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CHALLENGES 2005-2006: No Turning Back on Gay Rights in Cuba

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Dec 27 2005 (IPS) - As hundreds of same-sex couples in Britain – including singer-songwriter Elton John and Canadian-born filmmaker David Furnish, his partner of 12 years – are taking advantage of a new law that allows them to enter into civil partnerships with the same rights as heterosexual marriages, gays and lesbians in Cuba are still struggling to achieve a bare minimum of social acceptance.

The British “gay wedding” boom has erupted more than two years after César Cigliutti and Marcelo Suntheim of Argentina became the first same-sex couple joined in a civil union in Latin America, after the passage of legislation that provides for this right exclusively in the city of Buenos Aires.

Gay and lesbian organisations around the world are fighting for the legalisation of same-sex marriage and other rights like the ability to adopt children, but in Cuba there is still no such thing as gay bars or publications, or even official organisations of gays and lesbians that could fight for the same rights enjoyed by their counterparts in other countries.

Nevertheless, the issue of respect for sexual diversity has become increasingly visible in this socialist Caribbean island nation since the early 1990s, as part of a process that now seems to be irreversible.

“There are things in life that can only happen when the right conditions have been created, but once the path is cleared, there is no going back,” remarked Nelson Simón, a leading figure in modern Cuban homoerotic poetry, in an interview with IPS.

With several published volumes of poetry to his name, the 40-year-old Simón is one of the few Cuban intellectuals to openly profess his homosexuality.

“I am here as an artist and above all as a gay man,” he declared while moderating a discussion session at the Sexual Diversity Cinema Week held this past October in the western Cuban city of Pinar del Río, 140 km west of Havana.

The problem is not only a lack of public spaces. “There is no need to assume homosexuality from a group stance, since society has led us to believe that this is not necessary, and that to do so would be a means of self-marginalisation,” he commented. At the same time, he believes that Cubans are ready for a change in their view of sexual diversity.

“Although it continues to be a machista and ‘manly’ country with a very phallocentric culture, Cuban society accepts changes very easily, it is very mutable, very open and acts like a sponge when it comes to incorporating everything that comes along,” he added.

The reasons for this, he believes, include the high level of education among the population in general, the minimal influence of Catholicism, and the island’s geographic location, which has always made it an important gateway for movement between nations and regions and thus for cultural exchange.

This viewpoint is shared by historian Julio César González Pagés, chair of the Gender and Peace Committee of the non-governmental Cuban Movement for Peace and coordinator of the Masculinity Forum created in 2004.

“I’ve held workshops with the police, social workers, prisoners and university students, and the subject of homosexuality is uncomfortable at first, but not traumatic,” he told IPS.

González Pagés commented that these discussions largely centre on the lack of knowledge and information about homosexuality, but he has never encountered “outright rejection of individuals based on fanatical convictions about sexuality.”

There are still nine countries in the world where homosexual relations constitute a crime punishable by death, while the Catholic Church leadership and other conservative forces continue to fiercely oppose any progress towards the full recognition of the human rights of gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities.

Despite its strong Catholic tradition, Spain joined this year with the Netherlands, Belgium and Canada as the only countries to have fully legalised same-sex marriage until now, while countries like Germany, France and Switzerland, and now Britain, allow same-sex couples to enter into legally recognised civil unions or partnerships.

In Latin America, the Argentine Homosexual Community (CHA) submitted a bill to the Senate on Dec. 21 that would extend the rights granted by the Civil Union Law of the City of Buenos Aires to the entire country.

The world map of state homophobia drawn up in 2000 by the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) classifies Cuba as a country where homosexuality is “legal but repressed”.

Cuban gays and lesbians interviewed in an ongoing study largely concur that “the worst times are over” and that there is a general sense of greater tolerance, although perhaps not yet understanding, of homosexuality.

After the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959, the “worst times” are associated with the so-called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPs), forced labour camps in the countryside to which hundreds of homosexuals were sent in 1965 and 1966.

In the 1970s, artists and intellectuals suffered the impact of a process know as “parmetración” which established strict parameters to be fulfilled by all those involved in the development of Cuba’s upcoming generations.

Until the early 1980s, homosexuality was viewed as a form of deviation incompatible with the principles of the Cuban revolution and sufficient grounds for exclusion from university studies or job positions demanding high degrees of trust.

Changes in these views came about gradually, and coincided in part with the general opening in cultural policies that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and included a critical analysis of the “parametración” process.

The overwhelming box office success of the 1993 film Strawberry and Chocolate, co-directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (Titón) and Juan Carlos Tabío, marked a turning point by bringing the theme of homophobia into the sphere of the general public, although it was a subject that had been addressed to a growing extent in Cuban literature, theatre and visual arts for a number of years.

“Phenomena like that of Strawberry and Chocolate don’t happen overnight, they gradually arise. In fact, the story told by the movie was already a part of the past. It was set in the 1970s, and the reality faced by homosexuals in Cuba was no longer the same (when the movie was released),” commented Simón.

Over recent years, the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), a government agency, has been working to promote awareness and respect for sexual diversity, while the Ministry of Public Health promotes and finances programmes to prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the gay community.

An official Cuban delegation attended the 3rd Latin American ILGA Conference held in Chile in 2004, while in 2005, gay and lesbian film festivals were held in a number of Cuban cities, Pinar del Río hosted the first sexual diversity cultural festival, and CENESEX submitted a proposal for legislation on transsexual rights to the Cuban parliament.

Nevertheless, Strawberry and Chocolate has never been shown on Cuban television.

“There is still a great deal of fear. Homosexuality continues to be seen as a danger, as something highly contaminating,” and that influences the way it is treated on television and in the written press, remarked Simón.

Meanwhile, although an ever growing number of gays and lesbians publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation, they are fully aware of the established limits and the need to behave in accordance with a “restrained and respectful” model of homosexuality imposed by society.

“And those limits are not set by those of us in the minority; they are set by the majority, the machista, phallocentric and manly majority,” stressed Simón.

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