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Homosexuality Is Not Illegal In Cuba, But Like Elsewhere, Homophobia Persists

By Eva Bjorklund

[This article was published in the Swedish Cuba magazine, a quarterly published by the Swedish-Cuban Association.]

Before 1959 there was no manifest difference between the situation of homosexuals in Cuba and the rest of Latin America, or in relation to Latin cultures in Europe, such as Spain and Portugal. As compared with Anglo-Saxon homophobia and oppression, there were some cultural differences, e.g., the more aggressive male cult of Latin American sexism, although relatively irrelevant as regards the effects of oppression. The Cuban Penal Code enacted in 1938, which in turn originated from Spanish laws, was in force until 1979. The 1938 Law penalised "habitual homosexual acts, homosexual molestation, scandalous, indecent behavior, [and] ostentatious displays of homosexuality in public".

Maybe because the liberation struggle traditionally associated male bravery and revolutionary virtues, maybe due to influence from homophobic Soviet laws (a "decadent bourgeois phenomenon"), combined with Cuba's own Latin, Catholic and African homophobia, homosexual men, whose manners were mostly effeminate according to Cuban tradition, could be branded as anti-social in the mid-1960s. In 1965 the so-called UMAP camps (Military Units to Help Production) were created. In practice they were military labor camps for young men considered unfit for military service, e.g., homosexuals or objectors. They were intended for men who neither worked nor studied, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists, who refused to do military service, and the like. The camps were closed down after two years after vast internal criticism in Cuba, and the internees released. Among the Cubans interned, who are today famous and celebrated, you will find the singer, musician and poet Pablo Milanis, and the Baptist pastor and MP Ral Suarez. Most internees were heterosexual but the main subject of criticism was the internment of homosexuals and believers, which also persisted as an image of repression in Cuba. Since those days, however, a lot has happened, but for many reasons, particularly the anti- Cuban and counterrevolutionary propaganda that dominates Western mass media, the image of repression both against believers and homosexuals still prevails. The 1938 Law, still in force in the 1970s, was not enforced against "habitual homosexual acts", but in some cases, it was applied to "homosexual molestation, scandalous, indecent behavior, and ostentatious displays of homosexuality in public". During the second half of the 1970s, however, the attitude towards homosexuality was questioned in various ways. In 1977, the Centro Nacional de Educacin Sexual (CNES) was founded on the initiative of the Cuban Women's Federation (FMC), and their seminars and publications encouraged a more enlightened outlook on homosexuality and started to undermine traditional sexual prejudices and taboos. The work done by this center has contributed to changes in attitudes and laws, and the credit for the fact that the AIDS problem has not been handled with a homophobic outlook is largely attributed to this endeavour.

In 1979, homosexual acts were removed from the Penal Code as a criminal offense, and it became formally legal for consenting adults, as occurred in Spain at the same time. However, "ostentatious displays of homosexuality" were still against the law, as were "homosexual acts in public places". And male homosexual acts with minors were more severely penalised than heterosexual acts of the same kind.

Those articles, however, were removed from the Penal Code in 1987, and persons convicted under these laws were released. Nevertheless, the age limit for minors remained higher (16 years) for homosexual acts. Offenses against this law may lead to five years' imprisonment and homosexual acts with boys younger than 14 may be sentenced with up to 20 years. Persons convicted of sexual offenses are also barred from teaching children or exercising authority over children.

Under the "Public Scandal" section of the chapter on sexual offenses, "homosexual molestation" is still illegal and penalised with three to 12 months' imprisonment or one to 300 cuotas (a cuota is equivalent to one day's minimum wage). This fact, however, may not be interpreted in the sense that persistent homosexual verbal cruising is illegal, as is alleged in the Third Pink Book of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), which organisation obviously lacks experience of its own from Cuban street and bar life. The 1993 Third Pink Book also incorrectly contends that "homosexual behavior" is prohibited. Actually, what is left of discriminatory laws is the prohibition of homosexual molestation and the higher age limit for homosexual acts.

Cuba's Penal Code of 1988 has a Law on "Social Dangerousness", applied to "socially censurable vices", which however do not include homosexuality or homosexual behaviour. This law is used to take drunkards and drug addicts into custody. It may also be applied to previously convicted persons who are unquestionably heading back to criminal circles. There are no serious reports that this law has been used to persecute homosexuals, since it was rewritten in 1988.

The Third Pink Book incorrectly contends that homosexuals can be sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment, under Article 359 on "Public Scandal". However, the maximum sentence is expressly 12 months, and the law neither mentions nor is it applied to homosexuals as such. The 1988 police instructions contain a phrase regarding "lewd and immoral behavior" that is "scandalous", on which only a fine can be imposed. This Article, however, makes no distinction between homosexual and heterosexual behavior, although there may be reasons to believe that there is a narrower limit to the public's notion of scandalous behaviour when it comes to homosexuals.

Likewise, transvestites maybe looked upon as disorderly by individual police officers -- and by the general public -- and homosexual couples kissing in public places may be harassed in Cuba like in any other place in Latin America or in the US. Persisting homophobia among policemen, courts, and the public (grand juries in courts), may lead to discriminatory treatment in the judicial system.

Sexual education

Before the Centre for Sexual Education (CNES) started its work, sexual education was a practically unknown phenomenon in Cuba, as in the rest of Latin America, where the stand and the attitude of the Catholic Church has continued to curb any attempted change. In this light, Cuba's sexual education is groundbreaking. The CNES learned from East Germany, whose attitude towards both sexual education and homosexuality was the most enlightened not only in the Soviet bloc but it was also advanced internationally, and most definitely more progressive than that of Western Germany. As early as 1957, it was stipulated that homosexuals could only be prosecuted for acts with minors. In 1968, homosexual acts became formally legal. In 1989, East Germany equalised the minimum age of consent -- 14 years -- for homosexual and heterosexual acts. The first books published in Cuba on this subject were translations of East German books, that argued against discrimination of homosexuals and for the full integration of homosexuals into social life, although assuming that heterosexuality was the norm.

Sigfried Schnabl's The Intimate Life of Males and Females, translated and edited in Cuba in 1979, clearly states that "homosexuals should be granted equal rights, respect and recognition, and that any kind of social discrimination is reprehensible". This book served as guidance for the work of CNES and at pedagogical colleges. The second edition (1989) states that there is "no cure for homosexuality and that it is no kind of sickness. Therefore, nobody should be criticised for his orientation, nor pressured to change. On the contrary, they should get the support they need to be able to live happily". Schnabl also points out that the removal of penal sanctions against homosexual acts/behaviour remains a formality as long as homosexuals are subject to social prejudice and institutionalised discrimination.

Bruckner's Are You Beginning to Think about Love?, translated and edited in Cuba in 1981, was more ambivalent. It was intended for a broad audience and argued that homosexuals have the same ability to function in society as other people, but that they can never be as happy as married people. Monika Krause, a leading expert at CNES, admitted that this was a response to criticism against the first edition of Schnabl's book, for being too positive towards homosexuality. A second edition of Schnabl's book, intended to be printed in 250,000 copies, although delayed because of the economic crisis, however, persisted, stressing that sexual violation of minors has no casual relationship to sexual orientation, dismissing the theories of seduction into homosexuality, and emphasising that since nobody is responsible for his or her sexual orientation, homosexuals must be just as respected as heterosexuals.

According to Cuba's official standing, deeply rooted prejudice and taboos cannot be eradicated overnight. Since, as Monika Krause puts it, "neither parents, nor teachers, nor specialists, psychologists, nor educationalists were equipped" for sexual education, it was necessary to go systematically and carefully about the matter, and inform teachers first so that they could educate young people. CNES must work with caution so as to avoid being provocative and losing credibility. CNES argues that sexual education cannot be separated from the overall task of educating people for life in a socialist society, with all the mutual commitments that this implies.

In an interview made in 1989, Monika Krause said that "a deep, systematic and above all very carefully prepared program to reach our goal, i.e., to make homosexuals accepted as equals by the entire population, not only tolerated, but integrated as equals, as citizens with equal rights and obligations. That means that nobody, neither men nor women, are to be judged according to their sexual orientation. The important thing is their attitude towards work and society, not their sexual preferences."

That may be a legitimate strategy for homosexual liberation. It may be compared with that of Holland, and it agrees with the organic and communitary nature of Cuban political culture. Still, however, heterosexuality is the standard in sexual education, which concentrates on preparing young people for love, marriage, and family.

Given its limitations, Cuba's sexual education scheme, and society's attitude towards homosexuals is a model in Latin America, and it is clear to see that homophobia is beginning to loosen, although there is not yet an active government program to fight it. And there is limited space in mass media. On the other hand, when speaking about homophoby in Cuba, it is important to remember that it is not the kind that makes homosexuals risk being assaulted, battered, and murdered because of their orientation. And the machista culture and homophobic currents are constantly being undermined by female liberation and emancipation and women's increasing participation in labour and social life. Gender and sex taboos are also called in question by many young people as a result of the education and culture they have received since 1959. As an obvious expression of a more open and tolerant attitude, since the late 1970s meeting-places for homosexuals are appearing both in the streets and in bars and clubs of Havana and other big cities. In small towns and in the countryside, however, it may still be more difficult to be openly homosexual, which incidentally is also the case in Sweden, in spite of this country's more advanced legislation. In Havana, the intersection of the 23rd street and L, which may be compared with Kungsgatan/Sveavdgen in Stockholm, is a popular meeting -- and "picking up" place -- as well as different parts of the Malecsn avenue, or the Prado boulevard bordering the Old City, the Central Park, the Lenin Park and Parque de la Fraternidad, to mention only a few well-known places. Many beaches have also become meeting-places, without excluding heterosexuals. La Playita del 16 is one of the places which I noticed when I visited it last time in 1998. Half-open parties, called "Fiestas de 10 pesos", aiming particularly at homosexuals, although not exclusively, have also become an institution in Havana and other cities. They are part of the small entrepreneur activity that has also given rise to a large number of private restaurants. The local government's culture house "El Menjunje" in Santa Clara has become famous all over Cuba for its week-end club activities, particularly for their high-class drag shows. Just to mention a few examples that here is evident and far-reaching progress, although things don't happen in exactly the same way as in Sweden or the US.

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