Relevant to the current nationwide discussions about the Constitution, and particularly about Article 68, which defines marriage as a legal union between two persons, Catalejo publishes the entire debate of the Último Jueves panel held on April 30, 2009, dedicated to the topic of homophobia and civic culture in Cuba. Nine years after that exchange between the panelists and UJ’s usual audience, have our concerns changed? Have we? Take a look at the panel discussion held at the Centro Cultural Cinematográfico ICAIC.
Rafael Hernández, (moderator) political scientist, Director of the journal Temas.
Norge Espinosa, playwright, poet and essayist.
Isidro Hoyos, Catholic priest of the Church of Alamar.
Zulendrys Kindelán, Attorney of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX).
Rafael Hernández: The subject matter of this panel are the ways that our society’s prevailing civic culture react to homosexuality in present-day Cuba. To this end, we have invited people of different ages, professions and experiences to talk about this topic. Some of them could not come, including two women authors who have written about lesbianism. We tried to put together as diverse a panel as possible, since that is the purpose of these sessions.
This is not the first time that our journal covers this topic. We have published essays that analyze this question in depth, e.g. Temas’s Essay Award-winning article in 2005 —published in 2006— was Abel Sierra’s La Habana de carmín: al otro lado del espejo (Havana in crimson: on the other side of the mirror); Transformistas, travestis y transexuales: un grupo de identidad social en la Cuba de hoy (Cross-dressers, transvestites and transsexuals: a social identity group in today’s Cuba), by Janet Mesa and Diley Hernández, in 2004; Género y diversidad. Desigualdad y orientación sexual en Cuba (Gender and diversity: inequality and sexual orientation in Cuba), by Natividad Guerrero, in 1998; Oye loca. Las identidades y la cultura masculina gay cubano-americana (Hey, faggot! Cuban-American identities and male homosexual culture), by Susana Peña, in 1998; Feminismo y masculinidad (Feminism and masculinity), by Julio César Pagés, in 2004; La identidad gay en el cine latinoamericano (Gay identity in Latin American cinema), by Joel del Río, in 2005; El gay y otros sujetos semejantes en el audiovisual cubano (Gays and other similar subjects in the Cuban audiovisual industry), by Frank Padrón, in 2007; in addition to other related texts.
According to the Royal Spanish Academy, homophobia is “an obsessive aversion to homosexual people”, and the concept of civic culture is described as “belonging to a city or the citizens”. We would like to know the relation between the culture that prevails among the citizens and the aversion to people of homosexual orientation, as befits the main topic of this debate. Beyond these definitions by the Royal Academy, quite succinct as usual, the first question is, what are we talking about? What is homophobia, what does it involve, how is it defined?
Isidro Hoyos: Rather than quoting a textual definition already understood —Rafael mentioned the one issued by the Royal Academy— I will try to answer by appealing to what we could call a descriptive definition, taking into account the consequences of homophobic expression. The Spanish intellectual Gregorio Marañón says: “During almost the whole history of Humanity, homosexuality has been regarded, foolishly, as a crime, and visited with the most atrocious penalties”. This reveals how strong and widespread the view of homosexuality as a danger and a perversion really was.
Another writer says: “By and large, the image of homosexuality sparks alarm and sets in motion considerable opposing forces that no one can reasonably expect to not act with violence”.
This is how a homosexual describes his plight: “Blacks suffer marginalization, but have a family of blacks in which they can be contained, comforted and embraced for being black. The Jews suffer racism, but they have a family of Jews who understand, encourage and comfort them for being Jews. Women are treated with indignity or inequity, but at home they almost always have other women in front of whom they can cry and voice their rage at being rejected or mistreated. We homosexuals are strangers in our homeland, in our own land, even to our own family, and in our own household; we have to keep quiet and suffer in silence the terrible thing that being a fag is”. Pardon the expression, but it is the literal one.
Even art has unveiled this suffering. The Boys in the Band, the first play about this subject, went around the world and caused a commotion; its slogan was: “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse”. Also memorable are some cruel jokes that came with the appearance of HIV/AIDS and the ensuing death of hundreds of homosexuals in the United States. One joke that made the rounds of San Francisco and ultimately became very popular reflects such a high level of suffering. It’s about a young man who comes to talk with his mother; when they’re both sitting in their living-room, he chooses this way of revealing his secret: “Mum, I have good news and bad news; which do you want first?”, and his mother goes, “Well, go with the bad news first”. So her child tells her, “Mum, I’m gay”. His mother, drying her tears, replies: “Oh, my son! What’s the bad news?!”, and the young man says, “The good news is that I’ve got AIDS and I’m dying”. With this I am not saying that I approve or disapprove of homosexuality; it’s just to throw into relief the high level of irrationality that this attitude could conceal, something that must be dealt with so that we can behave as humans.
Norge Espinosa: This question is quite complex in itself, because when we speak about homophobia we are not even referring any more to what we used to say before we first saw the term in writing. It is rather a young term, almost of the same age as the movement for the rights of sexual minorities. They say that it first appeared in an article that psychologist George Weinberg published in the journal American Science, precisely on October 31, 1969. By defining certain issues that were becoming the object of very heated debates about what the pre- and post-Stonewall movements had started to bring to light —on top of the arguments, held since the 1950s, about the existence of a mostly American homosexual community such as the Mattachine Society, also related to similar organizations in the United Kingdom and other European countries— the word, on initial consideration, encompassed what those first fighters and pioneers of the 1960s struggles were facing. Those who, on June 28, 1969, decided to clasp something more than nothing in their hands to respond to a new police raid at the Stonewall Inn bar and whose actions marked the beginning of a battle still going on.
When we speak about homophobia, we are referring to a battle that is not over yet. In the aforesaid article, George Weinberg defines homophobia as a phobia, a sort of morbid and irrational response to what people don’t understand about the attraction that same-sex individuals can feel for a relationship beyond what might seem to be civility or fraternity, said in conservative terms. His root concept was “a fear of homosexuals which seemed to be associated with a fear of contagion, of reducing the value of the things one fought for —home and family. It was a religious fear, and it has led to great brutality, as fear always does.”
Above all else, homophobia is today —and here I would like to move a little away from its apparent meaning— not just an adverse reaction to the possibility that two same-sex individuals hold a mutual physical, spiritual and emotional attraction. It’s a power mechanism supported by political, ideological, industrial and ghetto-based considerations that find immediate responses, even of an economic nature, and create markets, creeds, industries and groups, desirable or otherwise, within the concept itself. Furthermore, it gives rise to burning issues about the exact meaning of sexuality, but on civil, legal and other levels related to many different aspects likely to be very distant from the original meaning of the word.
Nowadays, homophobia is a very contentious term that has generated several counter-terms, since its semantic construction is somewhat ambiguous in terms of the intended meaning. As early as in 1967, before the term homophobia became popular, there was homoerotophobia, coined by Wainwright Churchill, another U.S. specialist. In gender studies it is very common to find a huge number of classifications intended to grasp this or that evasive notion. People are, or try to be, increasingly aware of their body; they try more and more to understand that this is a key to freedom, probably the only true possession that comes with a real guarantee. Therefore, whenever we speak about sexology, heterophobia, homophobia and transphobia, we are not referring only to sex.
Zulendrys Kindelán: I totally agree with everything I have heard so far, and I also believe that we could understand homophobia —albeit from the difficult position to provide definitions and concepts— as rejection and irrational fear of the attitude taken by people who feel attracted to others of their same sex, although Norge made it clear, and rightly so, that it’s not on a merely sexual/erotic level. I would only like to add that there is much discussion about the concept of homophobia as such, in the sense that the term fails to cover other related phobias. That is why today we also speak about lesbophobia, transphobia, etc.
All these terms allude to a feeling or a behavior that produces anxiety and suffering to the other, that is, to the individual who suffers homophobia to the point that, in many cases, they become seclusive. This is very important, because we humans are social beings, and isolation induced by homophobia can create irreversible trauma.
Many ongoing debates use the term “civic homophobia” to identify its impact on the process of citizenship construction, that is, on the very notion of citizen. From a legal viewpoint, being a citizen means that, in principle, the individual belongs in a geographical space and, therefore, is entitled to, or worthy of, a number of rights and obligations. Such a status builds on what society considers as correct behavior. When we say “citizen” we usually think about a white, intelligent, heterosexual man who owns property, because that is what we inherited from the French, the first to come up with citizenry-related concepts following the revolutions that lay the foundations of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. And even if that notion has changed in recent times, it is still essentially valid in most societies for different reasons. That doesn’t mean that homosexuals are not considered to be citizens, but rather that, in the process of citizenship construction, which involves major social practices, the said model puts them at a disadvantage right from the outset and prevents them from fully enjoying many fundamental political and economic rights directly related to the status of citizen. That’s where the concept of civic homophobia comes into play. In the face of this notion is the current discussion about the term “sexual citizenship”, intended to claim a number of rights for homosexuals, transsexuals, etc., such as, among others, the change of information about the person’s gender and name in the Civil Registry and in their identity documents and the legal recognition of same-sex unions.
Rafael Hernández: If we thought about those aspects related to society and to the most common attitudes that prevail among ordinary citizens, their way of thinking and their culture, how much of what homophobia entails could be attributed to society and culture? What causes homophobia from the viewpoint of social attitudes?
Isidro Hoyos: About those causes, and I might be going too far, I think it is convenient or important to point out that a patriarchal culture is a cause of causes —as it is referred to in philosophy. By virtue of that culture, the leading role is distinctly assigned to the male, be it at home or in politics and religion. According to this culture, homosexuality stands as the degradation of masculinity, because it involves assuming a passive, female-like attitude to sexuality. Also according to an intellectual, one of homophobia’s deepest root causes is the mostly unconscious connection among homosexuality, infertility and death.
Another general cause would be the false reverence for, and sanctification of, semen. Owing to inaccurate biological conclusions, the male was held to be the only possessor and giver of life just because he contributes his sperm. Semen was already a human life or something close; the woman was simply an incubator. This perception of semen as a quasi-human substance governed people’s view of sex in ancient times and, according to estimates, up to the 16th century across the western world, leaving its mark on our understanding of sexual and moral behavior even in contemporary society. It’s therefore interesting to underscore the origins of our secret outrage at, and hostility toward, homosexuality. Homosexuals are not rejected for their depravity or power of seduction, but rather for being a threat to male power. Power defines males and makes them be active, domineering, warrior-like, seductive…the reason that all males feel proud —or used to; I’m not saying that they still do— when their wife gives birth to a boy. Well, a gay man would be a traitor to his class for looking unmanly and weak, for weakness is a womanly thing. Homosexuals move away from normal sexual activity and threaten our social values, which is why our society is obviously indifferent to female homosexuality, a topic hardly ever mentioned, linked to public scandals or persecuted. This is because women’s social, emotional and libidinal disorders have no effect on our social values. They might just as well be invisible. It’s a cutting remark, but nothing more than a point of view.
Norge Espinosa: If they asked me about the social and cultural causes of homophobia, I would perhaps mention a few of those that the priest stated. However, I would like to add one, perhaps the most instinctive and primitive by nature and, therefore, the closest to genetics: fear. I think that the fear of acknowledging what is different and out of keeping with a certain pattern is what sustains and triggers all the actions that we know today as homophobia. Deep down, homosexuality or any other symptom of a disorder that steps out of a pattern considered to be the rule, breeds mistrust and instability, even in the social body supposed to have more control over the system at issue. Fear is a human attitude that will survive until the end of time, for as long as humans exist on Earth, and it elicits very diverse and irrational responses, as Weinberg said.
As an attitude, fear, or what is known in queer studies as homosexual panic, leads the ruling institution of the moment to implement various mechanisms designed to curb whatever is not in accordance with the discourse generated by its own apparatus. Accordingly, fear also turns homophobia into a sort of counter-discourse intended to tackle those soft spots —and forgive me for using such an unfortunate phrase to describe what could endanger society’s “order”— and at the same time try to open channels in order to veer all the details that differ from what is solidly established as doctrine, nation, politics, religion, creed, etc., away from everything that society represents and recognizes.
Fear is, above all else, an expression that finds a radical and basic support in homophobia. It’s not a coincidence that in today’s world, which is crawling with irrational acts ranging from wars to the very expressions that we are discussing here, the underlying problem is the homophobe’s fear of losing their class, their status and their capacity as monarchs and leaders of their State. That is why they do many different things to avoid giving any ground to, or making any room for, homosexual people so that they won’t have a chance to pollute everything that is supposedly normal with everything that apparently must not be so. I think it’s important to emphasize the adverb because nowadays the dividing lines are getting increasingly blurred and the ambiguity of the term increasingly porous. Sometimes the pollution and saturation of the terms themselves prevent discussion from reaching certain levels, and we start to ask ourselves things like what homophobia is. When we get to the bottom of this matter we certainly find that underneath the word is something shared, even among ourselves, that even the homosexuals can feel about themselves. There is another attitude that I consider a major cause of homophobia whose presence in our midst is very strong and has become widespread in Cuba. It has found so much expression in our culture, morality, ideology, economy, etc., that it would deserve of itself a separate panel: the double standards. That topic could be saved for a second round.
Zulendrys Kindelán: I already mentioned some causes. I think stereotyping is standard practice; another cause is the human habit of classifying, naming and choosing, because if the selection criteria have it that everything must be black or white, it’s obvious that what lies in between those indicators will mean nothing. The stereotypes assign roles and behaviors; they suggest a certain conduct, because if you teach a man that being so involves having relations with women, you cannot ask him to understand that another man is not complying with that requirement.
Another cause is what Dr. Alda Facio mentions in her book Cuando el género suena, cambios trae in reference to a political-cultural aspect found in every legal regulation. Speaking in colloquial terms, sometimes the law fails to ban certain things, and yet its content is interpreted supra-judicially on the basis of cultural, historical and political canons about what is understood to be good behavior. As a result, society sometimes demands the prosecution of homosexuality even if it’s not classified as an offense in many countries, including Cuba. For instance, if there’s a gay or a lesbian couple hanging out at Havana’s Seafront and there’s a policeman nearby, any heterosexual will ask him, “Are you going to allow that? It’s disrespectful!”, and the policeman, who is responsible for the difficult task of ensuring public order, will address the couple and somehow reprimand them, even if he has no legal grounds to claim against their behavior. As I see it, that’s also a cause. Keep in mind that homosexual behavior was the object of criminological studies, which somehow lingers in people’s minds. In spite of the fact that we have evolved and that it’s been stipulated that it must not be considered as an offense, many people cannot shake off that impression.
Sometimes the legislation can be a cause of homophobia too. To cite but one example, if the law rules as a crime and punishes same-sex relations, social rejection of homosexual behavior would be only natural, in the sense that any good citizen who knows that it’s against the law, it’s wrong, evil or negative will become prejudiced against and disapproving of homosexuals.
Until very recently, homosexual behavior was included in the list of mental illnesses. At some point there was a scientific construction of homophobia on the basis of that categorization. It was not until May 17, 1991 that homosexuality was crossed off that list.
Rafael Hernández: We conducted a survey among those present. The majority holds that homosexuality has its origins in the physiological functioning of the glands; 20% believe that it comes from the imitation of models of masculinity or femininity, and almost 20% that it depends on the person’s upbringing. A very small number believe that it’s a matter of cultural environment or genetics. Regarding what the panel has talked about, that is, the main causes of discrimination against homosexuals, most respondents—60%— think that the most important cause is cultural tradition, followed by machismo and, in third place, moral values, whereas 20% of the answers ascribe it to ideology.
With some of her comments, Zulendrys has already answered my third question for the panel. In general, we have talked about the issue of homophobia and its causes. What are the most frequent attitudes and practices associated with homophobia in Cuba today, and what are the alternatives to respond to them?
Isidro Hoyos: When it comes to Cuban issues, I think you all have more authority than I to talk about them, for I’m a foreigner. I do believe that it’s been a taboo subject, but my impression from what I’ve heard is that it’s already less so, but I cannot assert that for sure.
Norge Espinosa: I always like to say —even in light of the latest developments related to all these topics in Cuba— that the Cuban homosexuals live in a kind of invisible glass ghetto; you can’t see the wall, but it’s there. They know very well if they are breaking the rules or not; when they risk going beyond apparently permissible behaviors in broad daylight, inserting their language into others and even receiving, in a very promiscuous manner at times, other kinds of signs on their body, their mind, their personality and their identity that make it possible for them to be recognizable or not. The rules inside that glass ghetto are very clear. As we all know, on May 17 last year Cuba celebrated for the first time the International Day Against Homophobia, observed in the world since 2005. Unfortunately, what went mostly unnoticed by those who witnessed or took an interest in the event was the impact of everything that happened at the Cuba Pavilion and elsewhere in the country; or what happened when somewhere in Cuba an ordinary citizen, like those we see walking down Virtudes or San Rafael streets, turned on their TV set and found out that such a celebration was taking place. All of a sudden, a large number of people that lived behind that glass, which is sometimes very opaque, stepped outside their boundaries to represent and identify themselves. And it was not just one, or two, or three, but a large crowd.
The deep-seated contempt within some social sectors —even in mass and political organizations that supposedly gave their vote or permission to the celebration— is an acid test that would be useful to establish with much more accuracy how high is homophobia’s temperature in this country. In some respects, there were very positive reactions: some people came closer; others joined the celebration; many stated their solidarity… However, there was also a profound, adverse, and negative reaction in sectors as distant from each other as the Catholic Church and the political apparatus itself, through which some personalities with influential contacts therein saw the said response and tried somehow to make the whole affair invisible for the rest of the year.
All that certainly made us realize that despite years-long efforts, sex education campaigns and all the things allegedly done all the time, homophobia is too entrenched to go away at one fell swoop. It would be naïve to expect otherwise. I think that, in today’s Cuba, homophobia feeds on many people’s naïveté; on the naïveté of Cuban television when it shows a U.S.-made series and cuts out any scene that might be upsetting to the viewers because two women share a kiss or a man declares his love to another man. And yet, that same television leaves untouched episodes of the same show in which someone decides to have sex-change surgery or confess his/her difference to the rest of the family.
To Cuban homosexuals, the glass ghetto from where homophobia begins to operate is at a stage in which the individual is not only a member of society, a good worker and a good family member, but also a person with reasonably permissible desires. The homosexual’s yearning body turns their body into the first barrier in the struggle against homophobia. It may be that their preference is recognized, but if they set their eyes on a coworker and choose that person as the object of their desire, a crisis starts to brew and many values start to collide with one another. And our society is still unprepared to deal with all that yet. We have managed to give gays and lesbians a face and a small space, but we remain reluctant to imagine them in a situation of action and interaction where they feel the need to express their desires openly. It’s what Almodóvar asked about referring to the success of [the Cuban film] Strawberry and Chocolate: would it have been so popular if the characters had gone beyond a chaste embrace? Even though we think in, say, civilized terms —to talk in related jargon— many of our basic questions about this issue are yet to be answered. And this starts from our own schools, where teachers are more and more trained to provide a general education and less so to identify a child who has specific attributes and needs help ratheimpr than protection, segregation or mistreatment, to a whole system of ideas and ideologies flowing from the media, which are very influential in this regard and usually convey very sympathetic messages but do not really work on actions that make it possible for people to understand things even when related to the story.
There have been unfortunate homophobia-related moments in Cuban history. The UMAP (Military Units to Aid Production) in an undeniable example of that tradition, and we would be very naïve if we walk through it as if we were treading on a wheat field. Regrettably, because of that tradition, for reasons of macho ego, patriarchalism or certain connotations that lead ideology to be terrified of the gender of those who give opinions or do something, there is always the risk that certain circumstances —mainly economic or political ones that imply that our behavior as a people and a nation vis-à-vis a world or a national conflict must be an immediate reaction en masse— will make all those seemingly solid spots disappear, fade away or be at risk whenever we are in those situations and whenever we feel terrified about how self-assured we are. Even the debate about procurement, male or female prostitution, transsexuality and sexual orientation steps aside to make way for the idea of a single brand, erasing genders and turning the body of the nation into just a slogan.
All that is happening today when it comes to homophobia, in a Cuba where, despite all the progress made and the increasing number of people interested in the subject, we still design and ask questions in terms that seem to be forty or fifty years old.
Zulendrys Kindelán: In my experience, based on my work at CENESEX with lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals and on the letters and complaints that we receive, I have selected the homophobic attitudes and practices that I see more frequently. The first one is discrimination. Some people think that it’s the immediate effect or the unavoidable opposite side of homophobia, but in order to define it we need to start from the meaning of equality. All people are supposed to be equal; not identical, but equally different. The law resorts to the abstraction that, since we are all equally different, we all must be on equal terms regarding a legal act, fact or process. In other words, we are all equal on the eyes of the law because we have the capacity and ability to have the right to have rights. What I mean with this play on words is that when the balance is broken and someone is not treated on equal terms by the law because of their skin color, religious belief, sexual orientation or gender, that person is being discriminated against. As an example I brought a very small passage of a letter sent by a 36-year-old lesbian from Puerto Padre, in the province of Las Tunas. She refers to discrimination based on sexual orientation even at institutional level. She writes: “I decided to apply to that institution and passed the preparatory course with excellent grades, but when the directors found out that I’m homosexual —which I don’t intend to hide— they told me that they considered it an aggravating factor that prevented me from getting the job”.
Another factor, perhaps the most frequent, is violence. Some authors speak of the intentional use of physical force, but I prefer to summarize it as any act of commission or omission to inflict physical or emotional harm on a person. In the case of violence motivated by homophobia, I have another passage of a letter that says: “I’ve had big problems with my family ever since they found out that I’m homosexual a very long time ago; I have been beaten by my two brothers, I’ve been forced to sleep outside after being thrown out of my home, my mother doesn’t support me and doesn’t accept that I’m homosexual”. The sender is a gay man from Artemisa, in the province of Havana. It’s an example of rejection leading up to violence even in the bosom of the family, within which our spirituality, values and growth spring from and become consolidated.
The other attitude that I already mentioned earlier is the impairment of one’s citizen status. The obligations generated by such a status include a few ones intended to strengthen people’s sense of belonging in their territory, their love of their land and their homeland; for example, men’s willingness to enlist in the Active Military Service. Nowhere does it say that homosexuality is grounds for being excluded, but in practice people are discriminated against for that reason. They are not discharged from the Army, they are simply not drafted, and those youths are left in that situation, in that limbo, until their age makes them ineligible to serve. Maybe, while they are of military age, they want to engage in another work or activity but they can’t because they are required to submit their army discharge papers. So not only are their rights denied, also their status as citizens and their chance to contribute to national security are impaired.
Their status as citizens makes it possible for people to participate in the political life of the State, which you do not only by casting your vote but also by joining political and mass organizations and associations. And sometimes homophobia also prevents homosexuals —violating their legitimate citizen status— from joining some of them. Another letter says:
“During the verifications, someone said that there was talk among my colleagues that I was a lesbian. All my efforts were in vain; as it turned out, it’s the reason that I can’t be a member of the association X”.
Exclusion is another factor. In these letters we see exclusion in two very different milieus. One says: “That is why I was astonished to see in a space restored for people’s entertainment, right in the heart of the city, such an offensive notice posted on the door, stating that admission is by man-woman couples, that is, only the heterosexuals are considered couples and the place is forbidden to people of a different sexual orientation”. The sender is a gay man from Villa Clara.
The other letter says: “The head of the teaching department sent for me and asked me to explain why I was wearing women’s clothes at school. I told her that’s how I felt, and she asked me to bring a letter or document certifying that I could do so, and in the meantime I was to stay away from the school, even after I had been attending class there for six months”. This one came from a 21-year-old cross-dressing man who studies at a university branch in Havana. It’s another case of someone who was not only deprived of the fundamental right to education, one of those that a citizen is entitled to, but also excluded from a space that we are all supposed to have the right to attend on equal terms.
Rafael Hernández: My thanks to the panel for describing this problem in such a precise and succinct manner to facilitate our main debate. According to the survey we did, the transvestites suffer more social discrimination than others, followed by the lesbians —more so than gays, who come third. Then come people with HIV/AIDS, and in fifth place the bisexuals. All these groups suffer more discrimination than the blacks and mestizos, the convicts, the drug addicts, and the jineteros (male and female prostitutes). Respondents also think that the least discriminated groups are the Cuban Asians and the foreigners. Now the audience has the floor.
Pablo Fernández: I’m Italian, and I’d like to make a small point. Foreigners are indeed discriminated against. I was a man just like any other, and was seen as such, until the beginning of economic problems leading up to the Special Period. Since the onset of economic difficulties I can’t walk down Old Havana and other places at my leisure, because they mark me as foreigner, try to sell me things, ask me if I want to buy cigars, etc.
About homosexuality: there was a time when gay marches were prosecuted in my country. The same thing in Cuba, but a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. If I compare Cuba in those days, which I got to know very well, and Cuba today, I think that the situation has changed very much. I’m not saying that things are perfect, but there’s been an evolution. Today I’m more accepted by society than back then. I would like you to tell me whether I’m right about my view that homosexuality in Cuba is more accepted, taking into account that everything in the world has changed.
Yoss: I’d like to make a remark about the “Machismo-Leninism” that has been typical of our context since 1959. I’m using that term because it puts the degree of virility, from a patriarchal and traditional standpoint, on a par with the degree of revolutionary commitment. Homosexuals, even the most eager ones, are often prevented from fulfilling a duty. One example: I was captain of a scout platoon, and once when we were on maneuvers my chief came to me and told me, in reference to some troops: “Keep those boys out of this drill, because as you know they have a problem, they are...”, as if implying that they were weak and feeble.
This links with another matter. I think Norge Espinosa put the soft spot on his finger —which is much more delicate than putting one’s finger on the soft spot— when he said that fear is the ultimate cause of homophobia. It’s one of the main reasons for our Machista-Leninist culture, in which it’s better to be and not look like it than to look like it and not be it; appearance is worshipped; boys are taught from an early age that so-and-so and what’s-her-name are your girlfriends even if they don’t know it; men brag about their conquests; and fathers tell their boys “pat your cousin’s butt”. Those are the “lessons” to be a man.
One of the main consequences is that every man feels threatened in front of a homosexual, as if he were a sort of infectious plague. How many heterosexuals have felt that at some point and not responded with violence —not for nothing is it called the last resort of the powerless— when a homosexual declares his/her love to them. This brings me to the end of my comment: when we say homophobia —I think Norge agrees with me— we are using the wrong term. Actually, we should say heterophobia, which is phobia of the unfamiliar and the wish that we were all alike and just like ourselves. There’s been frequent talk lately of the tolerance towards the different, but the term goes only halfway, like flags at half-mast in days of mourning. I think “tolerate” is not enough, because things must reach such a point that we enjoy the difference. A world where everybody dresses the same way, shows the same responses and has the same preferences would be quite boring! Homophobia is but one among many aspects of discrimination against and fear of the different, be they homosexuals, Jews, blacks or foreigners.
María Teresa Peña: The main cause of homophobia is the ideology inherited from both a westernized culture and Judeo-Christian ideas. If you study the history of sexuality you see that homophobia has gradually found its way into all fields of society. It’s been instilled into us through laws and, especially, by religion, which is what can cause an existential change in people, and when they start to associate sexuality with certain parameters, they turn to religion to make them legitimate. That’s how it has been throughout history.
I have confirmed that in my research on the influence of Judeo-Christian ideology on Latin American laws. The same ideology that affects homophobic attitudes pervades the whole western culture.
Félix Guerra: I’d like to bring up another side of this issue because I have moved in a different circle: the world of thoughts, literature and the arts in general. As a journalist by trade, I have also made incursions into biology. I’d like to talk about a topic barely mentioned here: genetics. I think homophobia and homophobic prejudice are two different things. Homosexuality has its origins in a distant past, predating even the human being, and it’s practiced by all living beings. So much so that, for instance, some species of fish, reptiles and even mammals, the most evolved, swap their roles. Among fish, it’s a matter of survival in cases of imbalance in certain ecosystems and there are, say, ninety females and ten males, or the other way around. A percentage of the population fills the empty space, literally changing their sex to guarantee the reproduction of the species. And of course, there’s only one evolution, and signs of that kind begin to appear among the living beings all the way to the appearance of man. In the case of the human race, this becomes ideology, prejudice, tradition, history, etc. Nowadays, the sociologists hold that it’s not only a sociological, historical or ideological matter, but a genetic one too. That is, it’s locked inside an unchangeable box that we are barely studying, namely the brain. What lies outside doesn’t matter; the real sex is in everybody’s mind.
Píter Ortega: I once read, in the journal Criterios I think, an article by a U.S. psychologist who said that, even if LGBT activism and the struggle for the recognition of their rights, etc., was important at first —as were the spaces where they could socialize, i.e. nightclubs, bars, beaches, etc., found all over the world (not so in Cuba, as we all know)— today they are unnecessary and even likely to be damaging, inasmuch as they stress the ghetto mentality and exclusionism. If we’re all alike, why do I have to go to a gay beach and not to the beach that everybody goes to?
That’s how I think. I’m gay, and I don’t like gay bars; I go where everybody else goes. I ask this because some colleagues told me that it would be fine in a first-world context where there is full integration, but preposterous in Cuba because we have not even been through the first stage of struggle and activism, and it’s still important to have official gay beaches, bars and nightclubs and not to force the homosexuals to gather in the so-called gay parties or in private homes, where the police show up at three in the morning and apprehend everybody. I’d like to hear the panel’s opinion about this, particularly that of Norge Espinosa.
Another question about the same text —unfortunately I forgot the title. The psychologist says that she’s against all forms of classification, which she deems ineffective, and that at first the term homosexual had a clinical-pathological connotation and there’s no sense in using it any more. She adds that the term heterosexual is already outmoded, because the canonic or orthodox concept of heterosexuality fits in with the way that the so-called heterosexuals assume or plan their life. She believes the term gay is also inadequate, because not all individuals who have same-sex partners consider themselves gay, which is all about a political and militant attitude and one of belonging to a group. Therefore, she holds, it would be better if we came to accept that we all are sexed individuals in a voluble and changeable manner, as we are one way today and another tomorrow, or both ways at the same time.
Danae Carbonell: About a year ago I was lucky to attend the symbolic wedding at CENESEX of these two young women sitting her. To me, being there meant that I believe in diversity as something as natural as the very existence of human beings. However, I have a question about it for the panel. I have often wondered to what extent the legal union of same-sex persons might be reproducing the same hegemonic, patriarchal and controlling patterns found at the root of the discrimination they have suffered throughout history.
My other question is about Lucía Puenzo’s film XXY. The father sits on the bed to wait for his daughter to wake up —she’s a girl-boy, i.e. a hermaphrodite— and when she does, he tells her: “I am watching you sleep”. She asks, “What are you watching?”, and her father replies, “The time until you make a decision”. Her reaction defines the film: “What if there’s nothing to decide?” So my question is how to solve the dilemma, which Píter mentioned, of a human being whose body is inhabited by multiple bodies. How to solve that problem in a country where the topic of gays and lesbians is still the object of public debate?
Víctor Fowler: I think we have talked about causes at some point. For reasons of minimum methodology, let it be quite clear that those would be natural causes, in which we are rich; political causes, that is, when a political system with a specific ideology sends all sorts of well-defined signals that reinforce the maintenance and progress of a certain attitude while they restrain another; and purely ideological causes, of a more, say, discursive kind.
Now, my friend Píter, we cannot fantasize about a big world outside of Cuba where those wonderful things happen. The plight affecting homosexuals is quite complex in many places. Basically all questions and comments end up making reference to the communities that we must construct. It seems to me that the decision to associate or not must be a human right, as part of the rights of man. That is, whoever wants to assemble in communities according to their sexual preference, let them do so; those who want to live outside of them, let them do so; and those who are not homosexuals but still want to join them, let them do so too.
Yoss said something that fits nicely with my idea of the world. I think we must try to build future worlds where our children can be homosexuals. They don’t have to be so, it’s not an obligation, but they must be able to. Even from the perspective of our topic, homophobia, there’s still a huge world of sexual diversity hidden away: people must be able to be homosexual, sadistic, masochistic… That’s part of human freedom, provided the relationship is consensual and mutually harmless. As long as our bodies can hold a dialogue, we must be able to be what we want. That has to be our freedom and what we must try to instill in our children. The Cuban debate about this is asking the wrong question. It’s not about being homosexual, transsexual or heterosexual, but about a different concept of pleasure.
Roberto Zurbano: I’m very glad that Víctor made a distinction between cultural tradition and ideology, because each of them has faults of its own. There can be no confusion about that. But it’s true that homophobia in Cuba, usually connected to cultural tradition, gained political status after 1959. The ideologization and pseudo-institutionalization of homophobia became strongly entrenched, and we must bear in mind the role that ideology and politics played to that end.
Speaking of politics, recent events right here in Latin America reveal how society copes with these issues. The case of Venezuela, where there are pro-Chavismo and anti-Chavismo gay organizations, is very interesting. They have nightclubs —the Venezuelans don’t like to be out at night; they go to bed early— but the discussion there is not sexual or erotic; most of the time is about politics, as are the jokes and the activities that you see there.
Chile is also a very special case, marked by an autochthonous form of racism that has nothing to do with our anti-black racism. They discriminate against the Mapuches, the Peruvians, etc., and, in the Chilean evenings, this sexualization of marginalizing racism makes for a very interesting global perspective that typifies or rearranges the issue. None of us homo-, hetero-, bi- or transsexuals would like to be there, much less in that kind of night spots.
Now, when we talk about this subject in Cuba, we must remember the most important related milestones: the UMAP and the clampdown on Virgilio Piñera in the mid-80s and early 90s; Strawberry and Chocolate; sexual tourism; the pingueros (male sex workers) and the jineteros. The case of [Cuban LGBT cultural center] El Mejunje is very peculiar and worth studying, although there’s already a book about it. Then we have the AIDS situation in Cuba, and the presence of CENESEX, which has taken its own educational-clinical tasks to a cultural level.
I think that the question must be centered on citizenship, not just on sexual matters. There’s a lot of institutional homophobia in the world, but some cities and countries have a culture of diversity and link homosexuality with other things. It’s not that they don’t have homophobia; it’s just that they don’t have other phobias. You walk down any street and you hear four languages and see anything from a primary school to a sex shop to eighteen restaurants. Anything related to sexuality is side by side with everything else.
Alexander Correa: Homophobia is one more form of exclusion. There are many, with different dimensions and levels of accumulation. Civic culture materializes in a political system that creates some kind of structure. In the long run, a political system and culture that create or tolerate exclusion will destroy society’s mechanism of democratic operation. In this regard, I ask the panel how advanced the policies on this matter that try to influence the Cuban penal code really are, and whether it is understood that these issues are just the tip of a gigantic iceberg.
Rafael Hernández: I’ll give the floor to the panel so that they address all these very interesting comments and questions, but before that I’d like to say something about Alexander’s comment. Where is the resistance to a specific legislation such as the one about gay marriage? I’m not saying that gay marriage is a cure-all or that it’s good or bad; I just want to know that. And I also ask the panel: when the Cuban homophobes go elsewhere, settle in another system with different institutions, does their homophobia disappear or decrease? How do Cubans behave away from the system in which homophobia reproduces as civic culture?
Zulendrys Kindelán: On whether Cuban society has made progress regarding the consideration of homophobia, I can only add that homosexuality was certainly criminalized in Cuba. It was not until the changes to the Penal Code in 1997 that it stopped being a public scandal offense, and homosexual acts are no longer the object of emphatic mention. Legally speaking, we have reached a higher stage in which a number of conducts are not punishable any more, but that doesn’t mean that we have solved all the problems. I always say that our society is going through a qualitatively different and favorable period. It’s not the same society as in the days of UMAP; the Cuban people have grown significantly. Today, for instance, when the media cover these issues and when we have debates like this, people are a little more open to talk about them, find information, or at least more willing to listen. It’s a sign that society is changing to some extent and getting closer to the idea of acceptance.
Someone talked about “Machismo-Leninism”. It’s good to know about the causes in order to understand these phenomena. Truth is, some powerful slogans that we used to have, painted a New-Man model in keeping with essentially macho patterns. Although many people still cling to that idea, the image of the New Man that our society and social project draw nowadays is a far cry from the old one. Today we know that even the masculinities have been rearranged; it’s now fairly commonplace for men to wear clothes of colors once stigmatized or frowned upon. I notice a change, not as big as we would like, but no process involving a change of ideology does it quickly, they all take time, and it’s very difficult to change people’s mentality. Thousands of laws might not be enough to solve basic problems. We have a maternity and paternity act, but very few fathers use it. So the legislation is important, but this issue goes beyond the legal field. The crux of the matter is ideology, and that is harder to change.
I agree that religion affects legal matters. In fact, all legal principles were religious at first. Precepts like “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not kill”, which now define crimes like murder or breaking and entering, are a reflection of those biblical commandments. A historical reflection is also interesting, because some people claim that heterosexuality is the normal thing. However, as Friedrich Engels’s book The origin of the family, private property and the State reveals, that was not always the natural order of things. In the hordes, people had disorganized relations regardless of their gender. As various social models emerged and religion became a major influential tool, there was a gradual change in that order. If we attached importance to any natural order or natural cause, heterosexuality would be quite questionable.
Concerning the struggle against discrimination based on sexual orientation, Cuba has not taken the same steps as other countries have. For instance, some places have started with a law against discrimination and then others have followed, such as the one that allows same-sex unions. It has not exactly been like that in Cuba, but I don’t think there has to be any other step in between, e.g. creating homosexual-only spaces. Every discourse and solution must be based on the acceptance of diversity, and we must think about ends and goals rather than specific measures, for we want to live, like Víctor Fowler said, by fully exercising our right to freedom.
About the legal union between individuals, it’s perhaps a way to reproduce the sexist patterns that tied us down, but there are other aspects involved. Roman law has it that the State grants a number of rights and benefits to married couples only if it is the union of a man and a woman. Such legal recognition was called marriage. I will neither delve into nor devote time to the question of whether it should be called marriage, union or otherwise; whatever the name is, we all must have the same legal rights. If we are all equal in the eyes of the law, it’s only fair that homosexuals can get married if they so desire. Still, society and the State must be at least capable —in honor of the justice and the values of equality that any legal system aspires to protect— of seeing to it that every person can fully enjoy their rights regardless of their sexual orientation. The recognition of same-sex unions is just one step from which other important matters derive, such as the right to inheritance, to a share of the community property, etc. And a couple makes too much effort and shares too much love and even suffering to be undeserving of those rights for a reason as trivial as the lack of legal recognition.
I share Zurbano’s opinion —I said something about it the first time I took the floor— that sexuality must be incorporated into the citizenship construction process. If for no other reason than my status as citizen, I have at least an obligation to accept the differences and do everything within my power to coexist with them.
As to the legal rules, Cuba has made progress. As everybody knows, we are currently working on a project to modify the Family Code. The proposal first came up 15 years ago, and quite recently, at the suggestion of the Commission for the Protection of the Rights of Women and Children of the National Assembly of People’s Power, it was decided to include in the modifications a chapter about the topic of sexual diversity. The Drafting Committee is still preparing the bill. There’s already a request to include it in the Legislative Plan (because all the discussions about bills in the Assembly respond to a Legislative Plan). The institutions spearheading this action —the Federation of Cuban Women and the National Union of Jurists— have already filed the petition, which is pending a decision as to when it will be included, even if there is consensus within the Drafting Committee. Also under study is a Decree-law on gender identity, aimed at transsexuals, their legitimization, what they need to do to change their identity papers, etc. We already have Resolution 126 of 2008, through which the Minister of Public Health authorizes or organizes the procedures to treat transsexual persons, which can include surgery. That’s how the regulatory work is going as regards legal matters.
Isidro Hoyos: Without intending to debate or defend anything, just to have a friendly dialogue, I’d like to talk about the question that someone mentioned of whether Christianity is responsible for the rejection of homosexuality. As the studies about this subject seem to underscore, the condemnation of homosexuality was not born with Christianity, nor was any campaign or crusade launched against it, but they highlight a greater awareness and stronger disapproval of its existence. Various edicts of Christian emperors, council minutes and writings of Christian thinkers mention this fact and don’t hesitate to describe it as a serious sin contra naturam. The special interpretation of the biblical story of Sodom has undoubtedly had the most decisive and important influence on the condemnation of homosexuality, but neither the Old nor the New Testament describe the sin of Sodom as being about homosexuality. Jesus makes absolutely no mention of this subject. On the other hand, only recently has homosexuality been the object of scientific research. Therefore, it’s safe to say that it’s kept out of theological reflection and tradition: “The Church requires the special help of those who live in the world, are versed in different institutions and specialties, and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers”. (Gaudium et Spes 44, Second Vatican Council)
I’d like to point out as well that some false myths have grown up around homosexuals. For example, 1) they have a passion for children. Nonetheless, pedophilia is not restricted to homosexuals; heterosexuals also exhibit that disorder; 2) most homosexuals are effeminate. The concepts are mixed up in this case too, because homosexuality is a matter of sexual orientation, not of gender roles. 3) Homosexuals are all alike. There are as many homosexual personalities as there are bisexual; family and cultural pressure create common habits, but in the end sexuality is a feature of the person, not the whole person. It’s something that some people find in themselves; either you’re born like that or become that; it’s a way of being that sprouts from very complex reasons —related to genetics, society, culture, education, family, etc.— although maybe there’s not just one reason, but a number of them.
By way of conclusion I’d like to remind you of the principle that the World Conference on Human Rights established in 1968: “All individuals have the right to receive information and education about sexuality and the means to fulfill themselves as persons”.
Norge Espinosa: That the Cuban people’s stance on this subject has changed is nothing to be proud of, for that’s the way it should be. Before the Revolution there was also a lot of machismo, as much as today or even more so. The last “Act of Faith” recorded in Cuba was carried out by the Catholic Church against six “effeminates” in the late 16th century. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, homosexuals were a joke or simply lived on the fringes of society. Add to this a great deal of attitudes automatically reproduced after the revolutionary victory. What’s astonishing and paradoxical is that a revolution in favor of so many indicators of freedom in the most explicit sense of the term became a mechanism, at times very reactionary, when it came to granting other forms of independence and liberty. Actually, we have talked here only about that topic: liberty or liberties, as Víctor said, and the construction of communities. Unfortunately, the Cuban homosexual community, if there is any, remains dependent on the greater community, the one in charge of the discourse and the decisions on what the other dependent communities —women, blacks, believers— can or can’t say or do.
Every time someone —foreigner or national— asks me how my gay activism is going, I laugh. I’m not a gay activist. I wish I were, so that I could use public spaces to voice my ideas and those of a given group of people —I will never be able to speak for the majority— insofar as they may be in line with certain civil, social, legal and other requirements and demands that identify us. A true gay activist could have a newspaper column or a website. He could even appear on TV and speak for himself.
Many gay activists in Latin America have fought and resisted, and right now they are striving to create a new concept —even in ALBA member countries— about how homosexuals can take a clear politically progressive stance, and we hear nothing about it. A gay activist would have a news program, which we don’t have in Cuba. Sometimes I get very angry and have to bite my tongue when I go somewhere and see people of my same sexual orientation speaking in very primitive and outdated terms about topics of much greater urgency. I simply have to listen to them, like I do when I go, for example, to Frank Padrón’s film club Diferente. At the end of the movie, I stay silent and listen, which is what we must do in this country: be a good listener in order to create free spaces of communication about what people feel. Sometimes I hear terribly foolish remarks, and other times the most touching things in that space of socialization that replaces the bars, beaches and spots where the topic would be sufficiently discussed to become as natural as any other, like the glass of water that everybody needs at a given time of day. As long as we keep talking about this issue and surround it with a “Danger” sign, we’ll never manage to understand exactly what we’re discussing. As long as we keep taking the liberty of approaching the subject from a non-conflictive perspective, we will not make any progress. Regrettably, much of what we’re doing about it and many valuable ideas are designed to avoid sparking controversy about what it means to be homosexual, to accept that one is part of a certain difference, and to expect not only tolerance toward, but also respect for, one’s life.
What I mean about the First- or the Third-World models is that at least we should have options. For example, right now —maybe I will change my mind in three years; as humans, we contradict ourselves— I don’t feel at all the need for getting married or adopting, but I want for people in need of that to be able to do it. They should feel at least that the door is open to them and have the chance to enjoy other aspects of life in a country that sometimes is exclusively two-dimensional, where everything is good or bad, and that’s not the way it should be.
Oscar Wilde said: “As one reads history, one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by punishments that the good have inflicted”. You have to be very careful at the borderline and realize that the extremes might get mixed up and bring on total blindness. I can’t wait for the day when a discussion about this kind of topic will be exactly like any other and based on specific and well-defined past, present and future responsibilities. For instance, the timeline that Zurbano described missed an important event: the parameterization of the 1970s. Homosexuals were also parameterized, as they were one of the main targets of that instrument, which even included an interview that compelled the “accused” themselves to admit to being homosexual. It was the main reason that a homosexual could not continue working as a teacher, for example, or be in contact with the younger generations. For all this, I think we need to be a little more transparent. First and foremost, that quality would let us get information that we lack, understand in terms even more dialectical what we have discussed here. Of course, it would also help us recognize and trace the enemy, often found in the group of those who are supposedly engaged in the struggle. Therefore, we must sharpen up our ears to notice how the discourses, even those portrayed as the most integrative ones, contain undertones of repression and sexism, using not only political slogans but also apparently helpful terms. They bring great danger with them, as well as a lot of absurdly Catholic connotations. It’s not a good word, and I mean no offense to Father Hoyos, just to make you understand that a good deed is not always well-intentioned and vice versa.
We have witnessed plenty of good intentions in this country that we have not always managed to translate into good deeds. I’d like us all, as participants in debates like this, to commit ourselves to start making things more transparent and the walls of the glass ghetto more and more translucent and indistinct so that everyone knows exactly when the door is open and when it’s time to go through it or not.
Rafael Hernández: This panel is an excellent example of the space that we must all together preserve, promote and improve. We managed to talk about the topic under discussion without repeating the same things that others debate about it and succeeded in going beyond the list of events that they always mention. We discussed this issue in depth and with the participation, in my opinion extraordinarily learned, brilliant and courageous, of both the three panelists and all those who spoke here.
I would like to thank Father Hoyos for being here and representing himself, and also for exposing himself to an exceptionally incisive group like this one. My thanks to Norge, who has not experienced any catharsis as some of us feared, but did quite the opposite, providing an analytical, profound, very open and critical reflection on this matter; to Zulendrys for contributing to this dialogue with her expertise in the topic, the information she shared with us, and also for exposing both herself and the other two to the barrage of questions from the audience, whose participation I also appreciate. Let’s hope that we can continue doing this the same way. Thank you very much to you all.