LGBT rights in Cuba

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LGBT rights in Cuba
Same-sex sexual activity legal? Legal
Gender identity/expression SRG provided by free expense
Recognition of
Same-sex marriage constitutionally banned
Military service No
Discrimination protections No

Sexual relations between same-sex consenting adults 16 and over have been legal in Cuba since 1979, although same-sex relationships are not presently recognised by the state. Despite elements of homophobia in Cuba's history, Havana now has a lively and vibrant gay scene.[1]

Public antipathy towards LGBT people is high, reflecting regional norms. This has eased somewhat since the 1990s. Educational campaigns on LGBT issues are currently implemented by the National Center for Sex Education, headed by Mariela Castro.

Cuba is a country where citizens can have gender reassignment surgery for free.[2][3]

Contemporary Cuba

Same-sex unions

Under Article 2 of the Family Code, marriage is restricted to the union of a man and a woman. No alternative to marriage such as civil unions or domestic partnerships is currently available. Attempts to present several favorable measures to Cuba’s parliament for the LGBT community, including the legalization of same sex unions, have thus far been unsuccessful.[4][5]

Sex change operations and hormonal therapy

Sex reassignment surgeries have been prohibited until reforms by Raúl Castro.[2]

The Cuban National Center for Sex Education is presently proposing a law that would legalize gender reassignment surgery and hormonal therapy in addition to granting them new identification documents with their changed gender. A draft bill was presented to the Cuban National Assembly in 2005. It was expected to come up for a vote in December 2006, but as of February 2008 the bill has yet to pass. suggests that "the bill would make Cuba the most liberal nation in Latin America on gender issues".[6]

Starting June 2008, Cubans will be able to have a sex change operation for free.[7] This was one of the changes since Raúl Castro took over. In January 2010 Cuba began offering state-sponsored gender reassignment surgeries.


From 1986 until 1989, HIV+ Cubans were quarantined to treatment centers (sanatorios). Most of the early HIV patients were heterosexual aid workers, returning from other developing countries. The quarantine system was relaxed in 1989, to allow travel between home and the treatment centers. In 1993, an outpatient program (el sistema ambulatoria) was set up which since the early 2000s contains the vast majority of HIV patients. By the early to mid 1990s, homosexual and bisexual men became the majority of Cuban HIV patients. The treatment centers (sanatorios) are still open for those who prefer them to living at home.

All HIV infected people are asked to attend a program called 'Living with HIV'. This program used to be held in the treatment centers, but is now mostly in the outpatient system, and assisted by peer educators, who are mostly HIV positive people. During the program patients are monitored to see if they are ‘trustworthy’ – that is, sexually responsible, and if their diet, self-care and medication is adequate. They are asked to disclose the names of any sexual partners from the last 5 years. Those sexual partners are then traced and tested for HIV. Certain groups are targeted for testing (HIV positive sexual contacts, blood donors, pregnant women, people with STDs). All testing is voluntary, but strongly encouraged amongst the target groups. All HIV+ patients retain their job entitlements and 100% of their salary, when they have to be absent from work. The stated aim of the program is to reintegrate all patients in their normal lives, and prevent discrimination or social rejection. Homophobia is recognized as a problem in Cuba, and is addressed through the HIV program (including school classes which begin at year 5 or 6) as well as through the National Center for Sex Education. This education program includes posters, pamphlets and a television soap which features gay, bisexual and HIV+ people in the family.

Cuba has undertaken extensive campaigns against HIV/AIDS focusing on education and treatment, and in 2003 Cuba had the lowest HIV prevalence in the Americas and one of the lowest ratios in the world. According to the Cuban National Centre for Prevention of STDs and HIV/AIDS (November 2005) there were 5,422 persons living with HIV (3,968) or AIDS (1,454). 85% of these were homosexual or bisexual men (HSH – hombres que tienen sexo con hombres).

Since 1996 Cuba has produced generic versions of some of the common antiretroviral treatment drugs (ARVT). These drugs were in short supply and imports were very expensive in the 1990s. However, since 2001, 100% of Cuban HIV+ patients have had access to a relatively full cocktail of HAARVT (highly active retroviral treatment), free of charge. The death rate from HIV infection has been falling rapidly since then, and most HIV+ infected Cubans are avoiding secondary infections.

Public decency laws

In 1979, Cuba removed sodomy from its criminal code, but "public scandal" laws sentenced those who “publicly flaunted their homosexual condition" with three months to one year in prison (Article 359 of the 1979 Penal Code). The 1979 penal code also categorized “homosexual acts in public, or in private but exposed to being involuntarily seen by other people” as “crimes against the normal development of sexual relations.”[8] A reform of the penal code in 1988 instead imposed fines on those who "hassle others with homosexual demands" (Article 303a, Act 62 of the Penal Code of April 30, 1988), and then in 1997 the language was modified to "hassling with sexual demands" and the phrase "public scandal" changed to "sexual insult".

Enforcement of public decency laws anywhere in the world is typically varied, as they may be interpreted broadly by police. For example, in England and France, when laws against sodomy were struck from the statutes, prosecutions of homosexual men increased for some time under public decency laws.[9] In China they have been the main legal means of persecuting homosexuals.

Recent crackdowns

In 2004, the BBC reported that "Cuban police have once again launched a campaign against homosexuals, specifically directed at travestis (tranvestites) whom they are arresting if they are dressed in women's clothing."[10] This follows from reports in 2001 of a police campaign against homosexuals and transvestites, who police prevented from meeting in the street and fined, closing down meeting places.[11]

According to a Human Rights Watch report, "the government also heightened harassment of homosexuals [in 1997], raiding several nightclubs known to have gay clientele and allegedly beating and detaining dozens of patrons."[12]

Freedom of association

According to the World Policy Institute (2003), the Cuban government prohibits LGBT organizations and publications, gay pride marches and gay clubs.[13] All officially sanctioned clubs and meeting places are required to be heterosexual. The only gay and lesbian civil rights organization, the Cuban Association of Gays and Lesbians, which formed in 1994, was closed in 1997 and its members were taken into custody.[14] Private gay parties, named for their price of admission, “10 Pesos”, exist but are often raided. In 1997, Agencia de Prensa Independiente de Cuba (the Cuban Independent Press Agency) reported, that Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar and French designer Jean Paul Gaultier were among several hundred people detained in a raid on Havana’s most popular gay discothèque, El Periquiton.[15] In a U.S. Government report reprinted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Cuban customers of the club were fined and released from a police station the next day,[16] although according to a 1997 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, many of the detainees claimed physical abuse and that two busloads of foreigners were transported to immigration authorities for a document check. The crackdown extended to other known gay meeting places throughout the capital, such as Mi Cayito, a beach east of Havana, where gays were arrested, fined or threatened with imprisonment.[17] According to Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, several of the dozen or so private gay clubs in Havana have been raided, including, Jurassic Park and Fiestas de Serrano y Correa.

Sanchez visit 2004

Carlos Sanchez, the male representative of the International Lesbian and Gay Association for the Latin America and Caribbean Region, visited Cuba in 2004 to participate in the Third Hemispheric Meeting Against the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas).[18] While there, he also made some enquiries into the status of lesbians and gays in the country. In particular, he asked the Cuban government why they had abstained from the vote on the "Brazilian Resolution", a 2003 proposal to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights which would symbolically recognise the "occurrence of violations of human rights in the world against persons on the grounds of their sexual orientation." The government justified their abstention by arguing that the resolution could be used to attack and isolate "Arab countries", consistent with US aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the US also abstained from the LGBT rights vote.[19]

Sanchez also wanted to ascertain the possibility of creating a lesbian and gay organization in Cuba. They responded that the formation of an LGBT association would "distract attention" from national security.

Sanchez also met with some local lesbians and gays while there, and he reported the following observations:[18]

  1. There are no legal sanctions against LGBT people.
  2. People are afraid of meeting and organizing themselves. It is mainly based on their experience in previous years, but one can assume that this feeling will disappear in the future if lesbians and gays start to work and keep working and eventually get support from the government. (The National Center for Sexual Education is offering this support).
  3. "Transformismo" (Drag performance) is well accepted by the majority of the Cuban population
  4. There is indeed a change in the way people view homosexuality, but this does not mean the end of discrimination and homophobia. The population is just more tolerant with lesbians and homosexuals.
  5. Lesbians and gays do not consider fighting for the right to marriage, because that institution in Cuba does not have the same value that it has in other countries. Unmarried and married people enjoy equal rights.



Pre-revolutionary Cuba was no paradise for gays and lesbians. There were gay bars where homosexual men could meet, but to be a maricone (faggot) was to be a social outcast.

Laws made it illegal to be gay and police targeted homosexuals for harassment. Many gay men were drawn into prostitution for largely US-based clients. In this repressive atmosphere, homosexuality was linked to prostitution, gambling and crime.[20]

Post revolution Cuba

Camps of forced labour were instituted with all speed to "correct" such deviations ... Verbal and physical mistreatment, shaved heads, work from dawn to dusk, hammocks, dirt floors, scarce food ... The camps became increasingly crowded as the methods of arrest became more expedient ...[21]

Following the 1959 revolution, Cuba’s communist government embarked upon a pervasive effort to rid the nation of homosexuality, which was seen as a product of a capitalist society. Through the 1960s and 1970s this campaign included the frequent imprisonment of lesbians and gays (particularly effeminate males) without charge or trial, and confinement to forced labor camps. This period was dramatically documented by the 1980s documentary "Improper Conduct", Reinaldo Arenas in his 1992 autobiography, Before Night Falls, as well as his fiction, most notably The Color of Summer and Farewell to the Sea. The criminal laws against homosexuality were gradually liberalized, starting in 1979.

Cuban society has become more welcoming to gays and lesbians since the 1980s, and toward the end of the decade, literature with gay subject matter began to re-emerge. In 1994, the popular feature film Strawberry and Chocolate, produced by the government-run Cuban film industry, featuring a gay main character, examined the nation's homophobia. The year prior to the film's release, Fidel Castro stated that homosexuality is a “natural aspect and tendency of human beings”, and gay author Ian Lumsden claims that since 1986 there is "little evidence to support the contention that the persecution of homosexuals remains a matter of state policy".[22] However, the state's treatment of homosexuals remains a subject of controversy, and like other subjects relating to Cuba, the accounts of supporters of the Castro government are often quite different from those of its opponents. In 2006, the state run Cuban television began running a serial soap opera titled The Dark Side of the Moon[23] with story lines that focus on HIV infection and AIDS. Cuban gays describe a narrative in this soap opera capturing one character's sexual awakening as a pivotal moment in Cuba's long history of discrimination against homosexuals.

Cuban socialism and masculinity

Traditional Spanish machismo and the Catholic Church have disdained effeminate and sexually passive males for centuries.[22] Barbara Weinstein, professor of Latin American history at the University of Maryland and co-editor of the Hispanic American Historical Review, claimed that the Cuban revolution had "a stronger sense of masculinity than other revolutions."[24] Cuban gay writer Reinaldo Arenas wrote that in Communist Cuba, "the 'new man' was being proclaimed and masculinity exalted."[25]

According to secondary sources, Fidel Castro has made insulting comments towards homosexuality. Castro's admiring description of rural life in Cuba ("in the country, there are no homosexuals"[14]) reflected the idea of homosexuality as bourgeois decadence, and he denounced "maricones" (faggots) as "agents of imperialism".[26] Castro explained his reasoning in a 1965 interview:

“ [ [W]e would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary, a true Communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant Communist must be.[27] ”

However, in his autobiography My Life, Castro has criticized the "machismo" culture of Cuba and urged for the acceptance of homosexuality. Furthermore, he has made several long speeches to the public regarding discrimination of homosexuals. Many gays were attracted to the socialist promise of an egalitarian society; some of them important figures among the left-wing intelligentsia, such as the writers for the popular journal Lunes de Revolución.

UMAP Labor Camps

A couple of years after Castro's rise to power, however, Lunes de Revolución was closed down amidst a wave of media censorship; its gay writers were publicly disgraced, refused publication and dismissed from their jobs.[28] In the mid-1960s, the country-wide UMAP (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción) program sent countless gays (particularly effeminate males) to labor camps for "rehabilitation" and "re-education", without charge or trial. Even after the end of the UMAP programs, effeminate boys were forced to undergo aversion therapy.[29] A 1984 documentary, Improper Conduct, interviewed several men who had been sent there. In his autobiography, My Life, Castro claims the internment camps were used in leiu of the mistreatment homosexuals were receiving in the military during the Angolan War. They would do labourous tasks and be housed roughly, but some saw it as better than joining the Cuban military as they would often still be publicly humiliated and discharged by homophobic elements.[30]


  • Lizette Vila’s documentary films, Y hembra es el alma mía (1992) and Sexualidad: un derecho a la vida (2004), profile the lives of Cuban male-to-female transsexuals and travestis.
  • Mauvaise Conduite or Improper Conduct a 1984 documentary film directed by Néstor Almendros and Orlando Jiménez Leal about the UMAP labor camps.
  • Before Night Falls (2000), directed by Julian Schnabel, is based on the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas by the same name.
  • Fresa y Chocolate, (Strawberry and Chocolate, 1993) directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, focuses on a conflicted relationship between a committed Marxist student and a flamboyantly gay artist. It was the first Cuban film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.


  • Furia del Discurso Humano (The Fury of Human Discourse) is a novel by Miguel Correa Mujica, the celebrated author of Al Norte del Infierno, that addresses the topic of persecution of homosexuals in Cuba.[31]

See also

  • Improper Conduct (1984 documentary on the prison camps for gays and other dissidents)
  • Mariela Castro, Cuban LGBT-rights activist, daughter of Raúl Castro and niece of Fidel


  1. Tucker, Calvin. "Havana rights", The Guardian, 2007-03-28. Retrieved on 2010-05-07. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Cuba approves sex change operations. Reuters (June 6, 2008).
  3. HEALTH-CUBA: Free Sex Change Operations Approved. Inter Press Service (June 6, 2008).
  4. Change of sex will be free. Progreso Weekly.
  5. "Castro champions gay rights in Cuba", BBC News, 2008-03-27. Retrieved on 2010-05-07. 
  6. Israel, Esteban, "Castro's niece fights for new revolution", Reuters, 2006-07-03
  7. Cuba approves sex change operations | Reuters
  8. Acosta, Dalia, “TV Opens Debate on Taboo Subject – Homosexuality,” Inter Press Service, 7 April 1998.
  9. Jackson, Julian (2006). "Sex, Politics and Morality in France, 1954–1982". History Workshop Journal 61: 77–102. doi:10.1093/hwj/dbi076.
  10. Cuba: "campaña" contra travestis, Fernando Ravsberg, BBC, Havana. Monday, 26 July 2004, 14:53 GMT. Article online (Spanish language)
  11. ¿Nueva campaña contra gays en Cuba?, BBC Friday, 23 February 2001, 15:40 GMT. Article online (Spanish language).
  12. Human Rights Watch World Report 1998 (Cuba)
  13. World Policy Institute, Sexual Orientation and Human Rights in the Americas, Andrew Reding (Senior Fellow, World Policy Institute; Director, Project for Global Democracy and Human Rights). December 2003. Report online.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Gay Rights and Wrongs in Cuba,, Peter Tatchell (2002), published in the "Gay and Lesbian Humanist", Spring 2002. An earlier version was published in a slightly edited form as The Defiant One, in The Guardian, Friday Review, 8 June 2001.
  15. Government Attacks Against Homosexuals, By Jesus Zuñiga, APIC. September 3, 1997. (Translated by E. Treto).
  16. What is the status of homosexuals in Cuba?, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Citizenship and Immigration Services Responses, 9 August 1999.
  17. Correa, Armando.Reprimen de nuevo a los homosexuales El Nuevo Herald (Miami, 3 September 1997).
  18. 18.0 18.1 Carlos Sanchez, ILGA LAC rep tells us about his cuban experience ILGA Documents
  21. Katherine Hirschfeld. Health, politics, and revolution in Cuba since 1898. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 Machos, Maricones, and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality, by Ian Lumsden. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. ISBN 1-56639-371-X
  23. Controversial gay soap opera grips Cuba, By Fernando Ravsberg, BBC Mundo, Havana. Wednesday, 3 May 2006.
  24. Che Guevara: liberator or facilitator?, By Drew Himmelstein, Friday, October 29, 2004
  25. Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas. 1992. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-015765-4
  26. Llovio-Menéndez, José Luis. Insider: My Hidden Life as a Revolutionary in Cuba, (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 156-158, 172-174.
  27. Lockwood, Lee (1967), Castro's Cuba, Cuba's Fidel. p.124. Revised edition (October 1990) ISBN 0-8133-1086-5
  28. Marshall, Peter (1987). Cuba Libre: Breaking the Chains?, London : Victor Gollancz, 1987. ISBN 1-55778-652-6
  29. Disingenuous apology for Castro's persecution of homosexuals, Steven O. Murray's review of Lumsden's book, June 19, 2001. Stephen O. Murray is a sociologist who has written several widely read works, including "Latin American Male Homosexualities" (University of New Mexico Press, 1995) and "Homosexualities", (University of Chicago 2000).
  30. Raul Castro’s Daughter Leads Gay Rights Conga. Fight for Change (May 16, 2009).
  31. Rosero, Jessica; "A voice for the homeless" Author Tackles homosexuality in the Cuban machista society; The Union City Reporter; February 18, 2007; Page 5

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