A gay May Day in Havana


By Sonja de Vries

HAVANA, May Day — Drag queens danced at the head of

the crowd filing past the podium where Raul Castro and other

members of the Cuban government and trade unions stood. The crowd

cheered; the Coro Gigante de la Confederacion de Trabajadores de

Cuba sang revolutionary anthems. The crowd was festive, eager to

dance and celebrate the continuing gains of the revolution

despite the difficulties of the "special period".

Not far behind in the parade was a historic first for Cuba. Two

visiting queer-focused delegations — one from New York's

Centre for Cuban Studies and the other from Bay Area Queers for

Cuba — marched with an equal number of Cuban gays and

lesbians, carrying a 30-foot piece of the rainbow flag from the

June 1994 Stonewall 25 celebration in New York.

Our spirits soared as we passed the reviewing stand. People on

the street joined us as we marched, some understanding this was a

queer contingent, others just swept up in its exuberance. Gay and

lesbian Cubans from the emerging group GALEES (Action Group for

the Liberation of Sexual Choice and Expression) screamed in

delight at being able to celebrate this day with their

compatriots as open gays and lesbians.

Later in the trip, the delegation visited the Los Cocos

sanatorium near Havana. Under the "ambulatory system"

implemented more than a year ago, most people with HIV/AIDS in

Cuba can now live outside the sanatoriums established when the

epidemic first hit here.

People who have tested HIV positive can remain at home, at work

and in their communities and continue to receive the same quality

care as they would in the sanatoriums. Most sanatorium residents

can also return home, though a minority are denied this option

because sanatorium staff don't trust them to practice safe sex.

Although this is a contradictory and problematic policy, it

seemed clear that judgment was not based on the sexual

orientation of the person involved. All people with HIV in Cuba

still receive health care, housing, a nutritious diet and all

medication free, despite severe shortages caused by the US

embargo. The Queers for Cuba delegation brought medical supplies,

medication and safe sex supplies gathered in the US to donate to

the residents of Los Cocos.

Members of a writing workshop at the sanatorium produce a small

magazine as well as plays like one we saw, which was based on a

short story by Miguel Angel Fraga. The piece examined the

complexity and contradictions in Cuba's AIDS policy in poetic,

erotic and intelligent fashion.

A refrain of "Who is more reliable, the person with HIV or

the person who may or may not be infected?" ran through the

play's exploration of the relationship between an HIV+ man and a

man who was unsure of his status, but assumed he was negative. A

song about the love between two men by Pablo Milanes, one of

Cuba's most popular singers, wrapped up the play — with many

in the audience and some of the actors in tears. It was another

demonstration of the public space opening up in Cuba to explore

and discuss controversial issues such as homosexuality.

Drag was once something people did only in their own homes,

quietly and with shades drawn for fear of police harassment and

jail sentences. But now it's warmly embraced by most of the Cuban

population. In Guanabacoa, a suburb of Havana, the whole

neighbourhood came out for an open-air show we attended the night

before May Day. Grandfathers with little children, women in

curlers, kids of all ages and gay and lesbian Cubans enjoyed the

drag cabaret, one of many throughout the country.

Reflecting as they left Cuba, members of the queer delegations

were deeply moved by their experience. The warmth of the Cuban

people, the dynamic energy of the growing queer movement, the

steps toward acceptance of queers in Cuban society and the

evidence that the country continues to provide health care,

housing, cultural opportunities and education for all its people

— despite its economic crisis exacerbated by the US embargo

— left a deep impression on everyone.

Queers for Cuba plans reports throughout the Bay Area and in

Santa Cruz and a "Come Out for Cuba: Fight the US

Blockade" contingent for the Queer Pride march on June 18.

Donations of drag wear, safe sex materials, lesbian and gay books

(especially in Spanish), office supplies and medical supplies for

gays and lesbians in Cuba are welcome. And organising for a third

delegation in December 1995 is under

[Sonja de Vries visited Cuba April

28-May 7 with the second Queers for Cuba delegation. Reprinted

from News for a People's World (San Francisco).]