On the Changing Place of LGBT Rights in Cuba

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“This is the most inclusive place in Cuba,” says Alex, who has been working at El Mejunje (the mixture) for over twenty years. El Mejunje, which is located in the provincial city of Santa Clara, was the first bar in Cuba to fly the gay pride flag and continues to be a space where LGBT Cubans find support and community.

“Everyone is the same when they come in the door. That’s our philosophy,” says Alex, who also explains how the space was founded at a time when LGBT Cubans were still being sent to sanitorios (state-run psychiatric facilities) for failing to conform to the heteronormative culture instilled by the 1959 revolution. In the years following the revolution, LGBT Cubans faced immense persecution. They were thrown out of the communist party, expelled from universities, and forced to undergo conversion therapy. Many gay men were also sent to agricultural labor camps run by the Cuban Government for being considered enemies of the revolution.

Fortunately, a lot has changed with regard to LGBT rights in contemporary Cuba. The island now claims to be one of the most gay-friendly nations in the region thanks largely to the movement for LGBT rights led by Mariela Castro, daughter of the current president Raúl. The fact that the island has adopted progressive measures like state-funded sexual reassignment surgery or annual marches against homophobia, however, fails to address the problems that many LGBT Cubans still face on a daily basis. Cuba’s dark record of discrimination and human rights abuses, it seems, still looms large.

“Cuba is still a fundamentally machista society,” says Lázaro, a 25-year-old resident of Havana. Although these attitudes are common throughout the region, what is notable about the Cuban brand of machismo is the way it is obscured under a banner of inclusivity. “It’s not quite acceptance,” says Lázaro of the official attitude towards LGBT Cubans. “They put up with us.”

Given that changes in attitude towards the LGBT community in Cuba have not been able to keep up with the legal progress that has been made, many LGBT Cubans have forged their own communities in order to find support on the local level. Spaces where LGBT can congregate have thus gained a particular importance. Spaces like El Mejunje.

Today, El Mejunje is not only a gathering place for LGBT Cubans but also serves as a community center with programming for youth, the elderly, and all of the “forgotten and misunderstood” residents of the Santa Clara area, as Alex puts it.

Watching a drag show at a place like El Mejunje thus has a sharp political edge. At El Mejunje, questions of belonging and solidarity are brought to the forefront by performers and bar-goers alike – reframing seemingly apolitical Saturday-night diversions like dancing, drinking, and conversing. As one of the drag queens performing that night so elegantly puts it: “This is who we are.”

Written by Jamie Packs




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