Documentarian Rebecca Heidenberg presents Cuba’s queer community and the work they have done to make the revolution theirs with care and thought.
Being part of any revolution means staying with the trouble. Rebecca Heidenberg’s insightful new documentary Queens of the Revolution introduces a community of queer people who have remained in Cuba during its dynamic and sometimes dangerous history to form Mejunje, a safe space in Santa Clara, that they can call their own. The documentary is a testament to their resilience and a gentle treatise on what it means to lead a queer revolutionary life.
Throughout the ninety-minute documentary, Heidenberg introduces an incredible array of gay, lesbian, trans, and HIV-positive folks who willingly offer up their stories, hopes, and ideas. Many of them know people or have themselves been put in prison, exile, or forced labor because of their sexualities and identities during the fraught time leading up to the fall of communism and afterward—when Cuba’s economy cratered. Despite these injustices and cruelties, each makes a point to say that they remain inspired by the revolution and its idea that they are no insignificant workers or people.
Queens of the Revolution‘s main guides through the streets of Santa Clara are Ramon Silverio, Senora Cynthia, and The Queen Mother. Silverio founded Mejunje (meaning ‘mixture’ or ‘concoction’) in 1991 as a public place where all people, not just queer people, could mix freely as themselves. His commitment to this space and Cuba is grounded in patriotic love for his people. His strong words for those who abandoned the nation come from a place of intense belief that Cuba has to be made better and only Cubans can build a better Cuba.
The fabulous Senora Cynthia demonstrates life for Cuban drag queens. Many of these performers work with limited resources. But they have learned how to make fabulous costumes and makeup from things around the house (or in the case of one queen who ground brick to make blush, from the house itself). These queens have been doing this themselves in spiritual service to their community for years. It’s endearing to see them interacting and supporting new queens as they’re folded into the family.
It’s The Queen Mother, a transgender rock n roller with Elizabeth Taylor eyeliner, who gives us a bitter perspective about queer life in Cuba. She was the first woman to be arrested for not wearing the appropriate clothes for what the state considered her gender and spent a good deal of the 80s and early 90s in and out of prison. Through depression, substance abuse, and attempted suicide, Queen Mother remains standing as a testament to the willpower of trans people to survive in the face of state violence and live to tell their stories.
Queens of the Revolution does an excellent job at showing that the revolution is ongoing.
Cuba did change its policies towards queer people, but only after queer people made the revolutionary cause a gay rights issue. Like the United States government, the post-revolution Cuban government penalized and punished queer folks for not conforming to its aesthetic and sexual expectations of its ideal citizens.
Since the early 1990s though, the government has unlearned much of its sexual hegemony, though the work continues. “Homophobia, no! Socialism, yes!” the queer community chants in the street during Cuba’s first trans pride parade, celebrating TransCuba’s fifteenth anniversary as a sanctuary for Cuba’s queer and trans people. It’s a passionate display of Cuban revolutionary pride that makes clear that the queer struggle and the struggle for socialism are inexorably intertwined.
This is most evident in Senora Cynthia’s story. At first, her tale feels tragically common, an all-too-familiar hate crime story to stand alongside far too many similar tales. Still, Senora Cynthia’s story has a uniquely Cuban ending: she did not have to leave the hospital swamped with medical debt. While she does not discuss this directly, the relief in her voice as she about being able to heal and continue the struggle unburdened by debt is palpable.
While it might be tempting for American audiences to shame the Cuban government for its homophobia and transphobia, Queens of the Revolution does an excellent job at showing that the revolution is ongoing. Political movements grow and change, just like people, because they’re composed of people. Though it’s evident that queer people in Cuba aren’t yet fully socially or politically acceptable, it’s equally clear that these revolutionaries see themselves as part of a work in progress: even when that process gets difficult, they’re in it together for the good of everyone.