The Next Revolution? The Evolving LGBTQ+ Scene in Cuba

By: Samantha Cannistraci

A funny thing happened on the way to the club: we were highly cautioned against going to Havana’s hottest LGBTQ+ night spot.

This was nothing new for me. Anywhere you go, you will find intolerance of the LGBTQ+ community in all its forms: homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, you name it. I have witnessed and experienced it firsthand here in America.

The same thing happened in Cuba, where I had the opportunity to travel in January as part of a faculty-led journalism trip through Adelphi University. Our time abroad was intended for information collection to produce reports on various aspects of Cuban living. I wanted to compare and contrast the treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals as I have experienced it in my own country versus that of a country significantly more sheltered and, to an outsider, nearly synonymous with oppression. In hopes of getting interviews and having a fun night out, I led the charge to find a gay club. Indeed, one was found, ironically named Las Vegas.

With the help of John Drew, professor and Spanish translator, I was able to arrange an outing for one of our nights in Havana. A small group of us were set to go and we would meet with two or three members of the education trip from Adelphi whose program ran parallel to ours. As we told our tour guide and other Cuban natives about these plans, we were told to be careful, that the club was in an unsafe part of the city and that if we went, we would be preyed upon.

Senior speech-pathology major, Nic Rasmussen, said, “Going to the gay club really shed some light on the view of LGBTQ+ individuals in Cuba. Even the doorman of the hotel warned me to stay away from that specific club because of the type of people who go there.”

In reality, the club was no different from any other, except there was an hour-long drag show.

Julie Salvatore, a freshman business major, said of the atmosphere: “It was animated and upbeat and it just made you want to dance the moment you walked in. I had a great night.”

The club was mostly filled with males, a decent number of them being foreign to Cuba. Everyone in Las Vegas seemed open with their sexualities. It was hard to pin down who was part of the LGBTQ+ community. People of varying ages would dance with the opposite sex before switching to the same passionate dancing with the same sex.

This, too, was reminiscent of America. Since returning from Cuba, I have gone to the Stonewall Inn, which was made famous in 1969 by protests from LGBTQ+ people against harassment from frequent police raids. While I was at the bar recently, it was clear that there was no shame in being there. The population was much more mixed in terms of apparent gender expression.

Similar to Las Vegas, the people dancing seemed fairly open to dancing with whoever they were near, regardless of age or gender. I suppose that may be a quality of gay bars in general. There is an inherent lack of homophobia and heteronormativity – at least, there should be. Thus, one faces much less judgement in choosing a partner.

What I experienced in Cuba was not quite what I imagined. Overall, I think the outsider reactions to us going to Las Vegas were more harsh than I expected.

In preparing for my trip to Cuba, I research the LGBTQ+ situation. I learned about Mariela Castro, the niece of Fidel Castro, daughter of Raúl, who is not only the director of CENESEX, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, but also a dedicated activist for LGBTQ+ rights.

Also, I learned that, due to one of her proposals, since 2008, transgender individuals in Cuba have had the ability to transition for free as part of the country’s universal healthcare. Castro has traveled to various countries to march in Pride Parades. Every year since at least 2012, Cuba has participated in an event originally called IDAHO, the International Day Against Homophobia, which has, in recent years, expanded to include transphobia and biphobia in the title.

As a result of my research, I made the assumption that one reason marriage rights had not been granted to the LGBTQ+ community was because it is not a democracy with elected officials voting to represent the views of the many.

Once we got to Cuba, I realized that the public may not want equal marriage rights, either. Based on my experience, being LGBTQ+ is still widely considered a taboo there. It is interesting to me that, similar to America, there are pockets of communities and certain demographics that are more widely accepting and others which are not. This explained why there were a lot of younger, seemingly heterosexual club goers.

My hands-on experience with Cuban culture led me to the conclusion that while there are inclusions of LGBTQ+ individuals by the law, the public stigma around the community is palpable.

Unfortunately, progress for LGBTQ+ rights may be slow despite all the other changes underway in Cuba.

On our trip, my class learned from a man named Camilo Garciá López-Trigo, a former diplomat with Cuba’s foreign ministry, about the history behind U.S. and Cuban relations. As he spoke, he would gesticulate and his shirt would raise slightly. I quickly noticed that his belt held the colors of the gay flag and made sure to approach him after the lecture. I asked him about his thoughts on the future of the LGBTQ+ community in Cuba.

Garciá López-Trigo revealed that he has a partner who is also an activist. He spoke about his personal connections to Mariela Castro, as he is also a prominent member of CENESEX. Camilo said that he did not think that opening of relations with U.S. would result in much policy crossover, speaking on marriage rights. He sees a long fight still ahead, but is hopeful for the future.

Although there is much more open expression of various sexualities and gender identities in America, there is still a long way to go here, too. There is an interesting paradox between the United States and Cuba in that the former has marriage rights, albeit with restriction, and no guarantee to the necessary treatments and surgeries for transgender individuals, while the latter provides those surgeries under its universal free healthcare but will allow only as much as the equivalent to a civil union.

It is important to recognize that, in America, like Cuba, we are not equal. Marriage rights do not equate to freedom and they are certainly not a measure of acceptance. While I experienced no outright judgment about being at a gay bar in New York City, I know that’s not the case everywhere nationwide. Acceptance and judgment are heavily affected by which part of the country one resides in. There are many laws currently being debated and even enacted in America which combat basic comforts of transgender individuals and marriage equality of the community as a whole. The implications of this are very serious and why elections are so important.

People rarely liken the United States to Cuba given how long the two nations have spent distancing themselves from one another in all ways except placement on a map. However, they are similar in that each has a number of laws protecting their LGBTQ+ individuals, but a long way to go to change public views. I also learned that in places built by the LGBTQ+ community for their community, there is a freedom that can be felt.

I’m not done learning. This trip to Cuba inspired me to learn about the LGBTQ+ rights around the world. As a member of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at Adelphi, and more importantly, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I knew that I wanted to research this topic during my time in Cuba. Everywhere, we face the same issues: ignorance and intolerance. Yet the community remains proud and perseveres. We continue to fight for visibility and acceptance. I’ll continue to be part of that fight.