Earlier this month I spent a week in Cuba on a trip organized around the theme ‘Health Across Borders” sponsored by MEDICC (Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba). The entire experience was wonderful and amazing on many different levels, among which was the experience of being part of a group of US citizens as the only openly LGBTQ person, and in a country where, among many other complicated issues, sexuality and gender rank high on the list. I joined this tour with my friend and colleague Leslie Nicoll, because as nursing journal editors we wanted to explore the feasibility of hosting an INANE (International Academy of Nursing Editors) conference in Cuba at some point in the future (for more on our “mission,” visit the INANE blog!).
Leslie is a wonderful straight ally, so the potential stress of being in this kind of situation was greatly alleviated by being able to talk openly, and vent my own perceptions of homophobia expressed in our group, with Leslie – often sharing the kind of stress-relieving laughter at the irony and humor embedded in situations that are blatantly homophobic. The members of our MEDICC group were all healthcare professionals, and because of the nature of our educational program, the Cuban response to the HIV/AIDS crisis was one of the prominent topics that we addressed. However, this topic was dealt with almost exclusively as a medical crisis (which the Cuban medical system excels in addressing), and any substantive discussion of other LGBTQ-related health issues were not part of our formal educational program.
Nevertheless, as we moved through the week, it became clear that LGBTQ issues are not at all in the closet in Cuba – at least for a traveler who was constantly on the look-out, and even for travelers who would prefer to avoid the topic! There were four clear indicators of this along the way … a couple of which I call a “sighting” – finding a visible LGBTQ symbol in a place where it is least expected! Here are those four indicators:
- On the second day of our trip, our interpreter arranged for us to meet with Norma Rita Guillard Limonta. Norma has been a human rights activist in Cuba for many years, focusing on racism, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. Her experiences are remarkable, and even though we spoke with her through an interpreter, she revealed the many ways in which Cubans have dealt with the contradictions involved in a social context where discrimination based on race, gender and sexuality is officially banned, but where the actual experience of discrimination cannot be eradicated simply with public policy.
- Another unexpected opportunity was viewing the first screening of the Cuban film ‘The Companion’ (‘El Acompanante’), which has been banned in Cuba until now. The screening we were able to attend was the first showing of the film in Cuba (see the trailer at the end of this post). The story is set in the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Cuba, when those diagnosed with the virus were under mandatory isolation in a remote sanitorium. As people began to understand the disease, the Cuban government eventually ended this form of discrimination, but of course the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS remains. So the fact that this film was screened was a huge victory for LGBTQ activists in the country. Unfortunately, because of the US embargo against Cuba, the film is not accessible in the US, but hopefully this will change soon.
- One “sighting” occurred when we visited the amazing studio and gallery of José Rodriguez Fuster – a visual artist who has created an entire “kingdom” of ceramic mosaics, statues – all forms of visual art. We were served a delicious lunch right in the midst of his mosaic kingdom, and as we were beginning to pass around the family-style dishes, I looked up at a post on which our table was anchored .. and lo and behold, right there in front of me was a sighting! I immediately declared “a sighting” and pointed to the symbols on the post, in which Leslie immediately shared my delight. Sadly, the US physician sitting to my left, who had been participating in our early lunch banter, took one quick glance, looked away, and turned to a discussion at the other end of the table. Leslie and I shared a knowing glance … and went about enjoying our lunch!
- Our final LGBTQ encounter happened on our last full day of the
exchange. As we approached the site of this visit, Leslie and I both noticed a faded rainbow flag on the fence – another sighting! We were not sure where we were, so we approached the building with extra anticipation! This turned out to be Cuba Libro – a private Enlish-language bookstore, coffee shop, art gallery, gathering space owned by an American Journalist Conner Gorry, who has lived in Cuba and covered a number of medical-related stories in Cuba for a number of years. Sightings were everywhere! In addition to the rainbow flag on the fence, we saw a prominent rainbow flag at the entrance to the bookstore area, a poster for a journal against homophobia in Cuba (see gallery below), and many other signals that LGBTQ people and discussions are welcome in this space!
All in all, our week was made all the richer because of these experiences! Cuba, like our own country, is experiencing a major shift, not only in terms of the potential for a more just and humane relationship between our two countries, but also in terms of LGBTQ rights! Viva Cuba!!!