Does Cuba Intend to Fight For Gay Rights?

Mariela Castro is both advocate and propaganda machine. Regardless, her efforts towards the LGBTI movement have been derided as superficial.
Mariela Castro is both advocate and propaganda machine. Regardless, her efforts towards the LGBTI movement have been derided by some as superficial.

A pioneer in the region, Cuba has begun to add to its list of internal advancements LGBTI rights; the 1990s saw the abolishment of many oppressive laws and practices towards gays while the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX, Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual) was founded to affect policy change and to provide sexual education programs. As with just about anything occurring in Cuba, despite many progressive accomplishments, many Cubans strongly disagree with the purported extent of the changes and their use as propaganda by the Castro government abroad. Dissidents, activists, and human rights organizations denounce the government’s scope of inclusion and depth of understanding. Homosexuality is a topic that has faced a deluge of inconsistent government attitudes and policies, illustrating incompleteness and failure on the part of the government to include all Cubans within the Revolution.

Regardless of government attitudes, the LGBTI community in today’s Havana is thriving, and open enough to be visible. The Teatro Nacional (National Theater, usually home to the ballet) hosts Proyecto Divino, featuring live music, shows of strength and male strippers until 6AM. It acts as the government’s official endorsement of a gay party while keeping everything under one roof. On the other hand, certain privately owned bars are known for their clientele and public locations around Havana serve as informal meeting places such as a wooded area near the baseball stadium on the outskirts of the city. Support for the community tends toward obvious displays such as Proyecto Divino while excluding other more critical items. Nightclubs and discotecas, like all major venues, are government-owned in Cuba, and have therefore historically not been amenable to homosexuals. Legislative reform has also not assisted in the creation of safe and comfortable gathering spaces, and the government regularly shuts down popular gay bars and organizations.

The Castro regime and Cuba as a whole has a long history of LGBTI discrimination with which to contend. Cuba used to be one of the most repressive socially and politically towards homosexuals. Communism did not include gays, who had been supportive of Fidel’s revolutionary movement with hopes for societal change and abolishment of pro-harassment laws. These laws were maintained under the principle that gay men were not the Revolution’s envisioning of Che Guevara’s ‘New Man’ and between 1965 and 1966 homosexuals were placed in UMAP labor camps along with others considered unfit for military service and HIV patients quarantined from 1986 until 1993.

Castro family involvement in promoting LGBTI rights accounts for the greater contributions — and failures — of the Cuban government on the issue.

Nowadays, gay rights tend to extend only as far as one operates within the government. Cuba legalized state supported sex changes in 2006, openly serving as gay in the military in 1993, and the right to change one’s legal gender on their government ID Officially, marriage in Cuba is defined as being between a man and a woman. This is less important than in the United States, as marriage does not hold the same societal values or financial rewards. CENESEX is currently working on legalizing civil unions, the reluctance on the part of the governing body illustrating to many Cubans the rifts between the political desires of the Castro family and actual government policies. Despite policy changes, however, advocacy and organizing attempts that test boundaries beyond government-endorsed measures are met with anger and attacks by the Castro family and government supporters.

Gay rights advocacy in Cuba, although effective, has similarly failed to resolve some of the more probing issues within the Cuban LGBTI community. CENESEX (Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual), founded by the feminist Cuban Women’s Federation, is the only legal channel for gay rights activism in Cuba. It has proven vital in opening the public debate on the topic, producing a series on television (the best way to reach everyday Cubans) called the Dark Side of the Moon about a married man who realized he was bisexual, supporting sexual diversity classes among students, publishing the journal Sexology and Society, and directing an educational association on human sexuality.  Other chapters such as the Cuban League Against AIDS and Divine Hope technically function illegally. Functionally, this limits the degree of social change that can occur and the support provided to the LGBTI community. Similarly, many gay activists are also ‘dissidents,’ consistently followed and observed by the government as with Isbel Díaz Torres or beaten up (ostensibly) by the police as with Mario José Delgado.

As can be expected in Cuba, personal involvement by the Castro family in promoting LGBTI rights account for some of the greater contributions — and­ failures — of the Cuban government on the issue.  In the 1990s, Fidel took full responsibility for Cuba’s homophobic policies in the 1960s, paving the way for some resolution of institutionalized discrimination and harassment. In practice, though, the government often appears disingenuous, paying lip service to the cause than actually changing it.

Castro family involvement in gay rights has continued over the years, with Mariela Castro, the government’s representative for sexual health and rights, at the epicenter of the debate. Mariela is the daughter of current President Raúl Castro and niece of Fidel and serves as the head of CENESEX . She is both advocate and propaganda machine, although her unwillingness to more extensively combat LGBTI issues has led to ample criticism and backlash. Dissident Yoani Sánchez and activist Mario José Delgado both target her personally in columns and tweets as culpable for failing to follow through with HIV/AIDS support and more profound structural changes that would truly assist the LGBTI community.

In Cuba, everyone is equal and everyone shares the same opportunities and benefits— this is the continued rhetoric of the Cuban government apparatus since its inception in 1959. Nevertheless, Cuba is not a utopia, and despite attempts to achieve communist ideals it is largely stuck when it comes to guaranteeing fair treatment of the LGBTI community. Discrimination of any kind is difficult to correctly identify, especially considering the effect of inconsistent, but intense, government involvement. By and large, this means that LGBTI rights are treated like a non-issue, halting further consciousness of bias towards homosexuals. Well-meaning Castro involvement has only fostered uncertainty, whereas real progress through renegotiation of party policies remains indecipherable outside of official circles. If true progress towards LGBTI equality is in the works, Havana’s bureaucrats have little intention of letting it show.