Fidel Castro died. What did he do for (and against) LGBT?

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(FILES) Cuban First Secretary of the Cuban Communist party and President of the State Council Fidel Castro (L) is shown in file photo dated May 1963 holding the hand of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a four-week offical visit to Moscow. Fidel Castro resigned on February 19, 2008 as president and commander in chief of Cuba in a message published in the online version of the official daily Granma. AFP-PHOTO 5 POL CUB AFP/FILES (Photo credit should read OFF/AFP/Getty Images)

The Cuban leader has passed away aged 90. Castro is known for prompting strong debate about his time in power that included the rounding up, persecution and murder of LGBT people. In 1965, the regime established prison work camps known as Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), where homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other “undesirable” peoples deemed out of line with the Communist ideology were forcefully sent. Many received false telegrams telling them they had been called for military service and should appear at a chosen location – where they would then be rounded into trains, trucks and buses and sent to the camps with little food or water.

Those who experiences the labour camps report being beaten, threatened with execution, stuffed with dirt in their mouths, buried in the ground up to their neck, and tied up naked outside in barbed wire without food or water until fainting. According to an official state newspaper report in 1966, the labour camps were the idea of Fidel Castro himself, after seeing similar examples on a visit to the Soviet Union, and were enacted by current Cuban President, Raul Castro.

Extreme oppression of gay Cubans continued after the UMAPs: being sent to prison for homosexual acts, fired from their jobs and banned from joining the Communist Party. Many former camps continued under the guise of ‘military training’ with a wage equivalent to the cost of one meal a month, and gay men still forced to work in them. Some who had been sent to the camps for being gay had their government ID cards branded to say they had been incarcerated, preventing them from seeking any future employment or education.

Castro routinely referred to gay men as “faggots” and “worms” for many decades in public comments.
Many artists and writers had initially supported the ideas of Castro, welcoming the expected freedom of a more egalitarian society – but shortly into the regime LGBT people were kicked out of their jobs in the arts and media, and their publications shut down. LGBT students were expelled from university and gay people prohibited from having contact with children and young people. Meanwhile, during the 1970s, young boys perceived as effeminate were forced to undergo therapy in an attempt to change their behaviour.

Up until 1993 Cubans who were HIV positive, which included many men who have sex with men, were put in quarantines that one World Health Organisation official said were nothing more than “pretty prisons”. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “the government [in 1997] … heightened harassment of homosexuals, raiding several nightclubs known to have gay clientele and allegedly beating and detaining dozens of patrons.” Reports say those who visited LGBT venues and meeting places were arrested, fined, or threatened with imprisonment and even beaten up by police officers up until the late ’90s. There was a significant change in government policy in recent years, with Cuba’s high quality healthcare system providing free gender re-assignment surgery and quality services for those with HIV.

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