This follow-up to an entry a few days ago is probably going to come off a lot less focused, but I feel like I have to get it out before Sundance madness ensues or I never will.
Cuba’s LGBT rights situation, though still problematic, is changing. Sexual relations between same-sex consenting adults 16 and over have been legal in Cuba since 1979, although same-sex relationships are not presently recognized by the state. LGBT associations and events are not permitted. However, Mariela Castro, niece of Fidel, is working hard to change that. Now that her father Raul (allegedly “at least bi,” according to MANY locals) Mariela Castro, who is also an executive member of the World Association for Sexual Health, has insisted that job discrimination and mass arrests are a thing of the past. She was quoted in Christian Science Monitor as saying: “[Homosexuals] still sometimes face arrest by bigoted police” says Castro, adding that she has sometimes clashed with the authorities in her efforts to release gay men and women from prison.”Now, society is more relaxed. There is no official repression of gays and lesbians,” she argues confidently.
The second night of my trip to Cuba, I decided to attempt to venture out into Havana’s underground gay scene, which I had been warned was difficult to infiltrate. I wanted to experience the state of gay Cuba firsthand, and that brought on two extremely interesting nights out.
My fellow traveller Michael and I had one clue as to how to go about our adventure: Hang outside the Yara Cinema between 10 and 11pm. Gay men will congregate there and let you know where that night’s private gay “fiesta” is. Unmarked cabs will then take you to the location, usually in Havana’s suburbs.
We waited for a good hour on the steps out the Yara and mostly just found prostitutes. Then we overheard a guy nearby was from Toronto, and we went over to see if he could give us some direction. He was looking for prostitutes, not the “fiesta,” but did kindly inform of us a few tips: There was a bar down the street that was mostly gay, but also mostly prostitutes. The “fiestas” were often broken up by the police, if you ever got there in the first place. I had noticed cops were surrounding the area, staring at us and writing things down in little black books. As we were talking to Toronto guy, who was married to a woman and oddly enough came to Cuba to conquer his repression via hustlers, two English speaking, muscle boys came up to us and asked us if we wanted to go to the fiesta. Toronto guy said no, and the guys started walking away. “Have fun sitting here,” they said. We quickly got up and told them we wanted to go, and soon enough we were driving into the Havana suburbs with two complete strangers.
It didn’t dawn on me how risky that was until they told us to be careful. “You guys could easily get raped,” noting we were about half their size. But thankfully that wasn’t the case with them. They were extremely kind, genuine guys, who surprisingly asked nothing of us in return for their ride and direction. They were actually from Miami, in Havana to visit family (youre allowed to once every five years, they even got a direct flight from Miami). They had escaped Cuba four years prior (via home made rafts), in search of the economic and sexual freedoms of the United States (ha!). They were eager to show us a good time when we got to the fiesta, held in the basement of a bar 20 minutes from the Yara.
In the bar, we drank and watched a series of emotional drag performances:
I didn’t understand most of what was going on. But it surprisingly didn’t matter. Drag queens have a tendency to speak with their eyes. Especially these ones.
Both the Miami boys seemed to know everyone in the bar, introducing us to various characters, all of whom were joyful we were there and even more joyful they were there, away from the watchful eye of the Cuban police and allowed to be themselves. Through them I learned of various things, most dominantly that if you were “discreet” and “didn’t speak up politically,” being gay in Havana wasn’t an impossible existence. Cops were becoming much less aggressive, but they all advised us to “keep our Canadian IDs handy” as that would be our ticket out of whatever police enforced drama might ensue. One of the Miami boys did note that he had been arrested for kissing his boyfriend just a few years earlier, and there were many similar stories about police brutality. However, there wasn’t as much issues from the Cuban people themselves. Religious doctrine (oddly enough, thanks to Fidel’s issue with how the Catholic Church in particular might challenge his own power) is scarce, and Cubans have been through so much together that being judgmental is hardly at the top of their agenda.
After lots of dancing (mostly to either Latin music or early 1990s dance music in the vein of “Rhythm is a Dancer,” “I Like To Move It Move It,” “Finally”, etc), the Miami boys even drove us back to the city. They told us we were heading to the Malacon, the stretch of road along the ocean that links most of downtown Havana. I asked why, and they said that’s where the gays go after the fiesta, and where all the ones that can’t afford to go to the fiesta go. I pictured 50 people in a group, but was shocked to find HUNDREDS of mostly men lined up alone the stony wall along the water:
It was pretty amazing. And felt surprisingly like any outdoor North American gay meeting space I’d ever experienced. Lots of hugs, lots of cruising, lots of conversation…. Though at this point it was nearly 4am, and given the next night was New Years Eve, we figured we’d call it a night. The Miami boys told us to meet up with them the next night, but couldn’t take us to the fiesta because they had family functions until after 12. “Go back to the Yara, and ask for Fiesta William,” they told us.
The next night, around 11pm, we did just that. After only 10 minutes, a very sketchy looking dude with a erroneously spelled Dolc & Gabna t-shirt told us to go with a guy who was standing across the street by a car that looked like it was from 1935. Scary guy, as I’ll now referred to him, did not return our “Hola”‘s and just started driving into the Havana streets. For the next 40 minutes, we feared for our lives: Scary guy drove as fast as that car could possibly drive, and put on some bizarre siren whenever he wanted to pass cars (which was often). He picked up hitchhikers and did not respond to my many “where are we going?” questions. The lights of Havana was soon a very distant image behind us. I looked at Michael stare straight ahead in fear, and even started contemplating organizing a jump from the car. Though we were in the middle of nowhere, but being lost in rural Cuba was better than being murdered by scary guy.
At about 11:45pm, Scary Guy dropped us off at the edge of a driveway to some sort of farmhouse. All of a sudden a friendly face, he asked for 10 pesos, we gave it to him and got out of the car. As we walked down the driveway, we saw a crowd of men outside the house. There was a drag queen peeing on the side of the road. There were lots of lights and music coming from behind the house. We’d made it.
We asked around and were informed we had to wait for the party to be ready for us. So there, on a dark driveway outside some sort of gay fiesta in the middle of Buttfuck, Nowhere, Cuba, I welcomed in both 2009 and my 25th birthday. It was actually the most interesting new years eve or birthday I’d ever had, so I wasn’t complaining.
They finally let us inside around 12:30am. We had to walk through this bizarre stone hallway, lit with right lights and adorned with posters of Ricky Martin and David Beckham. On the other side of it, was the fiesta. A bar selling bottles of rum for 8 pesos, packs of cigarettes for 1… About 300 men and 25 women (I asked one guy where all the lesbians go. His response: “To their husbands.”) More early 90s dance music.
It was a lot of fun, and almost impossible to describe. People making out everywhere. About a dozen people dressed in costumes.
I learned from the guy dressed as Mickey Mouse (in a costume straight from Disney World) that they were all going to participate in a costume contest. The winner got free entry to fiestas for a year (they cost about 4 pesos each, which is two weeks pay to most Cubans). I was obsessed with Mickey Mouse as a child, so ended up spending a good chunk of the night (very drunkenly) telling him this, and how it was just perfect I was spending my birthday blending the innocence of my childhood with the lack-there-of that has defined the first half of my twenties.
One of the Miami boys came, surprisingly with his wife. He had married her that day, for 550 pesos (a HUGE amount). They had been childhood friends, and he wanted to help her get out of Cuba. She didnt speak much English, but her optimism regarding her new arrangement was intensely heart-warming. The remainder of the night was spent dancing, finishing the bottle of rum, having blurry well-intentioned Spanglish conversations with a very wide variety of Cubans… Randomly we found the Dolc & Gabna guy in the driveway at 4am, and he drove us back to our hotel. He didn’t use any sirens or pick up an hitchhikers, and seemed to drive the speed limit.
The whole experience made me feel so nostalgic for a period in LGBT history I’d only read about. This secret, underground scene where people were exploding with sexual energy and gratitude that they are even able to be where they are at that moment. I expected to come away from the experience with some profound feeling of how lucky I was live were I did with the sexual freedoms I have. And part of me certainly felt that. But I also had so much fun that it was hard to not have a really guilt-ridden envy that my “gay world” seemed so boring in comparison. Which is really a horrible thing to think considering all the rights I have as a result. And how much those Cubans struggle, both as a result of their sexuality and economically.
So I guess I’m going with this as the moral of the story instead: I’d advise anyone to spend their next New Years Eve or birthday getting very drunk with a bunch of gay Cubans in a farmyard in the middle of nowhere.