HAVANA, CUBA—We stroll through the dark streets of Centro Habana, my local friend walking two blocks in front of me to avoid arousing police suspicion that he could be a hustler.
Our destination is a bar called Habaneciendo, where the marquee advertises “Estrellita Jaime Jimenez.” Gay Cuban men of all ages fill the small space until the show begins with Chantal, a cross between Dolly Parton and Wonder Woman. Chantal persuades the audience to sing along while tucking plenty of money down the front of her dress.
Six years ago, on my last visit to Cuba, this scene would have been unthinkable. Back then, most parties were illegal and were held in semi-secret locations under the constant threat of police raids.
Even more surprising is our visit to Café Cantante, behind the National Theatre on the highly symbolic Plaza of the Revolution. Tonight is the one-year anniversary of a disco night called El Divino, attended by hundreds of men and a handful of women.
Events like this can take place more openly now, partly because of the changes wrought by the daughter of President Raúl Castro. Mariela Castro Espín is the director of CENESEX, the government’s National Centre for Sex Education.
Mariela (who locals refer to by her first name) has introduced some important changes, such as the 2008 announcement that Cuba would perform free gender reassignment surgery for transsexuals who qualify. A few dozen individuals have qualified, and I’m told about 15 operations have taken place so far.
Mariela has also spearheaded annual celebrations of the International Day Against Homophobia with a parade in Havana and an outdoor drag show in Santa Clara.
After a late night at Café Cantante, I drag myself onto a bus to the middle of the island for a gay disco, in Santa Clara, the next night. The venue, El Mejunje, was founded by Ramón Silverio, an impoverished local kid who, word has it, loved it when the travelling circus came to town.
Silverio dreamed of a place where artists, rock musicians, drag performers and intellectuals of all kinds could gather and find acceptance.
“Ramón Silverio is a very important cultural figure in Cuba,” a local tourism worker tells me in Spanish. Despite the increasing comfort levels, the worker does not want to be named.
Still, he says the culture in Santa Clara is “is easygoing, tranquilo.” Gays and lesbians can walk the streets with no fear of violence, he says. Trans women can dress as they wish — people won’t assault them or call them names, though they may say, “Que bonita!” (“How beautiful!”)
He’s pleased with the progress of gay rights in Cuba. It’s easier for gay couples to live together now, he says; they just have to find someone with a spare room to rent.
At El Mejunje there are crowds of gay and trans people waiting outside a semi-restored ruin of a building with trees growing out the windows. Inside, a disco beat begins to pound. The throng files in and starts dancing, while a couple of lesbians kiss passionately in the middle of the courtyard.
The events at El Mejunje, like those I attended in Havana, appear to operate with government blessing. However, there are still online reports of events like the Mr Gay Havana Contest encountering fierce government opposition. According to the Friends of Cuban Libraries, the Reinaldo Arenas LGBT Memorial Foundation was screening a documentary film at a private gay library in November 2010 when the police broke in and arrested participants.
Still, my gay Cuban friends, who were much more critical of the government six years ago, speak of Mariela Castro in glowing terms. They quote her statements from TV interviews, where they say she describes gays, lesbians and transgendered people as “partners in the revolution.”