Gay Cuba

by John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 122-124
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1997, 2006

Directed by Sonja de Vries, 1995. Available in 57 and 29-minute versions from Frameline, 346 Ninth Street, San Francisco, CA, 94103. Frameline@aol.com and www.Frameline.org.

In this traditionally styled documentary the director intersperses talking-head interviews with musical interludes over montages of images or voice-over documentary sections. GAY CUBA is also a very moving film. The film taps into and gives voice to Cuban youth in a way which no other film I have seen does. These voices are passionate, excited, logical, thoughtful, and humane. The young gay men and lesbians have grown up inside the Cuban Revolution and reject its long governing machismo, stuffy bureaucracy and political Puritanism without rejecting the Revolution itself. Rather, they base their rejection on revolutionary principles. They have a refreshingly direct and clear-headed way of expressing obvious truths. "I don't have to sleep with a man to be a communist and a revolutionary," says one young lesbian matter of factly. How could anyone disagree? "I'd be really proud to have a friend like that," says a young straight man, referring to the gay character, Diego, in STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE. To the extent that the Cuban Revolution can include and involve these young people in its project, its future looks better than most seem to think today.

Inspired, at least in part, by the opening that Tomás Gutierrez Alea's STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE (1993) created, the film also answers Nestor Almendros and Orlando Jimenez-Leal's IMPROPER CONDUCT (1984). These directors were embittered exiles, who were never known as advocates of gay liberation per se but who wanted to stigmatize the whole Cuban revolution by highlighting its shameful treatment of homosexuals. Ironically, in retrospect, one could say that their film and the furor against Cuba that it caused may have contributed to positive change in Cuba.[1]

As GAY CUBA documents, the last 10-12 years have been ones of increasing progress for gay life in Cuba. In 1986 the Cuban government began to reevaluate its policies towards homosexuals and in 1988 repealed public ostentation laws in force since 1938. In 1988 police were ordered to stop harassing people based on appearance; the law now only prohibited homosexual acts based on violence and coercion. One lesbian in the film jokes about kissing her lover in front of police to see their reaction. Toward the film's conclusion, Jorge Cortines of the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission asserts that Cuba poses no more of a problem than does the U.S., whereas many other Latin American countries formally and informally continue to persecute homosexuals. Thus physical gay bashing, practically unknown in Cuba, has reached epidemic proportions in countries like Brazil and Mexico and it is common here.

Much of GAY CUBA stresses everyday interactions among gay and non-gay Cubans. We see Miguel Sosa, a union leader in his factory and an elected delegate to the local government, with his coworkers and with his lover in their neighborhood. We meet another factory worker who is also a well-known drag queen. We see drag performances at evening fiestas organized by a CDR (neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution). And we see Pablo Milanes, who spend time in a work camp in the 1960s, dedicate his gay-positive song, "The Original Sin," at a public performance to "all gays and people who suffer in the world." Lyrics include the lines,

"Two souls
two bodies
two men who love each other
are going to be expelled from the paradise
in which they were destined to live.[2]

The film ends on gay/lesbian contingents at a Jose Martí and a May Day parade.

The film also takes up the issue of AIDS and Cuba's original policy of quarantining HIV positive people, which ended in 1993. The central figure here is an HIV positive doctor, now an AIDS educator, who talks about growing from hopelessness to activism within a sanitarium. For a variety of reasons, including homophobia, the Cuban government overreacted to the first signs of the AIDS but then with more information and experience altered its policies. The film includes impressive statistics. Out of a population of 11 million, less than 1,200 people tested HIV positive by 1995 (over half are heterosexual) and only 250 have died. These statistics, even if exaggerated, are astounding, given the ravages of this disease around the world in the last 15 years.

Finally, this film, supported by recent writing about sexuality in Cuba, documents in an engaging way the enormous changes that have taken place in Cuba since 1959.


1. We must realize how complex issues of sexuality and change in Cuba are. For example, 1979 saw two contradictory public policies enacted. The Penal code of 1979 included harsh penalties for public homosexual behavior. At the same time, the National Task Force for Sexual Education published in Spanish an East German textbook on sexuality which included a chapter on homosexuality, stating:

"Homosexuality cannot be classified as a sickness; rather it must be seen as a variant sexuality. Homosexuals do not 'suffer' from sexuality; they suffer from the difficulties that their condition causes them in society."

Quoted in Marvin Leiner, Sexual Politics in Cuba: Machismo, Homosexuality, and AIDS (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994) 45.

 2. The full lyrics in Spanish and English are in Ian Lumsden, Machos, Maricones, and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996) 209-210.