Queer Cuba

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I’m what’s known in the vernacular as a ‘fag hag.’ It was not choice, calling or custom that threw me into the gay orbit at an early age, but rather a fortuitous convergence of nature and nurture. My family is peppered with homosexuals and my oldest brother loved to tell us of his escapades with The Eagle Scout, The Priest, and The ‘Straight’ Guy. As a tween, I was already accustomed to seeing men kiss and knew about the dark and personal horrors of the closet (from the likes of The Priest and Eagle Scout, not my brother who was loud, proud, and occasionally obnoxiously, gay; see note 1).

I’ve been to leather bars, bear bars, piano bars and clubs where the dress code is naked and go-go boys dance in cages. I remember one of our tribe – the hottest, most coveted among them – telling me he wished he was straight so he could get with me. I love the humor and the hubris, honesty and fashion/design sense of my gay friends. I go to them for sex tips and appreciate having escorts who won’t try to grope me. They throw the best parties and usually have kismet with the downtrodden, being an oppressed group themselves.

By way of context, I’m talking about pre-AIDS New York City, when there were still dungeon clubs and working “girls” in the offal-slicked streets of the Meatpacking District (see note 2). Back then, bath houses called on gloomy days and condoms were for breeders. But most relevant to this post: straight girls like me were part of the gang.

This wasn’t the case in San Francisco where I lived for seven years after NYC. The queer scene there, to me, felt hyper segmented, with gay men, women, and everyone everywhere along the sexual diversity spectrum siloed in their individual worlds. It smacked suspiciously of tolerance, a weak and non-sustainable stand-in for the unity and community I’d known in New York.

Back here on this island, I’m happy to report that years of tireless, often unappreciated and highly criticized, work by CENESEX (headed by Mariela Castro), the HIV-STI Prevention Center, El Mejunje, advocacy groups like GPSIDA, MSM (Men who have Sex with Men), and the straight allies who support them, is gaining traction.

sorry girls Im gayteeny

Nowadays, men hold hands in public (in Havana anyway), transgendered folks go shopping, clubbing, and to work as their real selves and there are more and more places for the community to convene (see note 3). And every year, Cuba’s International Day Against Homo/Transphobia grows bigger, more fabulous, and better focused. Last night, I attended the World AIDS Day gala which was as sexy, saucy, and talented as you’d expect of this place and the theater was SRO with the entire rainbow representing. I hesitate to say it’s a movement which is a bit of a dirty word here, but I’m heartened to see my queer friends and compatriots finding their stride. It feels like pride, but that’s another questionably good concept in the Cuban context since it implies superiority of one group over another and replicates hegemonic constructs they’re trying to break down and through.

But there’s rhetoric and there’s reality and as the wave of sexual diversity rolls towards a crest, I’m asking myself: will it manifest like NY, SF, or something altogether different? The evidence is conflicting, the analysis complex, and even after talking to lots of friends – gay, straight, and in between – from here and away, I’m still not sure where all this is going. But here are some factors at play in gay Cuba:

The Machismo Hydra – Once again, the scepter of male dominance and perceived superiority rears its ugly head (no pun intended) and underscores human relations here. I’m fairly certain this is part of the reason gay men have more visibility, mobility, and are more tolerated (there’s that sticky wicket again) here than gay women. Just yesterday I overheard this exchange between four friends hanging around their Lada slinging back Bucaneros: “who care if there are fags there? Deep down we’re all fags” (see note 4). The underlying meaning? Men-on-men action is not only within the realm of possibility – no matter how subconscious – but could even be desirable. Is it the power two men together represent, the simple carnality of it? Is it a way to neutralize machismo in an effort to liberate mind and body somehow? Once again, I’m not sure, but while a Cuban guy can say ‘deep down we’re all fags,’ chances are high that same fellow would say of a lesbian: ‘she just hasn’t had the right macho’ (and immediately propose himself as the one to convert her). Almost to a one, lesbians here, foreign and Cuban, have confirmed my impression that a) it never occurs to most men here that a woman can only be into women and b) once they know, it’s simply a question of ‘having the right macho’ to show them what they’re missing. What’s more, lesbian friends often mention the discrimination, including derogatory terms, leveled at them by gay men. This is troubling.


The DINK Phenomenon – DINK stands for Double Income No Kids and savvy marketers have long carved out a niche among gay men who on the whole have more disposable cash and fewer familial responsibilities than straight and lesbian couples. So it’s no surprise that many of the loveliest, most successful new bars and restaurants here are owned and operated by gay men – out and not, it’s worth noting. This is great – the boys are cute, the décor classy (or camp), and the food and drink of high standard. I’ve had memorable times at several gay-owned establishments. At a few however, the vibe is decidedly cold shoulder, reminding me of San Francisco, i.e. you’re not one of us, but we’re running a business so we’ll put up with you. Again: troubling.

The Generation Gap – The older I get, the more I understand how age affects human relations, which is one of the reasons I so energetically nurture relationships with people of all ages. Queer relations in Cuba are no different. Talk to a gay men of 60 here and you’ll get a very different perspective from that provided by the 20-something set. The younger generation generally, has a much more open and organic take on sexual diversity – regardless of gender. I remember one night at the Cine Club Diferente film debate here when an elder gay icon stood up and expressed his opinion on the gay politics reflected in the film and its relevance to Cuba. He was followed by a young university student who said he respected the older gent’s opinion and experience, but didn’t share them. And then he told the story of arriving at his dorm the first day of school and telling his roommate: ‘I want you to know I’m gay and if you have a problem with that, we’ll have to make a change.’ The other fellow had no problem with it, they became roommates, and remain so a couple of years on. Meanwhile, young women are increasingly experimenting with other women and although a friend assures me this is just a fad, I have to ask: And? Even if it is a fad – one of those ‘yeah, there was that one night with a friend in college’ type things – doesn’t it open people’s minds, expand their horizons, and break down bias?

Of course, all of this has to be couched in the Cuban context, where there’s a housing crisis, with its attendant lack of privacy (keeping many folks in the closet); salaries are absurdly low (affecting entertainment options, autonomy, and a whole host of other issues related to mental health); and sexually diverse people have experienced very real discrimination. And while friends from the States tell me all of this (i.e. the discrimination, alienation, confusing orientation with preference, etc) sounds familiar, I do think it’s substantively – at least legislatively – different here. Voters in Villa Clara have just elected their first transsexual public official for example, gender reassignment surgery is provided free for those who qualify, and same sex unions will soon be legal nationally.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I love gay culture and sensibilities and while I don’t know where we’re going, I hope to continue to be a part of it. Remember: though we may be straight, that doesn’t mean we’re narrow.


1. Is that politically incorrect? You let me know, but those who knew Bruce know he could be obnoxious – charmingly so, but obnoxious all the same.

2. R.I.P. My last Giuliani/Bloomberg nerve snapped when I dared to venture down to my old stomping grounds around Little West 12th Street last year. I never thought I’d see New York go generic, but there it was; it could have been Any City U.S.A. (Yes, I’m bitter about “progress” in Manhattan).

3. My Havana Good Time app has a dedicated LGBT category if you’re interested.

4. As with all things, conversations, and events related at Here is Havana, this is 100% true.



Filed under Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, health system, lonely planet guidebooks, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

21 responses to “Queer Cuba

  1. Fascinating post about progress for LGBT in Cuba. I recently moved to Singapore where rights are nonexistent. It was quite a shock since I had previously lived in Barcelona, which is a tolerant and gay-friendly city. As a straight person, I can only listen and empathize with my gay friends. I hope the day comes when we don’t have to moan the slow state of progress and there is actually equal rights for all.

    • Hear, hear Diana!!! (sorry to learn about Singapore….) By the way – I think there is a lot straight folks can do beyond listening and empathizing, although this is fundamentally important. Participation is equally important: Get to the parades/clubs/workshops whatever is available where you live, talk to homophobes and try to inform, denounce acts of homophobia/bias, write to newspaper editors about relevant content, treat a gay friend to cocktails and denounce all haters!!

      • I agree and do when possible (especially the cocktails part). 😉 In SIngapore, freedoms of speech and protest are almost nonexistent, so are gay brothers and sisters face a tremendous uphill battle.

  2. Odil


    I have been reading your blogs and have commented a few times. I am really trying to get in touch with you. I am dreaming of moving to Cuba can you please email and we can talk further about how it is possible. Please. I am currently working in Mexico and Cuba is my dream.

    • Hi Odil

      Im pretty sure I already answered you on this but for those who are interested in moving to Cuba, I recd this post about what that entails. Also: you have to make it legal with the Cuban govt (which is difficult, costly and time consuming) and the US govt (if relevant and you care about that/ever want to return to US soil); work here for foreigners usually comes in two types: no existent and volunteer; you have to be ok with the idea that you will have no Internet, skype, YouTube, international phone service (unless you’re independently wealthy); and then there’s all the culture I talk about here (deceit; machismo; snot rockets) which have nothing to do with Buena Vista Social Club and mojitos….

  3. Don’t know how you managed it, but you’ve conveyed the complex nature of LGBT culture here in Cuba. And that’s no mean feat. I find two aspects quite interesting. 1. Most gay men and women (that I know) have kids here. The two are not mutually exclusive. 2. There are degrees of ‘gayness’ with one more acceptable than the other. I was party to a family conversation this summer that stopped me in my tracks. My butch lesbian medic friend was scolding her teenage son… by her standards he needed to dial back on the queer-factor if he wanted to succeed in life. In essence, Mom felt that it was fine to be gay but not maricón (literally translated Butterfly, faggot).
    Coming from an Irish background, where homosexuality was only decriminalised in1993, Cuba is lightyears ahead in terms of gay rights and culture. Yet another reason why I love it here…..

    • Yes, many queer Cubans have kids. This is wonderful, but as a woman who does not have children by choice, I do find there’s a lot of pressure (especially for women) to become mothers here. Ive received soft and hard pressure and I do think that’s also related (somehow, don’t know how too early/not enough coffee to parse it just yet!) to the madonna/whore complex and machismo that exist here.

      Also very interesting about your doctor friend and her son – again, machismo at work and the male standards that are so deep seated even queer mom is replicating them.

      (Ive been meaning to add The Cuban Food Blog to my blog roll – Im going to try and do it today! The internet has been nasty lately)

  4. Such an interesting and well written essay! I don’t know much about Cuban lifestyle, never been there – and, sadly, i am not sufficiently informed about the topics you write about, but coming from a similar society marked bu “Machismo Hydra ” – i do put an effort to learn as much as i can!

    • Hey there Ruth. What a lovely comment. My mom always said “you learn something new every day” and this is what makes life interesting, I think and I’m heartened that not only am I trying/anxious to learn something new every day, but I’m helping others learn too. Please visit again.

  5. monique duval

    Wow, what an amazing, amazing post. Not only is the information fascinating but the writing, ah, beautiful. I love your rhythm. Love your iconoclastic style, love that saucy way you have with words. You’re such a pleasure to read at 5 am. Way better than a cortito — isn’t that what a Cuban coffee is called? Conner, you are my cortito. Or should that be cortita? In any case, I send you a big (nearly lesbian) abrazo.


    • Hola Monique! Thanks so much for your attentive reading and enthusiastic feedback. Not all blogs are created the same! It’s a cortado (or mas comun: cortadito – Cubans adore the diminutive).

      Ill be in your neck of the woods soon and will definitely drop by for some hand baked goodies! Abrazos back

  6. Alejandro

    Hi Conner. I am Cuban and live in Havana. I love your blog!!! Keep them coming…

  7. Esteban del Culpo

    Yes, Bruce was fully capable of being obnoxious, confrontational, flaming, pissy, swishy, petulant, flamboyant, sulky and overbearing (sometimes all of the above, before breakfast). I miss him. An another note, it seems to me that perhaps there are mixed signals regarding LGBT Cuba? The “movement” seems prompted by CENESEX and “pride” the product of stepping from the closet into the sun. That doesn’t sound like one group getting special recognition as much as it sounds like they’re getting a place at the table. Fantastic entry, my dear.

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  10. Loved the insights of this column (and many others you write). Thanks. My husband and I are going to La Habana to celebrate his 40th birthday. I am much older 🙂 He has been to varadero twice. I studied in Cuba in 1987 before all the neoliberal changes started to happen so we are both really interested in seeing a glimpse of the everyday life today. You provide a great start. Many of your insights I share in relation to my birthland Chile albeit with different nuance. Both of us are living with HIV for over 20 years. I would love to have the chance to have a chat with folks working in the field, in case you can make those connections for us. I am a social scientist and educator in the HIV field for the last 20 years. And, of course, we would love to meet you. I love your good eye for stuff. Thanks for taking the time and talent to write this. I am so glad I found you! Francisco

    • Hola Francisco. I have written A LOT about HIV/homophobia/transgender issues in my job as a journalist (see http://www.medicc.org/mediccreview). At Cuba Libro, the english-language bookstore/cafe I started, we distribute condoms, are an all-access (age/gender/race/religion/orientation) haven and oasis. We’ve given away 5100 condoms in 2 years – it is one of our most popular outreach programs. I have many contacts in the field – social scientists, health workers, seropositive people. you dont say when you’re coming (sorry! I don’t have your husbands 40th bday on my calendar!) let me know. Also: there are many gay friendly options now in Havana. HAve a great trip

      • Hey Conner – this is a wonderful response. We are coming on November 11 for one week. We will visit the Cafe for sure! Will you be around at that time? We are staying at Tropicoco, which we know is not the best but seems okay, will remind me of my student days at the centro de estudios internacionales far in Lejia (I think).
        Would love to meet emerging researchers wanting to write grants fpr social science research and education. My work in the last 6 years is well represented here http://www.universitieswithoutwalls.ca and here http://www.hivlearningplace.ca (a distance education program to support emerging community based research teams, but I can see thsi in Spanish easily, we are now completing the French parts).
        My personal work is best represented here http://www.givingitraw.ca son dos caras de una misma moneda.
        It is wonderful to be in touch.

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