On Dec. 7, 1990, the Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, suffering from advanced AIDS, ended his life after a decade spent in exile in the United States. Arenas had become a vocal opponent of the Cuban government and, in his suicide note, personally blamed Fidel Castro for the poverty and displacement that defined much of his adult life. The openly gay writer fought tirelessly against the homophobia that had in effect become institutionalized in Cuba in the two decades following the 1959 revolution. Now, as the government takes gradual steps to advocate for LGBT Cubans, some gay activists on the island are using Arenas’ memory to move their cause forward.
“Arenas’ legacy is a painful one for the gay community in Cuba,” said Maykel González Vivero, an independent journalist and gay activist in the city of Sagua la Grande. “It’s a legacy that has been denied by officials, and it’s a legacy we have to reclaim.”
Vivero is part of a new generation of LGBT activists that is pushing for the government to do more for LGBT people, from passing same-sex marriage and stronger anti-discrimination laws to cracking down on police abuse of transgender women. He says current government efforts are “limited” and “don’t address real problems LGBT people face.”
At a time “when key rights are still denied to us Cubans,” Vivero told AQ, Arenas’ “rebellious gestures still have a lot of validity.” Arenas was largely open about his sexuality at a time when the state was forcefully sending gay men to hard labor camps. As a writer, both his surrealist literary style and the strong themes of homosexuality in his work bucked accepted norms, and his work was banned starting with his second novel.
In 1974, Arenas was imprisoned under gruesome conditions for nearly two years after officials accused him of soliciting sex from teenage boys, which the author claimed in his autobiography was a setup in retribution for having his work smuggled abroad. The case against him eventually fell apart, but Arenas was forced to confess to counter-revolutionary activities before leaving prison penniless and with few means to survive.
The censorship and frequent confiscation of Arenas’ manuscripts by the state was perhaps the most constant form of persecution that the author endured while in Cuba, though this did not keep him from creating a prolific body of work.
“Arenas is, in many ways, a mentor for a modern generation of gay writers,” said Rafael Ocasio, a professor at Agnes Scott College who has written two books and numerous articles on Arenas’ life. “But more than a literary model, he is a person who lived his life by his own ideals and he didn’t hesitate to suffer for those ideals.”
It’s not hard to see why Arenas’ legacy of rebellion and struggle could strike a particular nerve for gay Cubans living in a complicated – and changing – country.
To be sure, much of the change in the past decade has been positive for Cuba’s LGBT population, thanks to a turnaround by the government. In 2010, the late Castro issued a measured apology for the persecution of gays after the revolution. Since then, the government has taken strides to combat homophobia, and enjoys the support of many gay Cubans.
One activist, Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, hasn’t let the past experiences of gay men like Arenas determine his stance toward the late leader’s revolutionary ideals. Cruz told AQ that Fidel Castro’s 2010 statements were “a starting point” for Cuba’s LGBT movement, and recognized efforts in recent years by the Communist Party to try to rectify the government’s past deeds, such as through a labor law passed in 2013 that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. Cruz points to the work of Mariela Castro, Fidel Castro’s niece and daughter of current President Raúl Castro, who has actively fought for an end to homophobia as director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education.
Mariela Castro has in recent years won international acclaim for making Cuba a dramatically safer place to be openly LGBT. She often leads marches against homophobia and has advocated for allowing transgender people to have gender confirmation surgery, which is now covered by the state.
Whether Mariela Castro and the government’s efforts have been effective, however, “depends on who you ask,” said Michael K. Lavers, a journalist who’s been following LGBT rights in Cuba for nearly a decade and has traveled there twice as the international news editor for the Washington Blade.
“On one hand the government tolerates LGBT rights, but aside from Mariela Castro they’re not waving the rainbow flag in Havana,” Lavers told AQ.
Some Cubans are also skeptical of the praise Mariela Castro has received. Vivero said that the picture isn’t so rosy for activists outside of Mariela Castro’s circle, since without freedom of association in Cuba, small independent LGBT groups have a hard time organizing. Furthermore, Vivero told AQ, her activism is too top-down, and “tries to take away, and blur, that aspect of rebellion and resistance that the LGBT movement has had since its inception.”
And despite improvements, there is much left to be done. Lavers said he has documented multiple instances of LGBT activists being harassed or detained by the state, not expressly for their sexuality, but for criticizing the government.
In a story reminiscent of Arenas’ struggles four decades ago, Vivero told AQ that he was detained and held for three days in October. Vivero recalled Arenas’ imprisonment when recounting his own experience in jail. “How could this happen in Cuba in 2016?” he asked.
According to Vivero, who hopes to one day found Cuba’s first LGBT magazine, his arrest was for producing independent journalism, not for his sexuality. But in a nod to Arenas, he sees little distinction between his writing and his activism. “One isn’t separated from the other,” he said.
In a country where progress for LGBT people is blurred by a restricted political environment, the resilient spirit of activists like Arenas persists.
O’Boyle is an editor for AQ.