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1990s: Cuba education about same-sex love reached every home

Lavender & red, part 106

Published Jul 19, 2007 8:19 AM

The revolutionary Cuban government, since the 1990s, has waged a struggle against deep-rooted old prejudice about same-sex love in virtually every cultural venue.

In 1998 a national television program opened a mass discussion about lesbians and gays to immense audience interest. The topic was discussed in communities for weeks afterwards. (Leonardo Hechavarría and Marcel Hatch)

Librarian Larry R. Oberg wrote on his observations of homosexuality and culture in Cuba. “Between March 2000 and April 2002, I spent more than four months in Cuba on four separate occasions, working as a librarian on a range of research projects with my Cuban colleagues. Most of that time was spent in Havana, but also in numerous other cities, including Matanzas, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba. As a gay man, I was motivated to find out as much as I could about the status of Cuba’s gay and lesbian population.”

Oberg referred to the cross-dressing, cross-gender performances in the neighborhood of La Güinera, on the outskirts of the capital. “Many of these drag shows are sponsored by the local CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution),” Olberg reported, “and play to large and wildly enthusiastic audiences. (If you’re wondering, the performers were great!)”

Oberg stressed, “One of the most striking things about Cuba is the vitality of its cultural and intellectual life throughout the island, particularly in Havana. Gay themes are prevalent in the theatre, in lectures, and in concerts.

“In December, 2000, I attended a play entitled ‘Muerte en el Bosque’ (A Death in the Woods), produced by the Teatro Sótano in Havana ‘s Vedado neighborhood. Based upon the acclaimed novel ‘Máscaras’ (Masks), by Leonardo Padura Fuentes, the play follows a police investigation into the murder of a Havana drag queen, a plot device that allows for an examination of Cuban attitudes and prejudices towards gays at every level of society.” (www.cubanlibrariessolidaritygroup.org.uk)

Oberg concluded, “A striking contradiction in Cuban society today is the contrast between the rich cultural and intellectual life that is widely available and easily affordable, and salaries that make the purchase of a pair of shoes an event for which one must plan.”

He noted that Cubans could buy theater tickets for the equivalent of about a nickel, first-run movies for about a dime, theatrical plays for less than 50 cents, and musical extravaganzas and ballet festival performances for half a buck.

The U.S. blockade of Cuba, aimed at strangling the economy, makes it harder to buy a pair of shoes, let alone build socialism, which requires material abundance and often imported materials.

Wall Street hopes that economic deprivation will turn up the pressure cooker on internal relations, making it easier to wear down and overturn the revolution that took the Cuban economy, labor, land and resources off its list of neocolonial “assets.”

But the revolutionary government has continued to move forward on every front possible to generate consciousness, including about same-sex love.

“While in Cuba, I spoke with scores of gays, mostly men, and encountered none who said that their government was persecuting them,” Oberg stated. He reiterated that no one with whom he spoke “reported active or systematic repression by the state.” (“The Status of Gays in Cuba: Myth and Reality,” March 20, 2006)

Art and consciousness

AIDS prevention is only possible with widespread safer-sex information and a thoroughgoing struggle against sexual prejudices that allow the disease to spread in the silence of shame, guilt and fear. Revolutionary Cuban leadership brought the battle against AIDS and sexual prejudices—including bigoted attitudes about bisexuality—to the small screen of popular television, as well as the big screens of culture.

Last year the 115-chapter television series “La Cara Oculta de la Luna” (The Hidden Face of the Moon), had virtually all of Cuba buzzing with debate.

“La Cara” deals with AIDS, youth sexuality, bisexuality and other social issues. The series began with the story of a 14-year-old girl who contracted AIDS during her first sexual experience.

As of November 2005, 5,422 Cubans were HIV-positive or had full-blown AIDS.

“La Cara,” wrote author Freddy Domínguez Díaz, was “a series on human behavior, on people’s attitude of life, on everyone’s responsibility for themselves and everybody else.” (Interview, Juventud Rebelde, Oct. 9, 2006; walterlippmann.com)

The series borrows from the popular style of television novellas—soap operas.

Marlon Brito López, a screenwriter and director, critiqued the television novella “as a member of the audience and media expert.” He wrote, “The main goals were well defined: a warning of the dangers of this pandemic disease, present also in our territory, which can infect people in any group, race or creed; and a reflection on the elimination of prejudice linked to HIV-AIDS and sex in our society, particularly within the family.”

Brito López stated, “I believe art is so ambiguous and abstract it has a latent effect on our consciousness, mainly when it reflects with honesty and talent the society one lives in. This is precisely what ‘The Hidden Face of the Moon’ is achieving.”

He continued, “AIDS statistics in the world increased alarmingly and in our country; despite the excellent professional project and public health plan to prevent infectious diseases, media campaigns on the HIV-AIDS subject had shown little efficacy. It is here where we artists must step in. Concerts and songs by Buena Fe [Cuban musical group], or documentaries by my colleague Belkys Vega and others, were not enough to reach our homes at prime time with an artistically effective language, with affection and respect.”

Bringing education to every home

“La Cara” series director Rafael “Cheíto” González explained, “When we deal with present-day stories, we try to be as close to reality as possible. Everywhere in the world there are soaps for entertainment. We try to discuss the social problems we have and therefore we deal with topics such as these. I believe it is valid to face them with all seriousness. In this soap there are some parallel stories aimed only at entertaining the audience, but we cannot overlook the problems we have, and these must be tackled with courage.

“What better way to do it than through a TV soap watched by the whole country? Information on HIV is offered in TV spots, there is also a specific TV program on AIDS, but these are not seen by everybody. The soap, on the other hand, is watched in every home.” (La Jiribilla #260, April 28, 2006)

Cheíto noted, “We did a lot of research to pull out all the stops, as popular speech has it, in approaching AIDS as a topic, that is, seriously and with all due respect, since we can’t beat about the bush if we want to send an effective message.” (Interview, Juventud Rebelde, Oct. 9, 2006; walterlippmann.com)

Magda González, a television director who now directs the Dramatizations Division for Cuban TV, also stressed, “When we decided to take on this theme in this slot, we were convinced that it would provoke all sorts of reactions. They’re not themes that we usually deal with in a dramatized form, even though over the past three years they have been dealt with in a direct and open way by other programs like ‘Let’s Talk about Health’ [a weekly program focusing on health matters] and ‘It’s Worthwhile’ [a weekly program in which a leading psychologist discusses letter writers’ problems].”

But as the AIDS epidemic continued, “and because we consider we have a socially responsible role to play to put television in the front line of the Battle of Ideas, we decided that the dramatic format was an ideal way to disseminate messages using the emotions and the viewer’s identification with the human dramas. When writing the script and producing the tele-serial we called upon experts from the Center for Sexual Education and the National HIV-AIDS Prevention Center as advisers and we believe it mirrors realistically aspects of our society.

“The second theme incorporates a new element in teledramas,” she continued, “the treatment of sexual relations between men either as homosexuals or bisexuals. Public reaction is divided. Some are indignant that the theme is shown on screen, others applaud the initiative, and still others say that these themes have to be aired but not in this way.

“That the first exists is only natural in people whose sexual attitudes were formed by a Hispanic culture, heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, where sex is a sin and homosexuality a crime. Hopefully the telenovela will help them understand that to respect, recognize and tolerate different lifestyles doesn’t turn them into accomplices of what they believe to be evil, but that it makes them followers of the concept given to us by our Comandante when he says that ‘The Revolution is about equality and full liberty, it’s about being treated by everybody else as human beings.’” (La Jiribilla #260, April 29-May 5, 2006)

This is revolutionary process

No one, of any sexuality, was of one mind in Cuba about “La Cara.” However, those who brought the series to television screens did not shy away from the debate. On the contrary, widespread public debate with leadership was the whole point, and it has been eminently successful.

The Cuban health care system Web site “Infomed” garnered viewpoints about the television novella. So did Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX). E-zine La Jiribilla devoted an entire issue to the topic.

Journalist Ricardo Ronquillo concluded, “It would be worrying if we thought of ourselves as a wholly agreeing society with neither competing arguments nor opposing positions in face of its most intimate conflicts; or even worse, that silence prevailed.”

La Jornada correspondent Gerardo Arreola wrote, “This discussion has become the most relevant signs of public impact on the matter since the motion picture ‘Fresa y Chocolate’ (‘Strawberry and Chocolate’) shook sectors of Cuban society in 1993 with its statement against intolerance through the story of a homosexual character.” (May 8, 2006, walterlippmann.com)

The Miami Herald, an unlikely source for any supportive news about Cuba, reported in November 2006, “Now, as the show draws to an end, Cuban gays and lesbians say the show is symbolic of the communist island’s government and people becoming more accepting towards them.” (Advocate.com, Nov. 8, 2006)

It is this process of popular education with leadership, in which consciousness is raised through mass participation, discussion and debate, that is the revolution and the “unfettered thought” it liberates—not overnight, but with ongoing labor, without which nothing is produced.

CENESEX continues to be at the forefront of that important work, including backing the television novella that sparked such controversy.

Next: Mariela Espín Castro talks about work still to be done in Cuba.

To find out more about Cuba, read parts 86-105 of Lavender & Red at workers.org.

E-mail: [email protected]