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Afro-Cuban LGBTQI voices

13 min read

Yasmin Silvia Portales, Afro-Cuban, Marxist, feminist and LGBT rights activist (pictured above)

As a person who identifies as a black, bisexual woman have you experienced discrimination?

I’ve experienced discrimination since I was a child. The first time it was gender discrimination. I was playing in my grandmother’s house and I made a big jump. She said, ‘Girls don’t jump like that!’ I felt sad but didn’t realise then that it was part of how you learn to be a woman. I was always struggling with the constraint and elegance that are supposed to be my companions as a woman.

In terms of race discrimination, I remember a teacher asking me why I was using braids rather than having my hair chemically straightened. She said, ‘You are beautiful, but those braids make you look like a poor little black girl.’ She was Afro-descendant too, but was trying to help me fit in by making me conform to the white, Western look.

In high school, on many occasions I was subjected to suspicions with regard to my sexuality. I wasn’t interested in playing the game of fooling around, so people concluded that I must be a lesbian. Later I hung around with gay men and everyone assumed that the only reason why was also because I am a lesbian. It was complicated and sad, but at the same time gave me a kind of ‘all queers together’ feeling. I don’t remember ever being the direct subject of homophobic violence, and later I went to theatre school; it was a more liberal place.

On the other hand I present as a cis-gendered woman. I had a husband for 10 years and I have a child. I don’t go around with a t-shirt saying ‘Bi and proud’, so some people assume that you are straight and narrow-minded like them. This hurts sometimes…

Afro-Cuban LGBTQI voices-Photo Bex Wade-9

Has there been a change in the discrimination you’ve experienced over the years?

Now people are speaking about this. Back in the ‘80s no one was talking about it. Homosexuals were people who everyone thought would end up lonely or with AIDS. We are queer people and we have gone from silence to presence. People get ‘out of the closet’ younger these days. I know people who have been living in the closet for 50 years, who spent their whole reproductive life pretending. But young people in urban areas have better conditions now to come out.

However, on the other hand homophobia is becoming more violent. When you go from silence to presence in the public place, you put heteronormativity in a defensive position. The heteronormative monster in Cuban society is trying to fight back and becoming more violent in its expression.

There is a very popular soap opera in Cuba, and for the first time recently a gay man appeared in it. At the same time CENESEX (National Centre for Sexual Education, a government-funded body advocating for tolerance towards LGBTQI issues in Cuba, headed by Mariela Castro, daughter of Raúl Castro, niece of Fidel. They support trans people who want to access gender reassignment treatment), received a letter from a young gay man asking for help because his door had been pelted with stones by locals. That kind of violence hadn’t happened since the ‘70s – and back then it was a state affair, where all the gay men were put in camps.

Most of us are celebrating the advances made by the community, but are not aware of the dangers of the heteronormative empire striking back. Many people will say, ‘I have nothing against gay people but they have to be decent, quiet and discreet. We don’t want queers, transvestites or butch women.’ For me what’s going on right now is that people want to put us back where they think we belong by force. There is increased hate speech in evangelical churches, an increase in homophobic slurs in certain newspapers.

Cuba is a very controlled country, however, perhaps one of the few good things about a police state is that violence is very limited at least! The limitation of freedom of expression in this country in a certain way is advantageous to the LGBT community. For instance the evangelical church can’t organise a demonstration against the queers in the street – they have to remain within the church walls.

Is there racism within the LGBTQI community?

We have racists within the LGBT community because there is racism in Cuba. ‘Normal’ here means white cis-gendered men. In our movement those who are more willing and able to participate are those at the top of the food chain. So, white, middle class, gay men will have the time and confidence to speak out. Trans people or Afro-descendants are just too busy getting on with the basics in life to take a main role in the movement.

The state institutions that try and promote and control our movement haven’t consciously elected diversity in to their ranks and they are reproducing the same old models. The Cuban LGBT community is very influenced by the media in the USA – reproducing the racist and sexist styles that the TV shows project, with an idea of diversity that still has white men firmly placed at the centre.

The Cuban state doesn’t address the racism issue with the same energy and courage as it does the LGBT issue. The LGBT movement has iconic figures from the establishment like Mariela Castro, but the anti-racist movement does not have such figures. Afro-descendants are third class citizens; there is no real policy on racism in state-sponsored civil society and Afro-descendants don’t feel comfortable enough to stand up and speak out as they know they won’t be welcome as spokespeople or leaders.

Class issues also play out here – Afro-descendants are more likely to be poor and doing precarious work than their fellow white members of the LGBT community. Being, for instance, trans, black and poor means you are too busy surviving to participate.

What’s your opinion about the fact that CENESEX, the main organization that represents your community, is a led by white cis-gendered woman from the political elite?

(Laughs…) At least she’s a feminist!

Trans women started going to CENESEX because they were accepted there and were excluded by the Cuban Womens’ Federation. For me, politically, Mariela is CENESEX, being who she is. At the same time she is a limiting factor for the movement because we are reproducing the system. In Cuba we don’t choose our leaders, and we didn’t choose her. However, this is the reality of the political process here and we have to deal with it. It is negative in the long term….but most of the achievements that we have at this point came from her, and her father.

If we removed her from the equation we would have few gains. Most in the movement believe she is the lesser of two evils, but she has the power to keep the rules as she likes. We don’t have a real popular movement, the things that make a movement strong we just don’t have here – we won’t have it until she steps away – even though we’ll be weak when she does.

You took part in the Conga (a type of popular Cuban dance and the name given to the parade in Havana to celebrate the annual International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on May 17) – why was it important, what did you think of it?

I didn’t plan to go. I’m tired of the Conga and its meaning. For me May 17 is a fighting day and June 28 (the day that Gay Pride is marked globally) is the celebration day. But Mariela says that she doesn’t want to imitate the Americans so we don’t get to celebrate on June 28. Me and my colleagues see the LGBT fight as more than just the fight for gay marriage and free surgery for sexual reassignment. We see it as a broader fight against discrimination, however it’s stuck in health and quality of life demands. We had lost interest in participating in the Conga and stayed away.

On May 13 there was a police raid against a gay club in Matanzas. That night the news showed a long piece against homophobia in the work place in which the 1st Secretary of the National Union of Cuba spoke clearly and loudly about how the Communist Party is giving attention to homophobia in labour and health spaces. Yet just four hours later the police attack the LGBT community. I said that we have to go to the march – I call it a march not a Conga – and denounce this attack there in the very place where Mariela and her minions are claiming everything is OK.

They have to make up their minds! We are supposed to be celebrating diversity! That’s why we went, because there are few things worse than silence. I’m pretty sure that most people didn’t know what was happening in Matanzas…

Some people say that the Conga is just a circus – many love Mariela, but they are getting tired of the lack of progress in CENESEX.

Anyway we fulfilled our objective. We distributed information and received good feedback, especially from the trans people who said that they are regularly harassed. State security wanted to remove us from the march – which means we had an effect! Although I was scared because we don’t have legal guarantees around human rights…they could have detained us.

You’re a member of the Rainbow Project. Tell us more.

It was a risky movement at the time. We tried to generate awareness of the intersection between class, race and gender identity in the social fabric of society. You can’t get away from discrimination just by enacting a few laws persecuting homophobia. Fighting against homophobia won’t be enough – we have to fight against all forms of discrimination to get something like a fair society.

We’ve tried to put together a bibliography about the anti-discrimination movement around the world. We’ve also collaborated with CENESEX to help people who have been victim of gender or sexual discrimination get legal support. We’ve also made a few public actions on June 28 stating how important we consider the community/identity construction is inside Cuba. Stonewall was an exercise of pure bravery – we should honour that. Imagine how powerful we could be!

We’ve tried to promote a more critical view of May 17 and the implications of ‘medicalisation’ of sexuality. We gather in public places and have ‘kiss ins’, because these public displays of affection are very offensive for the heteronormative conscience. But we have the same rights as heterosexual couples to express love, so let’s kiss! It’s funny; and nice that we celebrate our beauty, our bodies, our existence. And one day it won’t matter…

A final word

Many people see Cuba as an exotic place; the last socialist country in the world. Many also think that the normalisation of relations between Cuba and the USA will bring normality to this country. The first thing is that I don’t think that the USA and Cuba will ever have a ‘normal’ relation. It’s impossible because of the power dynamics.

The idea of normalcy is very dangerous for a country, and particularly for minorities. You have to cherish your singularity, not by making it a wall that separates you from the others, more like a seal to protect you from mediocrity and greyness. Only singularity gives colour to society, and Cuba’s singularity should not be sacrificed on the altar of economic prosperity – that’s what I’m most afraid of right now.

Ivan*, a gay, Afro-Cuban santero

On being ‘in the closet’

I’m gay but I’m not out to my family, to my work colleagues, not even to my madrina (godmother or spiritual guide in santería). I’ve been married to three different women, I have a child. You can meet so many openly gay santeros now, but my story is different because I have chosen it that way. I live alone; I don’t have to explain anything. I have a boyfriend now, he is religious and since I met him I have become more religious too.

On the current state of attitudes towards the LGBTQI community

Attitudes are changing. In the past Communism dictated how we should live every aspect of our lives. Yet now gay rights groups are demanding the right to get married, and it may well happen. Now you have discos, owned by the state, that are openly gay. 10 years ago that was unimaginable.

*Name changed to protect the identity of the person

Luis A Paz, an Afro-Cuban, gay, human rights activist (pictured below)

Afro-Cuban LGBTQI voices-Photo Bex Wade-8

On human rights in Cuba

The social project that I believe in here in Cuba is about human beings. Everything else, like equal marriage rights or your rights to freely express your sexual orientation, your gender identity, rights because of your skin colour, are secondary. Firstly it’s about your rights as a human being.

On organizing and activism

One of the things I’ve been trying to do is arrange some kind of alliance between different groups in order to push more, to build more, not to work separately because that way we’re not going to achieve anything. But activists need money, resources, and Cuban intelligence wants to know where you’re getting your funding. If it comes from the US then you’re fucked up. It’s OK if the money comes from Europe but you have to be very transparent about it.

On equal marriage rights

I actually believe that this country is very well prepared to deal with real equality, real social justice and opportunities. For example, last night I was talking with a friend on the internet and he said, ‘Dude, I don’t understand why Cuba doesn’t have civil marriage. I don’t get it.’ And I said, ‘I don’t get it either. Most people have a degree; they have a clue about what is right and wrong. We have a well-educated police force. We have healthcare which is good, we have laws, lots of laws. All you need to do is trust the people, give them the opportunity to create and build a better structure of human rights, and make this country even better.’

On being out and proud

I’ve been out of the closet for about 6 years. In some ways I have an advantage in this society because I am the perfect stereotype of the masculine man, handsome, not that tall, but I look OK. People just look at me and say, ‘Oh he’s not gay, he’s fine.’ Many look like me, but they are afraid to come out because of the stigma and the history of persecution of the people who are in the public space but don’t pass as masculine heterosexual males. So, they are afraid to walk on the street holding hands because they’re scared that people call them ‘faggot’. But they should start doing it!

I was dating a guy, he was not entirely openly gay but when we were out together on the street we walked holding hands. Nothing happened! And once in the door of my office building I kissed him on the mouth in front of everyone waiting in a bus queue. Nothing happened! Everything was just fine. Yeah there’s a risk, but come on, life is a risk all the time! People need to learn how to deal with it, and to be encouraged.

On participating in the Conga on May 17

I choose to participate in the parade because it’s a statement. Basically what I’m going to do is an artistic performance. ‘This is me, I exist and you have to deal with it.’

Interviews by Emma Eastwood and Bex Wade