A cursory reading about gay life in Havana reveals four common themes: (1) watching or participating in the cruisy scene in front of the Yara Theatre; (2) going to a private "fiestas de diez pesos" (informal disco dances) which happen anywhere anytime; (3) hearing about political repression and (4) seeing the pervasive poverty that leads to sex for sale.
These titillating bits may be within the collective stew that is today's gay Cuba, but I think they represent only a portion of what a "normal" Cuban gay man or lesbian woman experiences as they go about their daily lives.
During my visit to Cuba in early 2003, I too found the sexy sharks outside the Yara Cinema to be tempting milk chocolate, but that scene happens only at night on that corner; it also happens downtown in the Central Park area by the large tourist hotels.
I didn't manage to make my way to a "fiesta de diez pesos" in one of the grubby suburbs, because I was told they were shut down by the police. But another reporter in Havana at the same time did find one -- so much for hearsay. He described it thus:
"Special taxis lined up around the corner from the Yara Cinema, and the drivers all knew the secret location of the evening's gay parties. Getting into a cab was not a simple matter, though. My new friends spoke with the drivers, but avoided the glare of the police as they did so, and when it came time to hire a cab, we made a mad dash away from the police to another street. The police in pursuit began whistling and waving to stop us from getting in a cab. 'It's like a joke,' explained Magdelana, when I asked her about the police once we were safely on our way. 'At times it's too much, but I think, honey, we have the real power.'
"But later, stopped at a roadblock in the middle of nowhere, just shy of the party, the police forced the driver to get out, show his ID, and answer questions for several minutes. They obviously knew where the 'secret' party was, and we were given access at their discretion. The party was in a courtyard between some small houses, and in time, hundreds of locals and tourists were dancing to music I could have heard at home -- Whitney and Britney, with some Latina divas thrown into the mix. A few men wore U.S. flag bandanas on their heads, which Fernando said could get them arrested. I asked Magdelana why people living in the complex didn't call the cops. 'If I pay you, you say nothing,' she responded."
A Discreet Community
But these night haunts hardly constitute the whole gay scene in Havana. From my observations and interviews, the bulk of Havana lesbigay life more accurately consists of people such as the couples and singles I saw at the ballet one evening in the ornate Teatro Nacional in the central district next to the enormous capitol building. The four performances were sold out, but my new friends -- a gay couple of four years -- secured me a ticket. The theatre goers gathered out front like it was a family reunion, as men and some women (I noticed far fewer female couples) shook hands or exchanged cheek kisses (a standard greeting in Cuba).
Here were some of Cuba's middle class gay society out for an evening. Nicely dressed and groomed (more conservative than chic), they gossiped and chatted and laughed with a jovial and amicable energy. My hosts seemed to be especially well connected, as they mingled with many others and introduced me to some who were a little surprised, but pleased, that an Americano was there. Not a lot of U.S. citizens make the effort to go to Cuba, legally or not, and even fewer gay or lesbian travelers make the journey -- still, there are more than ever before.
Before the show, during the intermission, and after the performance I watched as the audience -- gay and straight -- gathered into clutches of friends. Of course I couldn't tell how often these people met during their daily routines, but it seemed to me that the gay circles prized the evening as a special gathering where they could be "out" in public without drawing notice. These were not the daring and risky guys at the Yara Cinema, with scams for naïve passing tourists.
Rather, these were the conservative, closeted professionals with (low paying) careers and long term relationships to guard. I saw very few younger guys in the crowd. Mostly the folks were middle age who could afford the ($10 orchestra seat) ticket price, the appropriate clothes, and the taxi fare.
Just before the start of the ballet, the esteemed retired prima donna and current director of the Cuban Ballet, Alicia Alonso, entered her center box seat demurely, bowing to the spontaneous applause that greeted her. Like Havana, she was beloved and worn.
Gay Friendly B&B
My hosts for my sojourn in Havana were Marcos and Raul (not their real names), who live in a four-room, eighth-floor apartment "casa particular" (the Cuban version of a B&B), with a nice view overlooking the city toward old town. As I surveyed the city view, I couldn't help noticing the lack of color. No typical red tile roofs and church steeples that one might expect with Spanish architecture. Instead, the roof-tops were flat areas for storage or clotheslines, and the dominant colors of the buildings were varying shades of gray.
Inside, Marcos and Raul's apartment was furnished with newish but older-style furniture. A new polished wood cabinet in the living/dining room held a large screen TV, VCR, and stereo. The floor was terrazo, which seems to be the socialist tile of choice for countless apartments across the city. A few pictures and curtains, bric-a-brac, and a finch in a cage warmed up the pale but clean walls. In the small 7x7 kitchen, a new washing machine stood proudly against one wall, opposite the older Russian-built fridge. Two bedrooms led off the living/dining room, and both were furnished with queen size beds and large wardrobes. Lean as it was, their homestead was quite a bit more upscale than the average apartment. (I stayed in another place for a night that had so little kitchenware, there was no bowl for my breakfast cereal; I ate it out of a coffee cup.)
In this flat Marcos and Raul live for free; actually it was assigned to Raul years before he met Marcos. Housing is assigned in Havana, and there is rarely any moving out once the assignment is made. At first the place was quite dismal with old paint peeling, some broken panes of glass, and no hot water. But Raul had no money to fix it up. He earned -- and still earns -- about $12 a month as a typist for the state propaganda office.
When Marcos came into Raul's life, the apartment began to change. Being entrepreneurial and energetic and in need of cash, Marcos convinced Raul that opening a casa particular (CP) was their ticket to a better life. Originally permitted by the government as an inexpensive way to house Cuban tourists visiting Havana, there are now many CPs that are advertised to foreign tourists. (A number of them are listed in guide books such as Lonely Planet.) In the three years since opening their CP, Marcos and Raul have generated far more revenue than they could have with state jobs.
Marcos is now able to devote himself full time to their business. Of course the greedy and ubiquitous government reaches into any such free-enterprise effort, and charges a hefty licensing fee (that has to be paid monthly even if there have been no guests).
Word of mouth is often the best advertising among the gay community. Through their network, they let it be known their CP was "gay friendly," and so their guests have virtually all been gay or lesbian. One American guest subsequently posted the name and address on the Internet, along with another gay CP on the same street. Both charge about US$20 a night, which in Cuban value is a lot of money. Now Marcos and Raul can afford the ballet tickets and the new TV and washing machine, as well as a gym membership for Marcos. But they have to be careful not to spend too ostentaciously, lest the government question the actual details of their finances.
(Note: the same American guest subsequently withdrew his Internet posting after his most recent visit, although Marcos and Raul are still in business. There is now only one "gay friendly" casa particular listed on GayCuba.com.)
Cuban Gay Life
One morning after a hearty homemade breakfast of eggs, sausage, fruit, toast, juice, and coffee prepared by Marcos, he and I talked about being gay in Havana. (Raul doesn't speak fluent English.) He and Raul have lived together for four years in their apartment building (with about 60 units), surrounded by neighbors who are mostly straight. Marcos is aware of two other gay couples and one lesbian couple in the building. He has not known of any overt discrimination or obvious homophobia from any of the residents. Why?
"The main thing to be gay here is to be 'discreto'. If you are not, how do you say -- flamboyant, and are not political with your actions, you will not be bothered," he explained. For example, one of the popular gay meeting places for a long time was on the Malecon road that fronts the sea, across from the Fiat dealership. In the evenings a colorful collection of gays and lesbians (mostly younger) pingueros (male hustlers), guys on the make (bugarrones), tourists looking for a "hot Latino," the occasional drag queen, and "straight but curious" young men would sit along the sea wall or cruise back and forth.
Not surprisingly, drugs and alcohol soon arrived as well. What started as a discreet place of contact became a popular meat rack. Not surprisingly, the police moved in, and now forbid lingering by more than a few people.
"You cannot do these things in public. But it was not just against gays. The police get suspicious of any big groups, or drugs, so it stops. They are paranoid of everyone," Marcos went on. "Even by the Yara Cinema, the police are always seen. Most of the people there are waiting to buy ice cream at Coppelia, but the gays are there too. And some are not gay, but look for sex for money. "
Police checking IDs of young people
On two different occasions, I watched as police officers stopped young men and asked to see their ID cards. Occasionally a person without proper papers was taken to the police station; if they did not have permission to be in Havana, they were put on a bus and sent back to their hometowns. It was a constant low key but forceful way to remind people that hanging around too long or too much was not allowed. Further adding to watchful "big brother" are the little black notebooks every policeman carries, in which he makes notes of things and people he sees.
But for folks like Marcos and Raul, the Yara corner is the last place they think about going. Their world centers more on their business, their family, and their friends. Because awareness of their "casa particular" has spread, Marcos is often the busy host, making arrangements for visitors. Because they only have two bedrooms to rent out and are sometimes full, he helps to find alternative digs for others, as he did for me. A few days later, two Spanish acquaintances of his arrived with two friends and needed suitable (i.e. inexpensive and gay friendly) rooms, so Marcos spent the day making inquiries of other friends or neighbors.
Marcos and I went on to talk about the changes in Cuba for gays over the past ten years. Despite a general cultural prejudice, there are four factors -- at least -- that influence the improving tolerance toward gays. (1) Money, (2) the church, (3) the state -- and (4) more money.
(1)The common Cuban citizen is very poor, living on the equivalent of less than US$20 a month. Despite free housing (often dismal and small), free education (in shabby sparse buildings), and free medical care (often lacking sufficient medications and equipment), there is little most people can afford, such as extra clothes, household goods, or cars (and many still have 30-year old Russian fridges).
As a result, there is a thriving black market that is based on the U.S. dollar. People are willing to offer whatever they can for dollar cash: a taxi ride in a 1942 Buick; a room in their apartment; guide services; sex; leftover rice allocations from the government store; pizzas sold from their ground floor kitchens; old books; clothing, chewing gum, etc..
The dollar has become the unofficial currency, with much higher value than the peso (which continues to fall in value). So when Marcos has too many guests, he offers his neighbors the chance to make a huge $25 for giving up a bedroom for a night or two or more. Needless to say, this is also good public relations for Marcos, as he hosts predominantly male clientele.
(2) The Roman Catholic church, since the 1959 Revolution and the imposition of socialist dogma, has had little influence over Cuban life. Few people go to church, and the bishops must guard against speaking negatively toward Castro and his regime. Repressed as the situation is, one ironic consequences has been the absence of religious homophobia whipped up by clergy with their usual fervent campaign against the "sins" of homosexuality.
(3) However, beginning in the 60s, until the 80s, the government supplied more than sufficient disdain toward "deviants." Although homosexuality was never legally criminalized (and Fidel himself has claimed he does not discriminate against gays; and the rumors are that his brother Raul Castro is at least bisexual), it was considered abnormal if a man did not marry and make babies.
From the early days of witch-hunts against gays as threats to moral order, to the somewhat relaxed present, there has been discernable improvement. The police are no longer on active search for "sexual deviants" -- unless of course if they make themselves obvious or inappropriate in public. Neither Ray or Raul has ever been hassled by the authorities, and they don't worry when they meet their gay friends in public or at home.
(4) Since the collapse of Soviet support for Cuba, and given the dismal socialist economic policies, Cuba nearly went bankrupt in the early 90s, until Fidel was forced to throw open the ports and welcome tourists, unlike the early years of the "glorious" Revolution. Old Havana has been declared a world heritage site by the UN. This in turn has brought in a lot of money for restoration and tourist infrastructures, like hotels. Now there is a large seaport that can berth huge cruise ships (from all countries except the USA) only a few yards from the heart of the picturesque old town.
And it's no secret that among the well-paying guests are more than a few lesbigay adventurers from Canada, Europe, South America, and Asia, who want to feel the warm winter sun, view beautiful antique Spanish architecture, and perhaps make the brief acquaintance of an appealing Cuban "friend." Despite the absurd USA embargo, today there is also a quiet but steady stream of American lesbigay travelers, both legally (for research or educational purposes) and illegally (by way of Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, etc.) into that once-isolated socialist paradise.
The "Mature Set"
Ray and Raul's prosperity is sufficient to allow Marcos to hire a private English tutor who comes twice a week to share new words, conversation, and a lunch. I was introduced to the tutor one day and, no surprise, he also turned out to be a member of our community.
Juan (not his real name) is a handsome retired accountant in his early 60s. He learned English as part of his job for a clothing export company over the course of his career. Now, to earn always-needed extra money, he gives English lessons to students in a school as well as in private. He and his partner Jose have been together for most of the socialist occupation -- 37 years -- during which time they have not lived together; Juan's assigned house is quite far out in the suburbs, while Jose's is close to the central district.
Juan is a gentle and considerate man who was quite willing to talk to me, both for purposes of practicing his English with an American, and to ask questions about the "outside" gay world. When I told him my hometown in California was about 20% lesbigay, he was astonished. I told him that often our city council has one or more openly gay members, which he also found incredible. Hungry for quality English language magazines, I gave him recent copies of The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, which he treasured as a very special gift. It's impossible for him to access such American periodicals in Havana, and if he could they would be too expensive for him.
In his 60-some years, he has never seen a gay periodical or a gay video or pictures of any gay pride event. He said that if someone tried to send him any such material, his mail would be pilfered and the contents removed. "They keep it for themselves!" he said with a sardonic laugh; "they steal everything."
His life with Jose is very quiet, and safely within the rules. Both are retired now, and Jose also offers English lessons. They spend several nights together during the week now that they have more time. Their "gay life" consists of a circle of friends who are mostly straight, as well as some long-time gay friends. "We don't go out to commercial places. We like to read and have dinner with friends. Jose likes to cook and talk; we like to visit with friends who speak English as well, so we can stay fresh with the language," he described.
As for the standard line that Cuba has for a long time repressed gay people, Juan said, "It is not so hard to be gay here in private. Neither Jose nor I have ever had any trouble with this. We don't show it on the street. We didn't show it at our work. It is not someone else's business how we have our personal life. That is for us only. For our neighbors, they know us, and they just live their lives and we live ours. Nobody wants trouble, you know; life is already hard here."
I told him that I had been to the ballet with Marcos and Raul, and he was pleasantly surprised. "Oh, yes. We were there too." I asked him about the gay and lesbian people in the audience, and he laughed with acknowledgment. "Of course. Gay people love beautiful things -- but so do many good straight people. Some of our best friends are not gay, and they have known about us for a long time. But it doesn't matter. We are friends, and that is what's important."
As for the Internet, Juan is not allowed to own a computer as a private citizen. So we met in the lobby of the 5-star Hotel Telegraphic on the main square in the Centro district so I could show him my Web site. Had he not been with me, he would have been denied access to the three computers provided for hotel guests. Further, he would have been declined had he wished to rent a room in the fancy hotel. Foreigners only -- or privileged Cubans with connections or money.
This is not to say Cubans lack any Internet access. A "student" (you can never be sure) I met a few days later showed me a card he bought for very few pesos that allowed him four hours of Intra-net computer time at the post office. His e-mail and browsing is filtered through the government ISP "Correocuba." Obviously this makes it easy for big brother to keep track of wandering minds. But some professional folks, such as research doctors, government officials, or big businessmen, are allowed computers -- some socialists are more equal than others it appears. Juan accesses his e-mail through a doctor friend who is engaged in medical research and uses "Infomed.sld" as his mail server.
Juan was well aware of the hardships that some gays have faced at the hands of the police. "I think the young people are more daring now. It is not the same as many years ago when the police would hit you. Now these boys go along the Malecon or in the park across from here. It is foolish, because they can be put in jail. We are not free to do everything we like. But I hear they can bribe the police and not be in jail. The money is a protection so they can find customers for sex. Still, they have to be very careful because many police don't like gays, and being in jail is terrible. But you know the money is good, so they do it. In one night, I hear, a handsome pinguero can make more money than a month. You know how it is; so they take the risk."
Regarding Juan's comment about the pinquero hustlers in the Capitolio area, it's true that sex is easily and widely available for sale in Havana, male or female. It is, after all, one of the oldest professions anywhere in the world. Whether the sellers are gay or bi or straight -- Marcos guessed that 30% of Cuban macho guys crossed over, as long as they performed the "male" role -- it's not rocket science to find these guys working their turf.
More hidden are the liaisons between men who are reluctant to be seen shopping at the Yara Cinema or in Central Park. Often these are married Cubans with responsible professions or reputations. There are also many foreigners who travel with a pretty-boy image in mind, but who don't trust the street scene. For these "classy" folks, there are always temporary Adonis-looking young men who are arranged through gay connections.
Half casual, half commercial, these contacts are discreet, yet common. They may start out with an introduction in a private home or casa particular, as the young man drops by as a friend to the host and all are introduced. The guest then takes it from there. I met three separate such tourists in Havana -– an American, a German and a Spaniard -- who preferred this safer way of match-making.
Usually the visitor is older, educated, and professional. The young gorgeous sprite may or may not speak English, come from an impoverished family, have one set of nice clothes (hoping for more), have minimal education, and an unspoken fantasy of being taken far away from Cuba.
My observation of these kinds of arrangements, in countries from Morocco to Malaysia, is that the older traveler is usually seasoned and realistic about the nature of the "arrangement," offering appropriate gifts (rigalitos) of clothing, food, or money, in return for the sensual comforts of one or several days and nights.
The Next Generation
Walking around Havana on my own was my preferred mode of seeing and feeling the quick and dusty soul of the city. Nevertheless, each day at some point I happened upon pairs of young men (versus being beset upon by brazen female sex workers in the evening) on the street. These were not areas with many tourists, so I didn't feel these were hustlers after something and I felt comfortable talking with them. None of them approached me with a come-on as hustlers often do.
Each time, the guys said they were students; indeed the university was in the vicinity and they did carry notebooks or papers of some sort. At least one of each pair spoke reasonably good English, so we engaged in conversation about school, Fidel, American politics, families, and so on. Without exception, these young people scorned Castro, and thought he was more crazy than sane. Not that they yelled this out loud, but they did not seem to fear that someone might overhear them.
When I recall the comments of a couple of taxi drivers and others I met who also expressed similar thoughts, it seems evident that Castro has become an anachronism to the young adult generation. They don't like him or his socialist policies. They feel the repression and limitations the government imposes on their lives, but they're not so foolish as to do anything about it. So they go to college, hoping for some future relief, while preparing for a job in the system.
The students said everyone has a job in Cuba, and a person can be investigated and possibly jailed for not working -- or he will be given a manual job to do by the police regardless of his skills. (There are a lot of street sweepers in Havana -- as there needs to be, since people throw their trash in the gutters without a thought.) A doctor in Cuba earns between $20-30 a month. A policeman earns a hefty $40 a month, so you can be sure he does his job well.
One of the students, Augustino, wanted to be a veterinarian, which would pay him perhaps $25 a month. His companion, Jorge, was a music teacher who gave private piano lessons to earn a bit of extra money. His retired father receives $4 a month from the government. Another, Giovanis, said the government gave him a dollar a month as a student; he ate and slept free at the university, where there was no tuition. To help support him, his mother sends him money she earns under the table. She works in a position that allows her to sell gasoline. In a softer voice, Giovanis said she sells the allotted ten gallons, then furtively sells a additional five gallons (which a buyer is very happy to get) for the price of ten, and keeps the extra money. Castro's socialist dream has created a risky nightmare black market for nearly everyone.
The University of Havana campus was closed to outside visitors on the Saturday I went by. The front entry is quite impressive, with its huge wide sweeping stairs leading up to neo-classical faced buildings. I walked around to the back of the campus and saw a different image: dilapidated classroom buildings whose shutters were falling off; chips and cracks in the exterior stucco walls; the stadium was locked up, and I could see some repair work, but the weeds in the running track suggested the reparations themselves were permanent. The big blue Olympic-size swimming pool was dry as a bone and growing its own garden of weedy greens.
For their company and conversation, I took Giovanis and Jorge to lunch at the Three Musketeers Restaurant/Club where portions of the popular 2001 film "Buena Vista Social Club" were shot. The food was quite good (and over-priced), but we all had a very hearty mid-day meal (meat, beans, rice and salad), something the boys said they could never afford.
Leaving them after lunch, I walked across town through non-tourist areas of Vedado district toward my casa particular. There was not much to be cheerful about. Despite the warm February weather, and the reputed lively and musical "soul" of Cuba, and of Havana, the conditions in which the vast majority of Cubans live are not pretty. (I also took a trip into the countryside to the old-world south coast town of Trinidad.)
Decaying ornate buildings, dark residential hovels with florescent strip lighting and cement walls, cheap furniture, deplorably rattling 50's cars that emit black fumes, two-channel TV with boring programming, skimpy and pitiful thrift-store quality selections at the peso-based grocery and clothing stores. (There are government owned dollar-based stores where the shelves are filled with brands and choices, which few can afford). There are ferral dogs everywhere, barking or scrounging or dead. It was a walk back in time, and a walk through shame.
It may be charming in the tourist old town, but for everyday living it's a disgrace to the government and humiliating to its citizens. I watched a policeman try to use a pay phone one day; there were four in a row, and as he tried each one, only one worked. One of the students, Raul, had said sarcastically that sex was the only fun thing to do -- that and eating ice cream.
There are of course many high-end hotels and restaurants and clubs which are insulated against this. A tourist who comes in on a luxury ocean liner will see little of this pervasive grim reality. Wealthy foreigners and Cubans (there are quite a few, but only a fraction of the population) can be whisked around town in the air conditioned comfort of a new SUV, and arrive at their ocean-view suite in the elegant Hotel Nacional.
In the Mirimar section of Havana there are many well-groomed stately mansions behind wrought iron fences and foliage, where the diplomat and executive set live and dine. But for the common citizen, this area has only the reality of an imaginary Hollywood film.
So the question remains, as I set out on my way to Cuba to discover, is the glass half full or half empty for gays in Cuba today? The answer is, of course, both.
There continues no current hope or intent of a visible "community" presence. Absolutely no political activism is possible or thinkable by any LGBT person who wants to stay out of jail. There may be informal and movable small fiestas that happen and end quickly; there may be an unspoken gay night at a cabaret, disco, or restaurant but hardly any outsider will know about it. There may be rent boys for sale, but this is fraught with risk (emotional and legal), and half these guys may not even be gay (who's exploiting whom?). There may be a rare gay-theme film that everyone raves about, but it's gone after a while, with nothing to follow it.
Is it safe to be gay in Cuba? If you are an activist, definitely not. If you are a conservative and discreet single or couple who can accept limitations on your life, the answer is yes. If you are a handsome street-smart pinquero with a quick eye and fast tongue and a penchant for adventure, the answer is that being gay (or playing gay) is fun, risky and profitable.
There are worse conditions under which lesbigays live, such as in very conservative Muslim countries, and there are of course places far better where homosexuality has a front row seat, as in Scandinavia. Along this continuum of social/religious/political regard for our community, I think there is good reason for hope in the future when Fidel is gone.
There may be a generalized homophobia in the culture, but there are also strong ameliorating trends as well. Cuba is a country within the Latino mentality, where sex is considered a personal right and an important way of expressing and defining oneself; it is less categorical than in North America and Europe, and many men who have sex with other men don't consider themselves gay or straight -- they are being "men" having pleasure with another person. Those who do identify as gay are simply part of an interwoven sexual tapestry that includes many varieties.
Homosexuality, indeed all sexuality, here seems not to carry the same demonizing stigma as in other more highly-Catholic Latino countries. Many lesbigay Cubans have non-gay friends whose attitude is essentially "indifference to the difference."
Meanwhile, the poverty continues, the repression pervades everyday life, the economy stumbles along, and Fidel rules absolutely while drinking water is trucked into just some buildings in the capital. The tourists arrive in style, look around, and leave. Lesbigay citizens breathe quietly and make furtive dollars in the closet, or dance at the occasional fiesta. Pretty boys watch the streets for new opportunities. And everyone looks to the future.
©2003 by Richard Ammon