To talk about the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s first day in Cuba means going back in time. But I don’t mean going back several decades when most of the cars on the island were built. Rather, we’re just looking back to one day before we left the USA for what I have already found to be an enchanting country full of personality, beautiful and strange dichotomies, and plenty of heart.
Our Cuba experience actually started the night before we left with a moving and well-attended kickoff performance at Trinity Cathedral in Miami, where my brother is the assistant dean.
Churches are often associated with antipathy toward the LGBTQ movement. But being hosted by the cathedral for the kickoff concert of a tour that promotes LGBTQ rights in the Caribbean makes me one proud brother. Hearing the phenomenal sounds that came from 21 talented musicians makes me one proud ED.
The following morning, on Saturday, July 11, just a few hours before departing for Cuba, I awoke to an email criticizing GMCW for accepting an invitation from Mariela Castro and thereby legitimizing the oppression that is historically associated with Cuba. It wasn’t the first time we had received this kind of message and I have been ready to hear it for quite some time. But if I have to be honest with myself, I was angry when I first read the message. “Isn’t our work as musicians beyond politics?” I thought…in a not unusual flash of idealism.
But quickly I checked myself. There is very real pain in Cuba’s history, particularly for LGBTQ people. There is very real and positive change that has occurred in Cuba, and Mariela Castro’s influence will always be linked with that. There is still a long way to go on the island, and yes, there are very real politics associated with an LGBTQ concert tour in Cuba. We are citizen diplomats.
I was reminded of these politics as I sat at dinner on our first night next to Ambassador DeLaurentis, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba (and the presumed new ambassador to Cuba beginning July 20 after diplomatic relations are formalized again.) Many times in our conversation I was reminded of two things: that people connecting with people is the best way to advance social change; and arts and music are always ahead of politics when it comes to democracy.
After dinner, Chris (my boyfriend) and I made our way in a 1950s Chevrolet to a Havana gay bar where more than a dozen American singers and at least as many Cubans were dancing to late 90s anthems. It was encouraging to see this collage on the wall of the bar:
A symbol of hope juxtaposed against iconic visages of the past seemed to be perfectly fitting for our first day in a country that, slowly but surely, is moving the needle on LGBTQ rights.
Chase Maggiano is the executive director of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. He is posting periodic posts from Cuba on his blog ChasingTheArt that he is allowing the Washington Blade to repost.