The Cuban Revolution is one of the greatest revolutions of all times. Fidel Castro, our beloved Comandante, is one of the most forward-thinking revolutionaries of all times. LGBTQ rights have been part of this incredible evolving story.
Fidel: A Revolutionary Life
In the early years of the revolution, yes, mistakes were made on the LGBTQ issue. Yes, there is still work to be done today. But backward ideas on this or any social issue come not from the revolution but from the legacy of colonialism and catholicism. Centuries of colonialism cannot be eradicated in less than 60 years of revolution, much less antiquated ideas on the LGBTQ issue.
When people from the United States travel to Cuba for the first time, it is easy to see the revolution through a subjective lens.
You can either be someone who does not “get it” and is hyper-critical. Or you can get completely caught up in adoring the revolution — I am admittedly, one of these.
But in all fairness to its leaders and the heavy responsibilities required to build a revolution, the Cuban Revolution must be seen through a more objective lens.
The LGBTQ issue in Cuba should not be judged through the experience of living in the U.S. That is unfair and prejudicial. Nor should the LGBTQ issue in Cuba be put under a microscope, especially from the U.S. — the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated.
The first time I traveled to Cuba years ago, an 88-year-old woman beckoned me from her wheelchair to come talk with her. Her family was wealthy and had fled to Miami after the revolution, but she had stayed and defended the revolution. My grandmother had just died, and listening to this woman brought me to tears. I was filled with euphoria.
I thought about how when my grandmother went to the hospital, she worried if her insurance would cover everything. But in Cuba not only is health care virtually free, but a doctor lives in almost every neighborhood.
As a long-time, Latina lesbian, I felt freer in Cuba than I ever thought I could. A weight literally flies off your shoulders knowing there is absolutely no police terror in Cuba.
Many times over the years Cubans have warned us to shake off that euphoria. One Cuban leader said, “We are not the hell our enemies claim, nor are we the paradise our friends declare either.”
A new documentary titled, “Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution,” directed by Emmy winner Jon Alpert, focuses on the work of Mariela Castro, a member of Parliament, the director of the National Center for Sex Education, CENESEX, and President Raul Castro's daughter.
It is a frank and sobering account of conditions for LGBTQ people in Cuba today. It is a loving and genuine portrayal of the progress made, as well as the challenges that still persist.
It has honest, in-depth interviews with elder gay men victimized by backward attitudes in the early days of the revolution. These prejudices were rooted in the Spanish colonizers’ Roman Catholicism, the patriarchy of slavery and the sexual exploitation of LGBTQ people in pre-revolutionary Cuba, a U.S. capitalist “playground.”
In 1965, when Cuba was preparing for the possibility of another U.S. invasion, gay men were not allowed to serve in the military. This was also true in the U.S. at that time.
When Units to Aid Military Production work brigades were mobilized to help Cuba out of an economic crisis, gay men, along with religious conscientious objectors, were assigned to those units instead of military service.
UMAP brigades were not internment camps, but there were incidents of prejudice and some serious mistreatment of gay men. Because of this, about a hundred young men from the Young Communist League were sent undercover to investigate. After their report, the brigades were closed down.
In 2010, Fidel humbly acknowledged in an interview with La Jornada that these early acts were “a great injustice” to gay people and a mistake. He had earlier affirmed in 1992, “I am absolutely opposed to any form of repression, contempt, scorn or discrimination with regard to homosexuals. It is a natural tendency, a human (tendency), that must simply be respected.”
The documentary contains painful accounts of beatings and hateful attitudes toward LGBTQ people. One transgender woman tells of losing an eye after a homophobic Cuban threw acid in her face. A lesbian tells of how her supervisor refused to promote her because of her sexual orientation. The film points out that the supervisor was a member of the Cuban Communist Party.
I have to admit that my love for Cuba has been so one-sided that I was shocked. I was also fearful that the film would be used to further demonize my beloved revolution.
But my fears were unfounded. The work that Mariela Castro and CENESEX are doing is groundbreaking. It is strengthening the revolution and is becoming another socialist pillar.
As director of CENESEX, Mariela took on a difficult issue. She did not abuse her position as the daughter or the niece of Raul or Fidel, respectively, but did the necessary hard work of educating and organizing, step by step.
Knowing the Cuban Revolution, I am confident that Mariela, who is straight, works closely, hand-in-hand, with LGBTQ Cubans in defining the current work.
I am also aware that the work took on greater importance because it was Mariela, whose contribution should be recognized and commended, as a revolutionary socialist in her own right.
The Cuban government has prioritized doing the necessary work to change attitudes in society on the LGBTQ issue. They have done more than the capitalist government in the U.S. will ever do. The Cuban government defends and fights for all its people. There is no Wall Street there to dictate policy.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Cuba in 1979. In 2008, the Cuban government began offering free gender-reassignment surgery to transgender Cubans. Every May an annual “March against Homophobia” is held in Havana and LGBTQ activists visit rural areas to promote diversity.
The government allowed the documentary to show the errors made, even by Communist Party members. This belies the myth that there is no free speech in Cuba.
Things are not perfect in Cuba, it’s not a paradise. But there are no transgender murders in Cuba, which are rampant in the U.S.
While progress is being made in Cuba, the LGBTQ community in the U.S. is likely to face setbacks now that a gay-conversionist advocate will be vice president and a known sexual predator will be president.
In a short 57 years, great progress has been made. But the first steps in the liberation of our Cuban LGBTQ sisters, brothers and family were made in 1959, with the triumph of the revolution, and in 1961 when Fidel declared Cuba a socialist society. With that declaration, LGBTQ Cubans and all society could begin the long march toward full liberation.
Thank you, Fidel.