Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Cuban Primer for Queers

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

It's official. Cuba's taken a great leap forward against anti-gay hate. For the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) they're gonna screen "Aimée and Jaguar," "Querelle," and "Milk" with Sean Penn invited to the island as a guest of honor. The organizer is the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), led by heterosexual Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of current Cuban ruler Raúl Castro.

If you believe a week of state-sanctioned queer events spells the end of homophobia, you ought to give the Tea Party folks a racism pass. At a recent rally in Texas their speakers included a black doctor, and Hispanic and Vietnamese immigrants. Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times it seemed "like a bizarre spoof of a 1980s Benetton ad," but heck, at least they came up with some real minorities, not just hets that play fags on the silver screen.

Having Mariela Castro as the only recognizable name in Cuba fighting for queer rights is like having, oh, Lynne Cheney, as the only advocate for racial justice in the United States. If none of us are visible in Cuba, it's because actual queers are confined to jail as dissidents every time we try to organize for ourselves. Like anybody else. Which is perhaps the only real sign of our equality under the nonexistent rule of law.

Nevertheless, the global gay left continues to guard the Cuban regime as some kind of talisman of progressive hope, parroting Mariela Castro's press conferences, and publishing CENESEX's official IDAHO program almost in its entirety. Who cares that the event isn't organized by queers, or that participants in the panels will surely be screened for their politics? Nobody. Though one queer blogger did interrupt his celebration of Cuban wonderfulness to acknowledge, "things remain far from perfect and there is reason to believe that the rights of LGBT political dissenters in the island are still being curtailed." I don't even know where to start with that.

To be fair, some queer-related work is currently being done by academics in Cuba. But you have to ask just who has access to it. A few years ago, I was in Havana right before a major international conference on queer studies was due to take place, and none of the several dozen lesbians and gay men I spoke to had heard about the event. Now, countries offering IDAHO events are encouraged to broadcast some on the web, but with the internet blocked in Cuba, you can again forget access for queers there.

It is progress, I suppose, that we're not getting sent to internment camps for being queer. Instead, a gay man might be jailed for pre-criminal "dangerousness" or a host of other things. And while planners of a gay beauty pageant will still have state security pounding on their doors, they won't know if they're being arrested for their sexual identity, for organizing something not sanctioned by the ferociously paternal state, or because the state security forces want to steal their computers.

The last year in Cuba has been marked by growing scandals of government corruption and graft with millions being stashed in the traditional overseas bank accounts. The most horrifying example, though, is of the Mazorra psychiatric hospital where the employees were systematically stealing and reselling the patients' food. When the temperature dropped in February, as many as thirty of their emaciated victims froze to death. There was such an uproar when the news filtered out, even the government had to admit it.

Given that the regime is also getting slammed left and right for their record on human rights, it seems reasonable to think Cuba's IDAHO activities are almost purely an attempt to court good press. And why not? A totalitarian state can manufacture signs of progress as easily as commanding hate.

And they definitely need to turn things around. In early February, jailed Afro-Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after a prolonged hunger strike demanding better conditions for political prisoners. Guillermo Fariñas, a dissident journalist of color, immediately began his own hunger strike that will continue until he dies, or dissidents are freed. Before that, a group of African American intellectuals condemned Cuba for preserving a lily white regime and indulging racism -- despite it's declared end -- which pervades everything from racial profiling by cops to the "impromptu" mobs that attack the protesting "Damas de Blanco" as "ungrateful niggers" for demanding the release of their dissident husbands.

Queers are in the same Cuban boat. Despite current proclamations to the contrary, you just don't get real social change without activists, without visibility, without history, without a modicum of free speech. You have none of that in Cuba where hate remains the tool of choice to assemble mobs, and Fidel, like a holocaust denier, is still assuring his biographers that the gay internment camps that led to suicides, murders, and massive, terrified flight, are just imperialist lies.

For more information, I recommend the New York Book Review's Cuba: A Way Forward.

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