In the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s death, western mainstream media jumped upon the opportunity to further demonize the gains made by the Cuban people since their revolution effectively freed the nation from the imperialist grip of the United States.
Among many other falsehoods perpetuated by imperialist media sources, a common thread woven by media regarding Cuba is that the nation is repressive and homophobic. Indeed, Cuba’s history with LGBTQ2SI folks is complex and Cuba continues to fight against homophobia domestically however mainstream media are quick to over simplify facts and exaggerate whenever possible as part of the overall imperialist agenda to discredit the gains Cuba has been able to achieve.
Cuba, much like any other country, has not always treated members of the LGBTQ2SI community fairly. Prior to the Cuban revolution, anti-gay laws existed in the Cuban Social Defence Code. However, anti-gay laws and attitudes were and remain rampant around the world – these ideas are not limited to only Cuban history and likely developed in Cuba as a legacy of colonial and imperial inference.
The 1960’s saw a dark turn for gay men in Cuba. Many were sent to camps designed to incarcerate all who were deemed unfeasible for military training, including gay men, Jehovah’s Witnesses and counter-revolutionaries.
As early as 1975, anti-gay laws began to be overturned by the Cuban Supreme Court, however it wasn’t until 1987 when public homosexual acts were removed from the penal code and jailed offenders of such acts were released from prison.
During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, there were several people in Cuba who had contracted HIV and were involuntarily quarantined, causing Cuba to receive harsh criticism; however this quarantine did not explicitly target gay men. Cuba now offers the best HIV treatment in the region, and has made many medical advances despite the trade embargo placed on Cuba by the United States. Further adding to the Cuban homophobic rhetoric from the 1980’s, several thousand gay Cubans (though the numbers have been exaggerated by the United States), left the island when Fidel Castro allowed huge numbers of people to leave in what was dubbed the Mariel Boatlift. Many more in the LBGTQ2SI community chose to remain in Cuba.
Cuba has made incredible gains in recent decades, by carrying out active measures to facilitate Pride organizations, denounce homophobia, improve sexual health education and enact more progressive policy by embracing sexual diversity.
By 1989 the first transgender surgery was performed and in 1993 gay Cubans could join the Communist Party. In 1993 the Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate criticized homophobia in Cuba. In 1995, Cuban drag queens had the honour of leading the annual May Day procession, and the documentary Gay Cuba was shown at the Havana International Festival of Latin America Cinema to critical acclaim. In recent decades there have been major gains in access to free gender reassignment surgery, and same-sex marriage. Cuba continues to participate in the annual International Day of Action Against Homophobia.
Leslie Feinberg, in Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba, has compiled a number of resources regarding same-sex love and sexual diversity, addressing issues such as homophobia in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary Cuba, the AIDS crisis and Cuba’s subsequent efforts to improve attitudes through arts, entertainment and education.
The work of Mariela Castro Espin, the daughter of President Raul Castro and revolutionary feminist Vilma Espin, has made major gains in the fight against homophobia in Cuba. Mariela is a sexologist and the director of CENESEX (Cuban National Center for Sex Education), a government organization which works towards improving attitudes towards members of the LBGTQ2SI community through education, media, rallies and marches as well as promoting healthy and inclusive ideas about sexuality.
Indeed, homophobia is still present in Cuba and in the world at large, including in Canada and the United States; however, Cuba has quickly become a leader for LGBTQ2SI rights around the globe.
(The author is a member of the Central Pride Commission of the Communist Party of Canada.)