Homosexuals as the New Niggers

by Joe Nicholson
(Scanned February 2007
from book published in 1973)


While it has improved life for most Cubans, the Revolution has created a new class of outcasts, the homosexuals. The work-prison camps in which they were put in the early 1960s have been abolished, but their life has scarcely improved. They are officially classified as "antisocial" and ipso facto hostile to the Revolution; they are barred from the mass political organizations, and relegated to a second-class citizenship—perhaps outlaw status is more accurate—that makes U.S. blacks seem emancipated. In Cuba, everybody's life depends on his support for—or at least his cooperation with—the Revolution; it is a prerequisite for a good job, a chance to enter the university, and even the opportunity to buy rationed consumer goods—a refrigerator, a radio, a wristwatch. For homosexuals, many of these things are impossible, all of them difficult.

"Why are they doing this to us? Yes, that's a question many of us frequently ask ourselves," I was told by a Cuban homosexual named Carlos. Such discrimination is popular among macho Cubans who have always despised homosexuals. Fidel undoubtedly draws support from this campaign just as others have bolstered themselves by attacking the weakest, most hated minority, such as Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who picked on a small group of American Communists, and Richard Nixon who assailed long-haired antiwar demonstrators. A cowardly but effective tactic.

I met Carlos one afternoon while I was walking on the MalecOn, the wide avenue running along Havana's shoreline, frequently soaked by Caribbean waves breaking over the seawall. I noticed his black face and traditional Cuban straw hat glistening in the tropical sun and asked if I could take a photograph of him with his broom, shovel and garbage cart. We began to talk and he told me—glancing over his shoulder every few seconds—that he had lost a good factory job after he applied to go to the U.S. He was sent to clean streets for about $80 a month, a very low wage in Cuba and much less than his factory pay. After I answered a dozen of his questions about conditions in the U.S. for blacks and homosexuals, he told me he wanted to leave Cuba because he was a homosexual.

"We're all scared. Scared all the time here," explained Carlos, who said he was thirty-six and shared an apartment with his mother, several brothers and sisters, an aunt and an uncle. "The CDRs [Committees for the Defense of the Revolution] watch us all the time. There is no privacy. It was better, much better, under Batista. Do you know that when they arrest homosexuals they print their names in the papers and say they are homosexual? So that their mothers, their fathers, their brothers and sisters, their wives and children, everyone, can read in the paper that they are homosexual?" Carlos stopped, unable to find words to express his rage. He started again, issuing a torrent of such bitterness that he seemed to be hoping to grasp the government with his words and rip it to shreds. "And then they tell us we're antisocial! Is it any wonder that homosexuals are against this government?"

He asked to see my identification as a U.S. journalist and made me promise not to write anything that would identify him. "Could you help me to escape?" he asked. "Can you find a ship in New York, perhaps a Greek ship, that is coming to Cuba? Could you talk to the shipping officials for me? It costs about $1,500, but I have relatives in the U.S. who would be willing to pay it." I wasn't sure whether he was serious so I asked him if it wasn't a very dangerous idea. "It is very dangerous, but if you were in my situation you wouldn't be afraid to try it because life is so bad. Do you know that Padilla [Herberto Padilla, a controversial Cuban poet] wrote a poem about the people who sacrificed their lives on a boat at sea while trying to escape from Cuba?" I asked why he didn't write to his U.S. relatives asking them to help him escape. "Don't you understand?" Carlos responded. "They inspect letters going out. I'm afraid to write because it's very dangerous." How have other exiles made their escape? "I cannot talk about the specific ways people have gotten out because you're a journalist, and it would not be good to have the information published. It is very difficult to make contacts here. They watch the ports very, very carefully. I know people who have gone out. They got away because there are ships here from Canada, Mexico, Greece and other countries. And I know others who want to go, both homosexuals and heterosexuals. The heterosexuals want to go because, if they don't like something or don't agree with a policy or criticize something, they get watched all the time." I offered to take one of his letters with me and mail it when I got to the U.S. But Carlos refused, making me wonder whether he just wanted to see how I would respond. He asked what I thought about communism. "Well, you know life isn't perfect in the United States either," I said. "There's racial discrimination and ghettos and poverty." He looked at me: "The way you're talking sounds like a Communist. Are you sure you're not a Communist?"

While we talked Carlos climbed up on the waist-high seawall and looked down behind it to make sure no one was on the boulders which rise above the waves during low tide. "No, I'm not being a paranoiac," he insisted. "I've got friends who fish off the rocks down there, and they say that what the people are saying on the Malecon sometimes carries out over the water." Carlos became uneasy again when a man came up and stood ten feet from us, looking out at the sea. Carlos tried to shift the subject and asked me the time. The newcomer answered: "Ten past two." He made no further effort to join the conversation. While I had never felt I was under surveillance in Cuba, I had to agree with Carlos that our listener, perhaps only a nosy neighbor, seemed to be watching us.

Carlos wanted to introduce me to a friend. We met the next afternoon in front of the Copelia, Cuba's ice cream parlor de luxe. Carlos's friend Roberto, a twenty-sevenyear-old office worker, was from a family of wealthy parents and older sisters. White and educated at private schools before the Revolution, he seemed to have little in common with Carlos except homosexuality and bitterness. His father had fled Cuba and his mother had become a Communist militant—a party member—and gone to work. Roberto worked at the Institute of Books revising manuals, a job which he hated and yet feared losing should he be exposed as a homosexual.

Roberto showed off a striped sports shirt, sent by his aunt in Spain. "There is nothing like this in Cuba now," he said disgustedly. A pause followed. I explained I was an American journalist writing about life in Cuba. Roberto nodded. Another pause.

"Well, what do you want to know?" he asked impatiently. I recounted Carlos's complaints about life under Castro, apparently the cue he wanted. "Life is very bad. There are many, many people in the jails in Cuba, including many homosexuals put there under various pretexts," he began. "We have nothing now, not even one car. We used to have four in our driveway, the best American cars, the latest models. You cannot buy clothes. And the clothes they give you are not attractive at all." He rattled off recriminations at a disordered pace, equally angry about the loss of his middle-class life-style and the antihomosexual policies. He shared Carlos's paranoia, warning that my hotel room telephone was bugged and insisting that I take the cassette out of my tape recorder.

"What America does to its blacks, Cuba does to its homosexuals," he said, a strong statement from a Cuban who reads a steady newspaper diet about the exploiting, beating and killing of blacks in the U.S. "Most homosexuals hate this government. I know a few who are members of the Young Communists. They have to be constantly on the alert that they are not found out. Do you know that the police pick up any man who lets his hair start to get long? And they shave his head. I have friends to whom this has happened. It's very dangerous to talk to you, you know. If the police see us talking to a foreign journalist they will question us about what we were saying.

"I want nothing more than to go and live in Europe," said Roberto. "Here we have no place we can go for sex. In Cuba, most people live two families to an apartment now. The posadas [hotels designated for trysting couples] are for heterosexuals only. Some homosexuals who don't have a friend's house to go to do it in the stairwells of public buildings. If they're caught they go to jail. Transvestites are sent to jail. Life is very bad here. Voluntary work isn't really voluntary because those who don't do it get demerits and get sent to worse jobs. I've known many who were. In their hearts, almost all Cubans are secretly against the government." He paused. "What else do you want to know?"

What do you think of Fidel Castro?

"He was very stubborn and pigheaded to break relations with the U.S. because that has caused a lot of unnecessary hardship for all Cubans. I think Fidel is a good man; but he isn't a good leader. His brother Raul is the one who set up the prisons for homosexuals."

Is capitalism a better system than socialism?

"Yes, because you can better yourself, work and get something. Here you work hard and you still have nothing. Other countries in Latin America have better conditions, better food, better clothing. There are private supermarkets here with finer clothes and better products for the military and civilian leaders. These leaders live in rather high style and drive private Alfa cars." Roberto, perhaps remembering the cars his family once owned, bristled with resentment. "What else," he demanded, "do you want to know?" We had arrived back at the Copelia after walking down La Rampa to the Malecon, dry during low tide, and back up the avenue's other side. I said 1 had to leave, and Carlos, fearing that he and Roberto would be revealed as my sources, asked me not to contact them again.

"Pepe, do you mean to say that you met homosexuals here in Cuba?" asked Marcos when I told him what I'd heard from Carlos and Roberto. Disturbed by the charges of persecution, Marcos was reluctant to concede that homosexuals even existed in Revolutionary Cuba. After further conversation, he accepted that I had spoken with Cuban homosexuals, but he refused to admit that they were subject to any mistreatment or discrimination. He sounded like a southern politician discussing "our colored folks" before legislation enfranchised black voters: they were spoken of as a problem, or perhaps as a labor resource; but never as human beings. Marcos vaguely recalled that Fidel had alluded to the problem in one of his speeches, and, seizing upon that as a way to end the discussion, promised to look it up for me.

Despite his intolerance of homosexuals, Marcos was very understanding about another group of sexual nonconformists. "The practice of bestiality is not so uncommon here in Cuba," he said. Alerted by his impish smile, I pressed him on the issue. He steadfastly denied having had carnal knowledge of any of the island's sheep. "1, myself, no," he said twice emphatically, becoming alarmed that my astonishment might lead me to such a suggestion. "But it is not so uncommon here in Cuba. I know guys who have done it." His tone surprised me because it suggested bestiality was a phase any young boy goes through, like playing marbles or masturbating. I explained my surprise to Marcos, pointing out that I had grown up in a city neighborhood far removed from the temptations of grazing sheep.

Looking back on that talk, I'm sorry I let it pass so easily. The questions that come to mind! How would Marcos have described the Party line on bestiality? What would have been the response of some of those serious-minded party liners? An issue perfectly tailored to wreak havoc with bureaucrats and dogmatists? Fidel himself might laugh it off, but those try-harder functionaries two or three echelons below could be depended on to grapple with such questions like a greased pig. A reporter's delight! Fidel is adept at public handling of thorny questions, a skill undoubtedly facilitated by the absence of second-guessing Herblocks and Nicholas von Hoff-mans rendering judgments in print the next morning. Even on homosexuality, Fidel has shown a public thoughtfulness that bears little resemblance to Cuba's actual policies. Lee Lockwood's Castro's Cuba, Cuba's Fidel, contains this 1965 interview:

LOCKWOOD: There has apparently been an organized effort by men in your government to deal firmly with homosexuals, some of whom were in positions of responsibility. It seemed that a general, naively conceived effort was under way to stamp out homosexuality.

CASTRO: That problem has not been sufficiently studied nor sufficiently analyzed. Nor do I believe that definitive norms exist yet anywhere in relation to this very delicate problem.

We have considered it our duty to take at least minimum measures to the effect that those positions in which one might have a direct influence upon children and young people should not be in the hands of homosexuals, above all in educational centers.

LOCKWOOD: Is it your position that if one is a homosexual one cannot be a Revolutionary?

CASTRO: Nothing prevents a homosexual from professing revolutionary ideology and, consequently, exhibiting a correct political position. In this case he should not be considered politically negative. And yet we would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary, a true Communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of w hat a militant Communist must be.

But above all, I do not believe that anybody has a definitive answer as to what causes homosexuality. I think the problem must be studied very carefully. But I will be frank and say that homosexuals should not be allowed in positions where they are able to exert influence upon young people. In the conditions under which we live, because of the problems which our country is facing, we must inculcate our youth with the spirit of discipline, of struggle, of work. In my opinion, everything that tends to promote in our youth the strongest possible spirit, activities related in some way with the defense of the country, such as sports, must be promoted. This attitude may or may not be correct, but it is our honest feeling.

It may be in some cases a person is homosexual for pathological reasons. It would indeed be arbitrary if such a person were maltreated for something over which he had no control . . . .

Paula Diaz, the Centennial Youth Column leader described the Column's policy of excluding lesbians and homosexuals. "All homosexuals in general—we call them inverts—are prohibited," she said, taking a long breath. "The young people should be young people who are able to carry with dignity the name of the Column. That kind of person can't be with us. They're antisocial people, prohibited in our society."

Why are homosexuals prohibited in Cuban society?

"Because they are going against the development of our society. This is our criterion. They're going against the ideological formation of young people. We think homosexuality is an immoral act."

Is this a heritage from Roman Catholicism?

"We have no vestiges from the Church. It is against the ideological formation of our young people. These people have a weak character. Sometimes it is a question of being born with it. Other times because of the education persons got in their home. We don't treat them as bastards. They have the opportunity to participate as any other man, even though we are fighting not to increase the number of homosexuals. It's possible some people practice homosexuality as part of struggling against their society: a protest in a capitalist society. But the homosexual can't be a Marxist. He could only be a progressive person."

Is this based on Marx's writing?

"It's not exactly that Marx wrote about that subject. It's because a person's behavior shouldn't be immoral. The fundamental role of men and women in a Revolution like ours is to create a developed country, to become fully developed people and to create a developed country. That's why we can't understand young people who are homosexuals."

Could a person who masturbates be a true Marxist revolutionary?

"It would depend on the person. It depends. It is one thing to do it and another to practice it as a need to have it, a habit. If a person did that it would be against the Revolution and he couldn't be a Revolutionary. We are seeking to form the new man without any mental aberrations. That is why it is impossible to consider as Revolutionary a person with these aberrations. We are concerned with bad comportment. People should be completely equal, the same. We are concerned that people be born and be educated in the same social method. This way men and women, black and white, are considered the same. Homosexuality is a capitalist inheritance."

Pleased to lay the blame on capitalism, Paula ended on an upnote of certitude and sat back in her chair. She retained her unblinking, contented expression when I inquired whether homosexuality, reportedly practiced by ancient Greeks, hadn't predated capitalism.

The question went unanswered during a moment of silence. One of Paula's coleaders, who spoke with an articulateness Paula lacked, gave her views on homosexuality: "Because of the cultural tradition in our country this kind of person is always a subject of prejudices. A Communist must get the respect of the people. This man loses all prestige and so does any institution to which he belongs. Each country has its own traditions. We believe a homosexual is not completely healthy because he isn't completely in accord with the norms of nature. We want people who are completely formed."

Jose A. Chavez, administrator of the District Jose Marti housing project in Santiago, described the exclusion of homosexuals as new tenants: "We don't need in the society we are building someone interested in this. . If we find someone practices this thing we don't move him to this district. They have to be married. Single people are moved elsewhere." Julio Martin Ferrer, a tenant in the project, interjected, "And we don't move families in if any of the children are homosexuals."

The administrator repeated himself, laying stress: "No, no, no, we don't move any homosexuals here. And no married bisexuals. We make an investigation into all members of a family. We can also detect this while they are still working in the minibrigade. It's the same with a loafer; we don't move his family to the district either. We make a very hard selection.

"We understand that people here should be completely pure, free from that sort of custom. We aspire to make our tenants model people. This way the district will be a socialist society and all the residents will arrive to a 100 percent level of harmonious living together." Why no homosexuals? "Let's just say this spoiled apple is in this box with everybody and we have to eliminate it." Martin added the final word: "In this social system we try not to permit that type of custom. That's something that degenerates people."

Like Chavez and Martin, most Cubans apparently support the antihomosexual policy. Some don't, but all—except the homosexual—seem willing to tolerate it. Even black Cubans, who remember their own mistreatment and have a strong concern for the problems of U.S. blacks, generally accept the official mistreatment of homosexuals. I discussed the issue in Camaguey City with two black workmen who had called the improved status of blacks one of the Revolution's greatest achievements and inquired about treatment of U.S. blacks. Should the Revolution, I asked, discriminate against homosexuals?

"The problem is these people have a weak character," replied the older man whose hair was turning white. "They are immoral. So they cannot he members of the Party and the other structures of the Revolution."

"There is no discrimination against homosexuals," declared his friend, a middle-aged man he called Chico.

"Sure there is!" said the white-haired man. "They can't belong to the Party! These people are not good workers."

"They are good workers!" disagreed Chico. "Some homosexuals work harder than we do. They get more done than heterosexuals."

"But they have character weaknesses, immorality," insisted the white-haired man. "They can't be admitted to the Party!"

Chico nodded reluctant agreement, adding, "But they must be treated decently, treated as people."

"What are the new American cars like?" asked the older man, ending the discussion. "We haven't seen them in more than twelve years. And the Yankees? How are the New York Yankees doing? We can't read about the big leagues in the newspapers any more. Now it's only our own baseball games, amateur baseball. But sometimes I hear the ball scores on the Voice of America. I understand the Yankees don't win the pennant like they used to. . . ."

Under the Revolution, homosexuals are cowering in their closets, and it's doubtful there'll ever be a gay liberation movement or even a measure of human dignity for them. While the U.S. has federal employment laws which discriminate against homosexuals, the limited role of American government makes life for homosexuals much more tolerable. Cuba's monolithic collectivism, so effective in upgrading life for women and blacks, is equally effective in making life nearly unbearable for homosexuals.

Listening to Cuban homosexuals evoked for me all those high school lectures on the evils of communism: people in the grip of an all-powerful police state who dream of escaping to freedom. For the Cuban homosexuals, the Revolution seems to have made this a reality. And I couldn't help wondering if some other group might not someday find itself in similar disfavor.


Going to Church

Perhaps the best indicator of Fidel's genius has been his handling of the Roman Catholic Church, a pillar of society in pre-Castro Cuba as it still is elsewhere in Latin America. The Revolution never attacked the Church directly and today Cubans can attend 7 A.M. Mass at churches throughout the island.

"There are still some people, not many, who go to church, especially on Sunday. They're usually older people," said Marcos, showing me Old Havana's Cathedral of Our, Lady of Charity, a rugged Gothic masterpiece where Mass has been celebrated since the Spanish built it in 1552.

While the Revolution didn't dismantle the Church, Castro did something much more destructive. He took away the Church's reason for being, particularly among the poor, and left it to wither in disuse. The Revolution, if it's done nothing else, has given the Cuban masses