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Inside Cuba


From Persecution To Acceptance? The History Of LGBT Rights In Cuba

October 24th 2012


Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the island nation has received low scores in many human rights indices for reported assaults on freedom of speech, expression, religion, and basic due process. Outside of these violations, historians regard the 1960s as an even more repressive decade for one Cuban community in particular: the country’s homosexual population. Indeed this group has only recently witnessed an opening of civil liberties for them. While the record of their treatment today is certainly not perfect, there are clear signs of a gradual but serious shift from Cuba’s previously anti-LGBT policies to a modern tendency of equal treatment and respect for all sexual orientations.

Even in pre-Revolutionary Cuba, the island’s society relegated the homosexual community to the few LGBT-friendly bars in Cuban cities. Moreover, strict laws criminalized homosexuality and targeted gay men in particular for harassment. In the 1930s, Cuba enacted the Public Ostentation Law, which encouraged the harassment of LGBTs who refused to hide their orientation. At this time, Cuba’s legislation toward the LGBT community was essentially no different from what was being done in the rest of Latin America, nor the continent’s colonial ancestors, Spain and Portugal.

Homosexuality in Cuba Under Castro
The Cuban Revolution seemed to present hope for improved living conditions for the many afflicted members of the community, and hope for a new outlook on old social mores quickly spread across the island. Many gay men were in favor of the Revolution and even supported longtime Cuban President Fidel Castro. However, despite professed egalitarianism, Castro’s government in reality was no kinder to the LGBT community than the pre-revolutionary governments. Castro and the other leading revolutionaries considered homosexuality a devious product of capitalism, which had to be rooted out entirely from society. For example, Che Guevara’s definition of the socialist “New Man” in part necessitated a strong and unambiguously heterosexual male. This view was not unique to the Castro regime, and could be found in the ideologies of many leaders from other communist countries. For example, the USSR and China routinely persecuted the LGBT community. As ironic as it may seem, communist thinking at the time consistently ignored the LGBT community.

The Castro government continued to enforce the Public Ostentation Law following the Revolution. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, gay men were routinely imprisoned for soliciting sex in public locations, government workers lost their jobs because of their homosexuality, and homosexual artists were censored. From 1965 to 1968, openly homosexual men were rounded up and incarcerated in UMAP (Military Units to Aid Production) camps designed to turn them into the heterosexual ideal. Critics have since denounced UMAP camps as nothing less than military labor camps, which were described by some internees as brutal facilities, complete with physical and verbal mistreatment, dirt floors, and a chronic shortage of food. Though Castro himself has denied that they were forced labor camps, he recently acknowledged that gay men were mistreated in certain camps. In another case of historic persecution, the infamous Mariel Boat Lift of 1980, the Castro regime expelled thousands of homosexual Cubans he considered among other “undesirables.”

Policies Begin to Change
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Havana’s policies toward its LGBT community began to change as communist leaders around the world began to lean toward a more tolerant policy regarding homosexuality. Some observers have pointed to the rise of the feminist movement in Cuba as a key component in the liberalization of social tolerance toward Cuba’s LGBT community. For example, in 1977 the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) was founded by the Cuban Women’s Federation, which “encouraged a more enlightened outlook on homosexuality and started to undermine traditional sexual prejudices and taboos.” Around this period, the Cuban government began to pass laws that broke down the sexual division of labor in the traditional family unit. In 1979 the Cuban government finally removed homosexual acts among consenting adults from the Penal Code as a criminal offense. Certainly the situation regarding this practice was much improved in just the course of a decade.

However, as with most countries’ early policies regarding homosexuality, changes in practice have occurred gradually. Despite the legislative reforms, the government continued to prohibit “ostentatious displays of homosexuality” along with “homosexual acts in public places.” Cuba also received criticism from the international community during this period for quarantining people with HIV. Some have argued that another explanation for Havana’s homosexual policies is that Cuba’s continued dependence on the Soviet Union for trade and assistance led to a Stalinist-style intolerance of homosexuality throughout the earlier part of the decade. In other words, as in many cases, the LGBT population in Cuba had to wait for continued rights to be granted before discrimination was erased.

In 1986 however, a watershed shift against homophobia occurred in Cuba. The annulment of many of the remaining laws in the Penal Code that had prohibited homosexual conduct allowed authorities to release those who had been previously imprisoned for homosexual activity. During this period, the Cuban authorities began to show greater tolerance toward homosexuality in order to enforce safe sex and to gain political support for the regime from the LGBT community and from critical international observers. Finally, in 1993, the incarceration law for HIV patients was rescinded. The Cuban government began to produce films and documentaries condemning discrimination against homosexuality, and the medical community in Cuba began to describe homosexuality as a natural minority condition rather than a perverse choice. This medical outlook was particularly crucial in the reevaluation of policies toward the LGBT population.

Homosexuality in Cuba Today
Today, official legal penalties for gay men continue to be eliminated. For instance, in 1988 the penal code imposed fines on those who “hassle others with homosexual demands.” However, in 1997, this language was modified to “hassling with sexual demands,” gradually removing the distinction between heterosexual and homosexual behavior. In addition, previous public scandal laws that penalized those who “publicly flaunted their homosexual condition” were later changed to those who engaged in “sexual insult,” indicating a more modest tone against homosexuality. Particularly progressive reforms have been made in the last few years under current President Raúl Castro, largely from the strong backing of his daughter Mariela Castro, who is also the director of CENESEX. The most revolutionary change occurred in June 2008, when the Cuban government permitted doctors to perform sex change operations. In the last year, the Cuban parliament proposed a law permitting same-sex unions. If this law does pass, it would signal a huge breakthrough in LGBT rights in Cuba.

Havana’s rhetoric regarding homosexuality has grown more tolerant as well. Raúl Castro has publicly declared his support for LGBT rights. Fidel also has changed his tone dramatically since the 1960s. Although he once vulgarly referred to homosexuals as “agents of imperialism,” and praised the Cuban countryside for supposedly being free of homosexuality, his recent declarations express a much more tolerant sentiment. In the last few years, Fidel has come to support LGBT rights, claiming he was distracted by other problems in the earlier period of the Revolution. Additionally, he now claims that the persecution of homosexuals in earlier years was “a great injustice.” Considering that even Fidel has changed his outlook, it is unlikely the Cuban government will shift back anytime soon to a less progressive position.

Despite the recent announcements by the Castro regime to move towards an LGBT friendly community, the government remains inconsistent with all of its promises. For example, gay men have long been considered unfit to join the Communist Party. Within the last 20 years, a few prominent gay bars and organizations have been raided and shut down by the government. Gay rights activists, both in Cuba and abroad, have accused the Cuban authorities of applying the crime of “pre-criminal dangerousness” unfairly to homosexuals, and ignoring complaints of those who have been beaten or fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Other gay rights activists have criticized Mariela Castro for her inconsistency and hypocrisy when it comes to gay rights, arguing that gay rights activists continue to be imprisoned, beaten, or simply disappear while she provides little more than lip service to the issue.

In addition, while Cuban society is gradually warming up toward homosexuality and LGBT rights, many homophobic elements remain. For example, in 2006, the Cuban state television released “The Dark Side of the Moon,” the first soap opera on Cuban television concerning issues of homosexuality. Although the soap opera was received favorably by many for bringing the issue into the public discourse, it also attracted enormous controversy, with many Cubans saying they were offended by the show’s release and refused to watch it. The most negative reviews conceded the belief that the show was important, but as a way to warn people of homosexuality’s consequences rather than a way to promote tolerance and acceptance toward it.

Lastly, on October 16, the Cuban government announced it would end its exit visa requirements for its citizens to travel abroad. While the connection to gay rights is marginal at best, such an act does suggest yet another attempt by the Castro regime to modernize and adapt to the changing demands of its society. Whether this more lenient policy translates into greater rights for gays in the near future is unclear, but it certainly suggests a willingness to consider more progressive customs, which is another promising sign.

It is clear that the enactment of LGBT rights in Cuba is an ongoing struggle. Uncertainty still remains, and the government and society as a whole still display a certain level of uneasiness regarding homosexuality. Nonetheless, in comparison with pre-revolutionary times, the situation today has greatly improved. Penalties towards gay men have gradually been reduced, the government has expressed its support for gay rights, and even gay civil unions have been seriously proposed and considered.

Justin Halatyn is a Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, from where this article is adapted.

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