Men who had been imprisoned for sexual orientation applaud admission of injustice
Havana – Fidel Castro’s mea culpa for marginalizing homosexuals in the ‘60s has re-opened a dark chapter of the Cuban revolution. “Sisi” can now pluck her eyebrows without being arrested and the daughter of the president is supporting gay marriage, but in those years homosexuals were shoved aside, sent to work camps or into exile.
The recent inteview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, in which Castro recognized that era for its “great injustice,” surprised his supporters and his detractors, generated strong reactions in the gay community and stirred debate about tolerance on the communist island.
The controversial Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción (UMAP – Military Units for Aid to Production), compared by international organizations with “concentration camps,” which between 1965 and 1968 imprisoned hundreds of homosexuals, religious people and others seen as incapable of embodying the model of the “revolutionary,” are things of the past but they altered lives and they damaged the image of the revolution.
Figures like the songwriter Pablo Milanés and Cardinal Jaime Ortega passed through them. Although the UMAP are a symbol of the marginalization of homosexuals in Cuba, institutional homophobia survived into the ‘70s and ‘80s. Works by recognized writers like Virgilio Piñera and Reinaldo Arenas disappeared from bookstores and publishing houses because they were gay.
“I spent six months in prison for plucking my eyeborws. In those days they found out you were homosexual, and that was seen through ignorance as an aberration and brutal acts were committed. So I applaud the Comandante,” says 45-year-old Francisco García (Sisi).
Alberto González, 67 years old, recalls how he was considered a “social blemish” for being baptist, was separated from his girlfriend and his family and was forced to perform hard labor in the UMAP camps, surrounded by barbed wire and watched over by armed soldiers.
“A dark, painful, frustrating stage that disrupted my life. My father was a communist and he defended it. I suffered but I don’t regret staying in Cuba. There is always time to acknowledge errors. Fidel made a valuable historical admission,” he declares.
Some were charged by authorities and taken to the UMAP without explanation, others were arrested in raids, and many suffered humiliating treatment, the pastor recounts in his home in the Diez de Octubre neighborhood.
“If anyone is responsible, it is I… at that time I could not take up that topic… I was immersed, mainly, in the October (1962) crisis, in the war, in political questions,” Castro told La Jornada.
For 33-year-old Aliomar Janjaker, president of the Fundación LGBT Reinaldo Arenas, which is critical of the government, the acceptance infuriates him. “Who will heal the suffering?” he asks.
Aliomar carries in his pocket a copy of a 1965 interview in which Castro says he believed that “a deviation of that nature (homosexuality) clashed with” what a “genuine revolutionary” and a “militant communist” should be.
Now his niece Mariela, daughter of Raúl Castro, leads campaigns against homophobia, has asked the Communist Party for an end to discrimination against homosexuals in its ranks and promotes gay marriage, after gaining the approval in 2008 for sex-change operations. “In Cuba we discuss our problems in order to advance and overcome them,” Mariela Castro, now director of the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (CENESEX), declared a few days ago during a tour of Europe.
For homosexual researcher Tomás Fernández it is a matter of “excesses” committed in the revolutionalry process and he believes that “without asking for the guillotine, one needs not to forget in order to avoid repeating those errors.”
“Fresas y Chocolate” (“Strawberries and Chocolate”), the famous 1993 film by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, sensitized the population. Seventeen years later, “En el Cuerpo Equivocado” (“In the Wrong Body”), a documentary about a transexual, debuted in machista Cuba.
A short time ago “Chalimar,” 23 years old, fulfilled his dream of singing in the first street drag show before 2,000 people. Mario Delgado, 29, states that he was expelled from the university for organizing a “Mister Gay” event. “Fidel’s apology amounts to nothing while the police continue to persecute us.”
“It is a late gesture but a brave and necessary one because we still need to advance more,” said a successful Cuban dancer who insisted that his name not be mentioned.