Unweaving the lies
Why many Cuban gay men and lesbians left after 1959
Lavender & red, part 90
Published Feb 17, 2007 7:47 AM
Significant numbers of Cuban homosexual males and females, including many who
were transgender, began leaving the island immediately after the July 26
Movement overthrew the hated U.S.-backed Batista regime in 1959. The U.S.
big-business media pointed their microphones at counter-revolutionary claims
that anti-gay terror drove them to flee.
This reactionary political propaganda was a cover for a dirty war by
imperialism to carry out “regime change” in Cuba. It also was aimed
at demoralizing the multinational, revolutionary wing of the young gay
liberation movement in the U.S.
This political and ideological campaign to paint Cuba as a cruel and oppressive
dictatorship was crafted by Cold War capitalists who were themselves carrying
out a ruthless domestic war against same-sex love and gender variance.
Before the Cuban Revolution, U.S. finance capital had installed two iron-fisted
dictatorships in order to grease the gears of exploitation: Gerardo Machado in
the late 1920s and Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s. For a cut of the profits,
these brutal regimes served the rule of U.S. sugar, nickel and citrus companies
and made it possible for the imperialists to own the banks, telephone and
electric systems and big retail stores.
U.S. crime bosses ran the lucrative large-scale sex industry and interconnected
casinos and drug distribution. Tens of thousands of Cuban women, men and
children of all sexualities served the desires of wealthy and powerful tourists
from the U.S. and on the island.
Cold War anti-gay and anti-trans purges and persecution in the U.S. created the
demand for an offshore prostitution network in Havana that exploited large
numbers of men and boys, the majority of them feminine, for profit.
The revolution that took state power on Jan. 1, 1959, shut down the sex
industry and casinos. The workers and peasants of Cuba faced a massive
task—restructuring their economy to meet the needs of all, which meant
creating jobs, land reform, food, clothing, housing, medical care, basic
literacy and higher education.
This work had to be done while imperialism tried to take away every tool
through economic strangulation, military encirclement and siege.
Seeking scientific understanding
Researchers Lourdes Arguelles and B. Ruby Rich made an important analytical
contribution in the mid-1980s to understanding why many Cuban homosexuals left
after the revolution—and why many stayed.
The two researchers took a scientific approach, accruing data through
historical analysis, survey, field and experiential methods. They interpreted
the results “within a theoretical framework drawn from lesbian-feminist
and critical gay scholarship and the politico-economic and phenomenological
study of Cuban social life.”
Between 1979 and 1984 Arguelles and Rich interviewed Cubans on the island and
émigrés in the United States, Spain, Mexico and Puerto Rico. The
report on the research, titled “Homosexuality, Homophobia, and
Revolution: Notes Toward an Understanding of the Cuban Lesbian and Gay Male
Experience,” was first published in the summer of 1984 in “Signs, A
Journal of Women in Culture and Society.”
The two researchers said their goals were to reveal the nature and dynamics of
the Cuban homosexual experience in order to put the questions of same-sex love
in Cuba, migration and resettlement in context.
They also sought to develop greater understanding of same-sex love in what were
at that time referred to as Third World countries and communities, and to
further develop theory “on the nature of the relationships between the
structures of sexuality and the corresponding structures of socialist
This is what they found.
Attempt to discredit the revolution
The role of economic incentive and individual ambition—powerful
stimulants for all migration from poorer to wealthier countries—was
seldom considered when it came to Cuban homosexual émigrés.
Arguelles and Rich wrote, “The more structuralist explanations for
international population movements, which stress the role of capital and of
capitalist states in organizing migratory flows from less developed to more
developed economies, have yet to be invoked in the interpretation of gay
migration from Cuba.”
Washington had passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1952, which
specifically mandated blocking entry or expelling “sexually
deviant” immigrants. But when it came to Cuban homosexuals, Arguelles and
Rich noted, “Then, as now, anticommunism won out.”
Wealthy homosexual male Cubans, who before the revolution had spent extensive
periods abroad, left the island for good. “Emigration began immediately.
The promoters and overlords of the Havana underworld along with large numbers
of their displaced workers (many of them homosexuals) headed for Miami. Many
lesbians who had liaisons with members of the bourgeoisie followed their male
protectorate to Miami, as did gay men who had worked for U.S. firms or had done
domestic work for the native bourgeoisie.”
The two researchers point out that Cuban “refugee” testimony became
“the main source for evaluation of Cuban gay life, despite knowledge of
the pressures on émigrés to testify to political persecution in their
country of origin in order to attain the legal and economic advantages of
refugee status in their new country.”
These narratives were then amplified as part of an imperialist propaganda
campaign calculated to neutralize “badly needed support for the Cuban
revolution among its natural allies,” Arguelles and Rich wrote. In
addition, the propaganda campaign “legitimated the presence in
traditionally liberation circles of some of the more reactionary elements
within the Cuban émigré population.”
They added that it obscured changing realities of gay life in Cuba as part of
the ongoing revolutionary process, made the historical inheritance of the
pre-revolutionary political economy and homophobia seem irrelevant, and helped
to disguise the oppression and exploitation of gay and lesbian Cubans living in
The campaign also distanced “gay activists in capitalist mainstream
culture from minority gays involved in the liberation movements of their
respective countries and national communities.”
And lastly, this scapegoating of Cuba “has made the growing number of
progressive gay émigrés who criticize but also support the revolution
into living contradictions: invisible to gay liberation forces but easy targets
for the homophobic anti-Castro army in exile.”
While many left the island, many others stayed.
Arguelles and Rich concluded, “Other homosexuals, especially those from
working-class backgrounds or students from petty-bourgeois families, worked to
integrate themselves into the revolution.”
They stressed, “For these homosexuals, class and class interests were
perceived as more elemental aspects of their identity than homosexual behavior.
And the revolution spoke to these interests and this identity.”
There was work for all, free health care, free education, affordable housing
and tremendous cultural growth.
Cuban lesbians, some of whom had played an important role in the
pre-revolutionary urban struggle, also benefited from the great gains being
made by and for women.
Next: Homosexuality, revolution and counter-revolution.
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