Published 15 Febuary 2018 by Revolutionary communist Group

Cuba’s Gay Revolution: normalising sexual diversity through a health-based approach

Emily J Kirk, Lexington Books, 2017, 167pp, £60

In 1992, Fidel Castro was one of the first heads of state to openly support LGBT liberation, declaring: ‘I am absolutely opposed to any form of repression, contempt, scorn or discrimination with regard to homosexuals.’ He later expressed personal regret for historic persecution of homosexuals in the country: ‘Yes, there were great injustices... if someone is responsible, it’s me... We had so many and such terrible problems, problems of life or death. In those moments, I was not able to deal with the matter. I found myself immersed, principally, in the Crisis of October, in the war, in policy questions.’1

Internationally, the history of LGBT politics in Cuba has received little in the way of serious attention which often takes the form of generalisations or thinly veiled attacks upon Cuban socialism. Emily J Kirk’s book, therefore, is hugely significant. Drawing from the archives of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) and interviews with its staff, she sets out an objective and insightful analysis of how LGBT rights have developed through the history of the Cuban revolution.

Underpinning Kirk’s approach is a sincere appreciation of how change works in Cuba. Kirk adopts what she calls the ‘negotiative process framework’. This argues an essential truth: the Cuban revolution is a complex, continually adapting process of negotiation and debate. Kirk is equally understanding of the country’s own framing of both LGBT oppression and liberation. This is highlighted by her use of the term ‘sexual diversity’ as opposed to the more commonly understood term LGBT which rarely appears in Cuban literature.

Homophobia in pre-revolutionary Cuba

Kirk begins her analysis by looking at the history of sexual diversity in pre-revolutionary Cuba. The Spanish colonisation of Cuba resulted in the concept of machismo, a combination of the attitudes of Spanish colonisers, indigenous Cubans and African slaves toward gender and sexuality. Machismo sees the idealised man as aggressive, sexually dominant and unfaithful. The ideal woman was understood as the opposite: submissive, without sexuality and faithful.

US imperialism has also been fundamental in shaping Cuban homophobia. By the late 1950s, tourism had become Cuba’s second largest earner of foreign currency and sex work had grown to an enormous scale. The country housed around 270 brothels, some employees as young as 12. This industry was controlled by the Cuban elite and US-based crime syndicates. Preferential hiring treatment was given to homosexual men in the tourist sector to provide young men to satisfy US military personnel and tourists. As such, homosexuality was initially understood as a symptom of imperialist intervention and capitalist decadence after the victory of the Cuban revolution in 1959.

Socialism and homophobia: the 1960s and 1970s

Homophobia continued among officials and socially after the revolution. What separates Kirk’s analysis is her acknowledgement that this is by no means unique to Cuban socialism. That the World Health Organisation did not remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses until 1990 illustrates the universality of homophobia across modern human society.

Nevertheless, the early years of the revolution are significant. The Penal Code maintained homophobic legislation throughout the 1960s and 1970s, using laws dating back to the 1938 Cuban Social Defense Code. Article 490 gave a prison sentence of up to six months to anyone who ‘habitually engaged in homosexual acts’, propositioned someone or created a ‘display’. These attitudes deepened during the 1960s. The influence of western scientific orthodoxy, which equated homosexuality with mental illness, and the emigration of middle class homosexuals to the US contributed to an understanding of sexual diversity as dangerous. By 1965 sexual diversity was viewed as synonymous with counter-revolution in Cuba.

The result was homophobic persecution. A 1965 report from the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) concluded that homosexuality was learned and could be ‘corrected’. Later that year, Cuba formed Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPs) – labour camps in the province of Camagüey which were set up for those who could not, or would not, participate in military service. Homosexuals were amongst the people sent to these camps as they were not permitted to openly serve in the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces until 1993. Little research has been carried out on UMAPs, but it is estimated that around 60,000 people worked in them. The UMAPs were closed within three years after widespread criticism within the country and an undercover investigation by the Cuban government.

The 1971 Declaration of the First National Congress on Education and Culture shows how homophobic attitudes continued into the next decade. Whilst promoting the need for a comprehensive programme for sexual health, the Congress banned sexually diverse people from participating. It went on to recommend the exclusion of homosexuals from the teaching profession. Law 1267 formalised this in 1974. Reminiscent of the UK’s notorious ‘Section 28’ law which, from 1988 to 2003, prohibited local authority-maintained schools in Britain from ‘promoting the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’, homosexuals in Cuba were prohibited from working in any position in which they could influence children. A shift away from these circumstances was signalled by the decriminalisation of homosexuality, with an equal age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals, in Cuba in 1979.

The FMC and the discrimination-health link

The foundational step in normalising sexual diversity in Cuba came from the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), founded on 30 August 1960. The organisation’s first National Congress, held in 1962, highlighted the need to improve the country’s public health service, with a focus on sexual health. The founding of Mujeres, a bi-monthly magazine for women, in 1961 was equally important. A regular section titled ‘Debates on Health’ contained contributions from various specialists explaining the female body. This provided a platform for discussion on sexual health.

Perhaps more significant was the legalisation of abortion in Cuba. Abortions remained illegal during the initial years of the revolution. In the same period, around half of Cuba’s 6,000 physicians emigrated. Many women self-administered abortions. For example, women regularly used sulphuric acid to kill unwanted foetuses. This ‘treatment’ invariably resulted in death for the mother. The problem was addressed in 1965, with early-term abortions both legalised and provided by the state free and on demand (two years before abortion was legalised in Britain). In 1979 abortions in the second and third trimester were allowed with approval from a hospital’s director.

At first, legalisation did not stop self-administered abortions. Cuban women could still face social stigma if they took help from a medical professional to end their pregnancy. This became known as the discrimination-health link: if a group faces discrimination, it is detrimental to their health. The FMC incorporated this into their work, with a programme to improve attitudes toward abortion, framing it as a medical necessity.

1980s: the National Group for Work on Sexual Education (GNTES)

GNTES was founded in 1972 by Vilma Espín, then head of the FMC, and Álvarez Lajonchere, as a body to research sexual health. It recruited an East German translator named Monika Krause, providing access to literature on sexual health and sexual diversity (decriminalised in socialist East Germany in 1968). Following an increase in emphasis on sexual education in the late 1970s, GNTES was recognised as a state body in 1977. The organisation’s purpose was to develop a National Sexual Education Programme (ProNes). It was through ProNes that GNTES began combatting discrimination against sexual diversity.

Through the 1980s GNTES ran courses on sexual health at FMC meetings, community centres and schools which discussed sexual diversity alongside sexual education training courses for doctors, teachers, psychologists, health officials and specialists. From 1979 GNTES also led the National Commission on Sexual Orientation and Therapy, set up to care for transgender Cubans, and was central to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in the late 1980s.


Kirk identifies the HIV/AIDS epidemic as another factor in the normalisation of sexual diversity in Cuba. Following the first diagnosis in North America in 1983, Cuba founded the National AIDS Commission. The Commission quickly set up a system to survey the disease, spearheaded scientific research and established a national sanatorium system. Between 1986 and 1993 HIV/AIDS patients were required to stay in the sanatoriums for treatment.2 Although strong-armed, the Cuban campaign was a success and the nation’s HIV/AIDS rate, at around 0.07%, is one of the lowest in the world (the infection rate in the US is estimated to be 0.35%) despite being in a region with exceptionally high infection rates.

The impact of HIV/AIDS on Cuban attitudes to sexual diversity are contradictory. Initially, the condition was viewed as a ‘gay disease’. A 1988 study illustrated that this wasn’t true, with gay or bisexual men accounting for 25% of HIV/AIDS cases and straight men accounting for 50%. The discrimination-health link was further emphasised, with discrimination now seen as harmful both to those discriminated against and those engaged in discrimination.

1990s and 2000s: CENESEX

CENESEX was established in 1989 under the direction of MINSAP. The main reasons for this were high STI and abortion rates. Although GNTES was fundamental in launching ProNes and incorporating sexual diversity into national debate, a more comprehensive approach to sexual health was required. This resulted in the body being transferred to MINSAP and reformed as CENESEX.

There is little information on CENESEX in the 1990s. This is due to a lack of research and the economic pressures placed upon publishing following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Kirk’s review of what publications exist in the centre’s archives gives an idea of the work carried out over this period. Research into gender and sexuality was expanded and postgraduate courses in sexuality were developed. Additionally, the centre began to carry out community development projects, incorporating these into its objectives in 1994. In the same year the centre’s journal, Sexology and Society, was founded. The centre began to focus on discrimination, using the discrimination-health link to promote acceptance of sexual diversity in Cuba.

By 2000 this approach had become more visible. CENESEX began to involve itself in projects to combat homophobia and discrimination across all spheres of Cuban society. The work undertaken by the centre is vast. Kirk provides a sample:

● 2004: CENESEX begins to implement its own campaigns around sexual health. For example, the 2006 campaign, “How Do I Show That I Love You?” promoted HIV/AIDS prevention through condom use.

● 2007: CENESEX participates in celebrations of the International Day Against Homophobia.

● 2008: Establishment of Club Cine Diferente, a joint effort between CENESEX and the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry, hosting monthly discussions on sexual diversity in cinema.

● 2011: Establishment of CENESEX networks, spaces for discussion of sexual diversity. There are now five networks providing space for men, women, youth and the trans community. Heterosexual friends and family are encouraged to attend to help them view sexual diversity as normal.

Today, CENESEX stands at the centre of Cuba’s provision for sexually diverse people. It continues to run campaigns against homophobia, including month-long celebrations for the International Day Against Homophobia, networks and sexual health education programmes.

Socialism and LGBT liberation

Kirk’s book is a thorough, useful and insightful account of how attitudes toward sexual diversity in Cuba have shifted in the development of socialist health care. Whilst the volume is not comprehensive, its fundamental contribution is invaluable. In Cuba, LGBT liberation is not viewed through the prism of human rights, but as a concrete, medical necessity. The discrimination-health link demonstrates that homophobia is fundamentally at odds with socialist health care provision. This opens important questions on the nature of identity and socialism, which Kirk’s work provides a window to understanding.

James Bell

1. La Jornada, 31 August 2010.

2. This approach was influenced by Cuba’s extensive experience of ‘infectology’ led by the Institute of Tropical Medicine, which recommended isolating and diagnosing a patient in the first instance to prevent the spread of infection. It was initially unclear how the disease was transmitted.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 262 February/March 2018