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Colonial period in Cuba

Bodies shackled and repressed

Lavender & red, part 88

Published Feb 4, 2007 9:25 PM

Colonialism, and later imperialism, brought anti-homosexual and anti-trans laws and state repression to Cuba. The deep bite of the knotted lash of oppressor ideology backed it up.

For over 300 years, Spanish colonialism shackled the laboring population of Cuba, literally claiming ownership of the lives, labor and bodies of millions.

The enslaved toilers were from the Indigenous peoples of the island, decimated by the colonialist forces that washed up on their shores, and also African peoples—survivors of mass kidnappings from their homelands and of the Middle Passage holocaust.

Using Bibles as well as bullets, those who bled the labor of the enslaved class literally “laid down the law”—reshaping and regulating every aspect of life for the enslaved class, including economic structure, kinship recognition, marriage, organization of the sexes, sexuality and gender expression.

Colonial terror, under the banner of religious law, enforced the brutal remodeling of economic and social life among peoples from diverse societies that the colonialists, and later imperialists, sought to conquer and exploit.

The following historical footnote underscores the importance the colonial occupiers placed on eradicating the “pecado nefando”—the “nefarious sin” of same-sex love and/or gender/sex variance.

In order to petition Havana’s town council in 1597 for his freedom, an enslaved man argued that he had “rendered a valuable service by discovering and denouncing those who had committed the ‘pecado nefando.’” (Alejandro de la Fuente, Law and History Review)

Santería was one form of resistance to colonial cultural imperialism. It used the trappings of Roman Catholicism to shelter African religious beliefs and rituals—which make room for very different sex/gender expression.

Havana: cross-dressing labor leader arrested

In the mid-1600s, the Spanish Captain General who ruled over the rural and urban enslaved population sentenced 20 “effeminate sodomites” to be burned to death.

Others were exiled to Cayo Cruz, a small island in Havana Bay, which was thereafter referred to in Spanish by an anti-gay slur.

Historian Amara Das Wilhelm added, “Similar disparaging attitudes toward homosexuals were expressed in a 1791 Havana newspaper article entitled ‘A Critical Letter About the Man-Woman,’ which condemned the effeminate sodomites that apparently thrived in eighteenth-century Havana.” (The Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association online)

U.S. imperialism militarily occupied Cuba for four years, beginning in 1898. From 1902 until the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Wall Street ruled by establishing dictatorships to squeeze the island’s economy in its fist, restructuring Cuba for exploitation as a giant sugar plantation.

Laws against same-sex love and gender variance and state repression continued to be used as a cudgel for economic, social and political control.

Luisa Capetillo

Cross-dressing Puerto Rican labor organizer Luisa Capetillo was arrested in Havana in July 1915 for wearing men’s clothing.

Capetillo was a single mother, a revolutionary, and a much-loved and respected labor organizer.

After supporting the 1905 farm workers’ strike in the northern region of Puerto Rico, she became a reader in a tobacco plant, an industry whose workers were among the most politically conscious. She also spoke in public about the needs of working women, including the right to sex education. She strongly believed that sexuality was not the business of the church or the state.

As a full-time labor organizer after 1912, Capetillo traveled extensively, particularly to Havana, Tampa and New York because they were hubs of the tobacco workers’ movement.

In Cuba, Capetillo actively supported a sugar cane workers’ strike organized by the Anarchist Federation of Cuba.

The Cuban government tried unsuccessfully to deport her as an agitator.

Then it focused on her wearing of a “man’s” suit, tie and fedora in public to charge her with “causing a scandal.”

Capetillo fought the charge, arguing in court that no law prevented her from wearing men’s garb, and that such clothing was appropriate for the changing role of women in society, and that she had worn similar clothing in the streets of Puerto Rico and Mexico without state intervention.

Capetillo won her court battle—the judge ordered the charges dropped. News of her victory spread in articles in all the major newspapers in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Historian Aurora Levins Morales concluded, “The incident received massive press coverage, and Capetillo used it as an opportunity to attack conventional morality, with its rigid sex roles, and women’s imprisonment within it.”

In 1938, the Cuban Penal Code—the “Public Ostentation Law”—was enacted. This law mandated state penalties for “habitual homosexual acts,” public displays of same-sex affection and/or gender-variant dress and self-expression.

Next: Gambling, narcotics, prostitution industries in pre-revolutionary Cuba.

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