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1970s Cuba:

Sex education campaign battled old prejudices

Lavender & red, part 97

Published May 11, 2007 8:49 PM

Eva Bjorklund wrote in Swedish-Cuba magazine in 2000: “In 1977, the Center for Sexual Education (CNES) was founded on the initiative of the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC) and their seminars and publications encouraged a more enlightened outlook on homosexuality and started to undermine traditional prejudices and taboos. The work done by this center has contributed to changes in attitudes and laws, and the credit for the fact that the AIDS problem has not been handled with a homophobic outlook is largely attributed to this endeavor.” (Quarterly publication of the Swedish-Cuban Association)

Bjorklund noted: “Before the Center for Sexual Education (CNES) started its work, sexual education was a practically unknown phenomenon in Cuba, as in the rest of Latin America, where the stand and the attitude of the Catholic Church has continued to curb any attempted change. In this light, Cuba’s sexual education is groundbreaking.”

Cuban women led the way forward.

Dr. Celestino Álvarez Lajonchere, then-director of the National Institute of Sex Education in Havana, recalled in a December 1986 interview: “In 1974, the Federation of Cuban Women has already insisted that sex education had to be done. They had been working on this since the early 1960s.” (International Journal of Health Services, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1988)

The interview with Álvarez—known on the island as “Tino”—was conducted with Elizabeth Fee, Joan Furman-Seaborg and Ross Conner. Margaret Gilpin arranged the interview and did the translation.

In the interview, Álvarez stressed: “The First Party Congress reviewed all of the things that the Federation has asked for and converted them into a political directive. This is the only country in the world where the people who have suffered from the consequences of ignorance, principally women and young people, did not have to spend one minute to convince the highest levels of leadership of the country that something had to be done. On the contrary, the political leadership was always worried that they weren’t doing enough of what the women expected them to do. I am convinced that that doesn’t happen in any other country in the world. I think that’s important—very important.”

Álvarez continued: “The First Party Congress of 1975 agreed on the declaration of the complete and absolute equality of women. The elaboration of that declaration included the need to organize a system of sex education. They needed a plan to create, for example, illustrated texts, and educational materials for the population. The National Assembly of People’s Power then created a permanent commission. Within that commission they created a working group, the National Institute of Sex Education. The structure is very important. I don’t think that in any country in the world, including the socialist world, does this kind of structure exist, except here.”

He added, “With this kind of task, to create a national plan, you can’t leave it in the hands of one person or a group of people or to one organization; it has to be done throughout the entire society.”

One of the first suggestions the Ministry of Education made was to begin elementary sex education from the earliest years. But Cuba was still trying to build enough schools and train enough teachers to meet the educational needs of the population. Alvarez said his youngest child’s teachers at that time in secondary school in the countryside were just two or three years older than their students.

“It was difficult for the Ministry of Education under these circumstances,” he stated, “to assume responsibility for a national program in sex education.

“The first task was to prepare some texts on the subject, because there weren’t any.”

Ground-breaking first publication

Álvarez explained, “We decided to make a selection from the most highly developed socialist country in this area, East Germany, and we selected the books that we thought would best cover our needs.”

The first ground-breaking publication in Cuba was Sigfried Schnabl’s “The Intimate Life of Males and Females” (El hombre y la mujer en la intimidad). The book had been published first in the German Democratic Republic—the East German workers’ state—in 1978.

Bjorklund wrote that Sigfried Schnabl’s book, which was “translated and edited in Cuba in 1979, clearly states that ‘homosexuals should be granted equal rights, respect and recognition, and that any kind of social discrimination is reprehensible.’ This book served as guidance for the work of CNES and at pedagogical colleges.”

In their article in the Summer 1980 Gay Insurgent, Stephen J. Risch and Randolph E. Wills noted, “In fact it was the Women’s Federation which saw the book as so important that it successfully lobbied for its publication considerably ahead of schedule (since there are limited resources for publishing books in Cuba, finished manuscripts must wait in line to be published).”

Álvarez remembers that the subject was so popular: “We sold it in a special way to try and guarantee that it would get into the hands of doctors, other health personnel and teachers. We sold it at about 5 pesos, but in addition, the buyer had to have a paper signed by me saying that he or she had the right to buy the book. Otherwise, the books would have disappeared from the bookstores within two hours.”

The law against same-sex love was removed the same year that the book was published in Cuba—almost a quarter century before the U.S. government followed suit under pressure from a mass lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans movement.

A subsequent publication, “Are You Beginning to Think about Love?” translated and edited in Cuba in 1981, “was more ambivalent,” wrote Bjorklund. “It was intended for a broad audience and argued that homosexuals have the same ability to function in society as other people, but that they can never be as happy as married people. Mónika Krause, a leading expert at CNES, admitted that this was a response to criticism against the first edition of Schnabl’s book, for being too positive towards homosexuality. A second edition of Schnabl’s book, intended to be printed in 250,000 copies, although delayed because of the economic crisis, however, persisted, stressing that sexual violation of minors has no causal relationship to sexual orientation, dismissing the theories of seduction into homosexuality, and emphasizing that since nobody is responsible for his or her sexual orientation, homosexuals must be just as respected as heterosexuals.”

Álvarez said the next step was a paperback entitled “When your child asks you” (Cuando tu hijo te pregunta), first printed in 1980. It was offered for public sale with a book aimed at sex education for children aged 9 to 12. “We did simple illustrations showing the process of reproduction. This was the best way to start trying to break the prejudices of the population,” he stated. “We were trying to tell parents that they didn’t have any alternative, they had to tell children about these things, because their kids were going to deal with them for better or for worse. It was up to the parents to answer their kids’ questions and they needed to know how to do that.”

A fourth publication, “Thinking about love?” (¿Piensas ya en el amor?), was designed for teenagers. Álvarez explained: “This book covers sexually transmitted diseases and discusses some of the emotional aspects of how children become adults and what adult relations are all about. It deals with some of the problems that have to do with being in love, and also talks about contraception.”

Yet another book was written for children from 3 to 7 years old, entitled “Mama, papa and me” (Mamá, papá, y yo). Álvarez said, “It was the only one that didn’t sell out immediately, the way all the rest of them did, and we think that’s a sign of some resistance to our work in the population.”

In 1981, the Cuban Ministry of Culture produced a publication titled “In Defense of Love” that stated homosexuality was a variant of human sexuality. Cuba-solidarity.org.uk concluded that the book “argued that homophobic bigotry was an unacceptable attitude inherited by the Revolution and that all sanctions against gays should be opposed.”

This ground-breaking work on sex education, in which Cuban women played such a leadership role, helped pave the road for a scientific and humane approach to the AIDS epidemic that put the imperialist countries to shame.

Next: Cuba prepared AIDS health care plan before the first diagnosis.

To read more about Cuba, read parts 86-96 of Lavender & Red at workers.org.

E-mail: lfeinberg@workers.org