Cuba's emerging LGBT nightlife comes into focus

  • A group of friends pose for a portrait in the basement of the Havana nightclub Karabali.
  • Nestor Salazar Santiago, 20, a partier at Karabali on a Friday night. 
  • Jose Angel Acosta Lopez, 22, (center) dances with friends at the Echeverria nightclub in Havana.
  • Smoke-machines fill the room with vapor as the night’s performances begin at Karabali for the “Divino” Friday night party.
  • Yosanki Diaz Cabrera, a Cuban who now lives in Mexico, dances at Havana nightclub Karabali. A singer, he says he is in Cuba recording a new album. 
  • Drag performer Sahira performs at the “Divino” night at Havana nightclub Karabali. Drag performers lip-sync to popular romantic songs during performances. 
  • Party-goers dance at an after-hours party in the basement of Havana nightclub Karabali.
  • A young man poses for a portrait at Havana nightclub Karabali. 
  • Mari Iglesia Tito, 22, (left) with her partner Yasmin Sol Vera, 31, outside of Havana nightclub Karabali on a Friday night. “She’s my everything,” says Vera of Tito.
  • Guests leaving Havana nightclub Echeverria wait for taxis at 3 in the morning.
  • Dancers from the Divino project prep for a performance at Havana nightclub Karabali. 
  • A man talks on a cell phone outside of Havana nightclub Las Vegas.
  • A crowd waits outside of the Las Vegas nightclub in Havana, one of the most well known spots for LGBT friendly parties in the city.
  • Two men dance at Cafe Cantante, one of the oldest, biggest, and most popular spots for LGBT parties. “Divino”, one of the most established parties in Havana, has been there since 2010. 
  • A woman takes a cell phone picture of her friend at Havana nightclub La Figura.
  • Drag performer “Alegna” prepares for a show at Havana nightclub La Figura.
  • Backstage at La Figura, a cigar box is used as a make-up case. The thumb drive on top is known as a “memory” in Cuba, and is how most media is passed between people in Cuba, which has extremely limited internet access.
  • Upstairs by the changing rooms at Havana nightclub Las Vegas, a woman stands in a doorway after greeting her friends who are performing in the night’s show. 
  • Transgender woman Jillian, stands under a spotlight at club Karabali. Her nickname with friends is “Beyoncé.”
  • Reydel Reyes Caro, 19, (center) at Havan nightclub Las Vegas for a Wednesday night party. 

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Proving true to the complexities of Cuba’s social and political climates, LGBT nightlife on the island is no less multifaceted.

Regular gay-oriented parties, which started to pop up a little more than five years ago, are held in state-run clubs, but, technically listed as “audio-visual projects,” are not themselves state-run.

Still, despite the ongoing political alterations, there is still a lot of fear in the LGBT community. Same-sex couples don’t typically hold hands in the streets. Even if accepted by their families, partners are typically referred to simply as “friends,” and coming out to the public remains socially tense. It can still be difficult for LGBT people to evade workplace discrimination, as well.

But this isn’t the first time the island’s political landscape has shifted.

Pre-revolution Cuba had several gay-friendly bars but very strict laws criminalizing homosexuality and targeting gay men for harassment. Homosexuality was linked to prostitution, especially in relation to tourism, gambling and crime.

But the 1959 revolution eradicated the profitability that made homosexuality more palatable in Cuban society, and the minimal tolerance that had existed prior to the revolution quickly faded. Homophobia became institutionalized. Suspected LGBT individuals were abused, imprisoned and sent to labor camps— often without a charge or trial.

Cuban President Fidel Castro, while describing his admiration for rural life, once famously said “in the country, there are no homosexuals,” concluding that LGBT people were just agents of imperialism.  

“We would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary, a true Communist militant,” he said. “A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant Communist must be.”

Though same-sex relationships were technically decriminalized in 1979, it wasn’t until 1993 that Fidel Castro publicly stated his opposition to policies against LGBT people. He said that he had come to understand homosexuality as natural and apologized for the many years of maltreatment under his government.

Following the long-time president’s comments, the last two decades have seen a gradual liberalization and slow changes around LGBT issues and rights, albeit not without some major setbacks.

As an example, the Cuban Association of Gays and Lesbians—the island’s only LGBT civil rights association—was formed in 1994, but shut down just three years later, in 1997, ending in the arrest of all 18 founding members.

Though gay marriage is still not legal and alternatives like legally recognized same-sex unions have not yet passed the National Assembly of People’s Power, qualifying Cubans have had access to state-covered sex reassignment surgeries and hormone treatments since 2008. 

In 2013 the island celebrated its first International Day Against Homophobia with a week of drag shows, marches and social and cultural events throughout Havana.

Today, the National Center for Sex Education leads various educational campaigns on LGBT issues. Programs to battle homophobia include HIV education, school classes for students beginning at the age of five and a televised soap opera featuring gay, lesbian and HIV positive people.

Cuban-American photographer Lisette Poole has been documenting the country in transition, in particular the recent months since the United States began taking steps to normalize relations with Cuba.  

Take a look at this portrait of a community that is now asserting itself after decades in the shadows.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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