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Gays in Cuba, from the Hollywood School of Falsification

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  • Walter Lippmann
    Gays in Cuba, from the Hollywood School of Falsification A Movie Review of Before Night Falls (October 2001) by Leonardo Hechavarría and Marcel Hatch Edited
    Message 1 of 2 , Mar 29, 2006
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      Gays in Cuba, from the Hollywood School of Falsification
      A Movie Review of "Before Night Falls" (October 2001)

      by Leonardo Hechavarría and Marcel Hatch
      Edited and web-posted by Walter Lippmann

      ENGLISH VERSION:
      http://www.walterlippmann.com/lgbt-cuba-003.html
      SPANISH TRANSLATION:
      http://www.walterlippmann.com/lgbt-cuba-003-e.html

      A "Before Night Falls" is not a crude "Reefer Madness" type of scare
      flick. Instead, it's finely crafted cinema, with strong performances
      by a top-flight international cast featuring Javier Bardem, Olivier
      Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano, Johnny Depp and Sean Penn. This U.S.
      production, directed by Julian Schnabel, and shot in Mexico, has
      grabbed numerous awards with its rich visuals and heart-rending
      emotionalism. Billed as a "true story," it is also chock full of
      half-truths and sophisticated anti-Castro hogwash packaged as art and
      poetry, wrapped in sexuality. And, true to formula, the homosexual
      dies before the final credits roll.

      The film is a sanitized version of the life of the noted Cuban poet
      and novelist Reinaldo Arenas. We see his peasant childhood, his
      poetic talents and same-sex leanings blossom.

      We follow his social and hormonal trysts, his voyage as an author,
      his frustration with anti-gay mores of the period, his
      disillusionment with Cuba, and his imprisonment.

      We witness Arenas' self-exile, his life in New York where he
      contracts AIDS, lives in squalid poverty, writes voluminously against
      Cuba, and commits suicide in 1990.

      We leave the theatre with the impression of Cuba as a corrupt
      Stalinist police state -- a gulag for homosexuals, intellectuals and
      artists. Does it work? Sadly, based on nearby Kleenex consumption, we
      suspect it does.

      Do these writers recommend you boycott it? No. But we urge you to
      question critically its assertions. We know of no Cuban, for or
      against their government, who finds the movie credible. Nor do smart
      gay activists.

      In the May 7, 2001 issue of the "The Guardian," Dr. Steve Williamson,
      an expert on Arenas' work, says the film "rehashes a very old,
      distorted story." He believes the poet was delusional, if not
      suffering from outright dementia, when he wrote "Before Night Falls"
      during the final stages of AIDS.

      Williamson adds: "Cuba has changed dramatically since then, it is by
      far the most progressive country in Latin America as regards gay
      rights. [Arenas] undoubtedly suffered because of what happened to him
      during that period in Cuba, which was wrong, but if you elevate what
      he wrote and what the film presents, you are falsifying history."

      End Hollywood's blockade of Cuba

      The film assumes its audience is blind or ignorant, but not utterly
      hostile to Cuban reality. Yet, in a queer cinemagraphic twist, it
      erases the achievements of Cuban toilers, women, people of colour,
      and indeed gays, who've made stupendous advances since 1959. The end
      of hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, high infant mortality, and
      foreign domination of the island are of course undeniable -- all
      fruits of the Revolution.

      It was Clinton/Bush-inspired destiny that a hot button pushing,
      gay-themed anti-Cuba melodrama would be released. The persistent
      myth, promulgated chiefly by right wing Cuban-Americans (most of whom
      are hyper-homophobes), that homosexuality is illegal in Cuba, that
      gays and lesbians are banned from the Communist Party, and that they
      are savaged and tossed in the slammer, is pure bunk.

      This political falsity has widespread currency among liberal skeptics
      and, within the queer community. It is to this audience the film was
      targeted. It is necessary for friends of Cuba to dispute this fable
      with facts. This is our aim.

      A brief history of queers in Cuba

      Before the 1959 Revolution, life for lesbians and gays was one of
      extreme isolation and repression, enforced by civil law, augmented by
      Catholic dogma. Patriarchal attitudes made lesbians invisible. If
      discovered, they'd often suffer sexual abuse, disgrace in the
      community, and job loss. Havana's gay male underground -- some
      200,000 -- was a purgatory of prostitution to American tourists,
      domestic servitude, and constant threats of violence and blackmail.
      The closet was the operative image. Survival often meant engaging in
      fake heterosexual marriage, or banishment to the gay slum. Existence
      for queers in Cuba paralleled that of other countries.

      Following the Revolution, women won near full equality under the law,
      including pay equity, the right to child care, abortion, and military
      service, among other historic gains, laying the basis for their
      higher social and political status. This foundation, a first in the
      Americas, played an important role in women's greater independence
      and sexual freedom, a prerequisite for homosexual liberation. The
      Revolution also destroyed the Mafia-controlled, U.S. tourist driven
      prostitution trade that held many Cuban women and gay men in bondage.

      The Revolution undertook to provide ample education and employment
      opportunities for female prostitutes.

      Advances for women in general were naturally extended to lesbians,
      and many became among the most ardent defenders of the Revolution. On
      the other hand, a significant minority of gay men left Cuba. Some
      joined the counter-revolutionary expatriates in Miami or were
      blackmailed into doing so. Ironically, the U.S., which was busy
      flushing out and jailing its homosexuals during the McCarthy period,
      welcomed Cuban gays as part of its overall campaign to destabilize
      the island.

      Latin machismo, Catholic bigotry, and anti-gay Stalinism combined in
      the early years of the Revolution to limit specific legal reforms for
      lesbians and gays. Nonetheless, the latter joined the effort to build
      socialism; the majority was looking to a better future, while
      temporarily remaining in the closet.

      In 1965, Cuba was under siege from the U.S. (Bay of Pigs 1961,
      Missile Crisis 1962, systematic military and biological incursions
      from Florida bases). Counter-revolutionary bandits were holed up in
      the Escambray Mountains. In a misguided scheme to put thousands of
      draft dodgers -- from gay men and transvestites, to Jehovah's
      Witnesses -- to work to bolster sugar yields, the government
      initiated Military Units for the Aid of Production (UMAP). Ensuing
      domestic and international pressure, along with direct political
      intervention by Fidel Castro, shut down the penal labour brigades,
      after only 18 months. Cubans consider the UMAP project a serious
      error and a breech of the principle of socialist equality. Yet, right
      wingers persist in describing UMAPs as concentration camps, and imply
      they still exist. "Before Night Falls" seizes on UMAPs to punctuate
      its image of Cuba as a penal colony for gays.

      By the late '60s, the Cuban approach toward lesbians and gays was in
      sync with Europe and Canada. Homosexuality was treated as an
      'illness' to be cured and no longer a criminal activity. In the
      1970s, the transplanted Stalinist-Maoist notion that gays were a
      "manifestation of capitalist decadence" was abandoned. Homosexuality
      was viewed as a form of sexual behaviour requiring study.

      A 1971 Cultural Congress declaration that "no homosexual shall
      represent Cuba" was a setback. The decree was challenged in court by
      a theatre group and rescinded two years later. As in Canada in the
      1970s and early 80s, Cuban gays suffered routine police harassment
      resulting in shameful public outings. But in Cuba, never physical
      torture by cops.

      Gays leap forward

      1975: Rules limiting employment of homosexuals in the arts and
      education were overturned. A Family Code was adopted calling for
      equal responsibility for child rearing and household duties between
      men and women.

      1979: Homosexual acts were decriminalized.

      1981: The Cuban bestseller, "In Defense of Love," by Dr. Sigfried
      Schnabl, declares homosexuality "not a sickness, but a variant of
      human sexuality." 1986: National Commission on Sex Education
      introduces a program on homosexuality and bisexuality as healthy and
      positive.

      1987: Police are forbidden to harass people because of appearance or
      clothing, largely benefiting gays.

      1988: Law against "flaunting homosexuality" is rescinded. Fidel
      Castro explains the need to reject rigidity and change negative party
      and societal attitudes towards gays.

      1992: Vilma Espin, a leader of the Revolution and president of the
      Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), condemns prejudicial views against
      lesbians and gays. Castro speaks in defense of women's equality and
      rebukes anti-gay sentiments: "I am absolutely opposed to any form of
      repression, contempt, scorn or discrimination with regard to
      homosexuals. [It is] a natural human tendency that must simply be
      respected."

      1993: Release of state-sponsored blockbuster film "Strawberry and
      Chocolate," which is critical of Communist Party discrimination
      against gays in the 1970s and '80s. It is widely viewed in Cuba and
      praised internationally. The first gay men's group is launched to
      combat AIDS.

      1994: The Documentary film "Gay Cuba," by U.S. director Sonja de
      Vries, frankly examines the island's gay rights record. It opens an
      FMC event in Havana. The FMC invites U.S. Queers for Cuba group to
      tour the island.

      1995: The Cuban documentary "Butterflies on the Scaffold" chronicles
      how transvestites became a respected part of an Havana suburb. Cuban
      gays and transvestites dance at the head of the parade at Havana's
      May Day celebration, and two U.S. queer delegations participate in
      the march.

      1997: The last traces of anti-gay references in Cuba laws are
      removed.

      1998: A nationwide television program launches a debate on lesbians
      and gays to vast audience interest. The topic is discussed in
      communities for weeks following.

      Different struggle, different fight

      Unlike many gay rights leaders in Canada who see gay marriage and
      same sex benefits as the final frontier, lesbians and gays in Cuba
      are not clambering for the same. In Cuba, marriage is not considered
      an ultimate life achievement. Cuba's collectivized social system
      ensures life-long equal benefits for all persons, especially children
      and elders.

      Similarly, health care, food, shelter, education and employment are
      not the central issues for queers in Cuban as they are in 'advanced
      countries', because under the island's socialist system, they are
      guaranteed. AIDS victims in Cuba (which has the lowest rate of AIDS
      in the Americas), receive full wages and free medication, regardless
      of ability to work. Gay bashing has been absent since 1959. The media
      does not portray lesbians and gays as hedonists, narcissists or
      pederasts. Well-financed lobbies and rallies against gays don't
      exist. Lesbians, gay men and transvestites can freely assemble, as
      long as drugs and prostitution are not involved. Transsexuals get
      state-funded operations. Unions, schools and mass organizations
      defend their homosexual members against discrimination as a matter of
      policy. Petty police harassment is in sharp decline.

      The gay rights struggle in Cuba may not look like the movement here,
      because many legal and equality goals we seek have already been met.
      What queer Cubans want is full respect and dignity within the social
      arena, and recognition that their individual social contributions as
      gays, lesbians and trans-gendered people are as worthy as those of
      their heterosexual compatriots.

      No queer is free until all are free

      With every television report of a gay murdered in the United States
      and elsewhere, Cubans recoil in horror, reflect on both the obstacles
      and mistakes they've overcome, and redouble their commitment to
      integration of their own gay citizens. In the early 1960s, a section
      of the Cuban Communist Party considered homosexuality to be a result
      of capitalist decay. Today, Cubans understand that hatred and
      discrimination against gays, and against women and people of colour,
      is a malady peculiar to capitalism. Many scholars, community and
      political leaders, voice this analysis, as well as the woman on the
      street. This transformation and understanding truly makes the
      "Revolution, a school of unfettered thought."

      The U.S. blockade of the island is the primary cause of lesbian and
      gay suffering. Lack of resources impedes material improvements that
      gays and all Cubans want and deserve. Sparse public and private space
      for gays to meet is a major problem, as anyone can imagine. Job
      opportunities in careers of choice are negatively effected. An end to
      the blockade would help increase employment and wages, ending a trend
      among a portion of young lesbians and gay men to gravitate to
      prostitution for extra cash, or leave the island for the same. Like
      their straight peers, gay Cubans want the financial means to travel,
      to keep the wardrobe current, for more public and private transport,
      and houses with more living space.

      In our opinion, Cuba is destined in this decade to become a world
      leader in gay dignity and equality. We believe the greatest
      solidarity is the help we can provide to end the U.S. blockade. We
      have much to learn from our Cuban sisters and brothers, including
      about the superiority of their collectivized economic and social
      system.

      Socialist revolution has ensured measures of security and dignity for
      working people, and for women especially: goals for which North
      Americans still dream and battle. It has laid the basis for
      progressive social change and freedom in thought. Unfortunately, Mr.
      Schnabel and the cast of "Before Night Falls" are treacherous
      obstacles on the road to freedom and lesbian-gay liberation.

      The authors

      Cuban citizen Leonardo Hechavarría is a translator and interpreter.
      He is a passionate advocate of the Revolution and works for increased
      acceptance of lesbians and gays in his homeland. Marcel Hatch is a
      typographer and a veteran gay rights activist and Cuba defender.
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