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“The people in Cuba have learned what homophobia is.” These are the words of Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) co-director and one of its founders, Camilo Garcia. The lanky, handsome 40-year-old activist has shared a 12-year relationship with his partner, Dr. Alberto Roque, who is also a staunch advocate for LGBT rights and CENESEX co-founder. Garcia proudly states, “Five years ago (Cubans) didn’t know anything about homophobia. Now, they know it’s not a good thing and does not form positive human values.”
Similar to any gay and lesbian center in the United States, CENESEX is the place where Cuba’s LGBT community can be themselves, find a safe haven from harassment and judgment, and openly discuss issues relevant to their lives. Housed in a three-story former family-owned mansion, the government-owned edifice has been transformed into offices and multi-purposes rooms that the CENESEX staff utilizes to conduct a variety of informational programs, including safe sex classes, health care services and social events.
Yes, Cuba has changed and is changing. Many non-gay Cubans are supportive of the efforts of the anti-homophobic movement. Others, not unlike those anti-gay critics in the USA, are convinced the homosexual movement has an underlying “agenda”. Arguments heard from religious zealots and conservatives on the streets of America are echoed by like minded people on the streets of Havana; “It’s against God’s will.” “Two men kissing is disgusting.” “The gays are trying to take over.”
However, Garcia insists, “It is no longer politically correct to be homophobic in Cuba. You now hear people saying ‘I am not homophobic’. Just like you might hear people say ‘I’m not racist’. This does not necessarily mean that they have overcome their prejudices, but it expresses that they have received the message that discrimination due to sexual orientation and diversity is harmful.”
Pedro Monzon, the current Cuban Ambassador to Australia suggests that attitudes in Cuban society toward homosexuality really began shift after the release of the 1994 award-winning yet controversial motion picture Strawberry and Chocolate. Monzon noted, “That film was an important beginning. Many of us who had never thought about the plight of gay Cubans changed our way of thinking after that film.” He goes on to say, “The time for change is long overdue. Many people do not know that there were transsexuals who fought in Revolution alongside the other guerrilla fighters. So the advances being made with regards to LGBT issues in our society is timely and good.”
Still, an American or European visitor, used to a more “open” lifestyle of gay bars, internet chat room billboards, sex blogs, here!TV, and gay high schoolers prancing around on a hit TV show like “Glee”, should not expect to find the same openness in Cuba. Amongst the vintage automobiles and decaying buildings, Cuba’s “gay scene” is still underground at best.
In Havana, there are three main gay hang outs. Along the north-shore of the island is a 3-mile stretch of seawall known as the Malecón. For centuries, it has been a respite for families, lovers and tourists who come to swim, fish, picnic, relax, smooch and party. At the midsection of the Malecon, near Vedado (the commercial center of Havana), gays and lesbians congregate. Within this pocket of roughly fifty yards, at any given day or night, young gays sip rum, blast boom boxes, play guitars and chit chat.
Heading up La Rampa (also known as Avenue 23), a stone’s throw away from this gay niche along the Malecón, one will find two gay bars, the Bim Bom and Piropo. More convenient store than bar, the Bim Bom is more or less Cuba’s equivalent of a scaled-back 7-11. Situated on a dimly lit street corner, in the shadow of the historic Hotel Nacional, the Bim Bom is swarmed on Friday and Saturday nights with hundreds of mostly gay men and transsexuals. This no frills gathering spot boasts no loud music, no disco ball lights and no dance floor, just gay Cubans socializing and enjoying the company of one another. A block away, the more intimate Piropo is a popular smoke-filled hang out that has the feel of a café, although no food is served. Piropo is also better lit and attracts more of a middle-aged crowd.
The closest thing to a gay club in Havana is the “fiesta” which is held every Saturday night starting around 11pm. In the past, the fiesta would circulate weekly to different locations to elude harassment from the “Policia”. In recent years, indicating a remarkable shift in attitudes toward homosexuals, “the fiesta” has settled in either of two open-air parks: one near Parque Lenin; the other close to the notorious Revolutionary Square. Cover charge for Cubans costs less than a dollar. Foreigners might be charged as much as fifteen. The music blasts everything from Lady Gaga to Marc Anthony while patrons party into the wee hours of the night. There are no advertisements for Absolut Vodka or any other capitalist enterprise at a fiesta. As a matter of fact, alcohol is mostly limited to beer and rum. There are no comfy sofas or chairs or many of the trappings you would find in moderately trendy bars in the U.S.
Cuba’s “gayest city” is Santa Clara (a 4-hour drive southwest of Havana). Here you will find Cuba’s only government-authorized gay establishment, El Mejunje. Recently celebrating its 25 year anniversary, the small open-air venue is an entertaining paradise for the LGBT community. Famous for its outlandishly flamboyant drag shows and party atmosphere, this is the place where gays, lesbians and their friends can be themselves without the fear of harassment from non-gays.
As gay and heterosexual Cubans work to embrace their differences, generations of social and emotional hurdles must be overcome in order to combat ignorance and intolerance. One heterosexual female worker who is supportive of the gay movement admitted, “I would like to work with CENESEX and help with their programming and efforts. I believe the work is important and needed. But, I’m afraid if I do, people will think I’m a lesbian.”
Although frustrating, such thinking is understandable in a movement that is still in its infant stage. However, a young heterosexual professor at the University of Havana has pushed past those concerns and has taken up the reigns as a staunch gay rights advocate. “I support gay rights” said the handsome, fresh-faced, 30-something year old scholar. “I do it first for homosexuals, but also for myself. It’s my right to struggle for who I think I should struggle for.” He goes on to say, “Once I began my career as a professor I had to face difficult moments with students and teachers who had divided opinions on the topic of homosexuality. If I defended the rights of free sexual orientation, I was accused of being homosexual. Both straights and gays kept asking me, ‘So when are you coming out of the closet’? Initially, I thought that I had lost the key. I felt rejected by everybody. But, in my heart I knew that if I did not support gay rights, my conscience (would be) trapped.” Becoming more thoughtful and introspective he continued, “Homophobia affects us all. It limits our lives. It prevents our human and professional development. Everyone has the right to determine their sexual preferences without risking their own happiness.”