“But when did you feel heard by the majority?” pleaded a Cuban and would-be LGBT activist, unknowingly socking me in the gut with a question for which my talking points would fall short in a room full of eager Cuban citizens, watchful Cuban government officials, and gay American singers visiting Havana.
In the humid and unassuming mid-morning of July 13, 2015, an ensemble of 21 singers from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC (GMCW) took the stage at the National Library of Cuba, just steps away from Revolution Square and the monument of Cuba’s national hero Jose Martí. The Library stands as a protuberant symbol of the Cuban communist regime, safe-guarding the history and literature of a “social project” that has nationalized everything from tourism to medicine.
Our delegation, a partnership between GMCW and Youth for Understanding, was charged with promoting LGBTQ rights through song. The nine-concert tour was the first of its kind for both organizations; and it was a first for the LGBTQ community in Cuba. In recounting more than a dozen interviews before we departed, I remember saying things like “our intent is to use music to promote LGBTQ rights and break down stereotypes between both cultures;” and “as diplomatic relations are opening up, we hope to be a small source of inspiration for the LGBTQ community in Cuba.”
If it is possible to be both naïve and prescient, my early ambitions demonstrate this paradox. Any hope I had of being wholly candid during my time in Cuba was lost when this brave gay Cuban publicly asked a series of eyebrow-raising questions before finally asking us when we had felt heard in our home country. “I want to know about your LGBT organizations in America. How do you gather? Where do you gather? Can you give us ideas so we can organize ourselves here?”
I knew what he was asking. “How do we as Cubans organize an LGBTQ movement in our country?”
CENESEX, the institute for sexual education, is the Cuban Government’s response to increasing demands for LGBTQ rights. I truly believe that this organization, headed by the Cuban President’s daughter, Mariela Castro, wants to improve the lives of LGBTQ Cubans. That being said, how does a country find equality while it faces accusations of injustice as a means to that end? For many LGBTQ Cubans, any association with the name Castro is anathema, even if there is a common goal; and this leaves an ocean of mistrust between CENESEX and its constituency.
To discuss “equality” through the lens of a society that is founded on totalitarian control is problematic at best, and propagandist at worst. The Cuban practice of equality which I observed during our concert tour was to insist on the leveling of rights, responsibilities and benefits for the whole of society at the expense of individual freedom. Suitable in theory and difficult in practice. Taking it a step further, so anxious is the Cuban Government to be seen as benevolent and humane that its people and government representatives are paralyzed by fear from speaking anything to the contrary – especially in our presence. Only when a few others and I surreptitiously skipped out one morning to see Havana on our own, did we get a taste of the raw truth and beauty of the city.
Through interactions with everyday citizens, we saw a Cuba that was very much alive with art, community, personal pride, political discord, and hope. Brushing off the fear of being “locked up,” one taxi driver told us that the government’s attempt at control, despite noble goals of creating an equitable society, was failing to provide the basic necessities to live. As a result, the black market is a part of everyday life. Another encounter reinforced that communism isn’t working for everyone – but no one is allowed to say anything. In one particularly memorable conversation, I learned of two people who died last year because HIV/AIDS medication wasn’t available to them.
By contrast, Cuba is well-known for high literacy rates, advanced medical research exports, and was recently commended by the World Health Organization for ending HIV infections from mother to infant. What may sound like two Cubas, is one very complex nation on the verge of a new political order. Raul Castro, current president and brother of Fidel Castro, enacted self-imposed term limits on the Office of the President. The Cuban parliament is made up of 47% women; and when asked what will contribute to the greatest change, one Cuban told me simply, “the younger generation.”
And then there is our friend who asked the unanswerable questions about political organizing. In the United States, our chorus regularly sings in front of the Supreme Court, and the LGBTQ community regularly organizes public protests to expose injustice. In Cuba, the system is different. The society is not permitted to question the government. If and when this happens, arrest is likely. Change must occur through official government channels – a problematic conundrum even if goodwill exists, as I believe it does with CENESEX. So, do I brandish our foreign and lethal privilege to a group of strangers without including decades of context and failures? Could a recitation of our most basic 1st Amendment right unwittingly encourage behavior that would lead to this man’s incarceration, or worse?
Art, we learned, is one of the few elements of Cuban life that does not fall victim to censorship. This is perhaps one of the contributing reasons our concert tour received notable attention. Jose Martí was often described as a “poet-revolutionary” whose writings inspired the uprisings of the communist revolution. His identity as a poet comes first in this appellation, which may explain why there is a sacredness surrounding politically charged artistic expression. Much of the visual art that comes out of Cuba’s internationally respected gallery scene is political and anti-government. On the music scene in Cuba, there is a new government-sanctioned group called Mano a Mano. Part chorus, part boy band, this group is unabashedly gay and is singing for equality. So that’s it, right? That’s the impossible answer for a people whose truth remains unheard, for a man who desperately wants to know how to organize against the establishment. “Sing for equality. Find protest in song.”
I wish it were that easy. The answer for Cuba is not for a visiting American arts executive to bestow. Cuba has its own set of rules, and activists have their own ways of cutting through them. The notion that a young government built on a foundation of anti-American sentiment would find the same path to equality that we did in the United States is foolish; and while democracy makes so much sense to me, I couldn’t exhibit that kind of hubris to my new friend.
The only answer I could share was one of solidarity. I reminded him that he is not alone; that back home I don’t feel fully heard yet. Marriage is the law of the land in the United States but that hasn’t changed the lived experience. Many LGBTQ people can still be fired from their jobs because of who they are. Legal protections against schoolyard bullying, violent anti-gay therapy, and medical-based discrimination still evade much of the country. As one of our tour guides pointed out, the United State’s reputation for race relations and violence based on skin color is embarrassing. I hadn’t fully owned my own arrogance as an American until I was called out on human rights issues by a communist. The capacity to hurt and discriminate against ones fellow man is not limited to an island in the Caribbean.
What will happen when the Internet, and in turn a more global view of humanity, is widely available in Cuba? Will Twitter – as it did in the Middle East – allow quick and nimble political organizing to Cubans, whose limited access to news generated the question “what’s that?” when my boyfriend mentioned the Internet-fueled Arab Spring? Will the quiet, individual conversations between families, employers, churchgoers, and students work in concert with public voices so that LGBTQ Cubans can be heard? Will political dissent, which begins quietly as a song or a poem, open the hearts of a people who believe in justice and equality?
Having been back on US soil for a little more than a week, Cuba has been in my thoughts daily. I hope to return many times, and each time to find more parity between the will of everyday Cubans and the laws governing them. The beauty of the culture, the pride of the people, and the sounds and images of the island are unmistakable; and I believe Cuba will find its voice in the greater global community.