Whenever I talk to my American friends about Cuba, I inevitably get drawn into a discussion about human rights.
They know I’m a huge fan of the country and the people, and that I even applaude some of Castro’s less-controversial (so less known) moves, such healthcare reforms and nature conservation efforts.
A heated debate usually ensues after I offer my opinion that not everything is black and white.
The conversation usually gets steered toward gays in Cuba. Today, the country is slowly developing into an LGBTIQ-friendly destination. Well, friendly might be too strong of a word – LGBTIQ-amicable destination, especially given the fact that ‘pink dollars’ are a strong currency pretty much anywhere in the world.
However, my American friends will quickly point out that gays in Cuba have been oppressed for decades and that there was very little in the way of apology offered to them.
Let me just say this – they are true.
Lesbians and gays in Cuba have been victimised throughout history. However, so was anyone else who was deemed ‘the enemy’ by Castro’s regime. Luckily, the attitudes are changing rapidly.
While still not the hottest destination for gays in the world, Cuba is making great strides when it comes to that area and, generally, the country is going in the right direction.
So, if you’re an LGBTIQ person and want to visit Cuba with your spouse or your partner, there’s nothing to be afraid of. There are countries in Europe that are struggling far more – Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland, just to name a few.
LGBTIQ Americans are visiting Cuba in bigger numbers since 2014, and very few incidents have been reported.
Gays in Cuba – A Stroll Through History
As I said, I won’t deny that there were some serious (and horrible) goings on in Cuba in the past concerning gays and gay rights. Here’s what Fidel Castro had to say about the Cuban LGBTIQ population way back in 1965: “We would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary, a true communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant communist should be.”
Gays were routinely rounded up and imprisoned. They were mistreated and forced to work in labor camps called UMAP until they were either forgotten, banished out of the country, or killed.
However, when you think about it, the 1960ies were not very enlightened anywhere else in the world, either.
Terrible things happened to gay people all over the world and it would be a disservice to tar Cuba with a darker brush, at least in that respect. Castro apologized about the UMAP camps during an interview in 2010 – fat a lot of good that did, but at least it showed that attitudes were changing.
The 90ies were when things started to turn around. There was more discussion about gay rights and homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997.
Cuba also started granting free gender-reassignment surgeries in 2008 to citizens who qualified – something a lot of 1st world countries have yet to do. In 2012, the country also elected its first transgender member of the parliament, Adela Hernandez.
So, as you can see, things ARE moving forward so don’t let anyone tell you they are not. Mariela Castro-Espin, Raul’s daughter and Fidel’s niece, has been spearheading the fight for gay rights in Cuba for years now and is the closest thing to a poster face that the equality movement there has.
Also, one of Cuba’s hottest exports is a vocal group called Mano a Mano – five gay guys who have been touring the world, changing people’s perceptions about Cuba with every live show.
Cuba is still influenced by catholicism and is very much a macho culture – despite the fact that you can see men and women caressing each other or holding hands in the streets (more of a culture thing than anything else, really).
However, I’ve never heard of a recent case where someone was beaten up or harassed because of their sexual orientation – especially if we’re talking about tourists.
Gays in Cuba – Where the Heck Can You Go Out and Have Fun?
Now that I’ve bored you to death with rights gays have (or don’t have) in Cuba, it’s time to move on to a lighter subject.
As I’ve said, visiting Cuba as an LGBTIQ person is as safe as visiting 90% of other countries – and even safer than some. Havana and Santa Clara are hotspots of gay activity on the island so make sure to visit them if you’re interested in the Cuban gay scene.
Here’s where to go if you’re a gay person on vacation in Havana:
Cabaret Las Vegas, Infanta between Calle 25 and Calle 27
Cabaret Las Vegas is a club that opens its doors at around 11pm. You’ll find locals and tourists here – the first group looking for an authentic Cuban gay experience and the second group trying to pick up a tourist and get a drink or two for free. Usual entertainment includes dancing, comedy, and drag shows. The hottest nights are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and the entrance fee is 3CUC – a fairly standard rate in Havana for clubs (expensive for locals but more than a bargain for tourists).
Proyecto Divino, Avenida Paseo and 39, Vedado
One of the rare gay places in Cuba recognized by the government and sponsored by the CENESEX (National Center for Sex Education), Proyecto Divino is a space that opens its doors at 10 in the evening and closes early the following morning. It features drag shows, stip and fashion shows, and dancers in high heels. Admittance is 3CUC and parties tend to get wild. This place is visited by both tourists and locals.
Humboldt 53, between Infanta and Hospital
This is a very lively place with a wide variety of drinks and cocktails on offer. It’s a fun place to hang out in regardless of your orientation but the patrons are predominantly gay or bisexual. Wednesday’s used to feature an opera duo performance (not sure if that’s still the case), which is amazing. Other nights are a mix between karaoke and drag shows. People here tend to dance the night away as there’s a big dance floor smack bang in the middle in the middle of the club – if you’re looking for some hot salsa dancing, this is the place.
Centro Vasco, Calle 3ra, esquina 4, Vedado
Calling this place a true gay bar would be a bit of a stretch – it’s a place where open-minded people hang out and has a pretty high gay-to-straight ratio of patrons. It opened in 1954 as a restaurant and it’s been through various remodels in between. The interior is slightly underwhelming and unimpressive but the variety of shows that are put on certainly isn’t.
If you’re not of a gay bar variety, there are plenty of other options in Havana where you can hang out.
La Rampa (as the 23rd Street in Vedado is called) could be called a gay cruising area and it sees a lot of locals and tourists every night. The Malecon seawall is another option – the unofficial gay stretch of the walkway extends from the edge of Prado, all the way up to Hotel National.
However, despite a good number of gay-friendly places, Havana isn’t the ‘gayest’ city in Cuba. That honorable title belongs to Santa Clara, a town located southeast of the capital (it’s a good 4-hour drive, mind you).
Club Mejunje in Santa Clara has been opened for 25 years and it’s a meeting point for queer, straight, and other individuals, both foreign and local.
It was opened by Ramon Silverio, an important Cuban cultural figure, and up until recently the aptly named Mixture (Mejunje) was the only official gay bar in Cuba.
Gay Beaches in Cuba
When a country has over 400 beaches, you’d expect at least couple of them to be geared towards gay tourists, right? Well, that’s not the case in Cuba. There is only one ‘officially’ unofficial gay beach in Cuba and that one is located some 15 kilometers from Havana.
Mi Cayito beach managed to build quite a reputation in the gay community and is one of the key locations gay tourists traveling to Cuba visit. The beach is relatively clean and gets a lot of visits – beach bar and snack court are almost always full to the brim. The easiest way to get there is with a cab ($15 in one direction).
The other option is the cheaper hop on hop off bus but you have to let the driver know where you want to get off.
Other beaches are mostly gay-friendly, although they do not cater exclusively to the gay population. Pretty much all resorts in Cuba are also gay-friendly.
The Varadero area is full of resorts that are oriented toward families but it’s not unusual to see gay couples holding hands on the beach. Needless to say, no one is giving them a hard time about it.
The Final Verdict
Go! To! Cuba!
If the only thing holding you back is the fact that you’re gay and don’t know how that would influence your trip, I’d say you have nothing to worry about.
Gays in Cuba are living relatively normal lives – carrying on with their business, dating, working, and having fun – especially gay tourists.
If you have something to share regarding Cuba (specifically being gay in Cuba) don’t hesitate to drop me a message or to write a comment. I’d love to hear some first-hand stories about this issue – positive ones would be great but I’ll also take cautionary tales if you have any.