Cuban homosexuals must find it ironic that the heart of the homosexual world is Castro Street in San Francisco. It is assuredly not named in El Jefe’s honor, as gays—called maricones (queens), mariposas (butterflies), pájaros (birds), patos (ducks), or gansos (geese) in the Cuban vernacular (and tortillas for lesbians)—were persecuted following the Revolution. Castro (who denies the comment) supposedly told journalist Lee Lockwood that a homosexual could never “embody the conditions and requirements of a true revolutionary.” Homosexuals were classified as “undesirable.”
Thus gays and lesbians met with “homophobic repression and rejection” in Cuba, just as they did in the United States. In Cuba, however, it was more systematic and brutal. The pogrom began in earnest in 1965; homosexuals were arrested and sent to agricultural work and reeducation camps—UMAP (Units for Military Help to Agricultural Production). Echoing Auschwitz, over the gate of one such camp in Camagüey was the admonition: “Work Makes You Men.” Many brilliant intellectuals lost their jobs because they were gay or accused of being gay through anonymous denunciation. Hhomosexuals were not allowed to teach, become doctors, or occupy positions from which they could “pervert” Cuban youth.
Although UMAP camps closed in 1968 and those who had lost their jobs were reinstated and given back pay, periodic purges occurred throughout the 1970s and early ’80s. Understandably, many homosexuals left—or were forced to leave—on the Mariel boatlift. However, by the mid-1980s, Cuba began to respond to the gay rights movement that had already gained momentum worldwide. Officially the new position is that homosexuality and bisexuality are no less natural or healthy than heterosexuality. In 1987, a directive was issued to police to stop harassment. And an official atonement was made through the release at the 1993 Havana Film Festival of Vidas Paralelas (Parallel Lives) and La Bella de Alhambra (The Beauty at the Alhambra), and the hit movie Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate).
Although discrimination continues, sexologist Mariela Castro Espín (Raúl’s daughter and head of the National Sex Education Center) leads the effort to treat the LGBT community as equals.
Gay Cuba (1995), by Sonja de Vries, and Dos Patrias, Cuba y la Noche (2007), by Christian Liffers are documentary films that look candidly at the treatment of gays in Cuba since the Revolution.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition