HAVANA, Dec. 10th (CNN) As Cuba opens its doors to American visitors, the government is encouraging more gay tourism. After decades of persecution, new laws to protect LGBT rights mark a dramatic turnaround for the Castro regime.
The show goes on at 2:00AM. Havana’s drag queen cabaret. Lip syncing six nights a week as cocktails flow and crowds grow. Cuba’s underground gay scene slowly becoming mainstream. A new club, the latest to openly cater to LGBT customers.
“Now there’s a boom. All the bars want to have drag queens,” says Kiriam, who began performing in secret 21 years ago. She takes us to a tiny dressing room packed with female impersonators. Some do drag full time.
“Ten years ago,” she says, “we might have been scared to perform or even to meet in certain places.”
A decade ago, Cubans could still go to prison for public displays of homosexuality. In the 1960’s and 70’s, the Castro regime persecuted sexual minorities, sending some people to labor camps. In recent years, Fidel Castro himself has admitted responsibility for the quote, “great injustice.”
Today, President Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro runs the national center for sex education, Cuba’s only state agency advocating for LGBT rights. Cuba offers free sex change surgery and has among the world’s lowest rates of HIV and AIDs.
Kiriam says she’s a “health promoter.” However, critics say the Cuban government overlooks a huge problem in the LGBT community. Prostitution is rampant at gay cruising spots like the Malecon here in Havana. It really surged during the Cuban economic crisis around 20 years ago and continues today. The reason? Money.
Sex workers catering to foreigners can earn more in a single night than a Cuban doctor makes in a month. Several men we spoke to say “gay for pay” is one of many issues ignored by Cuba’s mainstream LGBT activists.
Raiko Pin Nuñez, a Cuban blogger, says it’s still complicated to be openly gay on the communist-run island, “For example, if I walked down the street right now holding my partner’s hand it would not be taken well. People would stare, make comments.”
The topic is so sensitive, pin asks us to interview him away from his friends at the public wi-fi hotspot where he runs his own YouTube channel. He says his family accepts him but all of his ex-boyfriends have left Cuba. He says those who stay are still forced to lead “una doble vida” – a double life.
“My dream is to get married, to have kids. To have the same rights as someone who is straight. But here it’s complicated,” said Nuñez.
He dreams of equality. And the end of homophobia that still permeates Cuban society. A dream even the most optimistic LGBT advocates say is likely decades away.