LGBT Rights in Cuba

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This is an excerpt from my extended blog post on Fidel Castro & the Cuban Revolution, published on December 31, 2016. This excerpt addresses the history and evolution of LGBT life in the Cuban Revolution.

As a gay person, there’s something of an elephant in the room when I defend of Cuba. Some of my LGBT friends have wondered how I can support the Cuban Revolution given its treatment of gays.

Gays have had it quite bad in Cuba in the past. As I said in the opening of this article, I don’t defend everything Fidel has done. Fidel personally, and Che also, have been openly hostile to the gay community. Things have improved greatly, but prejudice still remains.

This needs to be discussed frankly because it’s important, but I think perspective and proportion are required. Some LGBT people I know reject Fidel and the Cuban Revolution out of hand over the gay issue. Yet these same people have no trouble supporting the U.S. overall, or the church if they’re Catholic. They obviously disapprove of certain anti-gay politicians, laws, or policies — but they don’t summarily reject these institutions across-the-board. I would simply challenge these individuals not to confine their assessment of Cuba to this single issue alone.

In the early days of the revolution gays were anathema. Che would call gays “faggots” (in Spanish) and Fidel made this statement,

We would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary, a true communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant communist should be.

Gays were rounded up and placed in prison work camps called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP). According to PinkNews,

Those who experienced the labour camps report being beaten, threatened with execution, stuffed with dirt in their mouths, buried in the ground up to their neck, and tied up naked outside in barbed wire without food or water until fainting.

According to an official state newspaper report in 1966, the labour camps were the idea of Fidel Castro himself, after seeing similar examples on a visit to the Soviet Union, and were enacted by current Cuban President, Raúl Castro.

In a documentary aired on HBO, one trans woman says she has to wear sunglasses for her whole life after her eyes were bleached with acid thrown in her face while incarcerated.

There is no way to dismiss or excuse this treatment, but it needs to be understood in the context of time, culture and politics.

◼︎Time. First, from the standpoint of time. The Cuban Revolution took place in 1959 which was not exactly a friendly time in most of the world for LGBT people. Life in the U.S. certainly wasn’t warm and welcoming. Stonewall didn’t happen here until 1969, 10 years after the Cuban Revolution. Nor did gays advance much legally in the 10 years following Stonewall — yet in 1979 Cuba decriminalized gay relationships between consenting adults. Seven years later, in 1986, sodomy laws in the U.S. were upheld by the Supreme Court (Bowers v. Hardwick). The penalty in some cases was life imprisonment.  It wasn’t until 2003 — 24 years after Cuba — that same-sex relationships were decisively legalized in all 50 states (Lawrence v. Texas).

Legality in Cuba didn’t mean acceptance, however. Prejudice and discrimination continued. Like everywhere, LGBT people in Cuba have had to fight, and continue to. Things are improving now in Cuba as they are here. Cuba lags the United States on same-sex marriage, yet Cuba provides free sex change operations while transgendered people here are being banned from bathrooms by hostile lawmakers. Cuba has banned discrimination in employment since 2014 while in the U.S. efforts to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) have failed year after year. Now the proposed First Amendment Defense Act threatens to legalize wholesale discrimination against gays.

◼︎Culture. Next there’s culture. Cuba is part of Latin-America which has something of a reputation for its “machismo” tradition. I’m not an expert or even judging here, except to note that gays seem to have an extra hurdle to jump in cultures that emphasize heightened masculinity. Accounts I hear indicate this has been part of the challenge for gays in Cuba.

◼︎Politics. And finally politics. Cuba was very much influenced politically in the early years by Stalinism through its association and alliance with the Soviet Union. A detailed explanation and review of Stalinism is way beyond my scope here but some discussion is essential to understanding homophobia and gay oppression in Cuba.

When the Bolsheviks overthrew Czarist rule in Russia in 1917 one of their early acts was to abolish all laws against homosexuality and homosexual relationships. It remained that way for years until Joseph Stalin took power in a counter-revolution against the Bolsheviks and their Marxist program. Among the many horrible things Stalin did was to re-criminalize homosexuality.

The reasons for this counter-revolution are complex and were rooted in the specific regional and world situations at that time. The Soviet Union was then the first and only socialist revolution in existence. Being the only game in town this enabled Stalinism to masquerade as “socialism” and “Marxism” while in reality it’s a perversion of them. This continued for decades, and was still the case when the Soviet Union was in Cuba. This Stalinist influence on Cuba was, shall I say, not altogether positive — yet for a period Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union was critical to its defense and survival.

Eventually Fidel and the Cuban leadership came to see that the Soviet model was causing problems on many levels and began to move away from it. This began years before the Soviet Union collapsed.

Gays slowly benefited from this change. Fidel later came to understand the error in his prior attitude towards gays and the government’s treatment of LGBT people. He publicly acknowledged it and apologized in an interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada published in August 2010. The paper noted that it’s “known that among [Fidel’s] best and oldest friends there are homosexuals.”

These are a few excerpts translated to English:

[Fidel] thinks that everything was produced as a spontaneous reaction in the revolutionary ranks, which came from traditions. In previous Cuba, not only blacks were discriminated against: women and, of course, homosexuals were also discriminated against…

Who was, therefore, responsible, direct or indirect, for not putting a stop to what was happening in Cuban society? The Party? …

“No,” says Fidel. “If someone is responsible, it’s me…  but anyway, if you have to assume responsibility, I assume mine. I’m not going to blame others…”

As this next video shows, criticism of Cuba’s past persecution persists in the country and not everyone is convinced of Fidel’s apology.

Fidel’s conversion on this question may well have been a family affair as his married heterosexual niece, Mariela Castro Espin, has become a vocal champion of the LGBT community. As Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela has been in a unique position to press her father and uncle on the issue. She also now sits in the National Assembly of People’s Power where her voice and influence is even stronger.

These next videos look at the work of Mariela Castro and the progress being made today in Cuba on LGBT rights.

This report by Chinese Central Television (CCTV America) reports on changing attitudes in Cuba on homosexuality and the work being done by Mariela Castro.

This is a short filmed produced by the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) in Cuba, a government-funded organization that promotes LGBT rights. Mariela Castro is Director of CENESEX.

Daily Xtra Online interviewed Mariela Castro.

In  closing…

…the past treatment of LGBT people in Cuba is disturbing. I don’t defend it but am pleased at least that things are now improving. Prejudice remains as was evident in the videos, but it is now being fought by the leadership the same as they continue the fight against racism and discrimination against women.

The Cuban Revolution didn’t settle all questions and create an instant perfect society. The revolution is a process as people fight to improve society and transform themselves in the process. Prejudices going back centuries can’t be extinguished in just a generation, or indeed several generations. Clearly we haven’t done it here. But Cuba has an advantage over our capitalist society. Profit has been eliminated — and with it a built-in motive to divide working people against each other by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other basis.

Read the entire post at Fidel Castro & the Cuban Revolution.

Return to the post, Cuba’s Odd ‘Dictatorship’