It was 20 years ago when I first reported on the state of LGBT life in Cuba, and the differences between then and now could not be more apparent.

Start with the procedure to arrange my travel to the island nation. In 1997, as an out LGBT journalist, I received no assistance from the U.S. government — except the warning that I could have trouble re-entering the United States, since the U.S. government might not recognize LGBT reporters as legitimate journalists.

As for Cuba, its embassy refused to return calls.

As with most Cuba-bound Americans, I had to travel via Mexico and arrange hotel and other necessities through third- and fourth-party connections. At times, it was almost cloak-and-dagger.

Today, travel protocols made my arrangements vastly easier than 20 years ago. The Cuban Embassy not only sped up my visa, it arranged for me to have official Cuban press credentials, which it also did for other U.S. LGBT media on the same trip.

That ease of entry symbolizes Cuba’s attempt to open its society — and go after the lucrative LGBT tourism market.

My trip could not have been timed better, since Cuba was about to commemorate the 10th annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, spearheaded in the country by the Cuban National Center for Sex Education. CENESEX is headed by Mariela Castro, the daughter of the current president of Cuba and niece to its former president, Fidel Castro.

Understanding religion’s role

My first evening’s dinner was spent with an old friend and U.S. gay pioneer, the Rev. Troy Perry of the LGBT-inclusive Metropolitan Community Church, who was scheduled to receive an award from CENESEX.

We dined with members of his Cuban church, whose pastor is Elaine Saralegui, an out lesbian from Matanzas, Cuba. Their work holds a mirror up to the religious complexity of the Cuban people.

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Cuban National Center for Sex Education is headed by Mariela Castro, the daughter of the current president of Cuba and niece to its former president, Fidel Castro.

The Roman Catholic Church estimates that 60–70 percent of Cubans identify as Catholic, with Protestants — like MCC members — making up only about 5 percent. Many from both denominations also embrace practices of the African-Caribbean Santería faith.

As the country opens its doors even farther, U.S. fundamentalists are looking for influence and to proselytize — not a good omen for LGBT Cubans.

But Perry’s church has a distinction: It is the first official non-government LGBT organization in Cuba. Perry takes pride in stating that Cuba now becomes the 34th nation with MCC churches.

The distinctions and progress don’t end there. Perry says that while the Catholic Church in Cuba imports its priests from other Latin countries, all MCC churches will have Cuban-born ministers.

The first is Saralegui, making her the first out lesbian activist in Cuba. She says, with a grin, that she identifies as an LGBT Christian activist.

Saralegui was inspired by Perry’s work two years ago and asked her bishop about creating a church for LGBT people. A few disagreements later, MCC Matanzas — a city that considers itself Cuba’s art capital — became Cuba’s first out church.

When she’s not tending the church, Saralegui travels the country performing liturgies for LGBT Cubans and anyone else who wants to hear her message of inclusion.

“I want our community to be proud,” she says with a smile through a translator.

When I ask her if she’s had any issues from members of the LGBT community about her activism, she smiles broadly and states, “Some don’t believe you can be Christian and gay.”

Overcoming Cuba’s dark past

Cuba’s past often clashes with its present — and the government’s relative embrace of the LGBT community today belies its shameful past.

Meet Luis. Now 74, he survived one of Cuba’s labor camps for gay men in the 1960s. At 16, Luis was taken to a camp, which was apparently unsurprising since, he smiles and says, “Everyone in my neighborhood said I was that way.” He soon discovered what his time in detention would comprise: “The second day they yelled and yelled at me, ‘Be a man, be a man.’ All day.

“They never hit those of us in the camps; they only spoke at us.”

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Luis, a survivor of a Cuban labor camp for gay men, holds his papers from 1964.

On most days, the men had to sit through what today we’d call re-programming. “They had signs everywhere: ‘The revolution needs men.’ And they kept telling us we had to be men and gay people were not men.” They also heard frequently from the psychologist camp officials brought in from Havana.

In another attempt at reeducation, the men were put to work.

According to Luis, there were many camps and each held about 120 men. The hard physical labor was supposed to make one a hard (read: straight) man.

As to numbers, Luis tells me several thousand gay inmates were housed in a section of Cuba far from Havana.

Luis is not clear about how he left the camp, but he knows what he did afterward.

“My old life was no more and I couldn’t go home or get work so I went to the capital,” he recalled. “I told them I lost my papers and was given new papers; they never knew about my past life.”

He studied and became a technical draftsman. He found love, and settled into life.

The government used to deny it had such camps, but before his death, Fidel Castro admitted it and apologized. Luis, a short, jovial man, wanted a personal apology and he eventually received it from another Castro — CENESEX’s Mariela.

When I ask what he thinks the future holds for Cuba’s LGBT community, he shrugs and says he’s “hopeful.” He wants people not to forget their history, but he doesn’t want that connection to the past to impede progress.

It’s a hard line he walks, but he does it with a joyous style.

A couple of days later I watched him dancing at the CENESEX rally, doing a rhumba with his friends. Luis was enjoying life and its new freedoms, but never letting go of those memories of a different time.

Nascent LGBT tourism industry

The reality is that you can’t judge Cuba on its treatment of LGBT people in the past. Louis wants to live for today, and in today’s Cuba, at least for the LGBT community, things have changed.

My tour guide, Leandro Velazco, says of LGBT tourism: “We have bars, nightly ‘inclusion’ parties, a couple of good restaurants, a state-run LGBT organization, occasional festivals and even Grindr.” When I look quizzically at him, he tells me about something called Planet Romeo, which he said was the first LGBT social-networking site to hit Cuba several years ago. His business, GaytoursHavana.com, like many in Cuba, is adjusting to the internet, hoping that the promise of LGBT tourism in Cuba becomes a reality.

I thought of that as I marched in the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia rally, along with almost 1,000 Cubans. They shouted socialist slogans peppered with “End Homophobia and Transphobia Now.” There were no corporate sponsors, and it looked more like a gay Pride celebration than a march of defiance. At the rally, there were a few speeches and then a dance and festival. CENESEX used the event for HIV education, condom distribution and testing.

There’s no question Cuba wants to get into the gay tourism game. There are at least four LGBT tour-guide sites on the web and numerous individuals and travel groups in the United States who specialize in LGBT Cuban tourism.

Cuba is home to great weather, beaches, mountains, incredible colonial architecture and some of the most hospitable people you’ll ever meet. It also sometimes seems the country is in a time capsule.

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That can be a curse or a charm.

The old Buicks and Chevys are an example. They’re charming, but their prevalence reminds visitors that new cars are out of reach for many Cubans — although that has begun to change, as has the hospitality industry, which languished for years. On the way to the airport, you notice parking lots full of new taxis and tour buses waiting for the explosion of tourists.

Cubans call their country “The Pearl of the Caribbean,” but that pearl is still trapped by the U.S. embargo. It’s a touchy subject here — some claim the embargo is keeping this country in economic turmoil, while others say it is the government’s political repression that stifles Cuba.

Either way, it wreaks havoc on tourism. There is not one place in all of Cuba that you can use an American credit card. Therefore, cash is a requirement. How many Americans want to travel with a wad of cash in their pockets?

Still, Cubans themselves say they want change — and no longer to feel like pawns of two governments.

This article originally appeared in Phildelphia Gay News.

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