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Lavender & red, part 104
Published Jul 8, 2007 7:56 PM
Two Cuban-backed documentaries about changing attitudes on the island towards
same-sex love and gender variance—which in turn deepened that
change—opened in theaters on the island in the mid-1990s.
“Gay Cuba” (1996) was a project of Cuba’s Félix Varela
Center (CFV). Activist Sonia de Vries—raised in Amsterdam and now living
and organizing in Kentucky—wrote and directed the documentary, which
objectively struck a blow against the political blockade of Cuba by U.S.
“Gay Cuba” is a series of interviews—a radio host and a
singer/poet, an artist and a gay male elected union general secretary, a
transgender factory worker and a journalist, an HIV-positive doctor and an
interpreter, soldiers and teenaged law students—who offer personal
anecdotes and individual observations about attitudes towards same-sex love in
The interviews are interspersed with archival footage of the revolutionary
seizure of power. The sound track incorporates the music of world renowned
Cuban musicians Pablo Milanés
The Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC) hosted the pre-release screening of
the documentary in Havana in 1994. The same year, the FMC invited a group named
“U.S. Queers for Cuba” to visit the island. (Leonardo
Hechavarría and Marcel Hatch)
“‘Gay Cuba’ was shown at the Havana International Festival of
Latin American Cinema to public and critical acclaim,” wrote Larry R.
The documentary turned its cameras onto the audiences of “Strawberry and
Chocolate” (“Fresa y
Chocolate”), another film made with the help of the Cuban state.
“Gay Cuba” captured some of the enthusiastic responses of Cubans
who had just seen “Strawberry and Chocolate”—a 1993 film
about a heterosexual communist and a homosexual Cuban—at the Yara
“Fantastic!” a filmgoer who described himself as a heterosexual,
masculine male exclaimed. “If I could have a friend like that I
Jorge Perugorría, a lead actor in “Strawberry and Chocolate,”
said in this documentary, “‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ is the
story of an encounter ... between a communist militant and a homosexual, and
how their friendship develops out of this encounter. What happened with the
film is that it surpassed the cinematographic phenomena, and became a social
phenomenon. People had never before discussed homosexuality so much.”
Cuban journalist Gisela Arandia stressed in “Gay Cuba,” “For
people in other parts of the world, ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’
might be just another movie. For Cuba, it was an essential moment in our
society’s development, because never before had these topics been dealt
with in public.”
Measure of change
“Gay Cuba” was a weathervane that pointed in the direction of
prevailing winds of change in the revolutionary battle against the legacy of
centuries of colonialist and imperialist cultural domination.
The interviews offered a cross-section of consciousness.
“They’re people. One should treat them normally, but keep them
away,” one youth with her friends told the interviewer.
“They are part of our Cuban-ness, part of our people. We have to accept
them as such,” said an older man.
One young woman recalled going to a judgmental therapist about her attraction
to other women. “I stood up, but first told him that he was mediocre and
a bad psychologist and that I regretted being there. Then I stood up and
Another young woman remembered going to see a psychologist to try to change her
same-sex attraction. “At the end of the week, she told me, ‘Look,
love, I see that you are happy as you are. Don’t try to change.
It’s nothing out of this world. Nothing bad.’”
A cross-dressing factory worker explained, “Besides working here I am an
artist. I imitate Sarita Montiel. I’m a drag queen. Everyone calls me
‘Sarita.’ My relationship with the workers here in the factory is
wonderful. I’ve been here 12 years.”
One young Cuban said when she was in high school, she thought that she was not
accepted into the communist youth (UJC) group because there was discussion
about whether she was or was not a lesbian.
Another Cuban emphasized, “I’ve read the statutes of the UJC, and I
don’t remember reading any article that said that being homosexual is an
obstacle to being a member of the UJC. There are thousands of homosexuals in
the UJC, from the roots to the leadership.”
Lourdes Flores, from Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, stated in
her interview, “As a center we see homosexuality as a sexual orientation,
just like heterosexuality or bisexuality.” She added, “We have led
workshops on the topic of homosexuality; sexuality in general, homosexuality in
particular. The workshops are very interesting. For example, we have workshops
with teachers, doctors, the general population, community activists and
“Gay Cuba” showed viewers a transgender performance organized by a
neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR).
‘Break the blockade!’
The political views towards the Revolution of those who spoke on camera in
“Gay Cuba” largely could only be gleaned through their anecdotes.
The individual experiences narrated in this documentary were positive and
negative, in varying degrees.
Progress in Cuba is the measurable difference between the two.
It is painful to hear Llane Alexis Domínguez say onscreen that when his
father found out he was homosexual, “He actually said he’d like to
beat me to death!” In Cuba, however, men who have sex with men and women
who have sex with women are not being tortured and lashed to fences to die,
beaten to death, stabbed or shot or strangled, decapitated and
dismembered—all too frequent occurrences in the U.S.
A gay male Cuban worker sums up that in Cuba in 1994 what was largely left to
deal with were individual attitudes. “I don’t think that
Cuba’s situation is as critical for gay people as it is in other
countries,” he explained. “I have the opportunity to study and to
work here and no one can stop me. They might try to, but it’s that
individual, not the system itself.”
He called on the gay community in the U.S. to help break the blockade, which,
de Vries pointed out in her 1994 documentary commentary, “has cost the
Cuban economy over $40 billion since 1960; the resulting fuel shortages and
scarcity of food and medicine have impacted all Cubans.”
The documentary also provides historic footage of Cuban nova trova singer Pablo
Milanés singing his song “Original sin” at a 1994 public
concert in Havana. (“El Pecado Original” is available on
Milanés’s CD “Orígines.”)
Milanés—a Cuban who harvested in the UMAP brigades in the mid-1960s,
and who is beloved in Cuba—told the concert audience, “I dedicate
this song to homosexuals, to gay people, and to all those who are marginalized
and are suffering in the world.”
Milanés sang: “Two souls, two bodies, two men who love each other,
are being expelled from the paradise they live in. Neither of them is a warrior
with victories to boast of. Neither of them has riches, to calm the ire of
their judges. Neither is a president, neither is a censor of his own desires.
We are not god. Let’s not make the same mistakes again.”
Larry Olberg noted, “Introduced at his annual holiday concert held in the
vast Karl Marx Theater in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana, ‘El Pecado
Original’ took the audience and the country by storm and did much to
advance the cause of gay acceptance.” (cubasolidarity.com)
“Gay Cuba” includes footage documenting the position of gay
transgender Cubans at the head of the annual, massive May Day march in 1995,
which was joined by two lesbian and gay delegations invited from the U.S.
There’s also footage of a lesbian and gay Cuban contingent in the
José Martί procession.
At the close of “Gay Cuba,” radio host Anna Marίa Ramos
concluded, “We have been in 35 years of revolution, a revolution that by
no means has been static; that has made changes constantly. In every sense, we
are prepared for change. The roots of homophobia have not been driven so deep
into the soil of Cuban earth. They can be pulled out.”
Next: “Butterflies on the Scaffold”—creating room for
To find out more about Cuba, read parts 86-103 of Lavender & Red at
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