Bienvenido a La Habana: Exploring gay life in Cuba’s capitalFeature Story, Latest Issue, Section 4A Thursday, February 16th, 2017
Cuba is changing. But to understand the many crosscurrents, one need only observe gay life in this island capital.
To understand the Cuban people, you first need to understand the Cuban Revolution; not just the one still roiling a nation under the dictats of a deceased Fidel Castro, but the ongoing revolution on the Cuban island among its people. And to do that, you need to first adjust yourself to a few realities.
The Cuban people, or at least los Habaneros that I met, loathe Fidel Castro. I was politely warned not to bring up El Generalissimo while traveling there, but not letting people vent to you about him is not only socially unacceptable but unavoidable. ‘Hypocritical’ was the word most frequently used to describe the average Cubans’ loathing of the man. He got rich on an idea while the rest of his subjects grew poor, where they live in abject poverty on about $20 a month (mostly from state-earned wages).
To put it in perspective, the cheapest rum I could find – there are few shelves to shop for basic staples in Cuba – costs about $3.73 for a liter. If you made $4,000 dollars a month, as many do here in the United States, that same bottle would cost you $760 dollars. Make sense of that.
If you can’t, don’t worry. Cubans can as they navigate a nation-state wedged as they are between the promise of modernity and the reality of a once-electric nation-state that has failed to live up to its socialist potential. It’s called survival. And the Cuban people are survivors. Maybe that’s why making introductions are so simple and direct coming from them. Each handshake, each smile, each earnest grin holds for them the promise of a better tomorrow and that optimism, that unshakeable faith in the future is precisely what makes visiting there so revolutionary: You can never leave Cuba and return the same.
So when I went in October to study their take on homosexuality I learned, as anyone outside the United States will tell you, it’s “a difficult city.” There are many things we Americans take for granted that are, at times, maddeningly absent in Cuba. There is no reliable Internet there yet and, Americans specifically, can kiss phone service goodbye. It is changing but depending on President Trump’s mood at any given moment, this could change dramatically for the better or the worse (though we are on the right track). Why? Well, for one, Cubans love Americans. I mean they love Americans, especially President Obama. The man is huge in Havana. As is dancing, socializing, soaking in art, flirting, embracing life and not giving in to the hyperhidrosis that thrives in the thick, moist air of daytime Havana.
The island takes six hours to traverse or the same amount of time roughly a trip from Youngstown, Ohio to Columbus would take. Granted, there is nothing bearing even the slightest resemblance between these two trips, but it does give you a sense of how such a small island has had such an outsized role in American policy.
But, again, I didn’t visit Cuba to understand their troubled relationship with the United States or the hows and whys of their becoming a failed state. I went there to try and figure out how the role of homosexuality plays out in the ordinary lives of los Habaneros.
Prostitution in Cuba is a commodity shockingly available to those with pesos to spend and neither morality, the law or one’s age seem to affect that availability. The night I met Arturo, I was strolling down the Prado, a long, stone cul de sac in Havana Vieja, or the Old City. It’s a social center festooned with artists, musicians, singers, lovers and, of course, prostitutes.
That he was a tender 13, with curly dirty-blond hair and tan, hairless skin marked by an unhealthy thinness, and that police seemed disinterested in our having a reason to talk was disorienting at first. And, yes, he offered to come home with me but instead of taking him up on his offer, I asked him when he last ate? Before I knew it, we were having dinner together at Café Del Oriente talking about his sexuality and why a boy who has barely abandoned puberty wasn’t playing soccer with his friends or passing time on the famed Malecon.
“I don’t mind f**king strangers for money,” he told me without affectation. “I have to. I have two younger sisters. My mom and dad work all day and we still can’t eat enough.” Was he worried about STDs? “Of course! But what can I do? I have to eat.”
Arturo confessed that a lot of European men come to Havana (no European nations have travel bans with Cuba) either because of the availability of young men willing to hustle for a buck or because the prostitution of minors is the least of Cuba’s worries. So I asked Arturo why he thought so many countries feel so strongly about relationships between men and teenaged boys? “I don’t know. But if I want to, I do it. I have no issues with it because I am making the decisions.” (I soon learned that there are stunning numbers of young men and women aged 13-17 who make a living in the sex trade and it is far less controversial than one might expect.) Sex, Arturo, convinced me was transactional in Cuba, the weight of morality be damned.
I met Incencio while I was traversing the hot pavement of Havana Vieja on my way to their modern art museum. Like many Cubans, he was mixed-raced. Also, like most Cubans, he was friendly and wide-eyed. The only button buttoned on his fuschia short-sleeved shirt was one of the lowest before everything else got lost in his jeans. Sprigs of black, curly hair dotted his chest. I told him I was a journalist from San Diego and asked him if he would answer some questions about Cuba. He agreed. I agreed, too, but not first before a shower.
Incencio shed his clothes in my AirBNB-rented apartment and welcomed the chance to cool off from the steamy October afternoon. Afterwards, we sat on my bed and talked. “My name is Incencio. I am 24 years. I am married. Her name is Samara. We plan on having a baby one day. But it’s Cuba so it’s not cheap. You see a lot of Cuban babies?” He laughs. (I actually did see a lot of schoolchildren, all in their finely pressed school uniforms.)
“You must have known I’m gay, Incencio. I invited you back to my apartment to take a shower.”
“I know. I don’t care. You’re not the first!” I could easily see he was getting aroused.
“Is it common, Cuban guys f**king around with other guys?” I pressed.
He didn’t miss a beat. “I don’t see myself as gay. Most Cubans don’t really care. Just respect people if they’re not and you’re OK to be whoever.” He then offered to show the engorged organ inside his jeans but it would have cost me and my mission awaited. “Why do you think Cubans are so relaxed about sexuality?”
“We don’t know any better. We are a small island in a big world and we have been cut off from ideas for a very long time.” But was that the reason? Perhaps. Is not ignorance bliss?
I met Adrian across the street from the historic El Capitolio or National Capitol Building at about the time of the day when the Cuban sky explodes into a pastel of bright pinks, orange sherbets and brilliant lilacs. He had these soulful, penny copper eyes and a boyishness about him that reminded me strangely of that 1950s puppet, Howdy Doody. He, too, was on the make. I offered to buy him a meal and a mojito and he eagerly agreed. We walked a few blocks east and planted ourselves inside a smoky bar.
Adrian was 27 and dreamed of finding someone, a man, to marry him and bring him into a better life in the United States. “I met two men, one French, the other Argentinian. They both told me they loved me and I could stay with them. So I went to France and Argentina but when I arrived, they were no longer in love. So I came back home.”
“Why do you want to come to America?”
“You think I like meeting men on the streets for sex?” Adrian shot back emotionally. For a brief moment, I was afraid our conversation might have to end abruptly. “I want a better life for me and my family. I don’t want to prostitute myself. That’s no way to live.”
Was Adrian gay? “I am gay and life here is not easy for gay people. You can’t really talk about it. This is a very macho culture and men can be intimidated.” But when I mentioned that other people I spoke with said there seems to be a live-and-let-live attitude on the island about human sexuality, Adrian’s brows furrowed and he went momentarily into some deep thought. After a beat or two, he reacted. “Maybe you’re right but you are American. You have money to spend here and we don’t want to offend you.”
I asked him if he ever thought he’d make it to America. “Of course! Cubans can do whatever they want when they put their minds to it.”
And what Cubans want more than anything isn’t merely just to survive but thrive. And, perhaps, someday soon, when investment dollars start flowing and Americans, their goods, their beliefs and their somewhat stunted views on human sexuality do arrive in force, Cubans will close off their seemingly liberal attitudes about homosexuality. But until then, los Habaneros will remain a contradictory mash of shockingly liberal attitudes and not terribly unsurprising prejudice against gays specifically and human sexuality more broadly.
Until recently, flying into José Martí International Airport was an arduous process for many Americans. But, with the détente between President Obama and Raul Castro last year, travelling has become much easier. As of last November, twelve airports have varying degrees of flights to the island. And while you still must fill out a form explaining the purpose of your visit, the reasons for those visits have expanded greatly and most people simply check “people to people contact.” For more information, check with your travel agent or go online for further details.
Accommodations have improved greatly in the last few years. During my stay, hotels were popping up like midsummer daises. While hotels are certainly one option, and AirBNB has a nice array of locales, I would strongly encourage you to try what’s called a Casa Particular. These are private homes that offer fully furnished bedrooms and baths and frequently include breakfast. They often cost $20 or less and there is simply no match for getting to know los Habaneros and their culture. Look for a blue flag or ribbon outside the home and you’ll know you’ve arrived.
While gay culture is rarely frowned upon in Cuba, there are still few options in terms of formal meeting places such as restaurants and clubs. The center of the action is down at El Malecon across the street from the Fiat Café near the foot of La Rampa. Other locations to find out what’s going on socially including finding out where the night’s gay party is to head to the Malecón, opposite Fiat Café near the foot of La Rampa (Calle 23). And according to Moon Travel Guides, the following can also provide an outlet for the LGBTQ community: Casa Miglis (Calle Lealtad #120 e/ Animas y Lagunas, Centro Habana, tel. 07/863-1486, daily noon-1am) hosts gay parties the last Saturday of each month. Discoteca Escaleras al Cielo (Zulueta #658 e/ Gloria y Apodaca, Habana Vieja, email@example.com, Fri.-Sat. 10pm-4am) draws an LGBT crowd. A transvestite show is hosted at the Sociedad Cultural Rosalía de Castro (Av. de Bélgica #504 altos, e/ Máximo Gómez y Dragones, tel. 07/862-3193). And in Vedado, Cabaret Las Vegas (Infanta esq. 25, daily 10pm-4am, CUC2-3) is also popular for its nightly transvestite cabarets.
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