Havana in the 1990’s:

No Longer Choosing Between
Thieves or Faggots
by Amaury Fernandez Lopez
Translated from the Spanish by Laura Arcé Perez

Cuba is experiencing rapid social changes and Havana, being both the largest city and the capital, is the thermometer of the island. A Cuba within a Cuba. One of the most evident changes is the attitude towards Gays. During the past decade Havana witnessed the gradual emergence of a Gay community. Given Cuba’s history of sometimes brutal treatment of Gays, which forced many underground for years, this new visibility is surprising.

Homophobia is found in all Latin American countries, but when it comes to Cuba, it takes on special characteristics. After the 1959 revolution, the atmosphere was definitely anti-Gay. The revolutionary “Super Macho” hated homosexuals and treated them aggressively because of ideological reasons. Homosexuals were considered “against the revolution” for the mere fact of being Gay. For that reason Cuban homophobia is one of the strongest in all Latin America.

Cuba is a mixture of three cultures, Spanish, African and Asian. Each with different histories of development, values, and ideas regarding a heterogeneous social makeup. However, if the three groups that settled the island have anything in common, it’s that they all have rigid social conventions with established sexual roles for men and women. The homophobia resulting from taboos, social patterns and Catholicism, was kept during the process of “transculturation.” Added later was the dynamics of Communism, imported from the USSR, with its inflexible rules of sexuality. It’s little wonder that Gays had a hard time.

While many Gays are still wary about “coming out,” others are gathering themselves into a Gay community. Several attempts have been made at creating Gay organizations. But we have to be careful to not use American Gays as a model. The American type Gay organization, with its open challenge to the status-quo, would not be allowed to exist in Cuba.

The Gay theme has been in fashion since Guitierrez Alea’s acclaimed film “Strawberry and Chocolate” debuted in 1993. It’s about the relationship between a young, heterosexual, homophobic communist and an older, intellectual Gay man who becomes a political dissident. The film was intended to be controversial. Alea wanted to provoke a certain reaction from the Cuban public. While it caused a stir, it was not as big as anticipated. By the time the film premiered, Gays had already begun to emerge from underground, visible for all to see. Cubans knew Gays were among them. The film just placed that fact before the public for the first time. However, after the film many Gays felt more comfortable in Cuban society and appreciated having been recognized, at least once.

In this somewhat relaxed atmosphere there was a growing curiosity among heterosexuals, that many times ended in a homosexual experience. In contrast to its homophobic past, Cuba has been and is a “Gay” country. The different shades of homosexual eroticism can be easily identified just where the most complex mechanisms of classic Latin American male chauvinism are most rigid and it is interesting to notice in Cuban heterosexual men the contradictions to their chauvinism.

For example, Cuban men do not consider their butts an erogenous zone. You could say they remove it, along with their pants, to have sex with women. Nevertheless, they will pay tribute to the “forbidden” area. It’s amazing to discover their eyes shining when looking at other men’s butts. Now a new phenomenon has surfaced in Havana. In some sectors of society, it can almost be defined as fashionable to be bisexual. To appreciate the Gay aesthetic is considered close to the imagined, and desired, American and European norm. Both are seen as open-minded cultures, not polluted by social, economic or racial factors. When a Cuban youth compares his culture to America, from looking at the images he gets from the Western media, he considers Cubans narrow-minded. In other words, Cuban youth generally think that for an American or European man, sexual diversity is part of their make-up and could even be considered good taste, which, of course, is different from the reality.

Because of this, the way young Cuban Gays express their sexuality has undergone changes. At one time, as they discovered their homosexuality, they also experienced the effects of social homophobia and took steps to hide it. Today, many younger Gays don’t hide anything and they don’t hide themselves from others. For the majority, being Gay is something they are proud of.

Another phenomenon has been the rapid increase of Gay house parties in Havana. The parties are a substitute for the Gay bars and clubs that don’t exist in the country. Some years ago it was impossible for Gay house parties to openly exist. Homophobic neighbors would complain and the police considered the parties both a public disturbance and an offense to morality. Now Gay parties, along with drag shows, are more common. The parties have led to a closer relationship between Gay men and Lesbians, who despised each other in the past.

Still more changes can be observed in the language. The very use of the word “Gay” has come into wide use in Havana. Some years back, heterosexuals and homosexuals alike, used other terms such as “locas” (queers), maricones (faggots), and tortillera (dyke). In fact, the nicest word used, so as not to show rejection, was “homosexual.” But it was always said with a certain inflection.

There is a popular saying that goes, “I prefer my son to be a thief than a faggot.” But the most homophobic of all Cuban sayings is losing ground. In the 1990’s it would appear that classic homophobia itself is losing ground to tolerance. But homophobia still exists, hidden beneath new forms whose real shape is difficult to define, being in a process of transformation. However, the situation has influenced Cuban youth’s acceptance of Gays within the heterosexual circle. Increasingly, it is less bizarre for younger Cubans to find out a family member, or someone else close to them, is Gay. But it can’t be said that Gays don’t face rejection. Change in the social environment doesn’t always change direct relations between individuals.

In “Strawberry and Chocolate” one of the characters says the best line in the film: “You can’t trust a man that ain’t faithful to his own sexual revolution.” Cuban Gays are in the process of building a strong Gay culture and creating a Gay community. Things are not as they used to be but politics still shares the bed shared by two men.

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Buy the Video “Strawberry and Chocolate” (1993) directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea at Amazon.com
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