The Queen of Havana

Kiriam - the elusive queen of the queers in Havana. A mentor to many young careering transvestites and transsexuals in Cuba, the actress and civil activist leads a daily battle against discrimination, police violence and regular raids of underground queer show clubs - and by night turns into a radiating pulsar of flamboyance and glamour.

Kiriam Gutiérrez, 32, is a national film star and a drag queen.

“I hate human identity and sexual categories. I wish we didn’t need them,” Kiriam puffs.

Her transformation begun with hormonal treatment paid by the government when Kiriam was 14 years old. She begun to dress up as a woman at the age of 16, in 1993, when the attitudes begun to change in Cuba.

“I’m a transvestite, not a transsexual. I use my sexual organs with my boyfriend, but other than that, I want to look like a woman.”

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In 2008 the Cuban Health Ministry approved of a proposal suggested by Castro in 2005, to include transsexuals in public health care provision, and to legalise sex change operations. Public health care in Cuba is free, and now sex change operations carry no charge to customers. This puts Cuba in one leap amongst the most liberal of Latin American countries.

“Many young homosexuals had to quit school because of violence. Even my teachers had no idea what I had to go through,” Kiriam says. The memories still clearly hurt, and she does not want to talk about them more. “Many Cubans would rather wish their children to be criminals than gays.”

In the history of the Cuban revolution, there is one particularly shameful memory: the units founded in 1965 recruited young men deemed unfit to join the armed forces. They were called “Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción” - the productivity assistance units. In the UMAP work camps, Castro directed 25 000 men, among them religious believers, dissidents and homosexuals. At the same time, the Communist Party demanded families to report on children who exhibited homosexual traits. If this was not done, it was considered a crime against the revolution. For Castro, gays did not possess the requirements for behaviour and form that would suit the revolution.

Cuban gays and lesbian organised in 1994, however already in 1997 the police dismantled the association. The Cuban gay community still remembers the August of that same year, when the police arrested and fined 800 people in the El Periquitón club.

Among the partygoers was also the Spanish film directors Pedro Almodóvar and actress Bibi Andersen, as well as the French fashion designer Jean Paul Gautier.

By 2009, Cuban sexual minorities have no own bars, clubs, or magazines. Gay prides were a taboo only until a few years ago. The secret drag clubs of transvestites operate in private homes, but face regular raids by the police. 

Kiriam belongs to a transvestite group that raises awareness on HIV and AIDS on the streets. HIV prevention is one of the key objectives of Cenesex. “Many of my friends have died of HIV. At a Caribbean level, HIV has been reduced a lot in Cuba.”

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Kiriam's boyfriend William, 21, has still not told his family about being bisexual. "I'vebeen gay my whole life, but I'm mortified about telling my mother," he says.

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Kiriam prepares for the night’s drag show. “A good foundation is the most important make-up. It covers the stub.”

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“I’m a transvestite, not a transsexual. I use my sexual organs with my boyfriend, but other than that, I want to look like a woman.”

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Text: Anni Valtonen 

Free translation: Zara Järvinen


Published in Maailman Kuvalehti 2/2009.

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