President Obama made history this week by dumping a policy toward Cuba that hasn’t helped a bit to usher in democracy or protect human rights. In fact, the 50-year effort of both Democrats and Republicans to isolate the island and twist its little Caribbean arm has only allowed Cuba’s dictatorship to entrench itself. The country remains the only one in Latin America where pretty much every form of dissent is repressed.
Open your mouth, you may be smashed in the face by the cops, intimidated by angry mobs bussed in for the occasion, and suffer other public acts of shaming and “repudiation” either in the street or, if you get big enough, on the state-run media. Write a dissenting blog, you can forget holding a job or, until the regime’s recent charm offensive, being allowed to leave the island prison. Once gone, you may be forbidden from returning. The real gadflies are serially detained without any charges for several hours or several days, while the cops harass their families. Worse is long-term imprisonment.
So a little change can’t hurt. A little opening. The only question is will this actually make things better for the average Cuban? Especially queers?
If you believe the New York Time’s editorial board, Cuba was already on the verge of a hurricane of rainbow flags and unicorns. The only problem with this excellent news, delivered in Sunday’s “Cuba’s Gay Rights Evolution,” is that it’s largely bullshit, based on a distortion of both queer Cuban history and the current reality.
The editorial didn’t express any kind of skepticism at how Cuba’s most prominent LGBT rights advocate, the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), is led by sexologist Mariela Castro, a straight white woman with a convenient last name and an outdated approach. The Times writers practically wet themselves heralding her bravery as “the first lawmaker in Cuban [post-revolutionary] history to cast a dissenting vote” in parliament. C’mon, she’s the dictator’s fucking daughter. Nobody’s gonna drag her to jail, and they probably gave her the okay to do it. Can anybody say pink-washing?
And while Ms. Castro deserves props for getting gay issues out there and winning free gender reassignment surgery and hormones for trans people, the writers should have at least mentioned what happens to her “visible and empowered community” when they try to do things for themselves. Case in point is black lesbian and blogger Leannes Imbert Acosta, founder and director of the independent association Observatorio Cubano de Derechos LGBT (Cuban LGBT Rights Watch).
In 2012, when she asked the glorious CENESEX for help gathering information on the forced labor and re-education camps of the 1960s that incarcerated tens of thousands of queers, the governmental institution was rather less than responsive. And when Imbert Acosta went ahead with plans for her own exhibit on the camps, state security turned up at her door, confiscated her materials, and dragged her off to the cop station. Not for the first time.
The New York Times itself is complicit in erasing LGBT history in Cuba. Probably the most misleading part of the editorial was its downplaying of how viciously the regime has repressed LGBT people, writing that sexual minorities were “ostracized” and that “some” people were sent to “labor camps.” “Ostracized” doesn’t begin to describe the systematic anti-gay campaign by the government, which not only passed punitive laws declaring us enemies of the state but also whipped up mobs as large and violent as any we’ve seen lately in Uganda.
And it wasn’t just “some” gay men, but more like 25,000 who were incarcerated in brutal re-education and forced labor camps, along with thousands more Jehovah’s Witnesses and other undesirables. The gay men that could, fled. Suicide was not uncommon. Lesbians, often ignored in this history, were more often sent directly to jail or mental hospitals where the Cuban state attempted to electro-shock away their degenerate counterrevolutionary tendencies.
Neither was this vast wave of anti-gay hate over in the ‘70s, as The Times implied. Even after the camps were closed following an international outcry in 1968, new anti-gay laws were passed and plenty of LGBT people, especially dykes, continued to get booted from jobs and end up in jails and mental hospitals, all the way through the 1980s. People with HIV, especially queers, were forcibly interred in state-run sanitaria until 1993. Even now, public decency and assembly laws are used to harass LGBT Cubans and people with HIV, who can be convicted of the ever-popular “pre-criminal social dangerousness.” “Publicly manifested homosexuality” actually remains illegal.
Still, we should be hopeful at the new Cuba opening. At its worse, only the elite, white, military-connected kleptocracy –– that already controls the economy –– will benefit. At its best, ordinary LGBT folks may get help from another two years of an Obama State Department, which is actively supporting LGBT people worldwide.
What Cuban queers actually need to build an authentic LGBT movement, though, is what all Cubans need, the rights to free speech and assembly, the only real building blocks of change. Let’s hope that doesn’t get lost in the rush to pry open one more new market.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger”(University of Minnesota Press, 2014), which includes large sections on LGBT Cuba.