The Blog

Being Gay in Cuba

Our children had different reaction to Obama's words on gay marriage. One child dryly commented "what took him so long?" Two children joined me in a victory dance.
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"There was a period when I became resentful of certain things and I began to question. When Gays were expelled from the University of Havana in 1965, I asked myself 'how could I have fought for equality for everyone, only to see that some people were not considered equal? Only to see that some people still are not equal?"
-Cuban Revolutionary in his 70s

It is important to me to get this story right. I assume that those who disagree with my openness will look to discredit my point of view by pointing out errors in factual details. I have included them to inform, but I do not want them to be a distraction. Ultimately, this blog is about my understanding of, and my reaction to being Gay in Cuba. Private, non-commercial, same-sex sexual relations between consenting adults have been legal in Cuba since 1979, a fact that fits perfectly into Cuba's long history of multiple revolutions. Rights come to all, but not necessarily all at the same time.

In the last week, both the President Of Cuba and the President of the United States have made powerful statements in support of Gay rights. Raul Castro, as shared by his daughter Mariela in the Associated Press has said "We cannot make progress if we continue to live with these prejudices." In January of this year, Cuba's Communist Party resolved to "fight against all forms of discrimination, including sexual discrimination, and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sexual identity."

Last Thursday before dinner our six children were gathered together to watch a segment of President Obamas interview with Robin Roberts in support of gay marriage. We wanted them to hear our president say "...over the course of several years ...when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, (who) feel constrained, ... because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married."

I am not quite sure what I expected their reactions to be, but this is what we got: two children who thought that because we live our lives so openly, Gay marriage was already supported by our president and government. One child who dryly commented "what took him so long?" Two children joined me in a victory dance (one old enough to know why we were celebrating and one who is so preternaturally joyful that she danced just because.) I have no doubt that she will dance this dance with abandon once she truly comes to understand its significance. One wanted dinner: pasta with butter, no sauce, bread with butter, strawberries. I mention them all because I fully believe that our children bring lessons. What could be learned from these reactions?

While boarding our flight to Cuba, my wife and I had a conversation with a trip organizer about our safety as Lesbians while in Cuba. While it had been on our minds for many weeks (we often must consider issues of safety when we leave our comfortable Bethesda surroundings) it was our first time bringing it up with the organizers. One told us that she had made it a point to research being Gay in Cuba and that if we displayed overt signs of affection, we cold be arrested. Another had heard no such thing and responded in jest. My understanding of safety for Gay people in Cuba, prior to traveling there was somewhere in the middle. I had researched life for Gay people in Cuba and had anecdotal information about the possible reality, repression, catholic disapproval, Catholic disapproval, misunderstanding, down-low behavior, and awareness without celebration. Like a recreation of 1970s NYC: many entertainers and artists living an openly gay life within an isolated community, but without acceptance or affirmation from the mainstream. I had no idea what we might be walking into, why we were choosing to do so and to what extent I would keep my commitment to always being openly all of who I am. Throughout our 8 years of marriage we have had to enter the "no touch, neutral pronoun twilight zone" to protect and or provide for our family on occasion. I expected Cuba might mean the same as we took our seats on the flight.

As mentioned in a previous blog, I find the beauty of socialist humanism that it not only operates as a political theory, but also as practiced in Cuba, includes a process to allow people to incorporate its ideals. Even if one does not agree with the success of the Cuban revolution, it is hard to deny the impact and depth of an entire reality built around socialist humanism principles. While the conservative view of homosexuality was palpable in Cuba, the citizen's commitment to equality, the respect for the human spirit, the flattening of hierarchical structures was evident in the large numbers of Gay men that I witnessed throughout Havana.

I would love to say that I witnessed the lives of Gay Cuban women, but I did not. I watched the Gay Cuba documentary by Sonja de Vries and listened to the music of Las Krudas in preparation, yet my singular experience with an "openly" Gay woman in Cuba was in the restroom of the Casa de Musica Havana. A prostitute hit on my wife in a bathroom stall. It was not the meeting of the minds that I had imagined. I challenged her with all of the urban, worldly, Spanish language bravado that I could muster, which quickly deteriorated into the most base of English language expressions. She matched me word for word and then burst out of the stall (all 5'2" of her to my 5'10"). Suddenly, face-to-face I think we were so happy to know of each other that big smiles broke out on both of our faces. I think that what I saw in her eyes was an appreciation for my chutzpah in claiming my partner. I think she loved that in my high heels, long dress and make up; I did not fit her concept of Lesbian. I think she saw something of herself in me and celebrated with a kindred pink spirit. She took one last long look at my wife and threw out the perfect parting gift. She called her "Papacita", a feminized version of a pointedly male term; a window into a world we were not really allowed to see. Like border crossers around the world, a new language had evolved. I loved the significance and possibility of this. Will we one day get to meet these invisible Cuban Lesbians?

Nights later our hosts took us to Tropicana. It is the Bette Midler, I Love Lucy, Americana fantasy of Cuban nightlife. It was all of Vegas wrapped up into one jaw-dropping extravaganza! I sat there transfixed not by the lights, musicians, costumes or dance artistry. I was mesmerized by the obviously Gay, Transgender and externally female identified males leaping, dashing, charging and at one point flying, all over the place. Finally an opportunity to exhale as people adored, appreciated, admired and celebrated Gay people. Many there may not have noticed the tucked genitalia, hormone induced facial changes or drag-style make up to create the illusions of femininity, but I did. And I was proud, confused and worried.

Early on in discussions with Cuban scholars, it was clear that race and homosexuality had not been a part of the equality programming of the revolution. The stories that I heard ranged from dismissal and defense to disappointment in what the revolution had not been able to do for equality for gays. It reminded me of conversations in Omaha, Nebraska or Bridgeport, Connecticut. Most people were able to answer honestly about the lack of openness to gay people, but as they were answering they looked like they had just swallowed something too big, and that didn't taste good. How do the leaders in Cuba today struggle in trying to assess the success, level of impact, and life-changing reality of the revolution? Do they struggle with the Cuban reality of race and homosexuality that flies in the face of equality for all? Reforms to the Cuban penal code in '79, '88 and '97 show an evolving understanding, if not protection for Gays in Cuba. And at a recent parade for Gay rights in Havana, one supporter wore a t-shirt that read "Si somos iguales, porque la diferencia?" if we are the same, then why is there difference?

In 1965, six years after the revolution, Gays were rounded up and sent off to isolation work camps as part of UMAP. The documentary Improper Conduct by Nestor Alemendros and Ormando Jimenez Leal gives startling details about life for gays in these UMAP labor camps. In his autobiography My Life, Fidel Castro says that these camps were set up to protect more effeminate boys who would be unfit for military service in Angola and other places. This might have rung truer if the original group of Gay citizens were not sent off right after being dismissed from their jobs. Perhaps like in other instances, theory into practice was not universally applied. Many years later in 2010, Castro demonstrated what I think is the most significant element of the Cuban political personality: the ability to admit mistakes and the desire for course correction. He shared that his preoccupation with nation building came at the expense of ignoring more personal critical issues like rights for homosexuals, by then he had handed the presidency to his brother in so perhaps he felt his own personal freedom to share. What would a conversation about Gay rights between Obama and Fidel sound like today?

The universal free health care system in Cuba now covers sex reassignment surgery (Reuters, progreso weekly 2008) and the necessary hormone therapy required (no small financial commitment since these hormones must be taken for the rest of ones life and Cuban life expectancy is 78.8 years because of the quality of its free universal health system. In contradiction, conversations about gay rights still seemed to happen in whispered tones. When I casually referred to my "wife" to one of our Cuban guides, she blanched white, but then recovered her smile. I would like to learn so much more about what Mariela Castro who heads the National Center for Sex Education in Cuba (and is daughter of Raul Castro) has done and is going to do next to secure and sanction the rights of Gay people in Cuba. What is next in getting Cuba one-step closer to "all are equal"?

For the most part, being Gay in Cuba felt like most of my other Cuba experiences. It was so far removed from what I expected, that it took my breath away. One afternoon while visiting a Cuban artist, our host asked if my wife and I were sisters, having noticed our closeness (a question we get here in the US also in Omaha). I answered, "somos juntos", "We are together". I was alone in the conversation, the only one in our small group who spoke Spanish. No one else was aware that out on this compound out in the campo, away from the safety of our larger group, I had risked to reveal us. My wife, while keeping a careful eye on me, did not know what I had shared, but looked at me quizzically sensing the tension, it was palpable. Time stopped, I could hear the beating of bird feathers. Our host looked me straight in the eye and said, "somos tan feliz", "We are so happy."

One night we went dancing at the Hotel Nacional an incredible, archetypal, glorious, parastatal institution. Las Leyendas from the Buena Vista Social Club were in the house. I danced in my seat for 3 straight songs (pun intended) and then it was too much. Up, we were the first couple dancing, but we were soon joined by many others. We danced for a long time that night. I remember feeling noticed, but safe. It was a fantasy night: Cuban heat, a beautiful woman in my arms, incredibly soulful music. I believe Star Trek had a name for a special place where you can go away from your normal existence, where everything you dream comes to life. Cuba gave me that moment. I wonder when she will offer it to her own people. I look forward to being a part of that conversation.