Cuban playwright Anton Arrufat was 35 when he was marginalized for his writings and his sexual orientation. Twenty years later, he collaborated on the film “Strawberry and Chocolate” (1993) which put homosexuality center stage in Cuba. Today, he supports the legalization of gay marriage.
A few days before the referendum on a new Family Code including homosexual marriage, the 87-year-old writer recalls his memories of the 1960s and 1970s, a period marked by the bringing to heel of artists and intellectuals when the communist island had adopted the Soviet model.
“Yes, we were + configured +” according to the term that was used” at the time, Anton Arrufat told AFP in his apartment in the center of Havana, the walls covered with books and paintings.
A few years after the revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959, the authorities had established moral “parameters” to define workers who could be trusted, in particular revolutionaries and heterosexuals. Among those who deviated from socialist orthodoxy were homosexuals.
For Anton Arrufat, the problems begin with his play “The Seven Against Thebes”, an allegory of political Cuba in the 1960s. In 1968 the work received a Prize from the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), but was immediately censored because considered counter-revolutionary.
Anton Arrufat is then banned from publication and he is sent to work as a warehouseman for “14 years in a municipal library” in a distant suburb of the capital. “I hung on, hung like a horse,” recalls the playwright, one of the few artists who decided to stay in Cuba despite the stigma.
“I don’t think there was anything erotic about the persecution towards us”, but “some people told me that yes, that it was because we were all homosexual”, confides the writer born in 1935 in Santiago de Cuba (east).
Those who diverged from the official line for their political, religious ideas or sexual preferences were assigned to menial tasks or sent to Military Production Assistance Units (UMAP), agricultural work camps created for those who fulfilled their military service.
– “No longer the same” –
Other prominent writers, José Lezama Lima (1910-1976) and Virgilio Piñera (1912-1979), friends of Arrufat, were also banned from publication and marginalized for their writings and their sexual orientation.
But “we never stopped going to the theater, to the cinema (…) We were provocateurs, not to hurt, but because we wanted to be able to stay in the country where we were born”, says -he.
“I went through winds and tides, but I stayed. It was difficult, but at the same time enchanting because I really like difficult things in the cultural life of a country”, he says bravado.
The writer is gradually rehabilitated. In the 1990s, he took part in the adventure of the successful film “Strawberry and Chocolate” by Tomas Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio, which featured a homosexual character for the first time in a Cuban film.
“I worked a little on this film”, says Anton Arrufat, whose name is mentioned in the credits. According to him, the film, nominated for the Oscars, “contributed to (change) something in this country”. “After this film, we weren’t the same anymore,” he says.
In 2000, Anton Arrufat received the National Prize for Literature. In 2007, his play “The Seven Against Thebes” was performed for the first time in Cuba, forty years after it was banned.
From now on, Cubans will vote on a new Family Code which, among other measures, authorizes homosexual marriage and the adoption of children by same-sex couples.
Anton Arrufat believes that this is “a positive step forward” for Cuba.
Initially, people “imagined horrible things about this (new) Code and absolutely did not want it, but then gradually they accepted it”. “It will bring about a big change,” he predicts.