Von Diaz on Latino USA: The Struggle of Lesbians in Cuba


OREMI. (Photo: Von Diaz)

In the first few years after the Cuban revolution in 1959, the government wanted to wipe out homosexuality. The Cuban state targeted homosexuals and defined them as dangerous, antisocial counterrevolutionaries.

In summer 2011 reporter Von Diaz traveled to Cuba to do an oral history project with lesbians who lived through the early years of the Revolution. She found that lesbians who remained in Cuba were thrust into the shadows, but they found ways to maintain their identity, even as they risked being jailed or socially marginalized.

Listen to the story reporter Von Diaz produced about Cuban lesbians for our radio partner Latino USA:

[audio: vondiaz_lesbiancubans.mp3]

(Skip to 11:30 to hear Von’s story directly)

Von Diaz’s Reporter’s Notebook:

Reporting in Cuba is extremely difficult. Foreign journalists are required to have specific visas, which are expensive and hard to get. Most independent reporters work undercover, few daring to interview people openly on the streets.

My interview subjects were initially suspicious of me, and I often had to meet with women several times before they would grant me an interview. But the experience I ultimately had with these women was transformative, particularly the women who had lived most of their lives in the closet. Being forced to hide your sexual identity is not unique to Cuba, but Cuba is among those countries where being openly gay can land you in prison.

In reviewing the diary I kept while in Cuba, I found this excerpt from the day I met Rosa, one of my interview subjects.

“She started out by telling me that her partner wants to become a jinetera (or prostitute) because their economic situation is so desperate. She “no esta de acuerdo,” (doesn’t agree) and so they’ll likely break up.

After our interview, I invited her to eat something. It was interesting to walk down the street with her. Everyone looked at her, people make comments. Security guards in particular looked at her intensely, people sitting at the restaurant gave her terrible looks, and the server did not treat us very well.”

A gay and lesbian meeting spot in Cuba

A gay and lesbian meeting spot in Cuba. (Photo: Von Diaz)

Despite recent changes in Cuba, homophobia continues. Several films, including Fresa y Chocolate and Julian Schnabel’s film Before Night Falls about the late writer Reinaldo Arenas, address the experiences of gay men in Cuba, but there is no such equivalent for Cuban lesbians.

I am still in touch with the two women I interviewed for this piece. Internet access is very limited in Cuba, and Rosa doesn’t own a phone, so it’s difficult to get in touch. But at least once a month I receive an email from them, checking in to see how I am, and giving me an update on their lives.

My radio piece is not intended as a critique of the Cuban Communist government, but rather to be a snapshot of a community that often goes overlooked. I hope to connect the experiences of these Cuban lesbians with those who are persecuted in other parts of the world.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

AboutVon Diaz
Von Diaz is a writer and radio producer based in New York City. She is a self-taught cook who explores Puerto Rican food, culture, and identity through memoir and multimedia. Her work has been featured on NPR, American Public Media, StoryCorps, WNYC, PRI’s The World, BuzzFeed, Colorlines, and Feet in 2 Worlds. Von has an M.A. in journalism and Latin American and Caribbean studies from New York University. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, she earned a B.A. in Women’s Studies and focused her research on women in Latin America. She is a currently a producer at StoryCorps, and previously worked in community advocacy and communications for nonprofits focused on women, children, art, and Latino culture.