Rainbow flag flies in Havana

[On May 16 the first-ever gay pride march took place in the Cuban capital, Havana. The Associated Press news agency reported that Mariela Castro, Cuban President Raul Castro’s daughter, an outspoken supporter of the Cuban Revolution and a gay rights advocate who directs Cuba’s government-funded Sex Education Centre, led the march. Hundreds of Cuban gays and their supporters formed a carnival-style conga line to draw attention to gay rights on the island. Events in Havana on the International Day Against Homophobia also included educational panels and presentations for books, magazines and CDs about gay rights and sexual diversity, AP reported.

[“We’re calling on the Cuban people to participate ... so that the revolution can be deeper and include all the needs of the human being”, said Mariela Castro. The following is an abridged version of a report of the march published on May 28 on the Upsidedownworld website by Marina Sitrin, a writer, lawyer and translator currently living in Havana. Sitrin is the editor of the 2006 book Horizonalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina and the soon to be published book Insurgent Democracies – Latin America’s New Powers.]

We are on a main city block early Saturday morning. People gathering are high spirited, almost giddy. As people begin to form a line I exhale deeply, imagining it is just one of many lines [for rationed goods] that are the Cuban reality. This line, however, is different. This line begins to shift, snake, jump and dance. This is a conga line. There are hundreds of us, perhaps even a thousand, and we are dancing in a conga line down one of the most central streets in Havana. And we are not just some random group of people, we are a group of lesbians, gay men, transvestites, transsexuals and bisexuals, along with heterosexual friends and sometimes even families, all gathering for the International Day Against Homophobia.

For over a week activities have been taking place throughout Havana, as well as in a few provinces in the country to educate about sexual diversity, and to celebrate it. While the events that have been taking place have the feeling of Gay Pride, they are also Cuba’s version, meaning it is organized for people, not by the people. But this is Cuba, a place where all passions cannot be, and are not, controlled from above. I felt the contradictions that are Cuba surface in a palpable way on the Saturday of the conga line. I saw some of the things I love most about this contradictory island, and some of the things I like least.

The main event Saturday began first thing in the morning. Despite the early hour, by 10am thousands were flowing in and out of the Pabellon Cuba, one of Havana’s main exhibition centers. It was an important and strategic decision to locate the main event in the Pabellon.

Its history goes back to the first years of the Revolution. It was built with the intention of being a central pavilion for art, music and politics. Since the early 1960s book fairs, art and artisan exhibits, concerts and musical performances, almost always free, have taken place here. It is an open air pavilion, where all can see and hear what is taking place. The Pabellon is located centrally on “la Rampa”, also known as 23rd Street.

The opening scene to Fresa y Chocolate [Strawberries and Chocolate], the award winning Cuban film directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio about gay oppression in Cuba [in the 1970s], takes place here. The screenplay writer for Fresa y Chocolate, Abel Paz, attended a number of the events for sexual diversity and against homophobia, along with many other well known Cuban artists, writers and performers. Events that took place predominantly at UNEAC, the artists and writers’ union, as well as a few cinemas located on la Rampa.

La Rampa is where the main event for the International Day Against Homophobia took place. This is tremendously important. The visibility of thousands of gay men, lesbian women and transvestites flowing in and out of the Pabellion and up and down la Rampa, all attending the events of the day, many dressed in a way that was openly gay, including some wearing or displaying rainbow flags, in many ways was a scene not dissimilar from any Gay Pride event around the globe.

It was not even a decade ago when young gay men would come and find one another outside one particular cinema on la Rampa, their dress not so flamboyant, people learning by word of mouth which theatre it was, and then continuing on to the late night roving roof top parties. Parties that were gay were always broken up by police under the pretext they were not legal. Over the years this scene has continued, and has become increasingly public, often on the Malecon, the famous [seafront] wall that runs the length of Havana.

While the harassment of gays and lesbians is nothing like what it was in Cuba’s past, it does still exist, from the formal harassment by police on the street, to discrimination in workplaces and at school, and that is to not even speak of the cultural and social taboo. These were the main topics people spoke out about in the open mic sessions it the Pabellon.

In all my years living in or visiting Cuba I have never seen such a display, and especially in such large numbers and in such an important public space. I have also never heard the central leadership of the state take on the question of sexual diversity with such seriousness. Not only is Mariela Castro speaking out and organizing, but [National Assembly] president Ricardo Alarcon said to [the] Prensa Latina [newsagency] the day after the main event, “the essence of socialism is the inclusion rather than exclusion of people for their sexual orientation or religion”. And further that, “the Cuban drive against homophobia shows [the] maturity and culture achieved by our society”.

In addition, the intervention in popular culture reflects a seriousness with which the state wants to reach people who are not already involved or thinking about these questions. There is a television ad for sexual diversity along the same lines as a poster and post card campaign, the slogan of which is, Dos iguales tambien hacen pareja (Two of the same also make a couple.) Does this mean complete [respect for] sexual diversity in Cuba? No. But does it mean the state is taking it more seriously and people are responding? Yes.