Tremenda Nota originally published this story on its website in Spanish.
In Cuba sport is untouchable, one of the most significant strongholds of machismo where homophobia es pasto de cultivo diario. How difficult is life for an athlete who goes against heteronormative standards?
This time the three training sessions ended really late, so the girls had to wash later than usual in the shared bathroom of the student dorms. The hour now clashed with the softball players’ turn to bathe.
“What are you doing in the bathroom?” her roommates asked her.
The answer seemed obvious, “Bathing, taking advantage of the fact that there’s water!”
But the worst was yet to come.
“Nooo, you have to fill the bucket and wait for the men to finish!”
Liuba Grajales was 12 years old when she was awarded a place at the Sports Initiation School (EIDE) in Santa Clara, 260 kilometres from the Cuban capital. This is where she was exposed to homophobia for the first time. Three years later, from la base nacional de fondo, which was headquartered in the same city, she was the national runner-up in the half marathon and was expected to win the following year.
Until that time her sexuality had had no impact on her life. “It started to affect me when I fell in love with a woman. When they dared to question my athletic performance because of my sexual orientation,” she tells Tremenda Nota in the storeroom of the pharmacy where she works on the Sagua highway.
Before she fell in love with a woman she “fulfilled” expectations; she had a boyfriend and seemed to have a defined sexuality. Still, although they were not sure that she was a lesbian, her classmates stopped talking to her in their dorms and the classroom. They would also try to provoke physical confrontations. Teachers and trainers never intervened. At the time Liuba only had a gay friend who she liked spending time with. This was labelled “antisocial behavior.” A meeting was immediately called and brought her mother to the school.The school’s director, her trainer, the athletics commissioner and the head of the training base (all men) gave her two options: They could take away her scholarship or she had to stop spending time with the person “with antisocial characteristics.” They considered being gay to be antisocial. “I thought antisocial meant robbing, killing, not working, not studying, what’s outlined in the criminal code. But I was doing well, I felt good, I liked what I was doing. After that meeting I didn’t want to have anything to do with sport, so I decided to leave.”
Liuba abandoned her rising athletic career to avoid homophobia. Now she is 35 years old and a pharmacist and LGBTI activist in Cuba. She believes that the best thing that has happened to her was accepting her sexuality and leaving high performance sport.
“They humiliate you, bully and marginalise you. They demand double. They don’t see you as a woman, more like a man. You don’t even want to see yourself like that. I tried not to listen, that was my defence mechanism. If you lower your head it’s bad, but if you dare to lift it it’s worse.”
Step by Step
The outlook for homosexuals in the Cuban sport scene has not changed much since Liuba’s day. In 2010 the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) received a complaint from an athlete from Havana who had been taken off the national female baseball team because of her sexual orientation. Her letter of expulsion cited “antisocial homosexual behavior.” CENESEX took on her case and went after the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER). The athlete won the battle, but it is not about winning. In a sector as homophobic as sport the CENESEX has made very little progress.
Although the institution has managed to involve some athletes in debates on the Day Against Homophobia, they do not have a systematic approach to raising awareness in sport. There has been no research into these issues. It was not until 2013 that CENESEX ensured that senior INDER officials (their president at the time, Cristian Jiménez, and Vice President Alberto Juantorena) attended the opening of the Sports Festival Against Homophobia. However, the festival did not go beyond the organizer’s good intentions and the media did little to promote it.
In 2012 during the fifth annual Day Against Homophobia Yosvany Pérez Ruiz, the pitcher from Cienfuegos known as the golden lefthander from Constancia, stated the obvious, that there are homosexuals in Cuban sports. “I know a lot of athletes in my sport, baseball, who have an inclination towards people of the same sex but they don’t show it. It’s not allowed in sport, among the athletes themselves, this atmosphere is sometimes not appropriate for a game of baseball or any other sport,” she said.
“They don’t feel relaxed, they are quiet people, they don’t interact much with others … they know that there are people who know about their orientation, but they are very good athletes, they have been very good athletes, and I don’t think this defines anything,” concludes the baseball player. Despite intending to show support, she merely reflected the thoughts of her fellow athletes.
Discrimination continues and it is no surprise. The Labor Code only regulated equality in the workplace and discrimination because of sexual orientation in 2014, in Item b, Article 2. The article failed to address the full problem and CENESEX’s director and Parliamentarian Mariela Castro was left feeling very dissatisfied.
According to Liuba, “It’s a tale of hypocrisy. People are a little more careful when discriminating and I know because some of my old classmates are trainers now and that’s how they treat people.” It’s something she hates because you “shouldn’t tolerate something that you don’t like by not being offensive or violent. Respect is what’s needed.”
Coming out of the closet can irreparably damage any athlete’s career. A false model of masculinity, where the sportsman is the greatest example of virility, makes sport a stronghold for homophobia in Cuba and globally. It is difficult to come out as LGBTI, for example; only 0.5 percent of athletes at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics said they were LGBTI. The Olympic Charter indirectly touches on manifestations of hate by declaring that any form of discrimination because of race, religion, political beliefs, gender or otherwise is incompatible with the Olympic movement.
A lot of research supports the idea that sport is one of the most homophobic sectors of society. Jesús Muñoz Machín, a specialist from the Ibero-American and African Masculinity Network argues that, “The athletic universe as well as fixating on heterosexuality as the norm, it contributes to fixing false ideas of status being attached to virility among men, as though more macho equals more success on the playing field.”
The media also reinforces the stereotypes. Historically sport is for men and narrated by men. Stories of homophobia are not made visible and sexist language abounds, where according to the Cuban press “even though a woman is doing judo, she is still like a flower,” reinforcing the traditional discourse.
Muñoz Machín believes that sport narratives essentially reinforce the ideas of subordination and violence, using language like “annihilation” or “crushing” or “fighting to the death.”
The degree of homophobia varies according to the sex and the sport. No famous Cuban athlete has come out as gay and it could be a long time before one does. Ramón Silverio, cultural promoter and one of the most well-known LGBTI activists in Cuba, believes “the sport sector is not prepared.”
In sports there is a great taboo surrounding coming out. Silverio does not believe that “they would be accepted in these groups if they did … in art or medicine people are usually more open and accept homosexuality more freely.”
Milaysis Méndez Rodríguez, who has a master’s in medical psychology, also believes that there is a lot of repression in sport because cultural patterns of “masculinity” predominate “in team sports taunts by the majority are aimed against one.” If there is not overt discrimination then they use different tactics to make an athlete feel uncomfortable to push them into resigning. In the best-case scenario tactics fall on the same old fallacies, such as claiming low performance, lack of discipline or missing trainings. The other tactic is turning the victim into the guilty party.