On Monday, Nov. 18, Poder Latin@ and the Queer Coalition of Vassar College (QCVC) hosted a lecture called, “From Imprisonment to Acceptance: the GLBT Movement in Cuba,” presented by scholar and PhD candidate at Simmons College of Social Work, Wilfred W. Labiosa.
“This lecture came about after Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, Diane Harriford, received the opportunity to travel to Cuba with Wilfred Labiosa this past May,” explained Poder Latin@ member Jeremy Garza ’14 in an emailed statement. “Upon return from her trip, Na’Imah Petigny, myself, and other executive members of Poder Latin@ decided it would be a wonderful idea to bring Wilfred to Vassar to speak about his dissertation research on the LGBTQ Movement in Cuba.”
Labiosa, originally from Puerto Rico, took an interest in Cuba because people often told him, “Puerto Rico and Cuba are two wings of the same bird.” According to Labiosa, he wanted to explore the other wing. During his time in Cuba, Labiosa worked with the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and its director Mariela Castro Espín, who was also the daughter of the current Cuban president Raúl Castro and the niece of Fidel Castro.
While in Cuba, Labiosa also interviewed survivors of Castro’s concentration camps. These camps, Labiosa explained, were for anyone who was classified as “different”—homosexuals included. Labiosa began the lecture by presenting a short film made by CENESEX highlighting LGBT rights in Cuba. The video displayed footage from Cuba’s 2009 “Day Against Homophobia,” like a parade and drag queen performances. This celebratory footage was intercut with other Cubans berating homosexuality and the LGBT community.
“Obviously, our primary goal in this lecture was education about an extremely progressive and visible queer movement and community in Cuba that has gone from varying extremes. As indicated in the title of the lecture ‘From Imprisonment to Acceptance: the LGBTQ Movement in Cuba,’ there have been revolutionary turns in the attitude and treatment of the LGBTQ community in Cuba, that far surpasses—both in innovation and in loud focus on the transgender community—the movement here in the United States,” Garza admitted.
He continued, “With Queer and Trans people of color comprising the most marginalized individuals both on these camps and in U.S. American society at large, we sought to learn from the experiences and history of the LGBTQ community in Cuba.”
After the video, Labiosa spoke briefly about Cuban history in general, then focused specifically on the history of LGBTQ rights in Cuba. Before and after the Cuban Revolution, he pointed out, homosexuality was considered prostitution and, therefore, a crime. By the 1990s, however, Cuban laws did not mention homosexuality at all.
Labiosa brought up Cuban writer Renaldo Arenas and the film Fresas y Chocolate as two catalysts that brought attention to LGBTQ struggle for social justice in Cuba and elsewhere in the larger world.
Garza noted the connections that were present in this event. “This semester Poder Latin@ has made it a priority to both focus on the intersections of the Latin@ community and to strengthen our ties to with other student organizations on campus through event collaboration,” he said.
He continued, emphasizing the strengths of the event and the speaker. “Furthermore, after both reaching out to Wilfred Labiosa and consulting with Professor Harriford, we decided to also organize a coalition of 12 Vassar students who will travel to Cuba with Wilfred this upcoming May on a special 11 day trip with CENESEX. This is an extremely exciting, educational, and humanitarian trip to Cuba where we will be traveling with Mariela Castro herself (the leader of the LGBTQ movement in Cuba) from Havana all the way to Santiago de Cuba, making several stops along the way as we participate in the Cuban National Campaign Against Homophobia,” he said.
Garza continued, “Besides the educational component of this lecture, we also wanted to advertise about the student organized Vassar trip to Cuba. Before and after the lecture, potential participants of the trip got to meet with Wilfred personally to discuss all the components of the excursion.”
Drury McAlarney ’16 heard about the lecture after receiving an email from QCVC. He said, “I’ve been studying Spanish as a language for a while so I’m interested in what goes on in Latin America and other Spanish-speaking countries, especially in relation to queer issues.”
McAlarney went on to explain, “I know of Reinaldo Arenas and his memoir, but that was the extent of my knowledge of LGBTQ community in Cuba…It was really enlightening.”
McAlarney also compared the policies that exist in the US to those in Cuba. He said, “It’s interesting to learn that in some respects Cuba is more progressive than the United States.”
Dallas Robinson ’15 also appreciated the topic, most notably its ability to discuss issues of sexuality outside of America’s borders. She noted, “International movements about sexuality and progressive thinking towards sex is a wonderful thing. The work Wilfred Labiosa does is important to everyone. Especially people like Vassar students, with our privilege and liberal arts backgrounds we can learn from this work and participate in similar efforts.”
She continued, “I think Labiosa presented a new image of Cuba. I had no idea of the LGBTQ scene there and it sounds so much more progressive than that of the US. I also think trans* issues were highlighted in Wilfred’s lecture, which is great because trans* issues are just starting to take a forefront on campus and in U.S. society.”