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Homosexuality & transgender in Cuba

1965 UMAP brigades: What they were, what they were not

Lavender & red, part 92

Published Mar 4, 2007 9:15 PM

One of the worst slanders against the Cuban Revolution is that the workers’ state was a “penal colony,” interning gay men in “concentration camps” in 1965. That charge, which refers to the 1965 mobilization of Units to Aid Military Production (UMAP), still circulates today as good coin.

Therefore the formation and ending of the UMAP work brigades in the history of the Cuban workers’ state is vitally important for today’s activists to study very carefully and thoroughly. Those who are working the hardest to make a revolution in the heartland of imperialism will pay the most careful attention, and bring the most genuine solidarity and humility—teachability—to this important analysis.

For those worldwide who struggle against oppression based on sexuality, gender and sex, the sharpening of this sexual/gender/sex contradiction in Cuba in 1965 offers this critical lesson: The way sexuality and the sexes are socially organized, and gender is socially assigned and allowed to be expressed, always has a history.

Since the overturning of matrilineal, cooperative societies, strict organization based on race, sex, gender expression and sexuality has served the dictates of ruling-class economic organization, and has been under the knuckles of state regulation and repression.

Pre-revolutionary Cuba was no exception.

Spain exports Inquisition

Without understanding Cuba’s historical process, it’s impossible to understand its revolutionary process.

Researcher Ian Lumsden noted in his study on Cuba and homosexuality, “There is much speculation about the incidence of homosexual activity between Cuba’s [I]ndigenous people, as there is with respect to other parts of the New World. Whatever its true extent, it was used as a pretext for Spain to enslave [N]atives on the grounds that they were not fully human.”

He explained that, “Condemnation of sodomy and subsequently of homosexuality, along with repressive mystification of women’s sexuality, have long been at the core of Spanish Catholic dogmas regarding sexuality.” Only crimes against the king and heresy ranked higher as crimes than “sodomy” in the Middle Ages.

Lumsden added, “There was competition between the Inquisition and the secular courts about who should have authority to exorcise it from the body politic.”

Sentences ranged from castration to being burned alive.

The domestic Spanish crusade against “sodomy,” he explained, was driven by the ruling class’ “desire to expunge Moorish cultural influence from Spain, which they associated, among other things, with homosexual and cross-dressing behavior.”

Pivotal impact of slavery

Lumsden paraphrased, “As Julio Le Riverend, Cuba’s leading economic historian, reminds us, the development of Cuba, particularly since the 18th century, cannot be understood without recognizing the pivotal impact of slavery as a mode of production on all social relations, including domestic ones. Homosexuality among slaves occurred in a context—that is, a country whose dominant culture was both racist and homophobic.”

The system of plantation slavery—both chattel and latifundia—created rural enslavement in which the masters on the island, and the masters across the Florida Straits, claimed to own the bodies and lives and labor of enslaved workers.

The patriarchal slave-masters, landowners and their overseers dictated the clothing enslaved workers could wear; where they could live and in what arrangements; when the sexes could meet; where, when and how they could have sex; if they could marry and, if so, who they could marry.

Of the more than 40,000 Asian laborers counted in the 1871 Cuban census, for example, only 66 were women and the law forbade Chinese males from marrying African-Cubans.

Enslaved African males outnumbered females by a ratio of almost two to one. Males were often housed together in isolated regions in single-sex barracones—plantation barracks—in which no women were allowed.

In his oral narrative, former enslaved African laborer Esteban Montejo told Miguel Barnet about men coupling with other men in everyday life in the barracones. And he offered a glimpse at how they were gendered in relation to each other. Montejo only refers to the partner who looks after a marido (husband) as what the Spanish would term “sodomite.”

Montejo said it was only “after slavery that that word afeminado appeared.”

Centralization and commodification

Capitalism and imperialism did not invent homosexuality or gender variance in Cuba; these market forces centralized, commodified and commercialized them.

Rural poverty made capitalist relations—the often empty promise of jobs—a magnet that drew hundreds of thousands of [email protected] from the impoverished countryside to the cities, in particular the capital Havana, in search of wage work.

“During this period of severe sexual repression in advanced capitalist nations,” researchers Lourdes Arguelles and B. Ruby Rich explained, “homosexual desire was often channeled into illegal and lucrative offshore markets like the Havana underworld.” (“Hidden From History”)

The crime syndicates and wealthy Cubans with ties to the Batista dictatorship gave “preferential hiring” to Cuban homosexuals, many of them feminine and/or cross-dressing males, to serve the demand of the dollar, and those whose wallets were filled with them.

“Other buyers of homosexual desire,” Arguelles and Rich elaborated, “were the fathers and sons of the Cuban bourgeoisie, who felt free to partake of homoerotic practices without being considered homosexual as long as they did not take the passive, so-called female role in sexual relations. Yet another common practice for Cuban heterosexual men was the procurement of a lesbian prostitute’s favors for a night.”

Poverty drew many heterosexual Cuban men “into this underworld or alternatively into a homosexual underground dominated by the Cuban homosexual bourgeoisie,” the two researchers added. The bourgeois Cuban male homosexual of this era sought out masculine men from the laboring class.

“Thus,” Arguelles and Rich observed, “in many ways, pre-revolutionary homosexual liaisons in themselves fostered sexual colonialism and exploitation.”

Overall, the pre-revolutionary state regulated this sex-for-profit industry, rather than repress it.

Fidel: ‘We were forced to mobilize’

Shutting down the exploitative, unproductive economic industries in Havana after seizure of state power was just one task. Building a planned, productive economy that could meet the needs of 9 million urban and rural workers was a whole other job—and a difficult one, at that.

“Let me tell you about the problems we had,” Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro recalled. “In those first years we were forced to mobilize the whole nation because of the risks we were facing, which included that of an attack by the United States: the dirty war, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Missile Crisis.”

Fidel Castro—referred to as “Fidel” by supporters of the Revolution and “Castro” by enemies—talked extensively about the UMAP in two interviews. The first was in a published conversation with Tomás Borge, published in “Face to Face with Fidel Castro” (Ocean Press: 1992). The second was in conversations between 2003 and 2005 with Ignacio Ramonet, published by the Cuban Council of State in April 2006.

Recalling the period of 1965, Fidel outlined three obstacles in organizing this island-wide emergency mobilization to defend the Revolution and to build the economy.

The first two: The CIA was beaming messages to entice skilled workers and technicians to emigrate. And members of Catholic, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventist religious organizations would not take up arms in defense of the island.

“[A]t the triumph of the Revolution,” Fidel explained, “the stage we are speaking of, the male chauvinist element was very much present, together with widespread opposition to having homosexuals in military units.”

Fidel said that as a result, “Homosexuals were not drafted at first, but then all that became a sort of irritation factor, an argument some people used to lash out at homosexuals even more.

“Taking those three categories into account we founded the so-called Military Units to Support Production (UMAP) where we sent people from the said three categories: those whose educational level was insufficient; those who refused to serve out of religious convictions; or homosexuals who were physically fit. Those were the facts; that’s what happened.

“Those units were set up all throughout the country for purposes of work, mainly to assist agriculture. That is, homosexuals were not the only ones affected, though many of them certainly were, not all of them, just those who were called to do mandatory service in the ranks, since it was an obligation and everyone was participating.”

Sexual, gender contradictions sharpened

Revolutionary re-organization in Cuba in 1965, staring down the barrel of imperialism’s cannons, had to reintegrate a numerically large homosexual/transgender population from the cities back into the rural agricultural production.

This returning workforce from the capitalist urban center had to go back to the rural agricultural production that many had left earlier in their lives.

When large numbers of feminine homosexuals returned to the countryside from Havana, it was not just a conflict of differently socialized sexual expression, but a collision between historically differently gendered workforces.

Capitalist relations had consolidated and commercialized the industry which had given mass expression to this sexuality and gender expression in males, and shaped these as commodities on the auction block of the market.

The urban homosexuality/transgender culture, dress, mores and social semaphores seemed to many Cubans—even men who had sex with men and women who had sex with women—to have washed up on the island’s shores on the waves of oppressive and exploitative capitalist and imperialist cultures.

Arguelles and Rich stressed that at the time of the revolution, “Erotic loyalty (and, in the case of women, subservience) to the opposite sex was assumed as normal even by homosexuals. Hence, for many Cubans of this era, homosexuality was a mere addendum to customary marital roles. Among others, it was just a profitable commodification of sexual fantasy. For the vast majority, homosexuality made life a shameful and guilt-ridden experience.”

Fidel stresses that the UMAP “were not internment units, nor were they punishment units; on the contrary, it was about morale, to give them a chance to work and help the country in those difficult circumstances. Besides, there were many who for religious reasons had the chance to help their homeland in another way by serving not in combat units but in work units.”

Fidel cut cane; children worked in the fields. Renowned Cubans such as musician and poet Pablo Milanés and Baptist pastor and MP Raúl Suárez worked in the UMAP.

The whole island was at hard at work building an independent existence, in economic soil deeply furrowed by the combines of colonialism and imperialism.

Fidel shut down the UMAP

Fidel Castro stated categorically about the UMAP, “I can tell you for sure that there was prejudice against homosexuals.”

On the island, the Cuban National Union of Artists and Writers (UNEAC) reportedly protested treatment of homosexuals working in UMAP, prompting Fidel to check it out for himself.

A Cuban who worked in a UMAP, interviewed by Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal in 1970-1971, related that Fidel slipped into a UMAP brigade one night and lay down in one of the hammocks. The interviewee said: the UMAP guards would sometimes cut the hammock cords with their sabers. “When one guard raised his saber he found himself staring at Fidel; he almost dropped dead. Fidel is the man of the unexpected visits.” (“In Cuba”)

A youth described as a “young Marxist revolutionary” told Cardenal that 100 young males from the Communist Youth were sent to the UMAP to report back about how they were treated. “It was a highly secret operation. Not even their families knew of this plan. Afterward the boys told what had happened. And they put an end to the UMAP.”

Closing the UMAP required further large-scale reorganization of agricultural work, the lifeblood of the economy.

One youth concluded to Cardenal, “[W]e who were in the UMAP discovered that the Revolution and the UMAP were separable. And we said to ourselves: We won’t leave Cuba, we’ll stay and make what is bad not bad.” (Jon Hillson, blythe.org)

Fidel: ‘Overcoming legacy of chauvinism’

‘I am absolutely opposed to any form
of repression, contempt, scorn or
discrimination with regard to
homosexuals. It is a natural tendency
and human that must simply be
respected.’ —Fidel Castro, 1992

Fidel explained that during this period of early revolutionary history, “Concerning women, there was a strong prejudice, as strong as in the case of homosexuals. I’m not going to come up with excuses now, for I assume my share of the responsibility. I truly had other concepts regarding that issue.

“I am not going to deny that, at one point, male chauvinism also influenced our attitude toward homosexuality,” he said.

“We inherited male chauvinism and many other bad habits from the conquistadors. I would say that it corresponded to a given stage and is largely associated with that legacy of chauvinism.”

Fidel stressed, “Homosexuals were certainly discriminated against—more so in other countries—but it happened here too, and fortunately our people, who are far more cultured and learned now, have gradually left that prejudice behind.

“We have made a real advance—we can see it, especially in the young people, but we can’t say that sexual discrimination has been completely wiped out and we mustn’t lower our guard.”

Fidel said, “I must also tell you that there were—and there are—extremely outstanding personalities in the fields of culture and literature, famous names this country takes pride in, who were and still are homosexual.

“Today the people have acquired a general, rounded culture. I’m not going to say there is no male chauvinism, but now it’s not anywhere near the way it was back then, when that culture was so strong. With the passage of years and the growth of consciousness about all of this, we have gradually overcome problems and such prejudices have declined. But believe me, it was not easy.”

Fidel Castro concluded in 1992: “I am absolutely opposed to any form of repression, contempt, scorn or discrimination with regard to homosexuals. It is a natural tendency and human that must simply be respected.”

Next: Charge of “concentration camps” fascist-baited Cuban workers’ state.

Lavender & Red parts 1-91 can be read at workers.org. Look for the lavender and red logo. Parts 86-91 also explore sexuality, gender and sex in Cuba before and after the 1959 Revolution.

E-mail: [email protected]