Cuba vs. Homophobia:
What Arises, What There is, and What Remains to be Done
Norge Espinosa Mendoza
Precisely one year ago we were here, occupying a space that for a long time seemed impossible, impassable, and uninhabitable. On May 17, 2008, the wait, and the strategies for confrontation we had employed up to that time that we considered to be persuasive maneuvers deteriorated before the hundreds of faces that inundated the Cuba Pavilion and the Astral Theatre. They unmasked themselves and gave a face to that cold percentage of the Cuban population that ceased to be a vague statistic on that day. They became real people, genuine and worthy of a respect that doesn’t fit inside a mere health campaign, or within the ill-hidden pity that the word “tolerance” conjures. I must repeat—one year ago, the wave of passion and fervor began as we began to rethink who was who, and how a country whose values were always in play would deal with the issues of sexuality. It oozed from our collective bodies like a signal and a symptom, skin on skin, with its own laws, demanding a rewriting that would allow complete personal liberty.
May 16, 2009 is another thing altogether. Twelve months after that first impact, opinions and debates were unleashed on nation’s television screens and print media like never before. Cubans celebrated World Anti-Homophobia Day in faith that we have advanced, in what will emerge, in that we have what it takes to sustain this discourse as just one of the many that should be discussed when we address the concept of homeland. We did it in faith of the much we still need to do—or better yet, what we must allow others to do.
The working group from CENESEX headed up by Mariela Castro Espin started to organize the events of May 16th several months in advance. A discussion over the pros and cons of revealing matters that generally are discussed a sotto voce involved specialists, health promoters, artists, officials, entities and voices, resulting in a multiple program that would play out simultaneously for 24 hours throughout the country. In the capital and various provinces, they tried to revive the feelings aroused the year before. To that end, in Havana, the Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) held lectures, panel discussions, and presentations focusing on sexual diversity and the respect for same from an artistic perspective. The Difference Film Club screened from the theatre on 23rd and 12th celebrated its first anniversary during those days. Various branches of the university had hosted debates and promoted issues and ideas since the start of the New Year in anticipation of this date. The day began with the street performance of the band Gigantería, followed by a massive turnout at the Cuba Pavilion, at which the National Prevention Center and other agencies presented their campaigns, while groups like Oremi, HSH and Transgendered interacted openly with the public. Once again, the Astral Theatre presented the night of quick-change artists, although this time they were associated with such notable names as actress Rosa Fornés and such distinguished groups as the Ballet Lizt Alfonso. A concert by the group Aceituna sin Hueso (“Olive without Pit”) closed the high-temperature day, during which Havana herself diversified her spaces so that the interested public could freely flow from one place to another: from the event at the Hubert de Blanck Hall at the Station Theatre, to UNEAC’s Villena Hall, and from there to the Pavilion or vice-versa. All that happened on May 16, in anticipation of May 17, the official date of this event in the rest of the world.
As a sign that the event did not intend to draw attention away from 50th anniversary of the country’s agrarian reform, news coverage was insufficient to convey the intensity of the program. Behind that silence, one could hear other voices, perhaps belonging to those who were deaf to what they had heard.
No doubt, broadening the program will require those who are involved in what is now Cuba’s observation of World Anti-Homophobia Day to undergo an internal restructuring. The inclusion of unprecedented actions by artists and celebrities who have voluntarily approached the project and who have made a commitment to its growth demands capabilities that exceed the need for simply coordinating a series of activities.
The public response, in spite of a failed promotional campaign that said little about what would take place at each venue, illustrates the anxiety and genuine necessity for this moment in the roster of yearly national events. It is more than a matter of passing frivolity or morbid fascination over what has always been a delicate subject. It is not just mere entertainment for the “strange” that generates chaos and unproductive questions. The step we took in 2008 should be more than just static posturing; it should be part of a continuum of work that redraws the landscape as we progress. As such, it becomes clear that a health campaign won’t suffice to offer security to a social group that wants what all groups want: guarantees, protection laws, its own voice and the ability to talk along with the other voices that give texture to a nation. To not understand this is to operate in a vacuum, to feed a naïveté that doesn’t belong in this era, and that does not fit with the examples that are offered in this era. Even in countries where attitudes toward sexual diversity are more backward than they are in Cuba, it is impossible to impair the visibility of these new forces.
The contradiction that is evident in the fact that this project reached the scale of a convention this year, and yet it scarcely appeared in the press and other mass media is a clear symptom of the fissures that exist between the Idea and the idea of life that sustains us. If the country were truly able to accept the concept of inclusivity that this project advocates, it should also be able to connect it to all the available government indices to provide publicity and to treat it with the responsibility deserving of a project that, at this moment, responds to a genuine public need.
During the planning of this convention, CENESEX and its partners have confronted the logical questions that might arise from an expanding platform. The shortages and the pragmatic economic solutions used to underpin each project have become visible and essential throughout the journey, in the day-to-day work of further developing that which breathed its first last year. The next convocation of World Anti-Homophobia Day in Cuba is going to have to defend itself with a better job of internal production, will have to verify the organizational ability of its members and those directly involved with the event, and will face the inevitable task of creating a discourse that will reach everyone without the need to discuss its essence, in order to gain the support that truly can no longer be delayed.
What has risen and what there is, is a direct public that an be addressed; a generation of people of many ages who are, beyond gays and lesbians, common people who are determined to show themselves in a public places without excuses so they can get to know one another and let themselves be seen. From this first impression, we must defend the authenticity of this feat because this country, while raised on ideas (or ideals), relies on those who convert those ideas into flexible formulas that translate into daily life and coexistence. The main thrust that can be read into the celebrations of that day sprouts from there. That is the foundation on which the nation should dialectically reformulate its discourse over what makes up the society without preconceptions that can be an obstacle in obtaining recognition of who we are. That also is the genesis of a major problem because it requires us to include as part of the gallery of representation, those people who until recently were rejected. We must stop thinking of those along the margins as marginal if we position them in a more visible place, and that requires other discussions. After May 17, 2008, letters were addressed to the highest powers in the land to advocate for the inclusion of our day as part of the very conventional and very homophobic Cuban calendar. By way of its magazine, Palabra Nueva (The New Word), the Catholic Church delivered a long article that could not disguise its bitterness beneath its murky terms. Homophobia is fear, a terror that the other who has always been marginalized and ridiculed will have a voice and a face, will take our place, and will demand a stature and a treatment that we would rather reserve for ourselves. In Cuba, many people continue to think with their genitals before their brains; it’s something that could be said for homosexuals as well. The call to grow and mature applies to everyone—not just to the discriminator, but to the discriminated, or those who discriminate against themselves or people like themselves. The echo of that day is really a great demand—too great, in fact, for some. It might even be too great for those who have been charged with promoting a change for the better. But it should be a great challenge, as well as an essential one.
What has risen and what there is means we need to take the pulse of the nation so we can decide when to work and when to expose certain conflicts so as not to miss opportunities. True, sexual diversity is not the kind of subject matter that can be broached with the same ease everywhere as might be possible in a metropolitan environment, although not all places adverse to change are located in provinces far from the capital. The steps we have taken require us to be more careful with our terminology. We must part with the concept of the family as the nucleus of society so we can analyze multiple realities; it’s a necessity, and without that, we can’t hope to win the debate. The street, the school, the places where we cohabitate and learn should serve to catalyze concrete attitudes, the distrust that still remains concerning these issues that tends to flare up and seep into the social consciousness. And yet, when a message is repeated to the point of saturation, and most of the population then feels induced to respect something that they have not been allowed to openly discuss, they cannot be blamed for feeling invaded. To many, homosexuality is still a crime penalized by the Constitution, even though it has ceased to be so. It will take a lot of work and patience to make the air around this subject viable, to make it possible for it to be combined with the rest of the oxygen that circulates the island to tackle problems. It would have to circulate up and down, and towards the many cardinal points of the society.
I could not be everywhere at once. My responsibilities as coordinator of activities at UNEAC this May 17 robbed me of several experiences that I envy those who lived them. Despite that, I was part of the street fest that took over from 23rd and L streets to Pabellón Cuba, which descended in hills and bumps of color in a public space that drew in the interested and the disinterested from there to the central venue. On 17th and H streets, Cuban artists demonstrated that culture is a hard-won territory by using their influence to discuss those thorny subjects that continue to elude the press and those other areas of “Cuban blindness” with an obstinate stubbornness. Victor Fowler discussed his articles published in Sexología magazine, as well as the CENESEX program that has been set up to address his challenges. The poets and writers who participated confirmed that quality is essential in defending issues so they don’t just sound like so much excess baggage. Several of them came from the provinces; in their presences we recognized that of others who gradually had opened the way despite the deafening silence. The issue of homophobia in Cuban visual arts brought forth provocative ideas during a discussion with Danáe Diéguez, Píter Ortega y Eduardo Hernández, one of the three photographers who, along with Juana Mora y Alejandro González, scaled the walls of Villena Hall in which they conducted their meeting. It is a pity that there wasn’t enough time to prolong the debate which lay in wait during those discussions: a promise that the following year the UNEAC session and the activities at the Pabellón would not take place simultaneously so as to allow for a greater audience for both activities. The presentation of the CD Fátima, reina de la noche (Fatima, Queen of Night), which contains that narration of homonyms by Miguel Barnet that was produced by Radio Habana, was the preamble to the surprising visit from the cross-dressers and quick-change artists who appeared in that hall, which that day found itself invaded by another body, both desiring and desirable. At Hubert de Blanck Hall, which was graciously loaned to us by its keepers, the Station Theatre kicked off its homage to the poet of Granada: during Federico at Night, spectators of all ages could recognize the author of “Romancero Gitano” (Gypsy Love Ode) and “El Publico” (The Public). At the Cuba Pabellón Cuba, those who believed themselves to be part of a movement promoting warmth and welcome could not stop taking photos of one another. Roxy Rojo, the mistress of ceremonies of the night of the club Mejunje, took the stage by storm to share her heart-rending Cubo-Russian biography, to unending applause. At night, Rosa Fornés demonstrated that she had nothing to prove; she was unwavering in her live performance of Sin un reproche (“Without reproach”), that hymn to herself and to us all. Then she walked offstage to allow Paloma, Samantha, Mimí, Chaveli, Orianna and so many other visions in red dresses to be confused with the dancers of the Lizt Alfonso troupe. Finally, Estrellita became Edith Piaf and brought the crowd to its feet with an unforgettable Milord. While the spectacle directed by Carlos Diaz (briefer than last year but no less emotional) was taking place inside, others remained outside—so many others that thought should be given to a bigger venue for next year’s gala. Midnight was left in the hands of Aceituna sin Hueso [Olive Without Pit]. Nights before, the singer Rochy’s social club dedicated itself to make this day a success. The Ludwig Foundation announced another exhibit connected to the event. The theatre on 23rd and 12th was packed for the anniversary of the Film Club "Diferente". It was more than a day; it was a state of mind. The exhaustion, stress, disagreements, the physical and psychological effort…in me, all those became other emotions when, at the end of the performance at the Astral Theatre I saw so many, so many exiting that theatre. For those I don’t know, those who I have not asked about gender, or preference, or age or other things, we are working. All those people are part of a Cuba that refracts and multiplies. To work for them will never be enough.
Of course, I want to dedicate these final lines to what still needs to be done. Not because I haven’t mentioned the internal and logistical deficiencies, which were rescued in good measure by the infinite support we received from UNEAC, the Ministry of Culture, and the Young Communist League. We must not abuse of their help, but instead learn from their production tactics. We are lacking, perhaps, in courage. Courage and a sense of civic duty, so that the whole world knows that we don’t just do this in favor of gays and lesbians, but for a whole country of people who are not just geography, or a statistic or some defensive mass. The shameful wave of silence that our newspapers and television swept over these events—all while the foreign press’ coverage of the event was constant, to the point of becoming a thundering roar—is one of those elements that remind us of how far we still need to go. A few might say that there was a brief article on it in Juventud Rebelde, that there was some sort of coverage on the events on several websites; just remember how limited the access to those spaces is in Cuba. With all respect, it is not enough. The negative effects of last year act like a wall that prevents the television media even from interviewing the director of CENESEX, and the commercial that appeared on the “small (but influential) screen” was so neutral that it practically sinned with innocuousness. The programs scheduled to take place at the various locations were not properly publicized (only the Hurón Azul advertised what was going to take place at the UNEAC). The sad part is that there was such a promotional campaign developed, and it was passed on to the various media outlets for dissemination, where it was met with fear and paralysis, no doubt by those who were still ruminating over the unexpected events that took place the year before. Last year, I complained about how some events appeared to be unprecedented, how from day to night, actions occurred that appeared to take into account no valid antecedent whatsoever. This year, we widened the field to include many of those voices, and we took pains to take their experiences into account. It is the country’s promotional apparatus that withdraws from us, so as not to admit or accept our requests for an exchange. To make it worse, the closeness of our date to the day of the Peasant Farmer, Cubadisco, the Meteor maneuvers, and so many others, doesn’t make it easy to understand why they won’t treat us the way they treat the others, with the same respect as they extend to the other dates celebrated by our country. They should have published an article about our day the way they do with all the other days our country commemorates. Last Sunday, during its early morning edition, the national television news reviewed the week’s events without mentioning what had taken place in favor of sexual diversity only a block away from its own studio. In that empty slot, one of our most influential politicians warned that socialism is essentially an inclusive project. I wish more of those influential voices would teach some of their less-inclusive-but-no-less-influential brethren how to be more inclusive. But, I must remind myself that silence also is a symptom of homophobia.
Everything begins anew tomorrow. Last year’s party was not identical to this year’s, which has its own colors and its own set of missteps and discoveries. In 2010, others will come on board and others, too, will bring their own share of conflicts. World Anti-Homophobia Day is a peculiar point during which the nation conducts a self-examination. We are the voice of that nation: a choir of numerous voices, but not monotonous or indifferent. The one thing that remains is for anyone who hears our voices to know who we are. Learning to coexist should not be so arduous. But it is: here, and outside of here as well, let’s not fool ourselves. As we forge forth, let’s remind ourselves and take comfort in the fact that around the world, many others are daring to take those same steps.
CUBA VS HOMOFOBIA: