Bright Lights Film Journal

Gay Cuba: Beating the Bully

The U.S. must eventually come to its senses and leave this little island and its vital citizens alone.

Americans’ view of Cuba is based more on the right wing’s mythmaking (a process they’ve become expert at) than on qualities inherent in Cuban society. In some areas – literacy levels, for example – Cuba has a better track record than we do. The situation for Cuban gays is also awash in misinformation, which Sonia de Vries’ level-headed documentary goes far in countering. Gay Cuba combines interviews with gay and lesbian men, government officials, and average citizens, with musical performances and gay pride parades. Along the way, we get a quick, painless lesson in Cuban history.

From 1898 to 1902, the island (now 11 million people) was occupied by the United States. From 1902 until 1959, the U.S. supported dictators to protect our corporate interests – a process that turned the island into a model of Third World corruption and exploitation. Even after the revolution, Cuba offered to compensate American companies that were nationalized, but, typically, the U.S. refused and thus began the destructive blockade that continues today beyond all reason, logic, and morality.

What effect did the revolution have on the acceptance of gay people in a country drenched in machismo? Unfortunately, the government adopted the familiar Stalinist line that homosexuality is “a byproduct of decadent capitalism.” The Public Ostentation Law was enacted in the 1930s specifically to encourage harassment of gay people who refused to stay in the closet, and in spite of the revolutionary process of reexamining old attitudes, the government refused to repeal that law until 1988. Police, used to casual harassment and arrests of gays, were ordered to desist. Director de Vries interviews people who recall this time, but as one activist says, “Cuba right now is not a human rights issue.”

Cuba was rightly condemned also during the 1980s for quarantining people with HIV, a practice that also collapsed under careful scrutiny. In 1993, the incarceration law was lifted, and HIV patients enjoy free medicines, housing, and full wages if they’re able to work – policies that again show the superiority of this little island nation over its bully to the north. The National Center for Sex Education leads workshops throughout the country to try to eradicate homophobic attitudes. One of the women who works for the center blames the Catholic Church for much of the anti-gay attitude that continues to exist: “The Catholic religion simply rejects pleasure; life; sexuality in general.” Many Cuban gays have in turn rejected the Church, finding spiritual solace in their own growing sense of community, or in the more sensual and open-minded Santeria religion.

The extraordinary success of the literacy campaign initiated after the revolution is evident in the articulateness of the people. Even many of the soldiers interviewed recognize the foolishness of homophobic attitudes: “Homosexuality has nothing to do with a person’s intellectual capacity,” one of them says. Cuba has room for improvement, as some gays still hide their real identities. A union leader says with simple eloquence, “Many of us live our lives in the closet. This works against our human development.” On the other hand, we have a young Cuban lesbian who insists on holding hands with and kissing her girlfriend in public, “right in front of the police,” daring them to intervene. Gay Cuba shows that a society that encourages its people to think and examine their prejudices can change for the better, and this is exactly what’s happening there.