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Unweaving the lies

Why many Cuban gay men and lesbians left after 1959

Lavender & red, part 90

Published Feb 17, 2007 7:47 AM

Significant numbers of Cuban homosexual males and females, including many who were transgender, began leaving the island immediately after the July 26 Movement overthrew the hated U.S.-backed Batista regime in 1959. The U.S. big-business media pointed their microphones at counter-revolutionary claims that anti-gay terror drove them to flee.

This reactionary political propaganda was a cover for a dirty war by imperialism to carry out “regime change” in Cuba. It also was aimed at demoralizing the multinational, revolutionary wing of the young gay liberation movement in the U.S.

This political and ideological campaign to paint Cuba as a cruel and oppressive dictatorship was crafted by Cold War capitalists who were themselves carrying out a ruthless domestic war against same-sex love and gender variance.

Before the Cuban Revolution, U.S. finance capital had installed two iron-fisted dictatorships in order to grease the gears of exploitation: Gerardo Machado in the late 1920s and Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s. For a cut of the profits, these brutal regimes served the rule of U.S. sugar, nickel and citrus companies and made it possible for the imperialists to own the banks, telephone and electric systems and big retail stores.

U.S. crime bosses ran the lucrative large-scale sex industry and interconnected casinos and drug distribution. Tens of thousands of Cuban women, men and children of all sexualities served the desires of wealthy and powerful tourists from the U.S. and on the island.

Cold War anti-gay and anti-trans purges and persecution in the U.S. created the demand for an offshore prostitution network in Havana that exploited large numbers of men and boys, the majority of them feminine, for profit.

The revolution that took state power on Jan. 1, 1959, shut down the sex industry and casinos. The workers and peasants of Cuba faced a massive task—restructuring their economy to meet the needs of all, which meant creating jobs, land reform, food, clothing, housing, medical care, basic literacy and higher education.

This work had to be done while imperialism tried to take away every tool through economic strangulation, military encirclement and siege.

Seeking scientific understanding

Researchers Lourdes Arguelles and B. Ruby Rich made an important analytical contribution in the mid-1980s to understanding why many Cuban homosexuals left after the revolution—and why many stayed.

The two researchers took a scientific approach, accruing data through historical analysis, survey, field and experiential methods. They interpreted the results “within a theoretical framework drawn from lesbian-feminist and critical gay scholarship and the politico-economic and phenomenological study of Cuban social life.”

Between 1979 and 1984 Arguelles and Rich interviewed Cubans on the island and émigrés in the United States, Spain, Mexico and Puerto Rico. The report on the research, titled “Homosexuality, Homophobia, and Revolution: Notes Toward an Understanding of the Cuban Lesbian and Gay Male Experience,” was first published in the summer of 1984 in “Signs, A Journal of Women in Culture and Society.”

The two researchers said their goals were to reveal the nature and dynamics of the Cuban homosexual experience in order to put the questions of same-sex love in Cuba, migration and resettlement in context.

They also sought to develop greater understanding of same-sex love in what were at that time referred to as Third World countries and communities, and to further develop theory “on the nature of the relationships between the structures of sexuality and the corresponding structures of socialist organization.”

This is what they found.

Attempt to discredit the revolution

The role of economic incentive and individual ambition—powerful stimulants for all migration from poorer to wealthier countries—was seldom considered when it came to Cuban homosexual émigrés.

Arguelles and Rich wrote, “The more structuralist explanations for international population movements, which stress the role of capital and of capitalist states in organizing migratory flows from less developed to more developed economies, have yet to be invoked in the interpretation of gay migration from Cuba.”

Washington had passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1952, which specifically mandated blocking entry or expelling “sexually deviant” immigrants. But when it came to Cuban homosexuals, Arguelles and Rich noted, “Then, as now, anticommunism won out.”

Wealthy homosexual male Cubans, who before the revolution had spent extensive periods abroad, left the island for good. “Emigration began immediately. The promoters and overlords of the Havana underworld along with large numbers of their displaced workers (many of them homosexuals) headed for Miami. Many lesbians who had liaisons with members of the bourgeoisie followed their male protectorate to Miami, as did gay men who had worked for U.S. firms or had done domestic work for the native bourgeoisie.”

The two researchers point out that Cuban “refugee” testimony became “the main source for evaluation of Cuban gay life, despite knowledge of the pressures on émigrés to testify to political persecution in their country of origin in order to attain the legal and economic advantages of refugee status in their new country.”

These narratives were then amplified as part of an imperialist propaganda campaign calculated to neutralize “badly needed support for the Cuban revolution among its natural allies,” Arguelles and Rich wrote. In addition, the propaganda campaign “legitimated the presence in traditionally liberation circles of some of the more reactionary elements within the Cuban émigré population.”

They added that it obscured changing realities of gay life in Cuba as part of the ongoing revolutionary process, made the historical inheritance of the pre-revolutionary political economy and homophobia seem irrelevant, and helped to disguise the oppression and exploitation of gay and lesbian Cubans living in émigré enclaves.

The campaign also distanced “gay activists in capitalist mainstream culture from minority gays involved in the liberation movements of their respective countries and national communities.”

And lastly, this scapegoating of Cuba “has made the growing number of progressive gay émigrés who criticize but also support the revolution into living contradictions: invisible to gay liberation forces but easy targets for the homophobic anti-Castro army in exile.”

While many left the island, many others stayed.

Arguelles and Rich concluded, “Other homosexuals, especially those from working-class backgrounds or students from petty-bourgeois families, worked to integrate themselves into the revolution.”

They stressed, “For these homosexuals, class and class interests were perceived as more elemental aspects of their identity than homosexual behavior. And the revolution spoke to these interests and this identity.”

There was work for all, free health care, free education, affordable housing and tremendous cultural growth.

Cuban lesbians, some of whom had played an important role in the pre-revolutionary urban struggle, also benefited from the great gains being made by and for women.

Next: Homosexuality, revolution and counter-revolution.

E-mail: [email protected]