In the information packet for my recent trip to Cuba, I immediately noticed this small caveat: “While Cuba is becoming more and more open-minded with regard to cultural diversity, same-sex partners may not feel as open to express themselves. Havana is quite cosmopolitan in this regard, but smaller villages are not as accustomed to open expression or affection by LGBT community members.” It must have taken some poor soul hours to craft this in a way that didn’t sound like this: “Don’t act too gay in Cuba.”
Imagine my surprise when I met our guide for the day in the town of Remedios, four hours from Havana. With his purse and eye-liner, Marco practically floated along as he pointed out the sights. Though we weren’t on an LGBT-themed tour, Marco had no problem stopping regularly to admire the male eye-candy (lots of that in Cuba), and answering our questions about LGBT rights as comfortably as he described the lovely colonial architecture. I was struck that the tourist office had no problem sending someone so – shall we say – fabulous to lead a random group of Americans around. I couldn’t see this happening back home. Things have changed a lot in Cuba.
Despite the supposed social equality that Cuba’s government has espoused since the 1959 communist revolution, until only recently, LGBT people have been outright persecuted. It’s ironic that just as McCarthy was rooting out gays and lesbians for being (of course) communist sympathizers in the U.S., Castro considered homosexuality a decadent product of capitalism. You really couldn’t win. We Americans mellowed out around the pinko/gay thing somewhat, but the Cuban Communist party was calling homosexuality “incompatible with the revolution” well into the ‘70s and sending people to labor camps for it. Many who fled the island were LGBT people escaping brutality and imprisonment.
Only in the 1980s did the official government line begin to change. Even Castro has publically apologized for his homophobia, though he stopped short of starting a PFLAG chapter. You might have heard that Mariela Castro – Fidel’s niece and the daughter of current president, Raul – is a leading LGBT activist, and fiercely challenging her father’s own policies (she’s traveling the U.S. speaking on LGBT rights as I write). One wonders if, kind of like Republican Senator Rob Portman, Fidel and Raul’s political positions softened when a family member told them to get over it. Sometimes when it comes to family, human nature trumps political ideology.
Marco, our lovely guide, tells me over coffee that he feels very free to sashay through Remedios. He is famous there, by the way, for designing the elaborate costumes used in the town’s famous annual festival, Las Parrandas, and no one is under any illusions that he just hasn’t found the right girl. But he also admitted that Remedios is an artsy place, and like all artsy places, there’s some permission to be a bit queer, so to speak.
I asked if he felt he was treated as an equal in Cuba, and he proudly replied, “¡Sí!” And same-sex marriage? I got a terse, “No.” However, in five years, “és possible.”
Same here, I thought, even though I’ve now lost count of how many states got same-sex marriage this year alone. Full equality isn’t quite around the corner for either of us, but it’s in sight. As I sipped my cafe con leche in that very different country, talking with Marco, I pondered how so many different paths can take you to the same place.
Later during my trip another local said to me, “The successes of the revolution” – and there were some, despite great failures – “had little to do with communism and everything to do with the Cuban people.” That is a bigger statement than he likely meant in the moment. It made me think about our own LGBT revolution – hopefully a more peaceful and inclusive one than Fidel’s – and how it has nothing to do with politics or even national identities. Instead, it has everything to do with each of us being honest about who we really are, doing it with courage, and standing together. Happy Pride, everyone, whether you’re in Cuba, the U.S. or anywhere else.
Abby is a civil rights attorney-turned-author who has been in the LGBT rights trenches for 25+ years. She can be reached through her website: queerquestionsstraigh