lunes, 16 de noviembre de 2015

Behind the rainbow curtain - Cuba's queer revolution

Behind the rainbow curtain: Cuba's queer revolution
16 NOV 2015 - 8:19 AM

Cuba is the land of libré, home of the revolución. Its LGBT liberation
is a relatively new phenomenon, widely reported as a result of advocacy
from a daughter of the Castro family. Yet behind closed doors and away
from international eyes, the ongoing violence against LGBT people, HIV
misinformation, and a gay culture created for tourists tells a different
story. As all of Cuba prepares for the post-embargo age, are its queers
experiencing genuine libré, or are they puppets of agitprop?

"This is a special time. Everything is changing but we are still what we
used to be. Now is the perfect moment" - Linnett Hernandez Valdes, Cuban
actress and LGBT ally.
In Havana, the primary source of income is tourism. As with any economy
reliant on international visitors, locals are very friendly and warm.
This also means discovering the real Havana, not just the
tourist-friendly parts, can be difficult. Fortunately I was on tour with
Glory Box, a decidedly queer cabaret headlining the Havana Theatre
Festival and through that, I managed to meet some local queers that
helped me discover Havana's deeper layers of LGBT.

The first queer Cuban I met was Miguel. A local writer/director in his
late twenties, the theatre festival assigned him to our show as our
translator and guide, or as he put it "I will be your best friend in
Cuba!". Miguel explained to me that much has changed in the last seven
years in Cuba since Maria Castro (daughter of President Raul Castro)
began her highly visible campaign for LGBT equality.

In today's Cuba, he explained, there is much openness with one's
sexuality and gender identity. The government pays for gender
reassignment surgery, and queer gatherings have moved from the
underground to the tourist strip. This is not without issue given Cuba's
dual currencies and clubs being too expensive for most locals to attend.

Some queer activists view Maria Castro's campaign for LGBT equality with
suspicion and more than a little frustration - grass-roots campaigns had
been toiling away on the issue for years before the Castro family
decided queer was cool.

Indeed, this LGBT visibility sits in stark contrast to the
post-revolutionary persecution of LGBT, endorsed by the Castro family.
In the 1970s while parts of the world were experiencing "Gay Lib", Cuba
was still sending some LGBT citizens to work camps. Miguel went to great
pains to explain to me these weren't hard labour camps ("They didn't
work very hard"), but rather were a way of removing the problematic
queers from the general population.

This is very much in the past, and any culture around the world has its
tale of queer woe be it today, ten years ago, or at the turn of the last
century. Despite this unsavoury history, queer Cuba has existed for some
time in spite of extreme opposition.

In the small city of Santa Clara, a queer oasis has existed for more
than 30 years. Santa Clara is sort of a Cuban version of San Francisco,
a bohemian mix of queers, musicians and artists. Another Havana local,
Alejandro, told me about the incredible El Mejunje. A nightclub and
gathering space for queers, artists, and outsiders, El Mejunje runs a
weekly "live talk show" hosted by a mix of drag queens, lesbians and
queers. The divas of El Mejunje take their live shows into the mountain
towns that surround Santa Clara to help educate people about LGBT
liberation, a much needed form of activism given what I was about to
learn at a visit to the local LGBT/HIV centre.

Cuba and Australia share some similarities with the HIV epidemic, and
some stark differences. In both countries, gay men - or more
specifically men who have sex with men (MSM) - make up the majority of
people living with HIV (between 70-75 per cent of in both countries).
Both countries have roughly the same number of people living with HIV
(between 23,000-26,000). Cuba's HIV prevalence is just shy of 0.2% of
the total population (11 million), making it the lowest in the Caribbean.

I visited the only LGBT/HIV drop-in centre in Havana. It houses a number
of organisations including Siempre Conmigo, which provides HIV support
services and prevention for Havana's MSM population.

Siempre Conmingo's director, Gustvao Valdés Pi, is a handsome yet
exhausted looking gay man in his early 40s. He told me that education
and engagement around HIV prevention remains a huge challenge in Cuba,
as most young gay men are more interested in the influx of iPhones than
STIs. Syphilis, gonorrhoea, chlamydia, and TB infections are all
relatively high as a result of low testing.

HIV treatment is free (in fact, HIV-positive Cubans are provided meds
and meals by the state, given the importance of having a meal with many
medications). However, the embargo has lead to some issues with HIV
treatments arriving regularly (access to pharmaceuticals was one of the
first things the US cut off, meaning Cuba relies on shipments from
China, as well as manufacturing their own generic versions). The
treatments available are certainly not frontline, with most HIV-positive
Cubans still needing to take multiple pills per day. When I showed
Gustavo my bottle of one-a-day pills, he just shook his head and shrugged.

As with other parts of the world, even in highly developed nations such
as New Zealand, when access to frontline HIV treatments is limited, the
community's knowledge about genuine HIV transmission risk is equally
behind the times. The idea of PrEP (the HIV prevention pill) is as
foreign to Cubans as Reaganomics. My guide Miguel said he had heard
about PrEP through a bootlegged episode of How to Get Away With Murder,
and literally believed it was made up for the show.

This means that when it comes to HIV prevention, condoms are the only
method of protection. Unfortunately, condoms aren't that cheap given the
average income for young people is $20 AUD per-month. Add to that, lube
is even harder to come by (pardon the pun). When I asked Miguel if he
understood that condoms are only effective with the right lubricant, he
shrugged and said most guys just use spit.

However, Gustavo had a seemingly endless supply of condoms and lube at
the HIV/LGBT drop-in centre, and he shoved a box of them in my Miguel's
hands. My new friend's eyes lit up, like it was gay Christmas.So if
Siempre Conmingo had free condoms to give away, why didn't more Havana
gays make the most of the building?

Gustavo revealed that stigma relating to being gay or MSM was actually
worse than HIV stigma (one might suggest we face the opposite issue in
Australia). Getting men to walk through the door of the drop-in centre
is a big issue, and the gay clubs (traditionally the scene of much HIV
prevention outreach) are geared towards tourists, not locals.

It seems that for all the visible work done by Maria Castro, there is
still a hidden world of extreme homophobia that many Cubans are not
talking about. I asked Gustavo what would be the first thing he would
change about being LGBT in Cuba, and his response was heartbreaking.

"Behind closed doors there is still violence, with LGBT being kicked out
of their homes, or told they cannot be with their partners."
"The biggest problem is the treatment of LGBT at home," he said, with
all the weary anger of someone who has had to say this over and over.
"Behind closed doors there is still violence, with LGBT being kicked out
of their homes, or told they cannot be with their partners."

When pressed about this violence, Gustavo told me he estimated one-third
of murders in Cuba not economically motivated were a result of LGBT
violence. When I remarked at how astonishing the figure was, he shrugged
and said it was an estimate. Actual data on LGBT in Cuba is hard to come
by, especially for the trans community who are excluded from surveys and
studies (like most places in the world).

In a culture that, away from tourist eyes, still isolates and in some
cases murders its LGBT citizens, it's easy to see how marriage equality
seems like an impossible goal. For some, it is a very real desire
though, which I learnt when chatting with a young Cuban by the name of

Source: Behind the rainbow curtain: Cuba's queer revolution | Programs -

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