Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Out of the Closet, Onto the Big Screen

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Sep 16 2005 (IPS) - A government-sponsored HIV/AIDS prevention group and the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) joined forces to organise a groundbreaking event: the first ever gay cinema week in the history of Cuba.

“Sexual Diversity”, as the film series is called, ran Monday through Friday at he 23 y 12 movie theatre in downtown Havana. It has been welcomed as an unprecedented surprise by the local gay community, unaccustomed to having its own public spaces.

In an interview with IPS, the event was described as “a leap into the public sphere” by Raúl Regueiro, national coordinator of the “men who have sex with other men” (HSH) project, sponsored by the government-run National Centre for the Prevention of Sexually Transmitted Infections and HIV/AIDS.

An audience of some 300 people loudly applauded a special screening of The Crying Game, the 1992 UK film in which a heterosexual man falls in love with a beautiful “woman” trapped in a man’s body.

“We can come across stories with characters like these on the streets of our own city, and we do not expect these men to say ‘I am gay,’ just as we don’t expect transvestites or transsexuals to dress as men,” said Regueiro at the opening of the cinema week.

“We want everyone to feel happy with themselves and with the society that surrounds them, which in many cases is made up by us, homosexual men,” added Regueiro, a community health worker in the field of AIDS prevention for the last seven years.

“Feeling good about our sexuality will enhance our quality of life and put us in a better position to responsibly confront sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS,” he stressed.

The ultimate goal, said Regueiro, is to broaden the scope of the initiatives undertaken since the year 2000 to diminish the vulnerability of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual (GLBT) community and to promote greater social acceptance of sexual diversity.

The gay cinema week follows in the footsteps of the video screening and discussion sessions held twice monthly for the past five years and other similar activities organised in different provinces throughout the country.

The HSH project is part of a national AIDS education and prevention programme undertaken by the Cuban Ministry of Public Health, with the help of financing from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Taking part in the cinema week was a group of community health workers from the state-run National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), made up of transvestites and transsexuals trained to promote AIDS prevention efforts in their community.

While the audience was comprised mainly of gay men during the first few days of the week, the crowd became more diverse as of Wednesday, with the beginning of the screening of Angels in America, a TV miniseries by U.S. director Mike Nichols.

“Something like this would have been unimaginable a few years ago,” said Benigno García, a 50-year-old Havana resident who found out about the film week at the last minute from a female friend. “It seems that human common sense has finally triumphed,” he added, while lamenting the dearth of advance publicity for the event.

García was carrying the pamphlets, condoms and lubricants he was handed upon entering the theatre by a group of health care workers from the HSH project.

A nearby poster features a photograph of a father and son, with a caption reading: “He’s not exactly like you, but that doesn’t make him different. Judging your son for his sexual preferences keeps you from seeing the amazing person you’ve raised. Understanding him and accepting him is up to you.”

Experts believe that the need to prevent HIV/AIDS in the male population, which has been hardest hit by the epidemic in Cuba, has forced the country’s authorities to adopt a more open stance on the issue of sexual diversity.

As of Apr. 26, a total of 6,288 cases of HIV/AIDS had been reported in Cuba, out of a population of 11.2 million. Of the total number of people infected, 5,034 were men, and of these, 86 percent had had sexual relations with other men.

There are four men for every one woman living with HIV/AIDS in Cuba, according to official statistics.

Although there is no Cuban legislation penalising homosexual relations, since a reform of the country’s Penal Code in 1997, homophobia is a deeply rooted sentiment in the traditionally “machista” culture of Cuba.

Nevertheless, current attitudes reflect a vast improvement over the 1960s, when many gay men were rounded up and subjected to forced labour in the so-called Military Units to Support Production (UMAP).

The UMAP programme, which lasted barely a year, was followed by the establishment of strict “parameters” that excluded many homosexuals from the education and cultural sectors because of the “bad example” they set for younger generations.

For several decades, gays and lesbians were banned from membership in the ruling Communist Party and from certain university programmes and job positions, because their sexual preference made them “untrustworthy”.

The first timid changes began in the late 1980s, and continued throughout the 1990s. In the opinion of Mariela Castro, the director of CENESEX – and the niece of President Fidel Castro – Cuba is currently living “a highly opportune moment” for promoting understanding of sexual diversity.

“Unbelievable” was the adjective used to describe the gay cinema week by a homosexual audience member, who recalled the premiere over 10 years ago of Strawberry and Chocolate, the Oscar-nominated Cuban film about the close friendship formed between a gay man and a young heterosexual communist.

“When people stood up to applaud at the end of the movie, you felt like you were experiencing a major social change, and in the end, everything stayed the same as before. Hopefully that won’t happen again, and this will actually be the beginning of a whole process,” he remarked.

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