Homosexuality & transgender in Cuba
1965 UMAP brigades: What they were, what they were not
Lavender & red, part 92
Published Mar 4, 2007 9:15 PM
One of the worst slanders against the Cuban Revolution is that the
workers’ state was a “penal colony,” interning gay men in
“concentration camps” in 1965. That charge, which refers to the
1965 mobilization of Units to Aid Military Production (UMAP), still circulates
today as good coin.
Therefore the formation and ending of the UMAP work brigades in the history of
the Cuban workers’ state is vitally important for today’s activists
to study very carefully and thoroughly. Those who are working the hardest to
make a revolution in the heartland of imperialism will pay the most careful
attention, and bring the most genuine solidarity and
humility—teachability—to this important analysis.
For those worldwide who struggle against oppression based on sexuality, gender
and sex, the sharpening of this sexual/gender/sex contradiction in Cuba in 1965
offers this critical lesson: The way sexuality and the sexes are socially
organized, and gender is socially assigned and allowed to be expressed, always
has a history.
Since the overturning of matrilineal, cooperative societies, strict
organization based on race, sex, gender expression and sexuality has served the
dictates of ruling-class economic organization, and has been under the knuckles
of state regulation and repression.
Pre-revolutionary Cuba was no exception.
Spain exports Inquisition
Without understanding Cuba’s historical process, it’s impossible to
understand its revolutionary process.
Researcher Ian Lumsden noted in his study on Cuba and homosexuality,
“There is much speculation about the incidence of homosexual activity
between Cuba’s [I]ndigenous people, as there is with respect to other
parts of the New World. Whatever its true extent, it was used as a pretext for
Spain to enslave [N]atives on the grounds that they were not fully
He explained that, “Condemnation of sodomy and subsequently of
homosexuality, along with repressive mystification of women’s sexuality,
have long been at the core of Spanish Catholic dogmas regarding
sexuality.” Only crimes against the king and heresy ranked higher as
crimes than “sodomy” in the Middle Ages.
Lumsden added, “There was competition between the Inquisition and the
secular courts about who should have authority to exorcise it from the body
Sentences ranged from castration to being burned alive.
The domestic Spanish crusade against “sodomy,” he explained, was
driven by the ruling class’ “desire to expunge Moorish cultural
influence from Spain, which they associated, among other things, with
homosexual and cross-dressing behavior.”
Pivotal impact of slavery
Lumsden paraphrased, “As Julio Le Riverend, Cuba’s leading economic
historian, reminds us, the development of Cuba, particularly since the 18th
century, cannot be understood without recognizing the pivotal impact of slavery
as a mode of production on all social relations, including domestic ones.
Homosexuality among slaves occurred in a context—that is, a country whose
dominant culture was both racist and homophobic.”
The system of plantation slavery—both chattel and
latifundia—created rural enslavement in which the masters on the island,
and the masters across the Florida Straits, claimed to own the bodies and lives
and labor of enslaved workers.
The patriarchal slave-masters, landowners and their overseers dictated the
clothing enslaved workers could wear; where they could live and in what
arrangements; when the sexes could meet; where, when and how they could have
sex; if they could marry and, if so, who they could marry.
Of the more than 40,000 Asian laborers counted in the 1871 Cuban census, for
example, only 66 were women and the law forbade Chinese males from marrying
Enslaved African males outnumbered females by a ratio of almost two to one.
Males were often housed together in isolated regions in single-sex
barracones—plantation barracks—in which no women were
In his oral narrative, former enslaved African laborer Esteban Montejo told
Miguel Barnet about men coupling with other men in everyday life in the
barracones. And he offered a glimpse at how they were gendered in
relation to each other. Montejo only refers to the partner who looks after a
marido (husband) as what the Spanish would term “sodomite.”
Montejo said it was only “after slavery that that word afeminado
Centralization and commodification
Capitalism and imperialism did not invent homosexuality or gender variance in
Cuba; these market forces centralized, commodified and commercialized them.
Rural poverty made capitalist relations—the often empty promise of
jobs—a magnet that drew hundreds of thousands of campesin@s from the
impoverished countryside to the cities, in particular the capital Havana, in
search of wage work.
“During this period of severe sexual repression in advanced capitalist
nations,” researchers Lourdes Arguelles and B. Ruby Rich explained,
“homosexual desire was often channeled into illegal and lucrative
offshore markets like the Havana underworld.” (“Hidden From
The crime syndicates and wealthy Cubans with ties to the Batista dictatorship
gave “preferential hiring” to Cuban homosexuals, many of them
feminine and/or cross-dressing males, to serve the demand of the dollar, and
those whose wallets were filled with them.
“Other buyers of homosexual desire,” Arguelles and Rich elaborated,
“were the fathers and sons of the Cuban bourgeoisie, who felt free to
partake of homoerotic practices without being considered homosexual as long as
they did not take the passive, so-called female role in sexual relations. Yet
another common practice for Cuban heterosexual men was the procurement of a
lesbian prostitute’s favors for a night.”
Poverty drew many heterosexual Cuban men “into this underworld or
alternatively into a homosexual underground dominated by the Cuban homosexual
bourgeoisie,” the two researchers added. The bourgeois Cuban male
homosexual of this era sought out masculine men from the laboring class.
“Thus,” Arguelles and Rich observed, “in many ways,
pre-revolutionary homosexual liaisons in themselves fostered sexual colonialism
Overall, the pre-revolutionary state regulated this sex-for-profit industry,
rather than repress it.
Fidel: ‘We were forced to mobilize’
Shutting down the exploitative, unproductive economic industries in Havana
after seizure of state power was just one task. Building a planned, productive
economy that could meet the needs of 9 million urban and rural workers was a
whole other job—and a difficult one, at that.
“Let me tell you about the problems we had,” Cuban revolutionary
leader Fidel Castro recalled. “In those first years we were forced to
mobilize the whole nation because of the risks we were facing, which included
that of an attack by the United States: the dirty war, the Bay of Pigs
invasion, the Missile Crisis.”
Fidel Castro—referred to as “Fidel” by supporters of the
Revolution and “Castro” by enemies—talked extensively about
the UMAP in two interviews. The first was in a published conversation with
Tomás Borge, published in “Face to Face with Fidel Castro”
(Ocean Press: 1992). The second was in conversations between 2003 and 2005 with
Ignacio Ramonet, published by the Cuban Council of State in April 2006.
Recalling the period of 1965, Fidel outlined three obstacles in organizing this
island-wide emergency mobilization to defend the Revolution and to build the
The first two: The CIA was beaming messages to entice skilled workers and
technicians to emigrate. And members of Catholic, Jehovah’s Witnesses and
Seventh-Day Adventist religious organizations would not take up arms in defense
of the island.
“[A]t the triumph of the Revolution,” Fidel
explained, “the stage we are speaking of, the male
chauvinist element was very much present, together with
widespread opposition to having homosexuals in military
Fidel said that as a result, “Homosexuals were not drafted at first, but
then all that became a sort of irritation factor, an argument some people used
to lash out at homosexuals even more.
“Taking those three categories into account we founded the so-called
Military Units to Support Production (UMAP) where we sent people from the said
three categories: those whose educational level was insufficient; those who
refused to serve out of religious convictions; or homosexuals who were
physically fit. Those were the facts; that’s what happened.
“Those units were set up all throughout the country for purposes of work,
mainly to assist agriculture. That is, homosexuals were not the only ones
affected, though many of them certainly were, not all of them, just those who
were called to do mandatory service in the ranks, since it was an obligation
and everyone was participating.”
Sexual, gender contradictions sharpened
Revolutionary re-organization in Cuba in 1965, staring down the barrel of
imperialism’s cannons, had to reintegrate a numerically large
homosexual/transgender population from the cities back into the rural
This returning workforce from the capitalist urban center had to go back to the
rural agricultural production that many had left earlier in their lives.
When large numbers of feminine homosexuals returned to the countryside from
Havana, it was not just a conflict of differently socialized sexual expression,
but a collision between historically differently gendered workforces.
Capitalist relations had consolidated and commercialized the industry which had
given mass expression to this sexuality and gender expression in males, and
shaped these as commodities on the auction block of the market.
The urban homosexuality/transgender culture, dress, mores and social semaphores
seemed to many Cubans—even men who had sex with men and women who had sex
with women—to have washed up on the island’s shores on the waves of
oppressive and exploitative capitalist and imperialist cultures.
Arguelles and Rich stressed that at the time of the revolution, “Erotic
loyalty (and, in the case of women, subservience) to the opposite sex was
assumed as normal even by homosexuals. Hence, for many Cubans of this era,
homosexuality was a mere addendum to customary marital roles. Among others, it
was just a profitable commodification of sexual fantasy. For the vast majority,
homosexuality made life a shameful and guilt-ridden experience.”
Fidel stresses that the UMAP “were not internment units, nor were they
punishment units; on the contrary, it was about morale, to give them a chance
to work and help the country in those difficult circumstances. Besides, there
were many who for religious reasons had the chance to help their homeland in
another way by serving not in combat units but in work units.”
Fidel cut cane; children worked in the fields. Renowned Cubans such as musician
and poet Pablo Milanés and Baptist pastor and MP Raúl Suárez
worked in the UMAP.
The whole island was at hard at work building an independent existence, in
economic soil deeply furrowed by the combines of colonialism and
Fidel shut down the UMAP
Fidel Castro stated categorically about the UMAP, “I can tell you for
sure that there was prejudice against homosexuals.”
On the island, the Cuban National Union of Artists and Writers (UNEAC)
reportedly protested treatment of homosexuals working in UMAP, prompting Fidel
to check it out for himself.
A Cuban who worked in a UMAP, interviewed by Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal
in 1970-1971, related that Fidel slipped into a UMAP brigade one night and lay
down in one of the hammocks. The interviewee said: the UMAP guards would
sometimes cut the hammock cords with their sabers. “When one guard raised
his saber he found himself staring at Fidel; he almost dropped dead. Fidel is
the man of the unexpected visits.” (“In Cuba”)
A youth described as a “young Marxist revolutionary” told Cardenal
that 100 young males from the Communist Youth were sent to the UMAP to report
back about how they were treated. “It was a highly secret operation. Not
even their families knew of this plan. Afterward the boys told what had
happened. And they put an end to the UMAP.”
Closing the UMAP required further large-scale reorganization of agricultural
work, the lifeblood of the economy.
One youth concluded to Cardenal, “[W]e who were in the UMAP discovered
that the Revolution and the UMAP were separable. And we said to ourselves: We
won’t leave Cuba, we’ll stay and make what is bad not bad.”
(Jon Hillson, blythe.org)
Fidel: ‘Overcoming legacy of chauvinism’
‘I am absolutely opposed to any form
repression, contempt, scorn or
with regard to
homosexuals. It is
a natural tendency
and human that must
respected.’ —Fidel Castro, 1992
Fidel explained that during this period of early revolutionary history,
“Concerning women, there was a strong prejudice, as strong as in the case
of homosexuals. I’m not going to come up with excuses now, for I assume
my share of the responsibility. I truly had other concepts regarding that
“I am not going to deny that, at one point, male chauvinism also
influenced our attitude toward homosexuality,” he said.
“We inherited male chauvinism and many other bad habits from the
conquistadors. I would say that it corresponded to a given stage and is largely
associated with that legacy of chauvinism.”
Fidel stressed, “Homosexuals were certainly discriminated
against—more so in other countries—but it happened here too, and
fortunately our people, who are far more cultured and learned now, have
gradually left that prejudice behind.
“We have made a real advance—we can see it, especially in the young
people, but we can’t say that sexual discrimination has been completely
wiped out and we mustn’t lower our guard.”
Fidel said, “I must also tell you that there were—and there
are—extremely outstanding personalities in the fields of culture and
literature, famous names this country takes pride in, who were and still are
“Today the people have acquired a general, rounded culture.
I’m not going to say there is no male chauvinism, but now
it’s not anywhere near the way it was back then, when that
culture was so strong. With the passage of years and the growth
of consciousness about all of this, we have gradually overcome
problems and such prejudices have declined. But believe me, it
was not easy.”
Fidel Castro concluded in 1992: “I am absolutely opposed to any form of
repression, contempt, scorn or discrimination with regard to homosexuals. It is
a natural tendency and human that must simply be respected.”
Next: Charge of “concentration camps” fascist-baited Cuban
Lavender & Red parts 1-91 can be read at workers.org. Look for the
lavender and red logo. Parts 86-91 also explore sexuality, gender and sex in
Cuba before and after the 1959 Revolution.
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