JUST WHEN YOU REFLECT on how bad things have been for gays in the United States, something reminds you how much worse it could be. Not long ago, a small town in Mexico barred "dogs and homosexuals" from the local beach. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has banned gays from his country's book fairs and publicly calls us "dogs." In some Islamic countries, homosexual acts are still punishable by death. It puts in perspective Congress' failure to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Now comes the Oscar-nominated film Before Night Falls to expose the horrific denial of individual rights in Cuba since Fidel Castro seized power 42 years ago. A few stalwart admirers of Castro in the U.S. have demonstrated against the film (which is, if anything, too easy on the dictator). One protestor told a newspaper that, while he hadn't actually seen the movie, he had been informed it contained "lies" about Cuba. The irony is that such unauthorized protest in Cuba itself would have landed him in jail.
Directed by Julian Schnabel, Before Night Falls chronicles the life of the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (played superbly by Javier Bardem). Arenas, born into poverty in 1948, initially supported the Cuban revolution with its promises of free education and medical care. His first book even won a prize from Castro's cultural watchdogs.
But the romance of revolution soon died. One of the regime's first acts was to prohibit assemblies of more than three people. The news media quickly came under state control. The government recruited a network of spies in neighborhoods across the country to report dissident activity. Those who dared to criticize the government - even if they were generally sympathetic to communism - were imprisoned. Denounced as "counter-revolutionaries," some were forced to admit guilt for their political "crimes" against the state in show trials worthy of Stalin.
The Castro regime has also been ferociously anti-gay. As early as 1965, the Cuban government began sending homosexuals to prison farms and labor camps where they were brutally mistreated. According to early gay-rights activist Frank Kameny, newspaper accounts of these camps triggered the first pickets in front of the White House by gays, who held up signs asking, "Cuba persecutes gays; Is the U.S. much better?" Repression in Cuba was thus used to shame the U.S. government into treating gays more tolerantly.
Nevertheless, in the 1960s and 1970s Castro had his devotees among American gay civil rights activists allied with the New Left. Some even went annually to Cuba as part of the "Venceremos Brigade" (VB) to help harvest the country's sugar cane crop.
While assistance was welcome, officials openly worried about the inclusion of gay Americans in the VB. A 1972 policy statement described gay Americans as "particularly dangerous at this time because they join a cultural imperialist offensive against the Cuban revolution."
The same policy statement denounced homosexuality within the country as "a social pathology which reflects leftover bourgeois decadence" that "has no place in the formation of the New Man which Cuba is building." In other words, homosexuality was an artifact of capitalism that had to be purged.
Arenas himself felt this turn of the screws. As an associate informed him, the Castro government distrusted artists and writers because they create beauty and totalitarians cannot control beauty. Arenas' work was soon censored by authorities. He was forced to rely on literary admirers to smuggle his manuscripts out of the country for publication. Arenas and his circle of gay intellectual friends were closely watched by informers and frequently harassed by police.
Before long, Arenas was imprisoned on false charges of molesting a child. After managing to escape, he was captured and returned to prison, where he was tortured and placed in solitary confinement.
Such experiences have not been unusual for gay Cubans under Castro's rule. In 1970, an anonymous group of gay Cubans managed to sneak out a letter to gay civil rights activists in the United States. In the letter, they revealed how Cuban authorities persecuted gays through methods ranging from "physical attack to attempts to impose psychic and moral disintegration upon gay people." These facts, the letter noted, were "quite in contradiction with the success stories being told abroad" by some of Castro's left-wing gay apologists.
Of course, life for gays in the U.S. was no picnic in the 1960s and early 1970s. But the deprivations, punishments, and denials of basic liberties in Cuba went far beyond anything experienced here. As the gay Cubans' letter concluded: "If in a consumption society, run by capitalists and oligarchs, like the one you are living in, homosexuals experience suffering and limitations, in our society, labeled Marxist and revolutionary, it is worse."
Arenas tried desperately to escape his nightmarish country, once attempting unsuccessfully to float to Florida on an inner tube. Others have used makeshift rafts and even balloons for the same purpose. Arenas himself finally fled to the United States during the 1980 Mariel boat-lift along with thousands of other "criminals," including many gay Cubans, released by Castro.
So while we bemoan the remaining barriers to full equality in the U.S., we are fortunate to live in a country where the basic guarantees of free speech, free press, assembly, and due process apply even to us. As bad as it might seem sometimes, nobody is jumping on driftwood in the open seas to get out.