Cuban Revolution combats homophobia
By Hamish Chitts
Revolutionary Cuba is a leader in Latin America in the battle against homophobia and is taking steps to become a world leader. Since 1994 the age of consent for gay and lesbian sex in Cuba has been 16 years, the same as for heterosexual sex — unlike Australia. Since the 1980s Cubans have been able to access sex reassignment surgery (SRS) as part of Cuba’s free healthcare system. This program was temporarily halted when the combined effects of the US economic blockade and the loss of vital trading partners with the collapse of the Soviet Union forced the Cuban government to make severe economic cutbacks.
Since late 2008, SRS is once again freely available. The Cuban National Assembly is considering what would be among the most progressive gay and transsexual rights laws in Latin America. The legislation would recognise same-sex unions, along with inheritance rights. It would also allow Cubans to change the gender on their ID cards, with or without SRS.
In the first years of the revolution, this was not the case. The revolution received much condemnation (from friend and foe) for its official homophobia in its early days, when it was still deeply influenced by the homophobia of the dominant Catholic culture and the homophobic attitudes from the Stalinised Soviet Union.
After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by US-backed counter-revolutionaries in 1961, military training and defence measures increased. From 1965, Cubans who refused to be conscripted into the army were sent to austere Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) to carry out agricultural work instead. Openly gay men were not allowed to join the military and therefore were conscripted into UMAPs. Following protests to the government, as well as an undercover visit from Fidel Castro and a number of cadres from the Union of Young Communists (UJC), the camps were closed down in 1968.
Homosexuality was still illegal, and openly homosexual Cubans were thought to be “deviants” and a threat to the revolution. This meant homosexuals were considered unfit for work in roles with even modest responsibility. The first legal challenge to homophobia came in 1975, when the Cuban Supreme Court ruled against discrimination at work. The decision paved the way for changes in 1979, when homosexual acts and same-sex relationships were officially decriminalised. Despite this advance, it took another nine years before the offence of committing same-sex acts of affection was removed from the penal code. Toward the end of the 1980s literature with gay subject matter began to re-emerge.
At the 1992 UJC congress, discrimination based on sexuality was condemned, and in 1993 education workshops on homosexuality were run throughout Cuba to explain that homophobia is an unacceptable form of prejudice. The same year, then Cuban president Fidel Castro spoke out against homophobia, saying: “I do not consider homosexuality to be a phenomenon of degeneration … I consider it to be one of the natural aspects and tendencies of human beings … I am absolutely opposed to any form of repression, contempt, scorn or discrimination with regard to homosexuals.”
In 1994, the popular feature film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberries and Chocolate), produced by the government-run film industry, featuring a gay main character, portrayed the nation’s homophobia. Ian Lumsden, an associate professor of political science at Atkinson College, York University, Canada, and author of Machos Maricones & Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality, has extensively studied attitudes toward homosexuality in many Latin American countries. He has lived in Cuba and states that since 1986 there is “little evidence to support the contention that the persecution of homosexuals remains a matter of state policy”.
In 2006, Cuban television began running a serial soap opera titled La cara oscura del la luna (The Dark Side of the Moon) with story lines that focus on HIV infection and AIDS. Cuban gays describe a narrative in this soap opera capturing one character’s sexual awakening as a pivotal moment in overcoming Cuba’s long history of discrimination against homosexuals.
Carlos Sanchez, a representative of the International Lesbian and Gay Association for the Latin America and Caribbean Region, visited Cuba in 2004. He met with local lesbians and gays, and he reported that there are no legal sanctions against LGBTI people; “transformismo” (drag performance) was well accepted by the majority of the Cuban population; there was a change in the way people view homosexuality, but this did not mean the end of discrimination and homophobia. The population was just more tolerant.
Further, lesbians and gays did not consider fighting for the right to marriage, because that institution in Cuba does not have the same value that it has in some other countries. Unmarried and married people enjoy equal rights.
One of the factors that have helped change attitudes has been the government’s strong commitment to education, research and improvement. In 1972 it set up the National Working Group of Sex Education (GNTES). Composed of professionals of various ministries with a multidisciplinary approach, the group’s main mission was to create and implement the policy for a national program of sex education. Importantly, it was also tasked with research, counselling and education about issues surrounding sexuality. GNTES helped advise and advocate for gay, lesbian and transgender rights throughout the 1970s and ’80s. It set up municipal research, education and counselling services across Cuba and in 1989 became the National Centre of Sex Education (CENESEX).
CENESEX has been leading the campaign against homophobia. On May 17, 2008, it organised activities to mark the International Day Against Homophobia. Associated Press reported at the time, “Cuba’s gay community celebrated unprecedented openness — and high-ranking political alliances — with a government-backed campaign against homophobia on Saturday”. Mariela Castro, director of CENESEX and daughter of President Raul Castro, joined government leaders and hundreds of activists at a one-day conference that featured shows, lectures, panel discussions and book presentations. Mariela Castro told Associated Press, “This is a very important moment for us, the men and women of Cuba, because for the first time we can gather in this way and speak profoundly and with scientific basis about these topics”.
The president of Cuba’s national parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, told reporters at the conference that the government needs to do more to promote gay rights, but many Cubans still need to be convinced. The previous night, during prime time, Cuban state television ran the US film Brokeback Mountain, the story of two gay cowboys.
Gay pride march
On May 16 last year Cuba’s first gay pride parade was held, hundreds of Cubans, led by Mariela Castro, marching along Havana’s streets to begin a one-day conference similar to the one held a year earlier. After the march, she told Cuba News that the Communist Party had asked CENESEX to “intensify their educational work with the population”. She said the objective is “to have more people participating and collaborating with this process, which is significant for the revolution to go deeper and reach all the different needs of human beings”.
Despite this “revolution within the revolution”, there are still those who judge the revolution mainly by its failures and mistakes in the early days. This is understandable for those who suffered under these policies — all mistakes have their consequences. It is also to be expected from those who have an interest in isolating and demonising Cuba.
But there are also people in the socialist movement who refuse to acknowledge the shift that has taken place. It is common for members of Socialist Alternative and Solidarity, for example, to tell people the facts of Cuba’s homophobic past and falsely state (or imply by omission) that the Cuban state still sanctions the repression of LGBTI Cubans. It is one thing to learn the lessons of the past, but to deny the reality in Cuba today is irresponsible and dishonest.
The revolutionary socialist government of Cuba is leading the struggle for LGBTI rights. A socialist revolution does not solve all social and political problems overnight or even in decades, and it certainly cannot completely overcome them while the world is still dominated by capitalism. Part of advancing Cuba’s revolutionary process is bringing the majority of Cubans along with the revolution through education, research and debate. This process, led by the Cuban Communist Party, is breaking down phobias and benefiting LGBTI people.
Fidel Castro’s words in Havana on January 5, 1961, still have relevance. He said: “However, as there is no better teacher than the facts, it was necessary for the facts to teach us. It was necessary for the facts themselves to lead the people, the great mass of the people, to a better understanding of what a revolution is, to understand above all and first of all, that a revolution is not a bed of roses, a revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past.” For Cubans, the future is winning.