Tag Archives: gay in Cuba

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.

alejandra

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.

Notes

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.

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

Lost in Translation II: Gringa Says What?!

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Liza may think life is a Cabaret, but for the rest of us, it’s rather a paradox. Take me for instance: I can turn a quick, clever phrase in English without trouble and indeed, have cobbled together a career of it. But ironically (sometimes I think cruelly), I’ve little facility with foreign languages. Nearly 10 years living full time here and I still struggle. Cuban Spanish? Let’s just say it’s as particular and odd as the island itself. To be honest, sometimes my cup of foreign language frustration runneth over…

For all its myriad benefits, living in a foreign culture is also a burden. I figure most expats would agree, whether they’ve thrown down roots in Beirut or Rabat, Paris or Istanbul. And while 20 or 30 years living in a foreign land may put you in tune, teach you a thing or three, and imprint that culture on your heart, you’ll never be of that culture. This isn’t culture shock – blatant and determinate – but rather a more subtle, low frequency current that pulses beneath every waking moment, reminding us that we are somehow “other.” Facing an unknown word or discordant concept? That’s when this outsider feeling hits particularly square and fast.

But live long enough in a foreign country and eventually this cultural disconnect will get flipped on its head. In my case, every once in a while I have to try and explain to Cubans certain US tendencies, words or quirks that just don’t compute. The pillow talk and technical sex terms alone could fill several pages, for example.

It’s frustrating, receiving that blank stare when I’m explaining something important or impassioned about my life ‘up there.’ Along with the frustration, a string of nostalgia gets plucked and motes of homesickness settle on my psyche. To swipe that dusty corner clean and set those notes of nostalgia free, I offer this list of terms and concepts which just don’t translate into Cuban.

“I don’t drink” – Before I moved to Cuba, I was a liquid dinner kind of gal, forsesaking food for whatever would get me off – martinis, whisky, and wine mostly. I come from a long line of accomplished drinkers, so I could handle it. And I tended to handle it in one of two ways: I was the life of the party when the good head was on, a scattershot bitch when that head turned bad – an unsustainable and pitiable state of affairs. Thankfully, an ultimatum by my ex-lover/partner/husband (see note 1) made me lay down the liquor for good. This doesn’t compute in Cuba. Here’s a typical exchange at parties:

“Conner, do you want a trago? A mojito or Cuba libre?”

“No, thanks. I don’t drink.”

“OK. How about a beer?”

“No, I don’t drink.”

“A glass of wine, then.”

“I’m married” Fidelity and marriage step to the beat of a completely different here. Men maintaining secret families or boy toys (see Gaydar, below); women faking adoration for material gain or immigration papers; and everyone sneaking off with weekend loves – frankly, I’m not down with any of it. So I know I shouldn’t be surprised when Cuban men hit on me and the ‘I’m married’ parry doesn’t have the desired, deterring effect. ‘And?’ is the standard response, followed by the perennial popular: ‘Don’t worry. He won’t find out.’

“Gaydar” – It has taken too long, but after nearly a decade, I’ve finally started to tap into the gay community which was such an important part of my other life. Why it took so long and the LGBT differences between here and there are best saved for another post, but after thinking long and hard about it, I’m still stumped by the absence of Cuban gaydar.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, gaydar is a play on radar and means what you might guess: it’s a beeping signal or blip that goes off when you sense someone is gay. For those with the finest tuned gaydar, it doesn’t matter if the person is out or not – the alarm will sound regardless. As you may imagine, there’s a lot of ‘passing’ in macho Cuba (pretending to be heterosexual, keeping a wife and kids for example, while grooving with guys on the side), and my gaydar goes off pretty often. So I started asking my gay friends here if there was a comparable expression in Cuban for queer folks flying low, below the radar so to speak. My query received the telltale blank expressions. Only after going round and round, trying to explain the concept, did my friends offer a loose equivalent: ‘aquello tiene plumas’ (that one has feathers), like a pajarito (little bird), a slang term for a gay man.

“Blue-eyed soul” – Cubans, it goes without saying, are phenomenal musicians – no matter if it’s rock, salsa, son or chamber music in question. But the island has been blockaded by the USA for over 50 years, which means it has been cut off from certain musical paradigms I just can’t live without. Soul, R&B, and funk especially, enter only episodically into the Cuban musical vernacular. Sure, they know Aretha and Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and a handful of other luminaries. But when I mention Bill Withers, the Bar Kays, George Clinton or Curtis Mayfield, I’m getting the 1,000-mile stare again. The likes of Hall & Oates and other blue-eyed soulsters? Fugget about it (see note 2). The same holds true for straight up blues – a genre you’d think Cubans would easily adopt and adapt, given all their trouble and woe.

“Self-Storage” – Having so much stuff – valuable stuff, not the termite-eaten and rusty shit that every Cuban has stashed somewhere in their house – that you require off-site storage: this is a foreign concept for Cubans (and most other folks from the Global South, I imagine). But mark my words: within a decade or two, Havana will have its U-Store-It or Guardando Tareco or similar.

“Marketing” – In case you haven’t heard, we’re undergoing an ‘economic opening,’ a ‘relaxation,’ a ‘new way forward.’ Whatever you call it, what it amounts to is the revolution’s most aggressive experiment with capitalism to date. More than 180 activities and services previously the sole domain of the state and attendant black market are now open for private business. Havana is a hive of entrepreneurial activity – private gyms overflow with hard body wannabes, ice sellers do a brisk business, and street food (some toothsome, some inedible) is sold from Centro to Santo Suárez. There’s even a Cuban Kinko’s now.

But not all entrepreneurs are created alike, which becomes glaringly obvious with the banal marketing behind all these new businesses. Rainbow umbrellas are the universal signs for cafeterias and all the same horror DVDs, with all the same faded covers, displayed on cookie cutter racks are sold in every neighborhood. Meanwhile second-hand clothes hang limply from iron gates, advertising themselves. Indeed, sophisticated marketing here is a string of blinking Christmas lights and a garish LCD ticker advertising batidos and comida criolla.

This, however, will change. Already websites and social media are being exploited by the savviest restaurateurs and a new English-language weekly for tourists called The Havana Reporter will soon be chock-a-block full of local ads if my predictions are correct. This is just the beginning and I can’t wait for the day when my favorite eateries advertise their no Styrofoam policy or proclaim they’re a regguetón- or TV-free zone (two plagues in Cuban bars and restaurants). Better yet, I look forward to gorgeous guys joining the hot mulattas who now dominate ad campaigns and efforts. I only hope it happens before I’m too old and grey to enjoy ogling the talent!

Notes
1. Live in: another hard-to-translate concept. Not legally spouses, but more than lovers, we eventually settled on partners, a term I never liked. It sounds weird in any language and implies business dealings or sexual orientation.

2. I should point out that many Cubans have a sap-sap-sappy streak and get all dewy-eyed for love songs and ballads and other music that I generally associate with elevators and the dentist chair (to wit: last week I got into a collective taxi blasting Air Supply). So while the lighter side of soul and R&B may be known by some, the funky side ain’t.

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