First published in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 228 August/September 2012
‘Socialism and discrimination are incompatible’. (Mariela Castro, director of Cenesex)
The exuberant parade down the main street of Cienfuegos in Cuba on 17 May to celebrate the country’s fifth annual International Day against Homophobia should lay to rest the old lie peddled by Cuba’s detractors on the right and so-called ‘left’ alike, that socialist Cuba abuses gay rights.
The event, the culmination of three days of arts and music events, film showings, educational events and lectures by different lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groupings in the country, was organised by CENESEX, Cuba’s National Centre for Sexual Education, which over the last ten years has been pioneering the transformation of Cuban society in relation to LGBT rights under the slogan ‘Diversity is Natural’. CENESEX aims to contribute to ‘the education of society in general...about respect for people’s free and responsible sexual orientation and gender identity, as an exercise in equity and social justice.’
The Centre’s director is Mariela Castro, one of Cuba’s most outspoken defenders of LGBT rights, who is the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and of the late communist and fighter for women’s rights Vilma Espin. Addressing the crowd at the festival, she denounced homophobia and discrimination as leading to ‘hate, disrespect, lack of inclusion, lack of solidarity, lack of love between two people’ and called for more people to challenge prejudice ‘so that the Revolution will be more profound and will, in a broader way, encompass all the aspects and needs of the human being’.
Mariela Castro describes herself as a Marxist and places LGBT rights firmly within a revolutionary and socialist context – remaining true to the legacy of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution which legalised homosexuality and same-sex marriage. She is clear that: ‘the country needs to work against all forms of discrimination, and that homophobia, transphobia and every form of discrimination associated with sexuality issues need to be fought against as corresponds to an emancipating society, as the true essence of socialism. I can’t think of socialism coexisting with forms of discrimination, and this is one of them.’
Addressing an LGBT Conference in San Francisco in May, Mariela Castro made the point that different forms of oppression cannot be separated or ghettoised.
‘We are not fighting against one particular form of inequality, because they are all related...we cannot fight for LGBT rights without fighting for rights for Asians, for black people, for women, for immigrants – and especially for the rights of the poor.’
History of gay rights in Cuba
The Cuban Revolution exists as a dynamic process, a point made by the gay blogger Alessandra Bradley-Burns (17 May, Huffington Post) when she speaks of ‘Cuba’s long history of multiple revolutions’; citing the legalising of homosexuality in 1979 (which was illegal under Batista), she says that in the Cuban revolution ‘rights come to all, but not necessarily all at the same time’. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, as Mariela Castro puts it, ‘many patriarchal social and cultural norms still prevailed, leading to severe discrimination on these grounds’. In 1960s Cuba, homosexuality was seen as bourgeois and individualistic, a legacy of pre-revolutionary decadence where Havana existed as an offshore brothel for imperialism. This, alongside the Catholic and ‘machismo’ culture of the time, saw many homosexuals – including revolutionaries – dismissed from their jobs and incarcerated in the austere Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) labour camps set up to house ‘bourgeois’ elements between 1965-1968. These were shut down after three years and have been condemned by Fidel Castro as ‘a great injustice’. CENESEX is currently conducting a research project into that period, including interviews with those who served time in the UMAPs.
But Cuban society has changed. The offence of ‘homosexual acts in public places’ was removed from the penal code in 1987 and by 1993 sex education workshops on homosexuality were being run throughout Cuba to explain that homophobia is a prejudice that must be eradicated. Fidel Castro publicly described homosexuality as: ‘One of the natural aspects and tendencies of human beings which should be respected. I am absolutely opposed to any form of repression, contempt, scorn or discrimination with regard to homosexuals’.
Also in 1993 the film Strawberry and Chocolate, the first Cuban film to deal openly with homosexuality and which was funded by the Cuban government, proved hugely influential, provoking debate and raising awareness of LGBT issues within the country.
CENESEX – the transformation of socialist society
It is particularly in the last ten years that CENESEX has been able to offer the LGBT community a real voice and means of organisation within the Revolution, and profoundly influence government policy. In 2005 it organised Cuba’s first gay film festival. In 2006, to promote HIV prevention, it helped place a story line in the popular soap opera Dark Side of the Moon featuring a gay relationship for the first time on Cuban television. It holds workshops and seminars, working closely with the Ministry of Health, and was responsible for the 2008 legislation that made gender reassignment surgery available as part of Cuba’s universal health care. The Family Code has been changed to make it clear that parents have a responsibility to support and welcome any member of their family who is LGBT, and CENESEX provides a website to help them do so. Three years after the then president of the National Assembly Ricardo Alarcon said: ‘We have to redefine the concept of marriage. Socialism should be a society that does not exclude anyone’, a bill on same-sex civil unions is expected to come before the legislature this year. In large part because of CENESEX’s work on sexual health education, Cuba has the lowest prevalence of HIV infection in the Americas and one of the lowest ratios to population in the world; 100% of HIV+ patients have access to anti-retroviral treatment.
Most importantly, at its national conference in January, for the first time the Cuban Communist Party explicitly included opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation in its statutes, in what Mariela Castro described as an ‘essential’ and ‘historic’ step, ‘because according to Marxist ideas, the Party is the vanguard, the group that carries the new ideas to take us to a new society. If the Party cannot articulate these new ideas, after it has rid itself of all the prejudices that create inequalities, how could it prepare the conditions for us to be able to really create a fair and equitable society?’
Cuban society, contrary to its critics’ portrayals, is not a monolith and CENESEX is only too aware of the work still to do, both at an institutional and popular level. The Ministry of Higher Education has agreed that CENESEX can run integrated sexual health education in every university in the country in the coming year, and the organisation has been working with the courts and lawyers to tackle prejudice in the legal system. But Mariela Castro has expressed regret that the Ministry of Education, the Union of Young Communists and the trade union movement have been less enthusiastic about working with CENESEX to challenge prejudice. The unions in particular, she argues, should be challenging discrimination in the workplace ‘because a significant number of people have come to the juridical information service of CENESEX with frequent concerns and complaints about the violation of their work rights just because they are homosexual or transgender. The role of the union is to act so that these rights are not violated.’
While the kind of violent homophobic crime prevalent in other countries in Latin America (in Brazil, for example, there were 75 brutal homophobic murders in the first few months of this year) does not exist in Cuba, there is no doubt that prejudice and discrimination remain widespread at a popular level, and not just against the LGBT community.
‘We try to focus on homophobia as a form of discrimination that we believe should not exist in a socialist society, that it is related to other forms of discrimination and that they should all be treated together. We cannot believe that by eliminating homophobia we would be eliminating the problem of discrimination in Cuban society. We need to eradicate the trend, the archaic model of an exploitative society that makes up parameters to establish differences and inequalities. We cannot keep on reproducing these.’
Annabel Richardson and Cat Wiener