Palm Springs man explores Cuba’s gay life

The December isssue of Desert Outlook, the montly LGBT news and culture magazine for the greater Palm Springs area, hits the stands Thursday, Dec. 6.  The new issue includes a revealing look at sex addiction, the myth and magic of Liberace, December and 2013 calendars, our holiday shopping guide, political news and much more.

The Yara Theater is a focal point for young adults seeking nightlife, as LGBT residents and visitors and others gather in front of the building after 11 p.m. Photo by Robert Julian

One of many highlights this month is a travel story on Cuba, the island once forgotten by time. Writer Robert Julian takes us along on his recent visit and explores what life is like there for LGBT Cubans and visitors today. Here’s an excerpt:

On my own the first evening, I loiter across the street from our hotel, in front of the Yara Theater where the gay action begins after 11 p.m. The street crowd is young, mostly in their 20s – a mixture of straight and gay singles and couples. But unlike Rio de Janiero, there is no hint of menace or danger in the air. After a few quick and cordial conversations, I stroll down 23rd Street to the Malecón.

A view of the Malecon and Old Havana. Photo by Robert Julian

This section of 23rd is known as “La Rampa” (the ramp). It is a hub of activity with street vendors selling trinkets and a plethora of prostitutes and rent boys, including a few lesbians and cross-dressers fighting noxious diesel fumes and high humidity. Within 15 minutes, I am approached eight times by guys who express a desire to get to know me better – no doubt for a fee. Conspicuously foreign, I feel like Brad Pitt walking Rodeo Drive, pursued by TMZ. The men talk and walk with me, but I am not a buyer tonight.

At the bottom of the street, the Malecón is packed with young people sitting atop the concrete seawall. The seven-kilometer sidewalk of the Malecón is the city’s living room – the place where residents spend outdoor evenings free of charge. On one side of the wall there is the ocean. Across a thoroughfare lies the city of Havana. Nearby, there are a few coffee shops, an ice cream parlor, an art museum and a jazz club, but most buildings contain offices closed for the evening.

The Malecon is a hub of activity after dark with residents enjoying a night out and vendors, rent boys and prostitutes selling their wares. Photo by Robert Julian

I take a seat on an elevated sidewalk across from the seawall, beside two lesbians and a few rent boys. On my right is Javier who, at 38, seems as out of place as I am. I learn Javier is a Cuban agricultural engineer who speaks perfect English and has lived in both London and Beirut. He recently came out of the closet, but he still lives with his wife and teenage son who have been understanding and supportive about his coming-out process.

“Dating has been hard for me,” he explains. “It was not easy for me to come to terms with my sexuality.”

Soon two policemen come over to where we are sitting and they begin to question the rent boys. The boys are asked to show their papers and I turn to Javier for an explanation.

“What’s this about?”

“They’re just harassing them. We have a problem with people wanting to leave the provinces where there is no work and come to the capital. You can’t come here for more than 90 days without applying for a permit. They’re checking to see if they are in Havana legally. Many young boys come from the provinces to work as prostitutes.”

“Okay,” I reply, “but the police aren’t rousting the female hookers. They’re just bothering the gay boys.”

“Yes, that’s because Cuba is a male chauvinist society,” Javier replies without hesitation.

This sugar baron’s residence reflects Cuba’s long history as a producer of sugar cane. Photo by Robert Julian

Judging from the laissez-faire attitude of Cubans on the street this evening, the population at large has few problems with homosexuality. Mariela Castro, the daughter of current Cuban President Raul Castro, is now encouraging a dialogue about gay rights in Cuba. She travels internationally meeting with gay rights groups. But although sex reassignment surgery is covered by the Cuban national health program, the discussion of gay rights in Cuba remains in its infancy. Economic concerns are more pressing.

Read the full story in Desert Outlook magazine. See the list of distribution points at www.desertoutlook.com.