Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A door swings open in Cuba's gay scene

A door swings open in Cuba's gay scene

As Castro's grip lessens, Cuban authorities showing more tolerance
toward country's gays and lesbians

HAVANA (Dec 27, 2006)

There was a commotion behind the smoked-glass door. Giggles. Squeals.
Salsa music pulsing.

No one could hear the squat man outside. He stood there pouting, holding
a makeup bag in his left hand, slapping delicately at the door with his
open right hand.

"Ladies, please," the man screamed. "Let me in. Hurrrrrrry."

More men crammed into the foyer with him, each pouting. It was 8:30 p.m.
in Lawton, a dimly lighted neighbourhood far from the centre of Havana,
and it was time for Nayla to come to life.

By day, the impatient man is a waiter at a dreary state-owned cafe. His
name is Jose, and he is a nobody. But in this room, a beauty salon with
a torn red-leather chair and a cracked mirror, he becomes a star. He
becomes Nayla, one of Havana's favourite cross-dressing performers, a
marquee fixture of the underground transvestite scene.

Finally, the door swung open.

"Ay, mommy," said a tall man wearing a foot-high pile of curly wig.
"Come in. Come in."

The men burst into the room, transforming it into a swirl of hugs and
"oh-my-are-you-pretty" exclamations. And joy--pure joy. Jose began

By 8:45, Jose was almost gone, disappearing under a thick glaze of
rouge, and Nayla was taking shape. A heavy stripe of purple eye shadow
finished it. Nayla had arrived.

She -- the pronoun Nayla prefers at this point in the transformation
--stepped back and smiled.

"Aren't I pretty?" she said, pursing her lips and blowing a kiss.

By 9 p.m., the audience was filling the showroom upstairs. Waiters in
tuxedos led the men to their places, situating them around splintering
picnic tables and bare metal chairs. They are the scavenged relics of a
country where there is seldom money to buy anything, and when there is
money, there is seldom anything to buy.

The cabaret they'd come to see has been an on-and-off affair for years.
The haunts of Cuba's gay, lesbian and transgender communities were often
shut down in the bad old days of the 1980s and 1990s, when
discrimination was rampant and arrests -- often for no other cause than
sexual orientation -- were, too.

But things have been improving lately, especially since earlier this
year when Mariela Castro, the niece of ailing Cuban President Fidel
Castro, took up the cause of gay, lesbian and transgender rights. The
men in the audience -- mostly gay -- are feeling bolder. The show they
had come to see is still not legal, but it is tolerated by the authorities.

At 9:30, a 76-year-old man named Gilberto found a spot on a park bench
by the sound system. He is the kind of calm, wise soul who draws a crowd
without saying a word. Soon, young men were drifting over to listen as
Gilberto talked of long-ago loves with a 20-something hunk in tight
black jeans and no shirt.

Gilberto tried New York for a while in the 1960s, he told his friends,
but he came back to Cuba. He missed his lover, a man who married a woman
to avoid persecution.

"I missed the heat," he said with a wry smile.

His friends chuckled at the double meaning.

A waiter whipped past at 10, scrambling down the frayed blue carpeting
on the narrow stairway to get more beer. He hit the landing just as a
rattly, Soviet-era Lada pulled up.

Through some act of contortion, a 250-plus-pound performer squeezed out
of the tiny car's back seat. A man in the foyer jumped in place and
clapped his hands in front of his chest in quick strokes.

"Maridalia!" he shouted.

Maridalia was resplendent, a vision of grace in an ankle-length brocade
gown and red, spiked hair. She smiled and sauntered into the beauty
shop, every bit a star.

"She's very temperamental," said Rafael Sanchez, a Cuban painter who
came by for the show. "Everybody loves her passion onstage."

At 10:15, as Maridalia applied a few last touches of makeup, the stereo
upstairs began to pound out the opening bars to a song of unrequited
love by Rocio Durcal, the late Spanish diva. Rogelio, an off-duty
performer who came to check out the competition, smiled. Durcal is his
muse, the artist he most often channels when he sings at another secret
Cuban cabaret.

A man with a skin-tight T-shirt jumped from his chair at a nearby table.
He started to walk over.

"Oh, here comes 'the Auntie,' " Sanchez said to Rogelio.

The Auntie runs his own cabaret. He's a big talker and a big spender --
showing up at performances with a fanny pack full of Cuban pesos to dole

"Sing, sing, sing" the Auntie implored Rogelio.

Rogelio blushed. "You're such a sweetie," he said. "Not tonight."

A half-hour later, at 10:45, the lights dimmed and Maridalia came
onstage. She flung out her arms and let loose in a deep, window-rattling

"Learn to walk in complete darkness," she moaned, rousing the crowd with
a Venezuelan tear-jerker.

The Auntie couldn't contain himself. He raced onto the stage and stuffed
bills in Maridalia's brassiere. She smiled, glowing in the spotlight,
and called back to him, "I am the lady of Cuba's gays!"

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