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Blacklight Home Page

An Interview withTomás Fernández
Robaina: Cuban, Black and Gay

By Steven G. Fullwood

F. RobainaTomás Fernández Robaina is a researcher at la Biblioteca Nacional José Marti in Havana, Cuba. He is also a prolific writer and has written extensively on AfroCuban issues including the book "El Negro en Cuba 1900-1958: Apuntes Para la Historia de la Lucha Contra la Discriminacion Racial ("The Blacks in Cuba 1900-1958: Notes on the History of the Struggle Against Racial Discrimination"). Tomás is also Asesor (advisor or professor) of the Fundacion Ortiz (Ortiz Foundation) and a member of UNEAC (Cuban National Writers Union) and of the Cuban National Committee on Slave Routes.

I got to know Tomás over the course of 1999, while he worked at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. We broke bread on occasion, and talked about the similarities, and differences, in Black Gay cultures in Cuba and the United States. Tomás is a warm, friendly man, whose intellect and humor shines through everything. He is also a revolutionary and I'm glad to have him as a friend.

Steven G. Fullwood:
What I've heard Cuba and the history of its treatment of Gay men and Lesbians is horrible. In 1965, Gays were labeled "counter-revolutionary," and sent to forced labor camps. Then, in 1980, hundreds of Cuban Gays were again labeled "counter-revolutionary," and exiled. How have things changed for Gays and Lesbians? Or have they?

Tomás Fernández Robaina:
The Gay fight for social space has been difficult and is a very quiet one. I had a conversation with a friend in the 1970's, when the official policy against Gays was strong, and he was optimistic. He told me that there are more Gays becoming visible and that the government will have to reckon with the growing population. Similar to what happened with Blacks in South Africa, the Cuban government will have to decide how they will deal with Gays, as either threats or potential labor force.

Is there is a Gay "subculture" in Cuba? If so, what are the parallels with Gay culture in the United States - specifically, Black Gay culture?

I wouldn't say that there is a Gay subculture. We, at least the majority, don't identify like Gays do in the United States. We don't identify ourselves as a separate or different group.

Tell me about some of the words used in relation to Gay life: "bugarrones," "maricones," "locas," and "entendidos."

"Bugarron" is a male in the role of the traditional man, and is defined by the sexual role as the active, or aggressor. "Maricon" is the common word that has a strong pejorative meaning in Cuban language; it defines those men who like to be sexually passive and, in some instances, it defines a sexual role, like "bugarrones." When you want to insult a man, in a very harsh manner, you call him a "maricon." "Loca" is a man that is very effeminate. "Entendido" is defined as a Gay man who can be a "loca" or "maricon," but is inconspicuous. You know him if you are, in the family, so to speak, but to an outsider, they would not think he was Gay. There is a book by Reinaldo Arenas called "El Color del Verano" ("The Color of the Summer") that discusses these definitions in a satiric way.

In regard to rigid notion of masculinity in the United States, Cuban machismo seems less concerned with sexual relations between men, than with traditional gender roles. How do you see Cuban machismo versus American masculinity in regards to sexuality?

Cuban machismo requires that men play traditional male roles in sexual, social and political environments. Particularly in the sexual role, the man must be "active" role. If he's thought to be "passive," then he will not be considered a "real" man- by popular opinion. These concepts are manipulated and sometimes used by people who have different ideas about homosexuality.

What do you mean?

For some Cubans, whatever a man does sexually, regardless of it being passive or active, he may be considered as a "maricon." In fact, the word "maricon" is used in a very pejorative way. It is a common term used more in the older language. When [Gays] talk about the issue, we use the word "homosexual."

How do older Gay men and Lesbians view and treat younger Gay men and Lesbians?

For many years there was repression, and the older and younger Gays of that period experienced the same thing. Because of the silent internal resistance to Gay repression, the vocal criticism of Cuban Gays abroad, and the economic crisis, among other issues, the policy against Gays began to change. I, like many other Gays, for many years could not attend the University of Havana. It's wonderful to see that now the University is more tolerant to Gay students. Gay literature and Gay writers are bow being studied in the classroom and students can write their dissertations about them. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have thought it possible But we can't forget the Resolution of the Congress of Culture and Education in 1971, a policy that limited the potential of homosexuals to be more visible and actualized in Cuban culture and society.

For me, being both Black and Gay in the United States is extremely challenging. It took me years to figure out who I was and what I was--much of which I couldn't use because it put a ceiling on my spiritual potential. How is it for you?

Since I was a boy I related "Black" with masculinity, because most of the men I saw their [complexion] very "Black." When I grew up and began to see Black "homosexuals," it was hard for me; probably because I idealized masculinity with my vision of Black men. I think that among Black families this same perception is prevalent.

Is there such as thing as being "Out" in Cuba?

Yes, but we don't have an expression for it. We used to say that ,"loca abierta, declarada" (everybody knows) but because of the inferences of the growing Gay visibility in Cuba, we don't use it as much. Now we use the expression "esta en el closet" or "esta fuera del closet," some homosexuals are discreet, and others are very open.

In "Machos, Maricones, and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality," author Ian Lumsden states: "The current situation of Cuban Gays is much more oppressive than the Cuban government is willing to acknowledge. Yet it is also much less restricted than it was a decade ago and much better than many Gays and Lesbians are willing to concede in public." What do you think about his statement?

I think it's true. We don't have any Gay organizations. We don't see Cuban television dealing with Gay issues in any serious way. In the literature some writers, Gay and straight, have written about Gay life, and about Gay social problems, but that doesn't mean that all these appear generally in Cuban books, magazines or newspapers. In regards to movies, "Fresa y Chocolate" (Strawberry and Chocolate") was an exception. In the documentary, some Cuban and foreign filmmakers have made wonderful contributions, but not all these films have been widely exhibited. Some of them, for example "Mariposas en el Andamio," ("Butterflies on the Scaffold") would help change general ideas that many people have about Gays - in particular ideas about drag queens or transvestites.

It's almost unbelievable to see how the Gay life, or the visibility of Gay people, has increased in Cuba in the last ten years. Little by little, step by step, we are getting space in the rooms, and our right to be different. But of course, we still have a long way to go.

End