Gay rights in Cuba

FRFI 181 October / November 2004

Homophobia exists in Cuba as it does all over the world. But those who assert that widespread repression of homosexuality exists in Cuba rely on statements made in the 1960s when homosexuality was a criminal offence (as it was in Britain). While there have been instances in Cuba in recent times when gays have been subjected to harassment, this has been due to individuals’ backward ideas and prejudice. But the idea of Cuba as a repressive regime where gays face constant persecution is constantly brought up by Trotskyists and opportunists in Britain as a stick to beat the Revolution, and needs to be countered, as Richard Roques shows.

Before the Revolution, when Cuba was an offshore casino and brothel for the idle rich of the US, homosexuality was outlawed. Repression and poverty forced many gay men into prostitution. The anti-homosexual 1930s Public Ostentation Law, remained after the Revolution triumphed. Between 1965 and 1968, homosexual men were amongst those incarcerated in austere Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), labour camps set up to counter bourgeois and individualistic elements who were resisting the Revolution. The camps were closed down in 1968 following bitter protests to the government by the Cuban Writers and Artists Federation. A year later, meanwhile, in the United States, after years of persecution, homosexuals fought pitched battles with the police after a routine raid in the Stonewall bar.

In 1979 homosexual acts were decriminalised in Cuba (unlike in many capitalist countries; some states in the US retain outdated sodomy laws). In 1987 the offence of ‘homosexual acts in public places’ was removed from Cuba’s penal code. The age of consent for homosexuals in Cuba is 16 years, the same as for heterosexuals. In 1993 sex education workshops on homosexuality were run throughout Cuba to explain that homophobia is a prejudice. At the same time Castro declared:

‘I don’t consider homosexuality to be a phenomenon of degeneration...[I consider] it to be one of the natural aspects and tendencies of human beings which should be respected. I am absolutely opposed to any form of repression, contempt, scorn or discrimination with regard to homosexuals.’

In the same year Strawberry and Chocolate, the first Cuban film to deal openly with homosexuality, was hugely popular in Cuba. It was the only film funded by the government that year.


In 1996 Pablo Milanes, a singer adored by his fellow Cubans, who had himself been incarcerated in a UMAP in the 1960s, dedicated a song about gay men to all Cuban homosexuals. Recently a play produced by El Teatro Sotano ran in Vedado entitled Muerte en el bosque (A Death in the Woods). Based on the investigation of the murder of a Havana drag queen, through the investigation of the crime, Cuban attitudes towards and prejudices against gays are examined and challenged at every level of society. In December 2000, at the film festival in Havana, easily half of the Latin American films shown had gay themes.

AIDS: Another stick to beat Cuba with
The policy of enforced detention in sanatoria for HIV/AIDS sufferers initially introduced in Cuba was contentious, but an effective way of dealing with a then little-understood and potentially devastating disease. The policy of compulsory quarantine ended ten years ago. Cuba is today in the forefront of the fight against HIV/ AIDS – a fact met with deafening silence from Cuba’s enemies.

Those diagnosed with HIV are given an eight-week education and drug support programme in a sanatorium and then have the choice to stay (gay couples live together) or return to their homes. Dr Byron Barksdale, director of US charity Cuban AIDS Projects pointed out that people in the US ‘may get five minutes worth of education’. Infection rates in Cuba are 0.1%, the lowest in the region, with 3,200 cases out of a population of 11 million. Anonymous testing is available and most HIV cases are diagnosed within six months of exposure. Cuba now produces generic anti-retroviral treatment. Multinational pharmaceutical companies make fantastic profits out of anti-retroviral drugs and deny them to the poor. In the US people with HIV/AIDS who do not have health insurance are denied the latest drugs. In contrast, Cuba has sent thousands of doctors and nurses to almost every part of the world to help in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. In Botswana, with the highest proportion of people in the world with HIV/ AIDS, Cubans work in clinics and hospitals and the Cuban government has offered to train, at no cost, nurses and doctors from other Caribbean countries to fight the pandemic.

In a capitalist society if you are gay and rich and you live in a city, life can be good. But capitalism hasn’t abolished homophobia. On 6 October, 1998 in Wyoming, Matthew Shepherd, was tied to a fence and beaten within an inch of his life. He died several days later. He had been beaten up on two previous occasions because he was gay. In one of the attacks his jaw was broken. In the aftermath US organisation The National Youth Advocacy Coalition published Facts about gay youth which included the statistics that 80% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual young people report verbal abuse and 66.7% of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth were threatened/injured with a weapon at school in the past year. Only a few miles from Cuba, gays in Jamaica are regularly murdered, raped and brutalised with the apparent acquiescence of the police and legal system. Assaults on homosexuals are up 15% in Britain from last year. I was queer-bashed in London a few years ago and ended up in casualty. That’s what over 40 years of gay rights has achieved under capitalism. Socialist Cuba, meanwhile, has constantly shown itself able to learn from the mistakes of the past; today it has a visible and thriving gay and lesbian community and is moving towards an ever-more tolerant and inclusive society, valuing all its people for their contribution to society, regardless of sexual orientation.

*A sentence was removed from this article as it uses language which is now considered offensive. (02/12/16)


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