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Cuba and homosexuality

Change apparent in still photos and motion pictures

Lavender & red, part 102

Published Jun 24, 2007 10:17 PM

Two years into the AIDS epidemic and on the eve of the overturning of the Soviet Union—Cuba’s primary trading partner—and the East European bloc of workers’ states, the Cuban Revolution continued to make great gains in the battle against old, obstinate prejudice against same-sex love.

Qualitative developments of great import took place in Cuba in the late 1980s.

Leonardo Hechavarría and Marcel Hatch wrote that in 1987, the police were “forbidden to harass people because of appearance or clothing, largely benefiting gays.”

A year later, another important change in Cuban law occurred. Pre-revolutionary legislation against “flaunting homosexuality” in public was rescinded. That edict had threatened feminine males and masculine females of all sexualities since its imposition under U.S. neo-colonial rule in the 1930s.

Punishment for homosexual acts had already been formally removed from Cuban law back in 1979—almost a quarter of a century before the U.S. decriminalized same-sex love.

Research scholars Lourdes Arguelles and B. Ruby Rich noted, though, that the 1979 legal code “failed to legalize manifestations of homosexual behavior in the public sphere and left intact anti-gay laws dating to the Cuban Social Defense Code of 1939.”

Arguelles and Rich, summarizing their research in Cuba in the mid-1980s, made a very important point about the difference between private and public spheres in a society building socialism that might not be readily apparent to anyone living in a capitalist system.

They explained, “As delineated in a Latin American socialist setting, private space is far wider than in the United States, encompassing virtually all behavior outside the purview of official sanction or attention, while approved policy, published texts, and official stances compose the public sphere.”

They added that “within the private sphere, there are a clear latitude and range of possibilities for lesbians and gay men that surprise the critical observer.”

Canadian activist Ian Lumsden quoted a gay émigré living in Toronto, who stated with regard to gay men that “homosexuals in Cuba find it much easier to be open and free about conveying sexual desire in the street than they would in Canada.” (“Cuba and Homosexuality”)

However, in 1988 Cuba took another major step by striking down the imperialist-era “Public Ostentation Law” against “public scandal” or “extravagance.”

Revolutionary leadership, mass participation

Cuban society was not changing in some automatic, unconscious way. These developments—which are both a reflection of the growth of consciousness and an effort to raise wider, deeper consciousness—are the result of revolutionary leadership, with widespread popular discussion and debate.

Two years before the old law was rescinded, in 1986, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party had initiated a popular campaign, “not simply to rectify errors committed in the last 10 years,” the Cuban president emphasized, “or errors committed throughout the history of the revolution. Rectification is finding the way to resolve errors that are hundreds of years old.” (“Alert on Before Night Falls,” Jon Hillson)

That same year, Cuba’s National Commission on Sex Education stated that homosexuality is a sexual orientation and announced the goal of countering homophobia with education. (From the film “Gay Cuba”)

In 1988, Fidel Castro spoke out publicly about the need to change negative attitudes in society and in the party about homosexuality.

At the 1992 congress of the Union of Young Communists, Cuban revolutionary leader Vilma Espín, president of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), challenged prejudicial ideas presented by a psychologist. Sonia de Vries, director of the film “Gay Cuba,” reported that Espín stated that what needed changing was prejudice, not gay and lesbian sexuality. (Cuba Update)

That same year, Fidel Castro stated in an interview: “I am absolutely opposed to any form of repression, contempt, scorn or discrimination with regard to homosexuals. [It is] a natural human tendency that must simply be respected.”

These qualitative changes in Cuba, like still photographs, capture the peaks of progress.

The release of three films in the 1990s—”Strawberry and Chocolate,” “Gay Cuba” and “Butterflies on the Scaffold”—offered a panoramic moving picture of the sweep of progress resulting from decades of the process of building socialism despite the imperialist military, economic and political blockade.

From the balcony to the screen

When Havana was ruled by U.S. crime bosses and bankers, capitalism made room in the market for homosexual acts, forced to serve the fantasies of those who could afford the cost in dollars and pesos. Often the patricians who paid for sex despised those whom they exploited—hating them for their class, their race, their sex and/or their gender expression and for witnessing the cruelty, self-hatred, guilt and shame in the customers’ desires.

So there were lots of homosexual acts taking place in Havana—the biggest U.S. brothel industry in the Caribbean. But off the clock there was not much social room for two men or two women of any gender expression to meet and get to know each other, to freely follow same-sex attraction and exploration, or to fall in love and/or live together as couples or in other formations.

Many men found each other in the darkened theaters of old Cuban cinemas like the Campoamor, Rialto and Verdún. One older Cuban homosexual recalled, “[Y]ou could go and immediately pick up a young guy. Many had their first experience there. There was a lot of sex in those cinemas.” (Lumsden)

The culture of Cuba changed with social ownership of the means of production on the island—the land, mines, factories and other major arteries of economic life.

The Cuban Revolution did not, and could not, wave a magic wand and instantly transform the social content of culture. But it quickly transformed the economic underpinnings of culture. Like everything else that is collectively produced on the island, culture began to be produced to meet the social needs of the many, not just packaged for individual consumption for the few.

Lumsden, who published his views on Cuba in 1996, reported the ways in which he saw culture being made available to everyone in Cuba. “This is evident in the low prices and range of theater, dance and music that are available on stage or in open spaces like the Parque Central in Old Havana. It is evident in the quantity and quality of translated foreign and domestic books that have been published at low prices in huge editions. Finally it is evident in events such as the annual film festival (New Latin American Cinema), which has an impact as great as Toronto’s Festival.” (Temple University Press)

Lumsden observed: “When you attend a cultural event in Havana you come away as impressed by the informed and critical engagement of the audience as you are by the innovative quality of the performance itself. This involvement is far removed from the commodified nature of so many mainstream cultural events in North America.”

This is the Cuban audience that flocked to the state-sponsored release of the 1993 blockbuster movie “Strawberry and Chocolate.” The film, about an attempt at friendship and understanding between a young heterosexual communist and a homosexual, brought same-sex love out of the cinema balconies, where shame and guilt lurked in the shadows, and onto the silver screen of Cuban culture.

Over the next two years, two important documentaries followed—“Gay Cuba” in 1994 and “Butterflies on the Scaffold” in 1995.

All told, these movies offer a view of the influence of revolutionary process on popular culture, as well as the influence of popular culture on revolutionary development. The films are themselves part of that dialectical struggle, which itself takes place within the battle against the roar of ruling imperialist ideology, broadcast at every turn by its entertainment, media and education industries.

Next: “Strawberry and Chocolate,” sweet taste of change.

To find out more about Cuba, read parts 86-101 of Lavender & Red at workers.org.

E-mail: lfeinberg.org