Drag Performance

What’s gay got to do with it?

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient, Andy Melendez Salgado went to Cuba in July 2018, to interview gay men about their sense of community. Andy is a third year doctoral student in Tulane University’s City, Culture, and Community (CCC) program, an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program sponsored by the Department of Sociology, the School of Social Work, and Urban Studies program. His research explores the intersection of resilience and social exclusion in the context of disasters.

Pride in cuba
The annual observance of LGBT Pride is organized and coordinated by the government

Being gay in Cuba is not illegal, and thanks in part to the efforts of the National Center for Sex Education, which is headed by Mariela Castro, former President Raúl Castro’s daughter, discrimination has been decreasing since the 1990s. However the cultural norm of polarized sex roles still lead to the harassment of gay people who do not conform to some heteronormative behavior. Though Cuba is not an outlier in its attitudes towards homosexuality (certainly, in the Caribbean region, Jamaica would be considered much worse), what makes Cuba an interesting case study is how Cuban culture prioritizes a collective sense of community over individual identity. I was curious what this meant for a group of people who appear to have to live a “don’t ask-don’t tell” kind of life. Can we talk about a “gay community” if being openly gay could further isolate you?

To try to understand this better, I spent three weeks in Cuba conducting semi-structured interviews with self-identified gay men. Over the course of my trip, I was able to interview 32 men (21 from urban centers and 11 from rural areas) with ages ranging between 20-65. Because I wanted to use this opportunity to explore the feasibility of doing my dissertation work, the interviews explored how a core concept of resilience (social support network) has developed for this marginalized group.

Though there is still a need to do in-depth analysis of the data collected (transcribing and analyzing 32 interviews is a slow and laborious process), preliminary analysis yields some interesting observations:

  • Broadly speaking, gay men in Cuba do not form social networks based on a shared identity.
    • Social networks tended to be formed based on shared history and geographical proximity.
  • “Community” was roughly defined by respondent as being a socially cohesive group that provided mutual support.
    • Most respondents did not feel that there was a “gay community” in Cuba.
      • All the urban respondents felt there was no shared community among gay men, while the majority or rural respondents believed there was a gay community because there were gay bars in urban areas, and there was a pride parade celebrated every year.
        • The response by rural men did not align to their conceptualization of ‘community.
fear of being outed
Conducting interviews with gay men in Cuba was a rewarding challenge

This is important, because in most policies and programs “community” implies a social network based on a shared identity (gay community, black community, Tulane community) but if social support networks are not grounded in these shared identities then defining ‘community in the context of disaster resilience’ is necessary for effective resilience building approaches. There is a need to redefine and reconceptualize how we think and use “community.” This research has put into question the notion of identity-based constructs of community which are pervasive in many policies and programs. This highlights the need to understand the characteristics of social support networks and sense of community for marginalized communities. Understanding how gay men in Cuba form social support networks and develop sense of community within their cultural context help us to better understand what resilient coping strategies for marginalized groups in resource poor settings are.