The people in Cuba have learned what homophobia is according to Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) co-director and one of its founders, Camilo Garcia. The lanky, handsome 40-year-old activist has shared a 12-year relationship with his partner and CENESEX co-founder, Dr. Alberto Roque. Garcia proudly states, “Five years ago (Cubans) didn’t know anything about homophobia. Now, they know it’s not a good thing and does not form positive human values.”
Similar to centers elsewhere, at CENESEX Cuba’s LGBT community can be themselves, find a safe haven from harassment with safe sex classes, health care services and social events.
Cuba has changed and is changing. Many non-gay Cubans are supportive of the efforts of the anti-homophobic movement while others are convinced the homosexual movement has an underlying agenda. Arguments heard from religious zealots and conservatives elsewhere are echoed by like-minded people on the streets of Havana.
Garcia insists, “It is no longer politically correct to be homophobic in Cuba. This does not necessarily mean that they have overcome their prejudices, but it expresses that they have received the message that discrimination due to sexual orientation and diversity is harmful.”
Pedro Monzon, the current Cuban Ambassador to Australia suggests that attitudes in Cuban society really began shift after the release of the 1994 award-winning yet controversial motion picture Strawberry and Chocolate. Monzon notes, “That film was an important beginning. Many people do not know that there were transsexuals who fought in Revolution alongside the other guerrilla fighters. So the advances being made with regards to LGBT issues in our society are timely and good.”
Visitors used to a more open lifestyle of gay bars, internet chat rooms, sex blogs, and gay high schoolers on Glee, should not expect to find the same openness in Cuba. Amongst the vintage automobiles and decaying buildings, Cuba’s gay scene is still underground at best.
In Havana, there are three main gay hangouts. At the midsection of the Malecon, near Vedado (the commercial center of Havana), gays and lesbians congregate sipping rum, blasting boom boxes and chatting.
Heading up La Rampa (also known as Avenue 23), near this gay niche along the Malecón, are two gay bars, the Bim Bom and Piropo. More convenience store on a dimly lit street corner in the shadow of the historic Hotel Nacional than bar, the Bim Bom is swarmed on Friday and Saturday nights with hundreds of mostly gay men and transsexuals. This no frills gathering spot boasts no loud music, or disco ball, just gay Cubans socializing and enjoying the company of one another. A block away, the more intimate Piropo is a popular smoke-filled hang out that has the feel of a café, although no food is served. Piropo is also better lit and attracts more of a middle-aged crowd.
The closest thing to a gay club in Havana is the “fiesta” held every Saturday night around 11pm. In the past, the fiesta would circulate weekly to different locations to elude harassment from the “Policia”. In recent years, indicating a remarkable attitude shift “the fiesta” has settled in either of two open-air parks: one near Parque Lenin, the other close to Revolutionary Square. Cover charge for Cubans is less than a dollar; foreigners might be charged as much as fifteen. There are no advertisements for Absolut Vodka or any other capitalist enterprise at a fiesta and alcohol is mostly limited to beer and rum but the music blasts the party into the wee hours.
Cuba’s “gayest city” is Santa Clara (a 4-hour drive southwest of Havana) where you will find Cuba’s only government-authorized gay establishment, El Mejunje. Recently celebrating its 25-year anniversary, the small open-air venue is an entertaining paradise for the LGBT community. Famous for its outlandishly flamboyant drag shows and party atmosphere, this is the place where gays, lesbians and their friends can be themselves without fear.
As gay and heterosexual Cubans work to embrace their differences, generations of social and emotional hurdles must be overcome in order to combat ignorance and intolerance.