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The wedding created such a stir in the neighborhood that some people climbed on their roofs to get a better view.

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Gays Wed In Cuba:
The Second Revolution

by Juan Pérez Cabral

JUNE 21, 2001. A few hours before floats, rainbow flags, and a sea of humanity filled Sao Paulo's central Avenida Paulista last Sunday for Latin America's biggest ever Pride Parade, Agence France Presse reported that, in Cuba, two gay male couples also made history by publicly holding the first gay wedding there.

Four local boys, Michel and Ángel, and Juanito and Alejandro, ranging in ages from 17 to 22, exchanged symbolic vows before their families and friends at a neighborhood recreation center in one of the poorest sections of San Miguel del Padrón, a working-class suburb southeast of Havana.

Dressed in white, with Ángel and Juanito as brides, the four declared themselves "very happy" and said they planned to honeymoon together at one of the modest camping sites the government runs for Cubans.

"Yes, what we're doing is daring, but... I'm not afraid," Michel told France Presse. "People have thrashed us, but we don't care," said Ángel. Michel's mother, Luisa, said that "many people had criticized" Michel. "He's my son, they've decided to live together. What can I do? I'm not going to kill him," she said. Rolando, a fortyish friend of one of the couples, hit the nail on the head: This "is historic, it's never before seen" in Cuba, he told the reporter.

The wedding created such a stir in the neighborhood that some people climbed on their roofs to get a better view. It was a first in Cuba, where there is no organized gay community and no public Pride celebrations.

Queer Repression
Queers were harshly repressed in Cuba in the 1960's and early 1970's, when many gay men were sent to military work camps and anti-gay and lesbian witch hunts were common in universities, high schools, many workplaces, and the Communist Party and its affiliates. Homosexuality was considered "a bourgeois perversion" and queers were often seen as enemies of the state.

Between the mid-1970's and the late 1980's, silenced, marginalized queers were kept in check by targetted, as opposed to wholesale, repression. In 1988, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Cuba of subsidies and its biggest market, references to homosexuality in the Cuban Penal Code were softened.

According to the new laws, homosexuality would only be punishable if "publicly manifested" (three months to one year in jail), and a fine would be imposed if the hapless queer was found guilty of "persistently bothering others with homosexual amorous advances." Cuban queers exhaled, after almost 30 years holding their collective breath.

Cracks in the Closet
However, closet doors only began to be cracked around 1993, with the release of "Strawberry and Chocolate," a film sympathetic to gays. The film, which was a box office hit in Cuba, has been credited with somewhat mellowing traditional Cuban homophobia, which had been reinforced by thirty years of governmental intervention.

That year, too, the government ended the 1986 policy of forcibly putting in quarantine all HIV-positive people. There was even an attempt at queer organizing, the Cuban Association of Gays and Lesbians, founded in late 1994 by eighteen people.

This pleasant interlude ended in 1997 when members were arrested at their workplaces and the Association was suppressed, according to ILGA (the International Lesbian and Gay Association). The government also cracked down on a vibrant, emerging gay party scene, closing down about a dozen unlicensed "private discos" which had begun as gay house parties at the beginning of the decade.

While Cubans caught in these raids were arrested (as many as 500 in August 1997 according to one unconfirmed report, with some beaten up by cops), foreign visitors, like Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, were let go. There were also police sweeps of parks and other places were gays and lesbians congregated. Authorities said the crackdown and the police sweeps, both of which continue intermittently today, were needed to combat crime and prostitution, which had mushroomed with the tourist trade.

Paradoxically, while much of gay life has retreated again into the homes, a curiosity about gay issues seems to be slowly emerging among the intellectual and academic elites. So far, it appears to be mostly theoretical, rather than political, and thoroughly disconnected from the realities of the average Cuban queer on the streets.

Homophobia Spikes
In February, a revival of the gay-friendly street scene triggered an intemperate reaction from Angel Rodríguez, editor-in-chief of the weekly Tribuna de La Habana, which, like the rest of the Cuban media, is government-owned. He denounced in an opinion piece people who gathered at a popular spot near the Malecón, Havana's coastal avenue, as a bunch of "characters" that exhibited "all kinds of deviant behavior."

They were, he wrote, "pimps, prostitutes and other extragavant characters, among which stands out a figure sadly rampant throughout the world, but almost unknown in Cuba: the transvestite." Then he warned that "many anti-socials, delinquents and slackers (...) will come out from that bizarre gathering."

And the coup de grace: "These characters may have all the right in the world to their practices and harmful vices, but not the right to maintain a focus of contamination in the very heart of the capital, and to project an image that is totally alien to the spirit of work and struggle, and the way our people have a good time and relax."

On February 18, AFP reported that gays had stopped frequenting the site after the Rodríguez piece was published. But the double wedding in San Miguel del Padrón may be a sign that the cat and mouse game between queers and Cuban authorities for control of public space is entering a new phase. After all, raiding a queer wedding may be a tad too silly, and the neighbors hanging from their roofs may not appreciate the party-pooping.

Related links:

To drop an educational note to the homophobic editor-in-chief of Tribuna de la Habana, Ángel Rodríguez.

For Welcome to Havana: The Cuban Gay Underground, a first-hand account in Gay Wired, 1997.

For a look at Cuban youth, Our Manics in Havana, when Wales' fab three became the first major western rock act ever to play in Cuba.

The Cuba Files
castroAnalysis of the facts from a radically moderate point of view. Including overviews of Cuban history, Cuba today, and U.S.-Cuba policy.

Our Americas
new world News, analysis, opinion and a weekly review of the New World in the headlines. From Canada to Argentina.

Bush Plus
U.S. politics and the Bush administration All about George W. Bush, Dems, Greens, GOPs, and the morass of U.S. politics.

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Taiwan to Puerto Rico and more.

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