DC's Gay men's chorus finds Cuba's LGBT community struggling to be heard
A groundbreaking cultural tour by a gay choir from the US found reasons
for hope in Havana but wariness about the limits to self-expression
Amanda Holpuch in New York
Friday 24 July 2015 12.00 BST Last modified on Friday 24 July 2015 12.03 BST
Decades of frozen diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba came to
an end this week when the the Cuban flag was raised in Washington DC for
the first time in 54 years – an especially poignant moment for members
of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington DC, who had ended a tour in Havana
two days before.
The chorus is one of the first American cultural delegations to visit
since the US president, Barack Obama, and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl
Castro, announced in December that the two countries would normalize
They took advantage of the country's increasingly accessibility, where,
in the past Fidel Castro had routinely sent openly gay men and women to
labor camps in the decades following the revolution.
So what did they find? Clandestine gay bars and an LGBT community that
is seeking recognition from their fellow citizens.
Fidel Castro said in 2010 that the labor camps, which people were sent
to in the 1970s, were an "injustice", and his brother Raúl Castro, who
is now president, has overseen the most significant steps forward for
the LGBT community in the country's history. But the gains are somewhat
overshadowed by the country's limits on freedom of expression and other
civil rights, the chorus's executive director, Chase Maggiano told the
"A lot of what we were singing were songs about being yourself: 'say
what you want to say' is one of the lyrics we sang over and over again,"
said Maggiano. "We realized that the lyric 'say what you want to say'
carries much more weight when you sing it to a bunch of Cubans who on
many levels haven't been able to say what they want to say for so long."
Twenty members of the 300-person chorus went on the trip, which was
organized by Youth For Understanding USA (YFU), a nonprofit that
arranges cultural exchanges for students. This was the first YFU adult
trip and it received backing from Raúl Castro's daughter, Mariela
Castro, the country's most prominent LGBT rights advocate.
US and rainbow flags fly outside the hotel in Cuba where the Gay Men's
Chorus of Washington DC were staying. Photograph: Chase Maggiano
Before the trip, Maggiano and other chorus members met with the State
Department and spoke with the Human Rights Campaign to be briefed on
what to expect, but on-the-ground, question-and-answer sessions held
after their performances provided an insight into what life is like for
LGBT Cubans. These discussions provided the chorus with a stark
depiction of the differences between LGBT rights in Cuba and the US.
After one show, Maggiano said an audience member asked how the group was
able to organize as an LGBT activist group, leading Maggiano to give the
details of becoming a nonprofit, but the man in the audience became
emotional and cut him off to clarify. He wasn't interested in the
practical process, he wanted to know when the chorus members felt like
the LGBT voice was recognized in the US. "Because in Cuba, even though a
lot of really positive things are happening with LGBT rights it sounds
like they are still not feeling heard," Maggiano said.
He realized then that he had to be more careful about what advice he
could give out – the men's chorus is safe to perform on the steps of the
supreme court in Washington DC to celebrate same-sex marriage being made
legal in the US – but in Cuba, marriage equality still seems far off and
the annual Pride parade is in only its eighth year.
"I didn't want him to speak up and protest on the steps of the Capitol,
because when you do that in Cuba, you get arrested," said Maggiano.
"It's a delicate balance to try and push for more rights within their
system and stay within what is acceptable in their government."
Between performances and a visit to the countryside, the chorus also had
time to stop by some of the key sanctuaries for Cuba's LGBT community –
the gay bars. Chorus member AJ Rawls said that while the bars blasted
American music videos and had "very attractive" bartenders, just like
your typical US gay bar, unlike in the US, they had a bland outside
appearance and inside there were many people who made it clear that they
would accept money for sexual favors.
Rawls thinks it's because the gay community is still so small in Cuba
that people may be willing to pay for what is still seen as a more
underground activity. He also noted that like in some parts of the US,
it's clear that LGBT people in cosmopolitan areas are in a much better
position than those in more isolated rural areas.
Rawls, who at 25 was the youngest member of the group, was born after
the cold war ended, but as an American, had always felt the deep divide
between his home country and Cuba. "In my lifetime, the idea of being an
out gay man going to Cuba and singing for government officials, that
just seemed like a pipe dream for me," Rawls said.
And while the trip showed him how this gap is closing, after the group
boarded its chartered flight to Miami, they were reminded that flying
the Cuban flag in the US capital is a small step in easing more than
half a century of strained relations. The flight, filled almost entirely
with Americans, was stuck on the tarmac, having been told that they
needed further clearance from the US Department of Homeland Security.
"It sort of brought everything home," said Rawls. "We had a fantastic
experience in Cuba, but opening diplomatic relations is a lot easier
said than done."
While the group said Cubans were happy to see Americans and said that
they look forward to being able to visit the country, travel
restrictions remain in place between the two countries, as does the
"I always just assumed that today everyone is going to be able to go
down to Cuba no problem, but it's going to take a lot of time and a lot
of coordinated effort from both parties to make it work," said Rawls.
Source: DC's Gay men's chorus finds Cuba's LGBT community struggling to
be heard | World news | The Guardian -