•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

Homosexuality and Cuba

1970s: Decade of cultural progress

Lavender & red, part 94

Published Apr 22, 2007 11:05 PM

Those who today are working to seize state power and defend and build a workers’ state in their own countries may be sobered as well as heartened by the enormous cultural labor that the Cuban Revolution had to accomplish in the 1970s, particularly regarding liberation of women, sexuality and gendered social roles.

Lourdes Arguelles and B. Ruby Rich concluded in their 1984 study of Cuba that three events “marked the gradual but continual improvement of life conditions of gay men and lesbians in Cuba during the seventies: the First National Congress on Education and Culture, the promulgation of the Family Code, and the creation of a national group on sexual education.”

Arguelles and Rich explain that at the 1971 congress on education and culture, “On the one hand, homosexuality was not referred to as a product of decadence and homosexuality was no longer seen by the revolutionary leadership as a fundamental problem in Cuban society, but, rather, viewed as a form of sexual behavior requiring study.

“On the other hand, declarations from the same congress called for the removal of homosexuals from the field of education, thus continuing the view of homosexuality as a contamination of the body politic.”

The 1971 congress declaration demoralized some activists worldwide who had hoped that the seizure of state power in Cuba would usher in an immediate and thorough-going theoretical, social and economic transformation.

Some activists succumbed to fear that prejudice is a hard-wired human trait that can’t ever be eradicated from any human society, even a socialist one.

Anti-communists have also tried to use the 1971 congress document in attempts to discredit the revolutionary process altogether.

Both are ample reason to look more closely.

Roots of prejudice

Studying Cuba’s specific historical economic and social conditions opens up greater understanding about what generates prejudice against same-sex love and gender variance, and of racism, and opens up clarity about what kind of material changes are necessary to eventually uproot all forms of bigotry.

Prejudice—ideology that pits groups within the vast laboring and oppressed class worldwide against each other—is not the same as superstition. Superstitions are explanations concerning the material world that the scientific process later proves are untrue. Attempts to supplant that new, scientific understanding with old superstitions are consciously reactionary.

Prejudices, however, are rooted in the historical development of class-divided societies. They are a conscious ideological campaign to frustrate mass unity among the laboring masses of millennia. These lies, minted like gold, only profited emperors and kings, landowners and barons.

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,” observed Karl Marx, “i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

Colonialism and imperialism didn’t just bring reactionary ideas. The patriarchal ruling-class ideologies they enforced served to buttress their structures of enslavement of Cuba, as elsewhere.

Spanish colonialism brought Inquisition terror to its edicts against same-sex love in Cuba, and its church imbued this sexuality with shame and guilt.

Imperialism swiftly centralized and shaped what became a numerically huge new urban homosexual/transgender subculture, mostly male, within the larger culture(s) in Cuba for the sole purpose of sexual exploitation for profit. Tens of thousands of Cuban women and girls, including many enslaved in “domestic” jobs, were ruthlessly sexually exploited, as well.

So it is not difficult to understand why homosexuality, coupled with gender variance, would seem to be a product of “bourgeois decadence” in Cuba. And it’s not hard to understand why many Cubans believed that homosexuality and gender varience would go away with the shutting down of these non-productive, exploitative industries.

But the 1971 Cultural Congress marked the moving away from that assumption.

Changing ideas

Revolution is not a single act, it’s a process. The revolution created the basis for social and economic transformation that has been profound and is ongoing, a particularly remarkable achievement carried out under almost half a century of imperialist siege.

The first tasks of the revolution in Cuba were to organize to provide jobs, food, shelter, health care and education for the entire population and to defend the new revolutionary state against imperialist attack.

At the same time, the 1959 Cuban Revolution faced the odious task of cleaning out the Augean stables filled with 450 years of rotting, stinking oppressor culture excreted by Spanish colonialism and U.S. imperialism. And the U.S. tried to take away every shovel that the Cubans needed to do that work.

While deep divisions based on bigotry help facilitate and maintain colonial and imperialist economic rule, every form of ideological prejudice—white supremacy, male supremacy and anti-homosexual bigotry—break up the unity required to collectively build a socialist economy.

The 1971 congress declaration pointed out that, “For the bourgeoisie, the elimination of the cultural elements of its class and system represents the elimination of culture as such.

“For the working class and people in general, the culture born of the revolutionary struggle is the conquest and development of the most valuable of humanity’s cultural heritage which the exploiters kept from them for centuries.”

The 1971 congress declaration stressed that “[T]he changes in the field of sexual relations stem from society itself as it progresses in the social, cultural and economic fields and continues to acquire an ideology that is more consistently revolutionary.”

Fidel: ‘tangible and practical successes’

Looking back from the vantage point of 1992, Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro told Tomás Borge, a priest and founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, “We inherited male chauvinism and many other bad habits from the conquistadors. That was an historical inheritance. In some countries more than in others, but in none was there more struggle than in ours and I believe that in none have there been more tangible and practical successes.” (“A Grain of Corn,” Ocean Press)

Fidel Castro recalled, in a series of interviews between 2003 and 2005, “[W]e had to work very hard to do away with racial prejudice here. Concerning women, there was strong prejudice, as strong as in the case of homosexuals. (“One Hundred Hours with Fidel,” by Ignacio Ramonet)

Castro had told Borge, “There was, for example, one standard for judging the personal conduct of a man and another for a woman. We had this situation for years in the party and I led fights and argued a lot about this. If there was infidelity in a marriage on behalf of the man, there was no problem, no worry, on the other hand it was a subject of discussion in the party units when there was infidelity on the part of the woman. There was one way of judging sexual relations of men and another of women. I had to fight hard, against deeply rooted tendencies that were not the product of any sermon or doctrine, or education, but the male chauvinist concepts and prejudices that exist in the heart of our society.”

Castro added, “I am not going to deny that, at one point, male chauvinism also influenced our attitudes towards homosexuality.”

He explained to Ramonet, “There was less prejudice against homosexuals in the most cultured and educated sectors, but that prejudice was very strong in sectors of low educational level—the illiteracy rate was around 30 percent those years—and among the nearly-illiterate, and even among many professionals. That was a real fact in our society.” (“One Hundred Hours with Fidel”)

One of the first actions of the revolution in 1960—the Year of Education—was to organize volunteers to teach 700,000 adults to read. Cuba rapidly reached the highest literacy rate in Latin America.

Fidel Castro, who is an atheist, metaphorically answered the idealist concept of change with a scientific materialist view in an interview with a Galician television station in Spain in 1988. He talked about how the cultural mass process of the Revolution deepened understanding about same-sex love.

“God needed seven days to make the world,” he said, “you must understand that to remake this world, to destroy a world like that which we had here and to make a new one, there wasn’t much light, and at first there was a lot of darkness, and a lot of confusion about a series of problems. Our society, our party, our government now have ideas that are clearer, wiser and more intelligent about many of these problems. Given that we can make mistakes, we obsessively follow the idea that what is just, right and best for the people, and what is the most humane for our people and our society. However, the task is not easy. I think that each time we get closer to the right criteria for making the world we want.”

Revolution: ‘school of unfettered thought’

Fidel Castro said in a now-famous 1962 talk that the “Revolution must be a school of unfettered thought.”

The intellectual and cultural dynamism of the Cuban Revolution, which combined communist leadership with mass participation, is evident in the trajectory of progress in the 1970s made concerning women and same-sex love.

The Cuban leaders continued to organize mass forums for discussion and debate that empowered changes concerning sexuality, sex and gendered social roles.

Two years after the 1971 congress declaration that no homosexual should officially represent the country, it was overruled by a Cuban court. (Leonardo Hechavarría and Marcel Hatch)

In 1975, the limits on employment of homosexuals in the arts and education were overturned by the Cuban Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of gay artists who were petitioning for compensation and reinstatement in their workplace. (cuba-solidarity.org.uk)

That same year, a revolutionary Family Code was adopted that called for equal participation by men in child-raising and household work.

Also in 1975, a new Ministry of Culture was established, as well as a commission to study homosexuality.

That commission helped pave the road for the formal decriminalization of same-sex love.

But U.S. imperialism, which had economically exploited the homosexual/transgender population of Cuba before the revolution, continued to exploit them politically.

Next: Imperialism, homosexuals and the 1979 Mariel boatlift.

E-mail: [email protected]