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Capturing The Vibrancy Of Cuba's Underground Queer Oasis

A marginalized community shines in the photographs of Lisette Poole.

When photographer Lisette Poole set on a journey to archive beauty in Cuba, the last thing she expected was to end up chronicling the lives of the island's queer collective. As a child, she'd always been drawn to the country, since her first visit at the age of 15. What began as a timid peek into the lives of the island's most marginalized culture ended up being the experience of a lifetime, in a revealing interview with British-based Huck magazine.

"I was living with a couple who took me out to the newly-legal gay clubs in Havana, and I met a performer one night," the young photo journalist recalls. "She’s a trans activist and actress in Cuba, and I’ve been following her for almost two years now.  I became inspired by the community, and was shooting so much that I got to a point where I felt at home on the scene. I’ve come to know many organizers in the community and they trust me. I never really thought that I would be covering an LGBT community anywhere, but I ended up falling into this because I found a group of people who were fun, inspiring and accepting. They wanted me to tell their story and welcomed me in."

The need to document such resilience is necessary, considering Cuba's track record in its treatment of sexual and gender minorities. After the 1959 revolution, in which Fulgencio Batista was removed from power, those who identified as LGBTQ were sent by Castro to prisons and work camps.

Almost 60 years after the revolution, the queer community still remains underground. "Cuba’s 'gayest city' is Santa Clara (a four-hour drive southwest of Havana). Here you will find Cuba’s only government-authorized gay establishment, El Mejunje. Recently celebrating its 25 year anniversary, the small open-air venue is an entertaining paradise for the LGBT community," says "Famous for its outlandishly flamboyant drag shows and party atmosphere, this is the place where gays, lesbians and their friends can be themselves without the fear of harassment from non-gays."

As for Havana, every Saturday night queer residents host a community get-together called "fiesta" in different locations, as a way to elude harassment from the police. The Malecón, a stretch of seawall on the city's northern shore, also provides a place of refuge for queers to socialize.

"Cuba under Fidel Castro has a long history of oppression against LGBT people," Poole confesses. "While same sex relationships were decriminalised in 1979 between consenting adults in private, reform only truly started, and slowly, when Castro admitted in 1993 that his attitudes to LGBT people had been wrong in the past, and he apologized. Real change only really took place when Mariela Castro became an active campaigner for LGBT rights. As Raul Castro’s daughter, people started to listen, and the opening of CENESEX (Cuban National Center for Sexual Education) pushed things forward. The first Pride Week (known as Anti Homophobia celebrations) didn’t take place until 2013."

CENESEX, founded in 1989, helped to educate Cuban masses about queerness from a health and educational perspective. Mariela, the organization's director, often travels in other Latin American countries to sit-in at queer conferences, seminars, and pride marches. In the early '90s, a film criticizing Cuba's queerphobic attitudes was produced by the government, and in 1995, Cuban drag queens led a May Day processional march. In 2013, Adela Hernandez became the nation's first transgender elected official.

Poole agrees that definite progress has been made, though it's not a queer paradise, yet. "I would definitely say that in the past few years there has been an opening and acceptance. Though some members of the LGBT community comment that they felt their only freedoms were relegated to the nightlife scene, in many ways this has begun to spread throughout many parts of society. There’s still a long way to go."

She adds that there is a growing sense of solidity between Cuban queers and their families, who have only begun to recognize their identities. "The thing is, Cuban people are very open with their beliefs—and unfortunately sometimes their prejudices—but there is also a very strong sense of community and bond here, and I think this makes the biggest difference. When I’m shooting Kiriam, a trans woman in Havana, her neighbors and family would sometimes call her by her male name, but she would tell me that the genuine love and acceptance they express overrides that."

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Popular Celeb Spot 'La Marina' Shut Down After Drug Bust

Adored by celebrities like French Montana, Jay-Z and Leonardo DiCaprio, New York hot spot La Marina might be closing its doors for a good after a drug bust led to a suspension of their liquor license.

A statement released Dec. 6 by the New York Liquor Authority (SLA) broke down the case, which overlapped with an investigation by the NYPD in July. Bar manager Christian Mendez, 33, was arrested in November on felony charges after he was caught selling large amounts of cocaine, oxycodone and other drugs to undercover NYPD detectives. Their investigation into the venue also revealed 72 violations of the state liquor law like selling liquor to minors and impaired customers.

Chairman Vincent Bradley and Commissioner Lily Fan condemned the venue and hope to yank their liquor license for good. “When a bar manager is able to traffic and sell these types and quantities of narcotics from within an establishment it is incredibly alarming," Counsel to the Authority Christopher R. Riano said.

“Licensees have a responsibility to ensure their establishments are operating within the law, and the SLA is obligated to take emergency action as it is clear that this licensee has failed to take any meaningful actions to protect the public.”

La Marina was also hit with sixteen violations of the ABC Law, including seven counts of operating disorderly premises for permitting the trafficking of controlled substances, six violations for fire, health and more safety code violations. Their inspection grade in July was something close to an F minus for mishandlings of food, shoddy plumbing and the presence of mice and flies.

The venue has been a staple in the area since its opening in 2012, attracting big celebrities and brands like Red Bull and HBO. The New York Post notes La Marina has a 15-year lease, where they make up to $7 million a year in revenue.

Their social presence hasn't acknowledged their current status, but their calendar for upcoming events has been scrapped from their website.

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Judge Awards Cardi B Release Without Bail After Alleged Bartender Attack

Cardi B reported to court Friday morning (Dec. 7) in efforts to resolve an ongoing court case, which stems from an alleged altercation back in August at a Queens strip club involving two bartenders named Jade and Baddie Gi.

Prior to attending court, the "Money" MC was threatened to face jail time by the judge in charge of the case if she missed today’s court date. She reportedly had a court appearance on Monday (Dec. 3) that she failed to report to.

In October, the Bronx rapper (born Belcalis Almanzar) turned herself in to authorities after being accused of orchestrating a physical attack on the servers at Angels Strip Club. Per TMZ, she was arrested for two misdemeanor charges: assault and reckless endangerment.

One of the bartenders, Jade Gi, was accused of having an affair with Cardi’s (now possibly estranged) husband, Migos member Offset. The “She Bad” rapper was released without bail. Prosecutors reportedly wanted to charge her with a $2,500 bail, but the judge felt she wasn’t a flight risk, meaning she wouldn’t leave the country before the case is over in its totality.

However, the judge did warn Cardi to have “no contact” to Baddie and Jade Gi, after he granted both an order of protection against the 26 year-old. She’s also not allowed to make any threats or comment on the two on social media.

Cardi is reportedly scheduled to head back to court sometime next month.

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Premiere: Fuego And A. Chal Take Over The Strip Club In "Dancin" Music Video

Dominican trap artist Fuego has created an ode to the art of stripping with his new single “Dancin,” featuring producer and R&B extraordinaire A. Chal. The visuals for the track are laced with bright blue club lights and brief salacious interludes of voluptuous young ladies dancing provocatively.

The two are seemingly in a never-ending party in efforts to promote strip club etiquette through their tantalizing lyrics. There's no denying that Fuego's sound is reminiscent of today's prominent trap artists like Migos and Future, but he packs in a Latino flair, like his contemporaries Bad Bunny and El Alfa. The Washington D.C. native's sound is similar, but it's worth noting he's been on the scene for a while, steadily etching his mark as his musical prowess rises within hip-hop and Latin audiences.

“For some reason, I've always wanted to do a sound that American hip-hop has, and then break that my way,” he tells VIBE. “When it comes to putting stuff together and making fusions of music, I've done it all my life. When I first started out, I did reggae beats, but I was rapping over them. There’s a little more urban, hip-hop sound in the Latin community. Before, it was mad reggae. It either had to be a tropical type song or reggaeton song. I've always wanted to come out with hip-hop music."

Watch the video for "Dancin" below.

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