Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2002

Peter Tatchell examines Cuba’s treatment of lesbian and gay people. While the anti-gay witch-hunts of the 1960s and 1970s have ceased, gays still suffer discrimination.

Gay Rights and Wrongs in Cuba

by Peter Tatchell

The persecution of the gay Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) symbolises the worst homophobic excesses of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary Cuba: a period in the 1960s and 1970s when the witch-hunts of homosexuals in Cuba prefigured the oppression of gay Chileans during the Pinochet dictatorship.

Although Cuban queers are no longer savagely repressed, it is nonsense for the Cuban government and its apologists in the West to claim there is no anti-gay discrimination in Cuba today.

It is true that Havana has none of the death squads that murder queers in Bogotá, but this is hardly proof of Castro’s liberalism.

Moreover, socialist Cuba may have the highest standards of health, education and housing of any Latin American country, and a literacy rate exceeding that of the United States. Great! But what is the point of excellent social welfare policies if people are not free and human rights are not respected?

Like many other lesbian and gay Cubans, Reinaldo Arenas was initially an ardent supporter of the revolution, running away from home at the age of fourteen to join the rebels who were fighting to overthrow the American-backed Batista dictatorship.

After Castro’s victory in 1959, Arenas benefited from the new government’s mass education programme, eventually gaining a place at the University of Havana and winning official acclaim for his first novel, Singing from the Well. But his follow-up book, Hallucinations, was refused publication and had to be smuggled to a publisher overseas. This act of defiance resulted in repeated police raids and the confiscation of his manuscripts.

The campaign of harassment culminated in his arrest in 1973 on a false charge of sexual assault. Fearful of his fate, Arenas escaped from prison and made an unsuccessful attempt to float to Florida on an inner tube. Recaptured, he spent the next two years brutalised inside El Morro prison, until he agreed to secure his freedom by renouncing his “deviant” writings.

Arenas eventually got out of Cuba in the 1980 Mariel Harbour exodus, when Castro decided to get rid of “antisocial” dissidents, criminals and homosexuals by allowing these “scum” to emigrate to the US.

Settling in New York proved a mixed blessing. While free to write, he was stateless, impoverished and later contracted HIV. With no health insurance, he could not afford proper treatment. Dying and plagued by depression, Arenas committed suicide in 1990, aged 47.

If his life was an indictment of communism’s lack of political, artistic and sexual freedom, then the circumstances of his death were an equally damning reproach concerning the fate of the poor and sick under capitalism.

Arenas himself made this point shortly before his death, bemoaning that by going into exile he had exchanged political repression for economic injustice.

Peter Marshall’s generally favourable book about the revolution, Cuba Libre, recalls that, like Arenas, many gay artists and intellectuals supported Castro’s insurrection. They saw his rebellion against the US-backed dictatorship as paving the way for cultural and sexual freedom, as well as economic emancipation and social justice.

The popular left-wing journal Lunes de Revolución was run largely by gay writers. Its radical ideas seemed to enjoy the tacit support of the rebels in the Sierra Maestra. A couple of years after Castro came to power, however, Lunes de Revolución was closed down, as were other freethinking magazines. Many gay authors and journalists were publicly disgraced, refused publication and dismissed from their jobs. Some were reassigned to work as janitors and labourers.

While Castro challenged many backward ideas as remnants of the old society, he embraced with enthusiasm the homophobia of Latin machismo and Catholic dogma, elevating it into a fundamental tenet of Cuba’s new socialist morality. Idealising rural life, he once claimed approvingly that “in the country, there are no homosexuals”.

When Cuba adopted Soviet-style communism it also adopted Soviet-style prejudice and puritanism. Ever since Stalin promoted the ideology of “the socialist family” and recriminalised gay sex in 1934, communist orthodoxy dictated that homosexuality was a “bourgeois decadence” and “capitalist degeneration”. This became the Cuban view. “Maricones” (faggots) were routinely denounced as “sexual deviants” and “agents of imperialism”. Laughable allegations of homosexuality were used in an attempt to discredit “corrupting” Western influences, such as pop music, with the communists circulating the rumour that the Beatles were gay.

In the name of the new socialist morality, homosexuality was declared illegal in Cuba and typically punishable by four years’ imprisonment. Parents were required to prevent their children from engaging in homosexual activities and to report those who did to the authorities. Failure to inform on a gay child was a crime against the revolution.

Official homophobia led, in the mid-1960s, to the mass round-up of gay people, without charge or trial. Many were seized in night-time swoops and incarcerated in forced-labour camps for “re-education” and “rehabilitation”. A few disappeared and never returned.

One gay man recalls: “We were taken to Camagüey, at the other end of the island. It was a camp surrounded with barbed wire, with watchtowers manned by guards with machine guns.”

The camp inmates included not just homosexuals, but also criminals, students, Catholics and political dissidents. They were set to work at 3 a.m., cutting sugar cane with machetes. It was backbreaking labour on meagre food rations. The gay prisoners were often beaten, and occasionally raped, by criminal gangs in the camps. Some gays were killed; others committed suicide.

At the First National Congress on Education and Culture in 1971, the cultural repression of homosexuality intensified. It was decreed that homosexuals were “pathological”, “antisocial” and “not to be tolerated” in any job where they might “influence youth”. Widespread anti-gay purges followed in schools, universities, theatres and the media. Gay professors, dancers, actors and editors ended up sweeping roads and digging graves.

The repression did not begin to ease until the mid-1970s and even then it was not because the Cuban leadership recognised their error. They halted mass detentions and reduced prison sentences largely because they were shamed by international protests – some organised by the newly-formed gay liberation movements in the US and Europe, and others by left-wing intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, in defence of persecuted gay writers and academics.

A more significant softening of official attitudes took place in the early 1990s. With the advent of AIDS, the Cuban authorities initially cracked down hard, quarantining everyone with HIV in special sanatoria. But, by the early 1990s, the authorities felt compelled to adopt a more liberal approach, abandoning their detention policy – partly because it was costing too much! More significantly, Cuban health officials realised that they had to show greater tolerance towards the homosexual community in order to win their trust, confidence and support for safer sex.

Another factor that influenced changes in government attitudes was the secondment to Cuba of East German doctors and psychologists during the 1980s. They viewed homosexuality as a natural minority condition, and this eventually prompted more enlightened thinking among Cuban medical staff and health educators.

It was not until 1992 that President Fidel Castro finally declared that homosexuality was a “natural human tendency that must simply be respected”. He has, however, never apologised or expressed remorse for his past homophobia and persecution.

Today, the legal status of lesbian and gay people in Cuba is still ambiguous. Amnesty International regards the lack of clear, categorical civil rights for homosexuals as being tantamount to illegalisation.

While the 1979 penal code formally decriminalised homosexuality, gay behaviour causing a “public scandal” can be punished by up to twelve months’ jail. This vague law, which is open to wide interpretation, has often been used to arrest gay men merely because they happen to be effeminate and flamboyant.

Discreet open-air cruising in public squares and parks is nowadays mostly tolerated, although often kept under police surveillance. Most gay bars are semi-legal private house parties and are subject to periodic police raids. In 1997, Havana’s biggest gay bar, El Periquiton, was closed down by the police. One organiser of an unofficial gay bar, Lorenzo, confides: “The police can knock the door down at any moment and arrest everyone here ... instead of sending you to jail, these days they just fine you.” A typical fine for those who run gay bars from their homes or courtyards is about 1,500 pesos, which is nearly seven months’ wages. The police also usually confiscate the lights, sound systems and record collections.

Homosexuals are still deemed unfit to join the ruling Communist Party, because being gay is supposedly contrary to communist ethics. This can have an adverse impact on a person’s professional career in a society where all senior appointments depend on party membership.

Lesbian and gay newspapers and organisations are not permitted. The Cuban Association of Gays and Lesbians, formed in 1994, was suppressed in 1997 and its members arrested. Gay Cuba? Not yet!

Reinaldo Arenas’s autobiography, Before Night Falls, is available from the GALHA Online Bookstore.
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Created : Sunday, 2002-05-05 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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