LGBT holidays in Cuba

Cuba is one of the most open minded Caribbean islands, and indeed is considered safe for same sex couples and transgender travellers. This has not always been the case, as the island’s horrific history of forced labour camps – as well as the many LGBT people who fled the regime – demonstrate, and there is still a long way to go before equality is achieved. But for now, at least, Cuba is heading in the right direction.
Cuba legalised same sex sexual activity in 1979. Until early 2019, the Cuban Constitution did not recognise gay marriage or civil unions. There was a proposal in 2018 to amend the language referring to marriage being between ‘a man and a woman’, but this was rejected following objections, largely from evangelical church groups. Instead, this section was removed entirely – neither prohibiting nor promoting same sex unions – a move which is seen as positive by gay campaign groups.
Workplace discrimination on the basis of homosexuality is illegal, but Cuba’s anti discrimination laws do not extend to other areas of society, such as housing or education. This is expected to change in the new 2019 Constitution, which would ban discrimination due to gender, identity, sexual orientation, HIV status and more. Transsexuals are recognised in Cuba; sex reassignment surgery has been available, free of charge, since 2008.

History of LGBT rights in Cuba

Cuba may be politically leftwing, but it is socially conservative. For all its love of the arts, of dance, of colour and beauty, this island is staunchly machista, with strongly defined gender roles. As well as its many cultural influences – Caribbean, Latin American, African, Catholicism, all of which tend to lean towards the patriarchal – Cuba has communism and its revolutionary history to contend with.

The revolt against imperialism was won in 1959 by ultra masculine characters – think combat boots, unkempt beards and fat cigars in the jungle – and this vision of manhood became representative of Cuba’s proud national identity following La Revolución. What’s more, homosexuality was viewed in some circles as an example of capitalist decadence – or ‘ideological diversionism’ to use the phrase coined by Raúl Castro – that perpetuated ‘bourgeois’ values unpalatable in the new, Communist Cuba.

Homosexuality was not actually legal in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Indeed, prison sentences could be handed out to anyone deemed to be "flaunting his homosexuality in public". However, the island’s somewhat decadent reputation drew North American visitors in search of a wild weekend away, or on excursions from docking cruise ships. Along with the many visiting servicemen and sailors, these tourists created a thriving market – straight and gay – for prostitutes. A handful of gay bars existed at this time, but prostitution would have been one of the most visible forms of homosexuality, and as the brothels, bars and casinos that promoted it were largely controlled by US-based criminals, sex workers, gambling and organised crime were inextricably entwined.
Castro, Che and comrades were determined to overthrow Western capitalism, imperialism and all their associated ‘vulgar’ excesses. Prostitution and homosexuality were lumped together with the mafia bosses, nude cabarets and corruption. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, gay men were widely persecuted. They lost their jobs and were expelled from the Communist Party; students were thrown off their courses and in some cases contact with children was forbidden. Anyone considered vaguely effeminate was a target; the Party’s paranoia about ‘dissent’ saw men arrested simply for having overly tight clothes or long hair. Castro once referred to gay men as "agents of imperialism"; this may, ironically, have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fed up with the persecution, many LGBT Cubans did begin to work covertly against the regime, some encouraged by the CIA; this was the era of the Cold, War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and paranoia levels were high on all sides.
One of the most horrific features of this period were the so-called ‘rehabilitation camps’ – effectively forced labour camps which were set up to ‘correct’ any form of ‘deviance’, and while this wasn’t exclusively limited to LGBT people, the camps were known to target gay men as officials unleashed their homophobia on them. They were forced to work outdoors in the hot Caribbean sun, performing strenuous tasks, with shaved heads and surviving on paltry meals.
Towards the end of the 1970s attitudes towards the LGBT community began to soften, and homosexuality was decriminalised in 1979. The Ministry of Culture spoke up to defend same sex relationships in 1981. In 1988 Fidel Castro himself publicly criticised the country’s homophobic past, and the police were ordered not to harass LGBT people. It wasn’t until 2010, however, that Castro finally took full responsibility for the labour camps and their persecution of homosexuals.

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Attitudes towards the
LGBT community

Change in Cuba moves at glacial pace. Vintage cars continue to shudder down streets lined with flaking, colonial buildings, and the machista attitudes are still a bit of a shock to first-time tourists. Yet just as WiFi hotspots are popping up on street corners and flat screen TVs can be glimpsed through the windows of family homes, so too are gay bars beginning to open up, and same sex couples may be seen walking hand in hand down the street. Havana has a weekly gay show, and there are gay friendly beaches.

In Havana in particular, there is a growing gay scene; one consequence of Cuba’s limited internet access (read: dating apps), which means that face to face encounters are still very much the norm when it comes to meeting partners of any orientation.

You may well see gay couples in the street, as well as transgender people, thanks to the availability of reassignment surgery (and of Cuba’s famously excellent healthcare service), and transvestites – all accelerating the ‘normalisation’ of LGBT culture in Cuban society. Lesbians remain less visible. LGBT rights also have a high profile advocate: Mariela Castro, daughter of former president Raúl. She heads the state-run National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX) which promotes education on sex, sexuality and gender, and campaigns for AIDS prevention. Heterosexual and married with children, Mariela supports the amendment to allow same sex marriage, and proposed the measures which allowed transgender people to receive reassignment surgery; her work has undoubtedly benefitted the LGBT community.
However, some onlookers have seen Mariela’s spearheading of LGBT campaigns as an attempt by the government to take ownership of this movement. While the Cuban government’s policies have softened somewhat in recent years, it remains a dictatorship. It does not tolerate dissent, and after six decades of authoritarian rule, it is not accustomed to it. Placing its own candidate – and one with the surname Castro at that (about as ‘establishment’ as you can get in Cuba) – at the forefront of the LGBT rights movement can be seen as a shrewd move. Indeed, while the country celebrates the WHO’s International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) each year with two weeks of parades, lectures, plays, exhibitions and concerts, it does so only through official events – organised by the government, of course. Pride Week, on the other hand, is not recognised by the government, and Cubans are not permitted to celebrate it.
A report by the publication Foreign Policy quotes a gay Cuban who claims “We live under constant government surveillance and harassment, while at the same time being manipulated for... political purposes.” A cynical view is that Mariela’s job is not to improve life for LGBT Cubans, rather to improve outsiders’ perception of it. With tourism a significant source of income for the island, it’s in everyone’s favour to keep liberal-minded Westerners on Cuba’s side.

LGBT TRAVEL IN CUBA

While LGBT Cubans are still tiptoeing around the island’s complex relationship with homosexuality, LGBT tourists here should not experience discrimination or harassment. Same sex couples on holiday here will likely feel comfortable being affectionate in public in larger cities; we’d generally avoid full on public displays of affection though, for travellers of all orientations, and be aware that conservative attitudes are more apparent in rural areas.

Most of our holidays in Cuba use casas particulares – rooms in private family homes. These are more intimate than hotels and guesthouses, and LGBT travellers are advised to chat with their holiday company to understand their relationship with the hosts, and ensure that requesting a double room will not be a problem (although in some casas only twin rooms are available anyway). Some casas are owned by gay couples; if your holiday company knows any and can book you in, this can provide a fascinating insight into local LGBT life as well as supporting people who have traditionally suffered from discrimination.
Do be aware that there is still something of a ‘Big Brother’ atmosphere in Cuba, and you should never discuss sensitive subjects (politics, religion, sexuality...) in public spaces – Cubans will feel very uncomfortable if pressed on this. Even within your private casa, it’s advised to introduce subjects gently, and to see how comfortable your hosts are discussing them before posing too many questions. And do refrain from imposing your own views, whatever they may be.
Havana’s gay scene focuses on the culture-heavy Vedado neighbourhood, as well as along the Malecon; the area around Avenida 23 known as La Rampa is a particular hangout, with several gay friendly bars and discos. Mi Cayito beach, a short drive north of Havana, is known as the ‘gay beach’ – ideal for same sex couples who are worried about feeling uncomfortable elsewhere. Special LGBT departures will visit gay bars and Mi Cayito, but also take you to visit CENESEX and have dinner at a restaurant featured in a well known gay Cuban film, Fresa y Chocolate (see below).

LGBT FESTIVALS & CULTURE IN CUBA

Cuba’s biggest LGBT event is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. This commemorates 17 May 1990 when the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental health disorders. In Cuba, events take place over a week or two either side of 17 May. There are parades, exhibitions, performances and symposiums in Havana, and each year a different province is also chosen to host commemorative events. Mariela Castro leads the proceedings.
Cuban cinema has produced several films that discuss attitudes towards its gay community. Most famous is Before Night Falls, an autobiographical account of the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas who was imprisoned in Cuba before escaping to the USA. His original 1992 book is worth a read, as is the 2000 film adaptation starring Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp.
1993’s Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) was the first Cuban film with an openly gay character. It’s a fictional account of a group of friends who explore their gay and straight identities, and discuss the meanings of communism and the revolution.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: torbakhopper] [Topbox: Pedro Szekely] [Cuba under Fidel Castro: Unknown] [Attitudes: Dan Lundberg] [Travel: Ed and Eddie] [Fresa y Chocolate: yosoynuts]
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