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CUBA: Soap Opera Spotlights Sexual Diversity

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, May 16 2006 (IPS) - “La cara oculta de la luna” (The Dark Side of the Moon) – the latest soap opera to be beamed into thousands of Cuban homes – will forever be remembered as triggering unprecedented social debate on sexual diversity and homophobia in the country.

If the 1993 film “Fresa y Chocolate” (Strawberries and Chocolate) by duo Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío can be considered the first serious, in-depth treatment of homosexuality and intolerance in Cuban cinema, The Dark Side of the Moon is certainly the first to bring the issue right into people’s homes.

“Although tickets for movies are cheap in Cuba and widely accessible, nothing has a greater impact or reach than television,” historian Julio César González Pagés, president of the Gender and Peace Commission, a branch of the non-governmental organisation Cuban Movement for Peace and People’s Sovereignty, told IPS.

This debate takes on an even greater significance in a country where sexual diversity has been all but silenced by the media, including in the international news pages.

Historically, there has been no place in the Cuban press for news about international progress in civil rights for homosexuals, gay pride parades, or even a large gathering of social organisations on Cuban soil to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia.

The date for the event – May 17 – was established last year, in a nod to the World Health Organisation’s 1990 removal of homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. However, it has not yet been recognised by international organisations.

Setting aside any controversies about artistic budgets and character development, González Pagés said he values the ability of The Dark Side of the Moon to “spur public debate, which we have lacked for many years û even in the national press,” which is controlled by the State.

The intensity with which some people have defended their decision to “turn the television on or off” during the soap opera’s prime time slot “indicates that most people have taken sides,” said González Pagés, who is also coordinator of the academic Masculinity, Diversity and Peace Culture Forum established in 2004.

The controversial issue swung from one extreme to another in a society with only two options in that timeslot: soap operas or the national baseball series. While some believe The Dark Side of the Moon reinforces existing homosexual stereotypes, others are vehemently opposed to the media’s more open approach.

“It’s the first time, so they really didn’t have to go so far,” said a 36-year-old craftsman who will not let his 7-year-old son watch the evening show.

“Who could believe that story, where a macho man all of a sudden turns homosexual?” wondered an engineer, 41.

But for Armando Suárez, a 44-year-old doctor who spoke to IPS, the fictional story mirrors his own life. “It’s like I’m watching myself. I was living with a woman the day I had my first homosexual experience and, even though I left her, I never had the courage to tell her the truth. Some things are very difficult,” he said.

The national television network invited specialists to take part in a televised round table discussion and promised new forums to avoid “perpetuating the silence.” The on-line magazine La Jiribilla posted an in-depth article on the debate, the Cuban health web site established an e-mail address to which people could send comments and the National Sex Education Centre (Cenesex) published commentaries on its Sexual Diversity web site.

While studies show that levels of intolerance have been dropping since the early 1990s, Cuban gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transvestites and transsexuals complain that they have few social meeting spaces and are often treated poorly by law enforcement officers.

“You stop on a corner to chat with a group of friends and the police come and tell you that you can’t hang out there. As if we’re an eyesore. And then you go to another place without arguing, where you might also get asked to leave,” said a gay Cuban man who “didn’t want any trouble.”

Cenesex’s current projects include the launch of sexual-diversity courses for the police.

Although homosexual relationships are no longer against the law in Cuba, public gatherings of gays, bisexuals, lesbians, transvestites or transsexuals are often repressed or denied a space on the grounds that they might be “dangerous.”

Nevertheless, the current situation is significantly better than that of the early 1960s, when hundreds of homosexuals were rounded up and subjected to forced labour in the “Military Units to Support Production” (UMAP), along with religious devotees and members of other “antisocial” groups.

Throughout its history, UMAP established a set of “parameters” that banned a number of people with diverse sexual inclinations from the education and culture sectors. They were deemed to be “bad examples” for younger generations and, therefore, not fit to write, publish or act in a theatre.

González Pagés does not view “The Dark Side of the Moon” as single-handedly responsible for the shift in Cuban attitudes towards diversity; rather, he said the show served as a “catalyst when the time was ripe.” Otherwise, the national television channel would not have broadcast such a series, he pointed out.

“When you are immersed in changes you don’t see them, you aren’t aware of them. You have to be able to distance yourself a little to know when things are shifting,” added the historian. He also acknowledged that there was some resistance from certain groups in power and sectors of the population. “When you’re dealing with a change like this, there is bound to be resistance,” he said.

Among the signs of new times, he pointed to the Cuban Multidisciplinary Society for the Study of Sexuality (Socumes) membership in the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) and the inclusion of a transsexual in the Cuban delegation to the Latin American segment of the 6th World Social Forum held in Venezuela in January.

Although he recognises that progress is still slow, González Pagés said he believes that Cuban society “is ready for irreversible change.”

“I don’t see Cuba going backwards,” predicted the historian who, after working almost two years on a study of male prostitution on the island, is now beginning research into bisexuality, an orientation considered to suffer even more stigma than homosexuality.

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