Gay Cuba? Not yet!

The homophobia of the Castro regime has eased, but queers still suffer discrimination.

Julian Schnabel's new film, Before Night Falls, dramatises the persecution of gay Cuban writer, Reinaldo Arenas, and reignites controversy over the homophobia of the Castro regime. Peter Tatchell looks at this dark period of Cuba's history and reveals that while the anti-gay witch-hunts have ceased, gays still suffer discrimination.

"Old propaganda ... slanders ... lies and half truths about the Cuban revolution and its treatment of gays". These are the accusations being made against the new Julian Schnabel film, Before Night Falls, by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. It plans to picket cinemas with leaflets denouncing the movie as "Old rubbish in a new bin".

On general release from 15 June, Before Night Falls tells the life story of the celebrated Cuban novelist, Reinaldo Arenas, who was persecuted by the Castro regime because his writing and homosexuality defied socialist orthodoxy.

Directed by Julian Schnabel (Basquiat), the film stars Javier Bardem (Live Flesh, Jamon Jamon) as Arenas, and co-stars Sean Penn and Johnny Depp. At the 2000 Venice Film Festival it scooped the Grand Jury Prize, and Bardem has won a Best Actor nomination for this year's Academy Awards.

According to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, Before Night Falls "presents a distorted and often fantastical portrayal of Cuban revolutionary reality. Cuba no longer discriminates against homosexuals".

But far from being "outrageous lies ... and falsifications", this film illuminates, through the life of Arenas, a monstrous moment in Cuban history, when Castro's homophobia paralleled the persecution of gay Chileans during the Pinochet dictatorship.

Although homosexuals are no longer savagely repressed, it is nonsense to suggest that there is no discrimination in Cuba today. The claim that Havana has none of the death squads that murder queers in Bogota is hardly proof of Castro's liberalism.

As for the past, why shouldn't the truth be told? Acknowledging previous horrors does not negate the many positive achievements of Cuban socialism, including the highest standards of health, education and housing of any Latin American country, and a literacy rate exceeding that of the United States.

Although the Cuba Solidarity Campaign has denounced Arenas as "embittered (and) deeply problematical", he was initially an ardent supporter of the revolution, running away from home at the age of 14 to join the rebels fighting to overthrow the Batista dictatorship. After Castro's victory in 1959, Arenas benefited from the new government's mass education programme, eventually gaining a place at the University of Havana and winning official acclaim for his first novel, Singing from the Well. But his follow-up book, Hallucinations, was refused publication and had to be smuggled to a publisher in France. This act of defiance resulted in repeated police raids and the confiscation of his manuscripts.

The campaign of harassment culminated in his arrest in 1973 on a false charge of sexual assault. Fearful of his fate, Arenas escaped from prison and made an unsuccessful attempt to float to Florida on an inner tube. Recaptured, he spent the next two years brutalised inside El Morro prison, until he agreed to secure his freedom by renouncing his deviant writings.

Arenas eventually got out of Cuba in the 1980 Mariel Harbour exodus, when Castro decided to get rid of "anti-social" dissidents, criminals and homosexuals by allowing these "scum" to emigrate to the US.

Settling in New York proved a mixed blessing. While free to write, he was stateless, impoverished and later contracted HIV. With no health insurance, he could not afford proper treatment. Dying and plagued by depression, Arenas committed suicide in 1990, aged 47.

If his life was an indictment of communism's lack of political, artistic and sexual freedom, then the circumstances of his death were an equally damning reproach concerning the fate of the poor and sick under capitalism.

Arenas himself made this point shortly before his death, bemoaning that by going into exile he had exchanged political repression for economic injustice.

Peter Marshall's generally favourable book about the revolution, Cuba Libre, recalls that, like Arenas, many gay artists and intellectuals supported Castro's insurrection. They saw his rebellion against the US-backed dictatorship as paving the way for cultural and sexual freedom, as well as economic emancipation and social justice.

The popular left-wing journal, Lunes de Revolucion was run largely by gay writers. It's radical ideas seemed to enjoy the tacit support of the rebels in the Sierra Maestra. A couple of years after Castro came to power, however, Lunes de Revolucion was closed down, as were other free-thinking magazines. Many gay authors and journalists were publicly disgraced, refused publication, and dismissed from their jobs. Some were reassigned to work as janitors and labourers.

While Castro challenged many backward ideas as remnants of the old society, he embraced with enthusiasm the homophobia of Latin machismo and Catholic dogma, elevating it into a fundamental tenet of Cuba's new socialist morality. Idealising rural life, he once claimed approvingly that "in the country, there are no homosexuals".

When Cuba adopted Soviet-style communism it also adopted Soviet-style prejudice and puritanism. Ever since Stalin promoted the ideology of "the socialist family" and recriminalised gay sex in 1934, communist orthodoxy dictated that homosexuality was a "bourgeois decadence" and "capitalist degeneration". This became the Cuban view. "Maricones" (faggots) were routinely denounced as "sexual deviants" and "agents of imperialism". Laughable allegations of homosexuality were used in an attempt to discredit "corrupting" western influences, such pop music, with the communists circulating the rumour that the Beatles were gay.

In the name of the new socialist morality, homosexuality was declared illegal in Cuba and typically punishable by four years imprisonment. Parents were required to prevent their children from engaging in homosexuals activities and to report those who did to the authorities. Not informing on a gay child was a crime against the revolution.

Official homophobia led, the mid-1960s, to the mass round up of gay people, without charge or trial. Many were seized in night-time swoops and incarcerated in forced labour camps for "reeducation" and "rehabilitation". A few disappeared and never returned.

At the First National Congress on Education and Culture in 1971, it was decreed that homosexuals were "pathological", "anti-social" and "not be tolerated" in any job where they might "influence youth". Widespread anti-gay purges followed in schools, universities, theatres and the media. Gay professors, dancers, actors and editors ended up sweeping roads and digging graves.

The repression did not begin to ease until the mid-1970s and even then it was not because the Cuban leadership recognised their error. They halted mass detentions and reduced sentences largely because they were shamed by the international protest campaigns organised by newly formed gay liberation movements and left-wing intellectuals such as Jean Paul Sartre.

A more significant softening of official attitudes took place in the 1980s. With the advent of Aids, the Cuban authorities eventually showed greater tolerance towards homosexuals in order to win their confidence and support for safer sex. At around the same time, the secondment to Cuba of East German doctors and psychologists, who viewed homosexuality as a natural minority condition, prompted more enlightened thinking among medical staff and health educators.
While the 1979 penal code formally decriminalised homosexuality, the legal status of lesbian and gay people in Cuba today is still ambiguous. Homosexual behaviour causing a "public scandal" can be punished by up to 12 months jail and this law is sometimes used to arrest effeminate gay men and transvestites. Discreet open-air cruising in public squares and parks is tolerated, although often kept under police surveillance. Most gay bars are semi-legal private house parties and are subject to periodic police raids. Homosexuals are still deemed unfit to join the ruling Communist Party (being gay is contrary to communist ethics) and this can have an adverse impact of a person's professional career when senior appointments depend on party membership. Lesbian and gay newspapers and organisations are not permitted. The Cuban Association of Gays and Lesbians, formed in 1994, was suppressed in 1997 and its members arrested. Gay Cuba? Not

Published in a slightly edited form as The Defiant One, The Guardian, Friday Review, 8 June 2001.

Copyright Peter Tatchell 2001. All rights reserved.
Published: 08/06/2001