By Jo Ellis
Pre-revolutionary Cuba was no paradise for gays and lesbians. There were gay bars where homosexual men could meet, but to be a maricone (faggot) was to be a social outcast.
Laws made it illegal to be gay and police targeted homosexuals for harassment. Many gay men were drawn into prostitution for largely US-based clients. In this repressive atmosphere, homosexuality was linked to prostitution, gambling and crime.
The 1959 Cuban Revolution improved living conditions for the vast majority of Cuba's people. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, Cuban homosexuals continued to face discrimination.
Between 1965 and 1968, homosexual men were incarcerated in UMAP (Military Units to Aid Production) camps where they faced brutality and attempts to turn them into "real" men. Homosexual men were arrested and imprisoned for soliciting sex in public places. Some Cubans lost their government jobs because of their homosexuality and homosexual artists were censored.
The Public Ostentation Law was enacted in the 1930s to encourage the harassment of gay people who refused to stay in the closet. In spite of the revolutionary process of re-examining old attitudes after 1959, the government did not repeal this law until 1988.
In 1980, more than 100,000 Cubans (some counter-revolutionaries, some petty criminals, some homosexuals) left Cuba in the Mariel boat-lift for the United States. Those who left were described by the government media as homosexuals.
During the 1980s, Cuba was also criticised for quarantining people with HIV. After much public discussion in Cuba, the incarceration law was lifted in 1993 and HIV patients enjoy free health care and housing, and full wages if they're able to do some work. In contrast to capitalist countries where most people with HIV struggle to afford decent medication, all HIV patients have always received free, high quality medical care in Cuba.
Why did gays and lesbians in Cuba continue to face discrimination after the revolution? Some of the repression was the result of the deep roots of the Catholic Church in Latin America since colonisation.
The women's liberation movement of the 1970s, which challenged sexist and homophobic assumptions, and the hold of the church, had a weaker impact in Third World countries than in the imperialist countries where it arose. Because of the revolutionary transformation that took place in Cuba, however, the status of women was addressed much more there than in other Latin American countries and today abortion is freely available, divorce is easily obtainable and numerous child-care centers have been provided to facilitate women's full participation in the economy and society.
The Cuban government passed laws in the 1970s requiring men to take equal responsibility for all domestic tasks and to contribute equally to supporting their children. While these changes began to break down the basis of the sexual division of labour in the traditional family unit, the family unit remains stronger in Cuba than the revolutionary government would like. This is primarily because Cuba's poverty does not allow it to completely socialise domestic work and child-care.
Because Cuba does not have the resources to eliminate the material basis of the traditional (heterosexual) family, the sexist and homophobic attitudes that accompany this family form remain.
As well, the US economic blockade on Cuba, imposed immediately after the revolution, forced Cuba to depend heavily on the Soviet Union for trade. This dependence led to Stalinist attitudes about homosexuality (that it was decadent and bourgeois, a by-product of capitalism) having a greater influence in Cuba.
In 1986, the Cuban government went through a rectification process (dubbed "a return to Che") in which it assessed the impact of the social and economic model of the Soviet Union in Cuba. The Cuban leadership made a conscious effort to combat and turn away from what they saw as mistakes the Soviet Union had committed in stifling democracy.
Since 1986, the Cuban state has consciously tried to counter homophobia. Ian Lumsden, in his book Machos, maricones and gays, says there is "little evidence to support the contention that the persecution of homosexuals remains a matter of state policy".
In 1993, a sex education workshop was held in Cuba on homosexuality. Cuban physician Celestino Alverez explained that all laws regarding homosexuality had been repealed and that homophobia was a question of "prejudice, not persecution".
In 1993, Fresas y Chocolate (Strawberries and Chocolate), a film criticising Cubans' intolerance of homosexuality, was produced by the government-run Cuban film industry (which can only afford to produce three or four films a year). In 1995, Cuban drag queens led the annual May Day procession, joined by two queer delegations from the US, one from the New York Center for Cuban Studies and the other from the Bay Area Queers for Cuba.
The US activists joined with members of Cuba's Action Group for the Liberation of Sexual Choice and Expression to carry a 10-metre piece of the rainbow flag from the June 1994 Stonewall celebration in New York. They were cheered by Cubans who lined the streets.
The improvement in Cubans' attitudes to homosexuality are documented in the 1995 film Gay Cuba, which combines interviews with gay men and lesbians, government officials and average citizens, with musical performances and gay pride parades. The interviews which form the core of the film show that the changes in government policy and the opening of channels for the discussion and celebration of different sexualities have allowed gay Cubans today to lead much more open lives.
The Cuban Revolution was democratic and humane. It threw out a brutal US-backed dictator who had violently repressed the Cuban people. Under the revolutionary government, free health care and education has been provided for all.
At present, Cuba's poverty makes it is very difficult for the government to remove the economic compulsion for people to live in family units. While this provides the basis for the continuation of sexist and homophobic attitudes, since the 1980s the Cuban government has still consciously campaigned against homophobic ideas and practices, and has eradicated all laws which discriminate against homosexuals.
For gays and lesbians in Cuba, the revolution has provided a strong basis for achieving justice in all aspects of their lives, even in combating homophobia. By removing private ownership of production and instituting grassroots democratic control over the country's resources, the basis exists for all Cubans to have a real say over decisions which effect their lives.
It is this democracy which lays the basis for combating homophobic ideas and attitudes — the legacies of both capitalist and Stalinist influences in Cuba. As other revolutions advance, freeing resources for the socialist economies, Cuba will also have the financial means to take further steps towards providing its people with much more choice in living arrangements, and thereby weaken the material basis of homophobia.