Cuba Wants You To Think It’s a Gay Paradise. It’s Not.
Cuba has come a long way on LGBT rights since putting gays in labor camps. But don’t believe the Castro family’s gay-friendly PR.
TRINIDAD, Cuba — I’m surprised to see a rainbow flag outside a tiny bar called Gats Loco in Trinidad, an old sugar town on Cuba’s Caribbean coast. With a population of just under 75,000 and a reputation for well-preserved colonial architecture, not cruising, a gay bar seems an improbable niche-filler.
As of 1979, being gay is no longer a crime in Cuba, although under Article 303a of the country’s Penal Code, “publicly manifested” homosexuality remains illegal, as does “persistently bothering others with homosexual amorous advances.” While I wonder whether or not Gats Loco’s conspicuous signage qualifies as a violation of Cuban law, I watch a stray dog’s legs collapse underneath it in the withering midday heat. Gats Loco is the only bar in the area and they claim to have cold beer. I head inside.
I sit down at the small counter, getting the impression that I am the first customer they’ve had in a while. I ask the bartender for a Bucanero Fuerte, the watery lager that is Cuba’s go-to brew. He hands me a cold one and sits down beside me. He says his name is Osmel, but everyone calls him SiSi.
SiSi is an English professor who moonlights at the bar for extra cash. He sharpens his grasp of American idioms by listening to heavy metal and writing out the lyrics every night when he gets home. I figure he’ll love thecopy of the Atlantic that I’m carrying in my backpack, which features a headline across the cover reading, “What Straights Can Learn From Same-Sex Couples.” But when I hand it to him with a conspiratorial wink, he looks perplexed. Then he breaks into a wide grin.
“Are you gay?” SiSi asks.
I tell him I am not. Neither is he. Nor is the owner. Nor are any of the employees. Though incongruity is practically an art form in Cuba — a place where cabdrivers outearn cardiologists and Fidel Castro’s son is a golf champion — I’m too curious not to ask how Gats Loco came to be.
“You know our president, yes?” SiSi asks, seeming to make a point of not saying “Raúl Castro” out loud. “In 2010, he changed the rules and we were allowed to open our own businesses. So, a friend of mine, he opened this place.”
He can see that he hasn’t answered my question.
“Okay, so, this rainbow flag outside — we are the only place in Cuba with this flag in front,” SiSi says. “I think it is European, and means ‘inclusiveness.’ Some people, I guess, know it as the gay flag, too. I think the owner figured it might be good for business.”
The gambit has already started to pay dividends. Not because Gats Loco offers something unique to Cuba’s gay community. Rather, it’s because Mariela Castro, daughter of Raúl, niece to Fidel, and the director of the state-run National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), has emerged as Cuba’s leading voice for the LGBT community in recent years. As the story goes, when the straight, married mother of three heard about Gats Loco and its rainbow flag, a representative sent word that Mariela would be making an official visit to “sponsor” the bar. SiSi isn’t sure what the sponsorship entails beyond something about uniforms and logoed aprons for the staff. There are other gay bars on the island, but a gay bar willing to work with the regime rather than against it is unusual. For Mariela, it’s a ready-made propaganda opportunity. And Gats Loco’s owner wasn’t going to pass up a chance to ingratiate himself with a Castro.
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