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 LaHabana.com. “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.”