Reporter Rachel Krantz spent some time in Havana this past fall, and contributed a series of photo essays and stories. We're running one each day this week.
You always call the same phone number to find the party. When someone answers the phone, you always ask the same question:
"Donde esta la fiesta?"
The answer is an address--sometimes familiar, sometimes a new location. But without fail, every weekend, some sort of secret gay party is thrown in Havana, Cuba.
One Friday in Havana, my friend Damian agrees to take me to one. Damian is 23-years-old, Cuban, a filmmaker, and gay. With medium brown skin and a wide, knowing smile, Damian charms most people he meets. Although he only wanted his first name used for print, Damian is open when he talks about what it's like to be young and gay in Cuba.
"The hardest thing is finding a place to have safe sex," Damian says. "It's hard for everyone, but straight guys, they could bring a girlfriend home. I couldn't do that, of course not. My mom doesn't let me, it's forbidden."
Because almost everyone in Cuba lives with their parents until they're married, most parents are relaxed about their kids bringing girlfriends or boyfriends home overnight. But For gay youth, most parents are not so open minded. While Damian's mom knows he's gay, she doesn't like to talk about it or meet his boyfriends.
"The repercussion is terrible," Damian says. "You don't have a safe place anywhere. So you don't feel safe anywhere, with your desire. You're always thinking someone could see you. The police, if you try being in public places."
Under the law, being gay in Cuba is complicated to say the least. Same-sex relationships have only been legal since 1992, and the country has a history of systematic discrimination against gay people. In the 1960's, after the Revolution, homosexuals were declared "sexual deviants" and "agents of imperialism" by Fidel Castro. In the decade that followed, many gay people were sent to labor and re-education camps, where they were held for months or even years by their government.
In the 1980's, people who were HIV positive (gay and straight) were forcibly quarantined and put in sanatoriums in an effort to contain the disease. That policy was relaxed slightly in 1994 to allow people with HIV to live in their homes with government and medical supervision.
Today, while being gay isn't a crime, gay Cubans are more or less legally ignored. Same-sex relationships are not recognized by the government, and even committed couples don't have union or adoption rights.
For Damian, the harshest discrimination comes from the police. He says Cubans are often harassed by the police for public displays of affection under public decency laws.
"The police can't tell you it's illegal to hold a guy's hand, but they can tell you 'this is a public offense, it goes against the public order'", Damian says. "Just what 'public order' means is not clear, it's never been clear."
That lack of clarity is where the secret parties come in. Because there are no official gay clubs, the parties are a place where gay and lesbian people can meet, dance and not worry as much about who's watching.
So why are the parties illegal if being gay technically isn't?
In Cuba, any gathering that collects money has to be approved by the government and is subject to taxation and monitoring. Because the organizers of the secret parties collect a dollar at the door to cover the DJ and drinks, that's what technically makes the parties illegal.
[Continue to Page Two]