Transforming Masculinity in Cuba
Cuba’s relationship with LGBT communities has historically been rocky, but in the last ten years, things have been on the turn. In large part, this is because of CENESEX, the sexual health and education organization run by Mariela Castro, President Raul’s daughter. She has strongly promoted LGBT rights in Cuba, including making gender affirmation surgery available for free and fighting against homophobia. Instead of gay pride events, Cuba has adopted the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT, on May 17) since 2007 as its main awareness-raising event and celebration of LGBT communities. In May 2017, I attended the glamorous televised gala event for the 10th anniversary of IDAHOT in Havana as part of my PhD research.
The show opened with a silky barbershop number, performed by four men in full black tie. When I met four casually-dressed women in their fifties after the show, it was only when they told me they’d performed that I realised it had been them on stage. Off-stage, they are women who identify as lesbian or bisexual. Three are afrocuban, one olive-skinned. Argelia and Ana are a couple, while Niurka’s and Zoe’s girlfriends are the backstage manager and hair and makeup supervisor. They share a warm, familial bond in their art. Together they are the Cuarteto Habana, a transformistas masculinos group, who have been performing around Havana for a few years.
The Cuban transformista scene is firmly established in Havana, with drag queens (transformistas femininos) featured on TV shows, in cabarets aimed at non-LGBT audiences, and as part of weekly shows in gay bars. Kings (transformistas masculinos) are much rarer, but they can be found. The Cuarteto’s first appearance was in a drag competition in Santa Clara, which had no fewer than six masculinos competing, including themselves. So far, the Cuarteto have had a rapturous reception from audiences well accustomed to the in-jokes and traditions of drag. They fit in well in the existing scene, developing fresh interpretations of gender performance and masculinity. The boundaries pushed by the less-familiar masculinos appear to be appreciated by Cuban LGBT audiences.
The Cuarteto dress as men and lipsync and dance to a mix of Cuban ballads, African-infused rhumba, and American boyband songs in Spanish. Their performance is elegant, understated, and reminiscent of old-time crooners. They perform in both community spaces and LGBT-friendly venues, with a different kind of show for each. As with drag queens, they take on male names for the performance, and inhabit this character while they are in costume. They carefully glue their beards, moustaches, and sideburns on, made from strands of their own hair saved from haircuts, and as they dress, begin to inhabit their male personas.
Each member of the Cuarteto draws on different aspects of gender for their performance. Some of them feel masculine in everyday life, and the show is an extension of those aspects of their gender identity. For Niurka, who said she is usually quite masculine, performing as a man allows her to emphasise this and draw out bold, powerful self-expression, which is a source of joy and strength for her. Ana said that her ordinary personality disappears and the male character allows her to become someone different, to behave and act in a way which she wouldn’t typically do. Niurka said she was shy in the workplace, but when her workmates saw her perform, they couldn’t believe it was the same person who finds it difficult to manage a meeting. Certainly for the shyer members, taking on an alter ego or character is an opportunity to embrace deep elements of their personality and enjoy them. Argelia said that “I have always tried to teach them that inside of them is a man and when we perform what we are doing is releasing him. The character comes from me.”
An intriguing aspect of the Cuarteto is that they have chosen to perform as a group, rather than individually; drag queen culture in Havana traditionally consists of solo performers. When I asked the Cuarteto about this choice, they said that performing together provides them with support and solidarity, and that they draw strength from the shared experience. Occasionally, members of the Cuarteto will be invited to perform a duet with a queen during a cabaret, but Argelia drily notes that the queen “is always the star.” She also highlighted that the hair and clothes and makeup of the queens is much more dramatic than the kings, so they increase their stage presence by including more performers: “queens… have strong moves and fashionable clothes, and one queen can make the whole spectacle herself, but we are like men, we cannot move like this… you have to find alternatives and options, that’s why we have different formats.”
Alongside their artistic contribution, the Cuarteto’s performances contain an important women’s rights and sexual health message. Part of the reason they perform as men, they say, is to show that women can do anything, be anything, and nothing should hold them back. It’s a blend of art and activism, and sits comfortably across Cuba’s long traditions in both cultural and social justice activities. For Argelia, this group is just a small part of a lifetime’s work for women’s equality and LGBT rights. She was a founding member of the CENESEX-sponsored Grupo OREMI, the first lesbian and bisexual women’s network in Havana, in 2005. She said, “This character, we enjoy it, but we defend women in general, trans women, women, lesbian women.” Beyond LGBT venues, they also perform their act as a piece of culture, doing shows in community centres, in old people’s homes, and around Havana neighborhoods. There, they are announced as a male cultural performance and they say the audience often doesn’t know they are women. They fear that due to machismo and homophobia in Cuban culture, if they were announced as a drag act, non-LGBT audiences would leave. They use the illusion they have created to their advantage, revealing their surprise to the audience at the end of the show, handing out condoms and delivering a sexual health message while the audience is caught up in the reveal.
The Cuarteto are bringing a new edge to the old art form of drag. Drag kings are still relatively rare across the world, and the gender reversal of their performance challenges the way we perceive both masculinity and femininity. Women have been dressing and behaving like men for decades (at least) in order to access spaces of male power, such as boardrooms and parliaments, but the Cuarteto are using male drag to access spaces of queer power. They subvert the queer norm in these spaces by appearing to be cisgender straight men, who have traditionally been antagonists of queerness. That this is happening in an open forum in Cuba speaks volumes about Cuba’s newly tolerant attitudes to queer lives.
Evie Browne is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, UK. Their thesis is a queer analysis of lesbian and bisexual women in Cuba, funded by the IASSCS Emerging Scholars International Research Fellowship Program.
Cite as: Browne, Evie. 2017. “Transformistas Masculinos.” Anthropology News website, October 30, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.650