7 min

Finding gay Havana

Castro has softened his stance on gay rights, but the rest of Cuba is still catching up

A war monument at dusk. Credit: Jeffrey Round

There were three of them. The one on the left was a macho boy, all muscles and cool hair. On the right, linking arms with him, was a petite girly-boy, camping it up and twirling a parasol. Trailing slightly behind them came a third, gender-neutral. They are Cuba’s new gay-liberation vanguard.

I’d been looking for gay Havana, and this was as much as I’d found – these three 20-something boys out for a bit of afternoon fun in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Some of the locals paused for a second glance, but on the whole the trio didn’t excite much interest for a country as homophobic and macho as Cuba can sometimes be.

In pre-revolution times, Cuba was known to tolerate maricones – up to a point. The larger population centres had a few gay bars, often with appropriate names like the Dirty Dick. Homosexuality was classified with prostitution and organized crime, both of which were thriving industries at the time, however illegal.

By the late 1950s, when Fidel Castro and his guerrilleros came to power, homosexuality was viewed as a form of capitalist decadence at best and counter-revolutionary deviance at worst. Simply put, gays weren’t welcome to join in the revolution. Little wonder, for it was a revolution spawned by machismo and which soon came to be marked by a close alliance with the USSR, another regime fostering openly hostile attitudes and policies toward gay people.

In the 1960s, the climate only worsened. Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban author whose most famous book is the memoir Before Night Falls, wrote about the perils of being a gay Cubano in Pentagonia, his “secret history of Cuba,” before escaping to New York, where he died of AIDS in 1990. In a 1965 interview, Castro remarked that a homosexual could never be “a true Communist militant.” In his understanding, it was a matter of nature clashing with politics.

That same year, a national program was set up ostensibly to provide an alternative to military duty. In reality, it created concentration camps where forced labour was used to “reform” anyone identified as “deviant.” The category included not only homosexuals, but also Jehovah’s Witnesses, hippies and conscientious objectors. Gay men in particular were targeted for both physical and verbal abuse, whereas only a few years earlier many gays and lesbians had been attracted by the revolution’s promise of a new society, one that would be more egalitarian and sexually liberated.

Times changed. By the 1990s, Castro began to soften his stance on queer rights, to the point that he recently declared that the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba was “a great injustice” for which he accepted personal responsibility. His niece, Mariela Castro, has taken up the rights of transgender people with gusto. Sex reassignment surgery is now free to eligible citizens. But ordinary Cubans, it seems, are not ready to listen just yet.

Today, there is only one “official” gay bar in all of Cuba, and it’s not in Havana. It’s in Santa Clara, scene of a historic battle that handed Castro control of the country more than half a century ago. The city is now a tourist destination, and the bar in question is famous for its transvestite shows. Think Disney World presents Stonewall à la Copacabana. It’s for them, not us.

I asked the gay threesome in La Habana Vieja about the “secret” gay clubs. They named a few bars but said that to find gay Cubans you simply had to go to La Rampa, a small tourist area leading down to the Malecón. They also named a nearby park in Old Town that is a cruising ground at night. I asked if it is peligroso – dangerous. The effeminate one laughed. “Los Cubanos no son peligrosos,” he told me. Cubans aren’t dangerous.

What about the park around Coppelia? I wondered, naming the ice cream parlour made famous in what is likely Cuba’s first gay-positive feature film, Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate). No, they told me. It was closed at night a causa de los gais. Because of the gays. Little wonder: the film made the park a sexual landmark on its release in 1993, and more so with an Academy Award nomination in the following year. It’s still the centre of Havana’s hustler activity.

Despite Castro’s declaration of support for the queer community, there are no official gay-rights groups active inside Cuba. It’s hard to band together in a country where the internet is strictly regulated, with fines and imprisonment for unauthorized hookups. The Cuban Association of Gays was formed in 1994, during a thaw in relations between gays and the state, but disbanded in 1997 after its members were arrested. Pride marches and gay publications have also been banned, lending a very ambivalent tone to what it means to be “state sanctioned.”

On the other hand, I watched a popular Cuban sitcom with a male character in drag. A state-run soap opera, La otra cara de la luna (The Other Side of the Moon), features an openly gay character in a relationship with another man. During the annual Havana Film Festival, held each December, many of the films have gay themes, and their posters can be seen in public. And just last year, Cuba elected its first transgender person to public office in the province of Villa Clara.

There is also a well-known gay-themed party, 10 Pesos (named for the cost of entry), which takes place in or around Havana every Saturday, if you know where to find it. That’s not always easy, as it changes location to avoid becoming a target for the police. Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar was arrested at one such party. So was designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Foreigners found on the premises were reportedly released with the admonition not to “flaunt” their homosexuality or risk further arrest. Some of the locals were beaten.

I had been to a straight nightclub on a previous visit at which a gay comedian performed in drag. He was a big hit with the young people, who were mostly in their late-teens and 20s. But ask some of the slightly older crowd about gay life and they frown. They don’t like it. They will tell you Mariela Castro is a lesbian and her father, Raúl, Cuba’s current president, is gay, a conclusion they base on the pair’s tolerance for gay rights.

To that generation, gays represent an old-style, anti-authoritarian (read “anti-communist”) decadence better suited to countries like Canada and the US. Cuban women can be particularly outspoken about their dislike of homosexuality, yet they will happily show you pictures of their friends on their cellphones and ask you to guess which are the real women and which the travestis.

It’s a double standard at best.

On La Rampa, you might experience a bewildering moment looking at all the attractive, fashionable young people and wonder which ones are gay. It’s not the hottie boys in pink T-shirts and tons of gold jewellery, camping it up and singing silly songs to their friends. Those are the straight ones out for an evening of fun.

The gay boys will approach you only once they see you looking around. They usually come in pairs, for protection and support, and are “straight-looking, straight-acting” by North American standards. That’s for protection, too. In Cuba, if you’re gay, you usually don’t advertise it.

“Are you looking for chicos or chicas?” they will ask, falling in step beside you. If you say chicos, they will smile and offer their services.

I tell them I just want to ask some questions. Business is slow, so “Eddie” agrees to sit down and talk to me for the price of a beer. We have to choose the bar carefully, though, because it’s dangerous for him to be seen in public with a tourista. “What would happen if the police saw us together?” I ask. He would be taken away in handcuffs and fined, he tells me.

“For talking?” I ask, slow to comprehend. No. For soliciting. Even if he isn’t.

I wondered if he was exaggerating, but another evening, while walking past Coppelia Park and chatting with a young man named José, I suddenly found myself alone. I thought perhaps I’d offended him with my questions. Then I looked up and saw two police officers heading toward me. I continued walking. A block ahead, José popped out of the bushes and we continued our conversation as if nothing had occurred.

During our walk, I asked José how he finds gay life in Cuba. He answered with one word: duro – hard. And this from a person in a country that knows what “hard” means. Another night, he and his cruising buddy took me around trying to find a happening gay bar. We tried several places, all filled with straight couples.

“It’s the wrong night,” they assured me.

Even without the fight for queer rights, life in Cuba is not enviable. That’s why boys like Eddie and José try to make a few bucks on the side. Some of the hustlers will not even admit to being gay – it’s just a job, they will say – but others will proudly tell you they are. They will ask if you are activo or pasivo. Top or bottom. Or the coy Cuban version of versatile: completo.

Eddie lives in a small apartment with his sister and brother, as well as his mother and her boyfriend. He can’t afford to live alone. He says he’d like to come to Canada. His English is acceptable, but he does not have many marketable skills, at least not in the legal sense, and he’s already getting to a certain age, as far as hustlers go. He is pessimistic when it comes to his future in Cuba.

Obviously, gay life goes on. All the boys assure me that Las Vegas Bar operates as an openly gay bar in Havana. Another drag show bar, it’s just a few blocks off the foot of La Rampa. Tourists go there to meet the locals. The night I was there it wasn’t busy, or perhaps I was just too early.

A couple of drag queens and some lesbians were hanging around outside, looking defiant and ready for trouble. I felt the lure of the forbidden, what it was like entering your first gay bar. It hearkened back to that rebel spirit in the days of Queer Nation and the sense that it was better to tough things out, bad as they were, than to allow oneself to be beaten down.

In Cuba, the queer community knows that the state dominates everything and that the little freedom they have can be taken away instantly. It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. What they don’t know is whether their Stonewall is just around the corner or, indeed, if it will ever arrive.