Gay Tourism to Cuba Is Improving Queer Life in the Imperfect Paradise
Ever since the Obama Administration defrosted America’s relationship with Cuba in 2015, LGBTQ tourists have begun flocking to the sunny island nation to experience its sandy beaches, tropical valleys and old city districts filled with Spanish-French colonial architecture.
America’s longstanding trade embargo crystallized Cuba in a vintage era, giving it an irresistible old-world appeal. The island feels undiscovered, ripe for adventure and exploration. Untouched by modernity, it has a slower pace-of-life, while its Caribbean influence has filled it with music, food and ambience unlike any other Latin American country.
“We’re getting a lot more Americans, especially in the last six months,” says Dayron Ortiz, a gay Cuban tour guide who has worked with Remember Cuba, a group that offers LGBT tours of Cuba. “Hotels are being built mostly around Old Havana, which is the most touristic area. Cubans are opening many restaurants to have sufficient demand for all of them in the near future.”
Cuba is especially worth visiting now as it has not yet taken on all the trappings of a popular travel destination. LGBTQ tourists in particular have plenty to offer the island as it continues forging its path into queer global culture.
“Having LGBTQ travelers in Cuba,” Ortiz says, “has a positive impact, because we need to learn from other cultures, hear new ideas and improve what we’ve done so far.”
From a closeted past into a multi-colored present
While Cuba once punished homosexuality under Fidel Castro’s regime, the last 30 years have seen the island take great strides forward. Cuba fully decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, began granting free gender-reassignment surgeries to qualifying Cuban citizens in June 2008 and held its first-ever pride parade that same year. In 2010, Cuba began supporting gay rights at the United Nations; in 2012, the country elected Adela Hernández, its first transgender member of parliament; and in recent years, the country’s gay choir, Mano a Mano, has begun touring around the U.S.. All this while Cuba’s tourism offices started inviting mainstream gay publications to visit the island as a way to welcome LGBTQ travelers.
Castro’s heterosexual niece, Mariela Castro-Espin, serves as the public face of Cuba’s LGBTQ rights movement and since 1990 has overseen the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), an organization that advocates for queer equality, familial acceptance and HIV prevention. She often leads the country’s annual pride parades. In 2016, she marched alongside Evan Wolfson of the American group Freedom to Marry and trans actress Candis Cayne. Castro-Espin has also overseen several symbolic same-sex unions as part of Pride celebrations.
But while Cuba outranks most other Latin America island nations in LGBTQ rights, the country still has further to go. It lacks keystone legislation like same-sex marriage and public accommodations protections (though it does have nationwide employment non-discrimination laws). And while the island largely accepts queer people, its Catholic and machismo influence have affected the formation of local queer culture.
Large stretches of the island lack regular internet and mobile phone access, and this, along with the country’s still-developing public transportation infrastructure, has made it challenging for queer natives to connect and build a strong, cohesive queer Cuban identity. But here’s where LGBTQ tourists can play a vital role.
How tourism positively impacts Cuba’s LGBTQ culture
Luis Paz, an independent local activist and guide who offers gay tours around Cuba, still sees a great potential for improved LGBTQ influence across the island. Working with LGBTQ-friendly nightclubs and predominantly straight domestic DJs, he has begun creating queer-inclusive music events where the LGBTQ community can meet, dance to iconic queer music with empowering messages and create lasting social connections — a sort of “nightclub activism.” Paz sees music as one powerful way to strengthen the community and unite it with the larger queer community abroad.
Similarly, Ortiz throws El Divino, a regularly recurring, massively popular queer party at Café Cantante Mi Habana. The party showcases the island’s most talented DJs and drag performers, and has even hosted international queens like Mimi Imfurst of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 3, possibly the first American drag queen ever to perform in Cuba.
Most importantly, the island has numerous up-and-coming LGBTQ nightspots, queer-friendly beaches and LGBTQ-owned eateries where visitors can engage the natives and influence one another’s cultures. If authentic, politically minded LGBTQ tourists and activists visit the island and show LGBTQ Cubans what queer identity and public life look like abroad, Paz says, it will embolden queer Cuban citizens to speak up and stand out in public, helping build their queer identity and political standing.
“I understand and I respect that some tourists come to Cuba for some fun and to hang out, but man,” Paz laughs. “Come here to socialize, to encourage us, to meet people, to hang out in public spaces holding hands with your partner, because this country is a Catholic country. And yet people respect tourists a great deal. That’s a very positive way to encourage locals who are afraid to live visibly because of the history we have.”
The Cuban trip of a lifetime is taking place this May
Remember Cuba offers a customizable seven-day tour from May 11 to 18, held during Cuba’s Pride festivities that commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Those festivities include a series of symposia, lectures, films, art exhibits, a theatrical festival and, of course, a parade through Havana’s gay-friendly districts.
The tour transports travelers across the island nation in the 1950s-era American classic cars that have since become synonymous with Cuba. Tourists can enjoy outings to gay-friendly, clothing-optional beach Mi Cayito; Jaimanita, a neighborhood covered in multi-colored mosaics and murals; and nights partying with locals at the island’s hottest LGBT nightspots.
The tour also brings visitors to other sites of cultural interest — Piñar del Rio, a region featuring tobacco and orchid farms and cave tours, an evening of rooftop cocktails near Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban residence and regular meals at the island’s finest paladars, self-run restaurants serving authentic Cuban cuisine.
For more info on Remember Cuba’s May 11-18 LGBT tour, head here.
(Featured image: A still from Rosalino Ramos’ HBO documentary Mariela Castro’s March)