea of diversity that still has white men firmly placed at the centre.
The Cuban state doesn’t address the racism issue with the same energy and courage as it does the LGBT issue. The LGBT movement has iconic figures from the establishment like Mariela Castro, but the anti-racist movement does not have such figures. Afro-descendants are third class citizens; there is no real policy on racism in state-sponsored civil society and Afro-descendants don’t feel comfortable enough to stand up and speak out as they know they won’t be welcome as spokespeople or leaders.
Class issues also play out here – Afro-descendants are more likely to be poor and doing precarious work than their fellow white members of the LGBT community. Being, for instance, trans, black and poor means you are too busy surviving to participate.
What’s your opinion about the fact that CENESEX, the main organization that represents your community, is a led by white cis-gendered woman from the political elite?
(Laughs…) At least she’s a feminist!
Trans women started going to CENESEX because they were accepted there and were excluded by the Cuban Womens’ Federation. For me, politically, Mariela is CENESEX, being who she is. At the same time she is a limiting factor for the movement because we are reproducing the system. In Cuba we don’t choose our leaders, and we didn’t choose her. However, this is the reality of the political process here and we have to deal with it. It is negative in the long term….but most of the achievements that we have at this point came from her, and her father.
If we removed her from the equation we would have few gains. Most in the movement believe she is the lesser of two evils, but she has the power to keep the rules as she likes. We don’t have a real popular movement, the things that make a movement strong we just don’t have here – we won’t have it until she steps away – even though we’ll be weak when she does.
You took part in the Conga (a type of popular Cuban dance and the name given to the parade in Havana to celebrate the annual International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on May 17) – why was it important, what did you think of it?
I didn’t plan to go. I’m tired of the Conga and its meaning. For me May 17 is a fighting day and June 28 (the day that Gay Pride is marked globally) is the celebration day. But Mariela says that she doesn’t want to imitate the Americans so we don’t get to celebrate on June 28. Me and my colleagues see the LGBT fight as more than just the fight for gay marriage and free surgery for sexual reassignment. We see it as a broader fight against discrimination, however it’s stuck in health and quality of life demands. We had lost interest in participating in the Conga and stayed away.
On May 13 there was a police raid against a gay club in Matanzas. That night the news showed a long piece against homophobia in the work place in which the 1st Secretary of the National Union of Cuba spoke clearly and loudly about how the Communist Party is giving attention to homophobia in labour and health spaces. Yet just four hours later the police attack the LGBT community. I said that we have to go to the march – I call it a march not a Conga – and denounce this attack there in the very place where Mariela and her minions are claiming everything is OK.
They have to make up their minds! We are supposed to be celebrating diversity! That’s why we went, because there are few things worse than silence. I’m pretty sure that most people didn’t know what was happening in Matanzas…
Some people say that the Conga is just a circus – many love Mariela, but they are getting tired of the lack of progress in CENESEX.
Anyway we fulfilled our objective. We distributed information and received good feedback, especially from the trans people who said that they are regularly harassed. State security wanted to remove us from the march – which means we had an effect! Although I was scared because we don’t have legal guarantees around human rights…they could have detained us.
You’re a member of the Rainbow Project. Tell us more.
It was a risky movement at the time. We tried to generate awareness of the intersection between class, race and gender identity in the social fabric of society. You can’t get away from discrimination just by enacting a few laws persecuting homophobia. Fighting against homophobia won’t be enough – we have to fight against all forms of discrimination to get something like a fair society.
We’ve tried to put together a bibliography about the anti-discrimination movement around the world. We’ve also collaborated with CENESEX to help people who have been victim of gender or sexual discrimination get legal support. We’ve also made a few public actions on June 28 stating how important we consider the community/identity construction is inside Cuba. Stonewall was an exercise of pure bravery – we should honour that. Imagine how powerful we could be!
We’ve tried to promote a more critical view of May 17 and the implications of ‘medicalisation’ of sexuality. We gather in public places and have ‘kiss ins’, because these public displays of affection are very offensive for the heteronormative conscience. But we have the same rights as heterosexual couples to express love, so let’s kiss! It’s funny; and nice that we celebrate our beauty, our bodies, our existence. And one day it won’t matter…
A final word
Many people see Cuba as an exotic place; the last socialist country in the world. Many also think that the normalisation of relations between Cuba and the USA will bring normality to this country. The first thing is that I don’t think that the USA and Cuba will ever have a ‘normal’ relation. It’s impossible because of the power dynamics.
The idea of normalcy is very dangerous for a country, and particularly for minorities. You have to cherish your singularity, not by making it a wall that separates you from the others, more like a seal to protect you from mediocrity and greyness. Only singularity gives colour to society, and Cuba’s singularity should not be sacrificed on the altar of economic prosperity – that’s what I’m most afraid of right now.
Ivan*, a gay, Afro-Cuban santero
On being ‘in the closet’
I’m gay but I’m not out to my family, to my work colleagues, not even to my madrina (godmother or spiritual guide in santería). I’ve been married to three different women, I have a child. You can meet so many openly gay santeros now, but my story is different because I have chosen it that way. I live alone; I don’t have to explain anything. I have a boyfriend now, he is religious and since I met him I have become more religious too.
On the current state of attitudes towards the LGBTQI community
Attitudes are changing. In the past Communism dictated how we should live every aspect of our lives. Yet now gay rights groups are demanding the right to get married, and it may well happen. Now you have discos, owned by the state, that are openly gay. 10 years ago that was unimaginable.
*Name changed to protect the identity of the person
Luis A Paz, an Afro-Cuban, gay, human rights activist
On human rights in Cuba
The social project that I believe in here in Cuba is about human beings. Everything else, like equal marriage rights or your rights to freely express your sexual orientation, your gender identity, rights because of your skin colour, are secondary. Firstly it’s about your rights as a human being.
On organizing and activism
One of the things I’ve been trying to do is arrange some kind of alliance between different groups in order to push more, to build more, not to work separately because that way we’re not going to achieve anything. But activists need money, resources, and Cuban intelligence wants to know where you’re getting your funding. If it comes from the US then you’re fucked up. It’s OK if the money comes from Europe but you have to be very transparent about it.
On equal marriage rights
I actually believe that this country is very well prepared to deal with real equality, real social justice and opportunities. For example, last night I was talking with a friend on the internet and he said, ‘Dude, I don’t understand why Cuba doesn’t have civil marriage. I don’t get it.’ And I said, ‘I don’t get it either. Most people have a degree; they have a clue about what is right and wrong. We have a well-educated police force. We have healthcare which is good, we have laws, lots of laws. All you need to do is trust the people, give them the opportunity to create and build a better structure of human rights, and make this country even better.’
On being out and proud
I’ve been out of the closet for about 6 years. In some ways I have an advantage in this society because I am the perfect stereotype of the masculine man, handsome, not that tall, but I look OK. People just look at me and say, ‘Oh he’s not gay, he’s fine.’ Many look like me, but they are afraid to come out because of the stigma and the history of persecution of the people who are in the public space but don’t pass as masculine heterosexual males. So, they are afraid to walk on the street holding hands because they’re scared that people call them ‘faggot’. But they should start doing it!
I was dating a guy, he was not entirely openly gay but when we were out together on the street we walked holding hands. Nothing happened! And once in the door of my office building I kissed him on the mouth in front of everyone waiting in a bus queue. Nothing happened! Everything was just fine. Yeah there’s a risk, but come on, life is a risk all the time! People need to learn how to deal with it, and to be encouraged.
On participating in the Conga on May 17
I choose to participate in the parade because it’s a statement. Basically what I’m going to do is an artistic performance. ‘This is me, I exist and you have to deal with it.’
Interviews by Emma Eastwood and Bex Wade
Creative Director Lyall Hakaraia formed part of the research team who travelled to Cuba for this project. Here he speaks about a piece of wearable art he made as a response.
What was the inspiration behind this piece of work?
Our aim was to make a piece of art together with an artist from the LGBTQI community whom we had met whilst in Cuba. I believe that the making of art with people from different cultures and societies is an important tool to bring understanding and trust.
The reason that I chose to make the art in the form of a ‘monster’ is that they are, together with totems and fetish figures, images that occur all around the world. As universal images they have cultural currency that can easily be translated and understood by everyone, regardless of ethnic, economic or religious divides. These figures also traditionally play key roles in communicating ideas of trust, faith and cultural continuity, which can be empowering imagery for marginalised communities.
What is the significance of the materials used and the form in which they are used?
I used plastic as it is a modern, democratic material that can be found anywhere in the world. I choose to use plastic rubbish bags as they are a domestic staple, accessible in terms of price and availability, and they also come in a variety of colours and textures. It means too that those who participate in the making of the piece can easily replicate or experiment with their own versions of the figures very cheaply.
Why choose the Malecón (Havana’s iconic seawall) as a place to make and document the work?
My muse and performer for the piece was a young, gay artist, and it seemed only right that the place that we made and documented the work was a well-known rallying point for the LGBTQI community in Havana,
Artwork: Lyall Hakaraia
Performer: Luis A. Paz
Photography: Bex Wade
Assistants: Emma Eastwood, Renier Santos
An interview with Tomás Fernández Robaina, one of Cuba’s most prominent gay, black history scholars, a researcher at Havana’s National Library, and self-confessed francotirador (sniper) of Cuban society
‘I am aged 75 and surprised by my country. I thought I would be living another way.’
Informed consent was gained for all of the video footage of the ceremonies. We are truly grateful for the, at times, unprecedented access we were given to sacred spaces by the people who appear in this film.
Film: Bex Wade
Interview: Emma Eastwood
The significance of place for Havana’s LGBTQI communities
‘Here we are at a very historic hotspot for all the LGBT people to get together… to socialise basically. They get together here after 10pm. It’s like a tradition.’ Luis A. Paz
23rd Avenue in Havana’s Vedado neighbourhood, known as La Rampa, is the historic centrepoint of the city’s gay scene. At night, the intersection of the Malecón seawall with the hill on which sits the Hotel Nacional and the infamous Yara cinema (see photo above), becomes one of the main places where the LGBTQI community meets, drinks, hangs out and dances to sounds from tinny boom boxes, before heading off to parties and nearby nightclubs. Here is Luis A Paz, an Afro-Cuban, gay, human rights activist explaining the significance of a particular spot in downtown Havana for the LGBTQI community.