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Two men strolling down La Rampa hand-in-hand; a couple of queens singing Cabaret loudly and off-key in Habana Vieja; a transgendered woman and her honey nuzzling in the back of an almendrón; and a two-mom family at the zoo with their kids. These vignettes would have been virtually unimaginable a decade ago, but I’ve seen all this (and more!) in Havana since the comprehensive education and sensitization campaign around sexual diversity started gaining traction.
Much of the credit for ‘engrasando la máquina’ (greasing the wheels) goes to the interdisciplinary team at CENESEX (the National Center for Sexual Education), under the leadership of Mariela Castro. You’ll hear people in the street commenting that sexual diversity and anti-homophobia have been inserted into the national dialogue only because Mariela is Raúl’s daughter (and Fidel’s niece). But such narrow analysis discounts all the other work being done here by activist groups, the media, non-governmental organizations, and private entrepreneurs. Indeed, stimulating such a sea change of attitudes akin to what Cuba is undergoing vis-à-vis sexual orientation, requires the participation of the entire society—civil, state, and individual.
Combating bias is a long, complex process; to be effective, the strategy has to be comprehensive, intersectoral, and participatory. In Cuba, this work involves a broad spectrum of players, including the Ministries of Health and Education; the United Nations Development Programme; the National Center for Prevention of HIV/AIDS/STIs; the Cuban Multidisciplinary Society for Sexual Studies (SOCUMES); and grassroots groups including Men Who Have Sex with Men (Proyecto HSH), Men for Diversity (Hombres por la Diversidad; HxD), Oremi, and TransCuba. These groups, together with CENESEX, work to prevent HIV, promote sexual health and well-being, transfer knowledge and experiences in workshops, publications and panels, and empower the LGBTI community. Blogs like Paquito el de Cuba (http://paquitoeldecuba.com/) and HomoSapiens@Cuba (www.aroqueg.blogspot.com), both written by out gay men, complement these efforts by tackling relevant issues including human and legal rights, hate crimes, and how Cuban LGBTI culture is evolving as a whole.
Of course, this isn’t always a smooth process; despite all the strides, challenges remain and ridding Cuba of homo-, bi-, trans-, and gender-bias faces an uphill battle, still. For instance, updating the family code (Cuba’s legal mechanism protecting the rights of families) to include same-sex unions has stalled somewhere in the bureaucracy. While ‘gay marriage’ and adoption by homosexual couples have never been on the table, legalizing same-sex unions through the family code would extend a variety of fundamental rights including hospital visits and related health proxy issues, as well as inheritance claims.
More disturbing than the limbo in which the family code has lingered for the past several years are the stories emerging about hate crimes on the island. In January, Tony Díaz, an out gay man and renowned theater director and set designer, was murdered; this fatal attack may have been motivated by homophobia. Unfortunately, Cuba does not have specific hate crime laws, nor are police officers trained to recognize them, so it’s unclear to what extent bias relates to violence here. On the positive side of things, a Sexual Diversity Training Program has been proposed for law enforcement officials, which would be a good step towards sensitizing this important sector of society.
For visitors, it’s easier than ever to take the pulse of queer Cuba—especially if you’ll be here in the days leading up to and following IDAHO (known as Jornada Cubana Contra la Homofobia), observed worldwide on May 17. (See previous article). Even if you can’t make it to town during for this, there’s always LGBTI fun stuff to be found at various bars and clubs in the city (see our Havana Guide section). During the long hot summer you can also check out Playa Boca Ciega—between Santa María del Mar and Guanabo. This heavenly beach 25 minutes east of Havana is postcard perfect, with all the requisite palm trees, aquamarine water, and soft white sand. The action happens around Mi Cayito and though it’s not exclusively gay, it’s definitely a cruising hot spot.
We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Used to It!
May 2014 This article formed part of the may 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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