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Tuesday, August 4, 1998 Published at 18:29 GMT 19:29 UK

World: Americas

Cuba's transformists

Drag artists used to end up in jail for performing in a house

Cuba is not known for its policies of social liberalism. For Cuban transsexuals and transvestites, life has been particularly hard - they have been barred from many public positions, some have been locked up.

Tom Gibb reports
But in the last decade the authorities have relaxed their view.

The Transformists, a group of Havana drag artists, are expanding their hips and painting their faces for a weekly back yard cabaret.

It is a long, and sometimes painful process, the nails go on with leather glue - all that is available.

[ image: Janet:
Janet: "Now it is different"
But at least they are not so worried now about a sudden raid by the police. A few years ago you could have got arrested.

"Before, if you were caught performing in a house, they would confiscate all the clothes, fine you and put you to jail for six months," says "Janet", one of the drag artists.

"Touch wood, none of us has been sent to jail. But it happened to a lot of other friends we work with," he says.

"Now it is different. One can even go on to the street dressed as a woman and nothing will happen."

Gay mags off the shelf

In the past drag shows would have been labelled as social deviation, the influence of decadent capitalism.

[ image: Preparing for the show]
Preparing for the show
Only since 1992 have the authorities relaxed. But some things are still not acceptable, such as setting up a gay magazine.

"We tried to do that once. We avoided politics, but it was stopped," says drag show host Rey Lima.

"Here any publication has to go through established channels and established channels still do not contemplate a gay magazine."

Meanwhile "Janet" and his friends are preparing to compete in this summer's Havana Drag Festival.

Now, instead of hiding from the neighbours and the authorities, they get help for cleaning up the venue. The authorities turn a blind eye.

The extraordinary thing is that the festival building has actually been rented from the local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, the neighbourhood organisation set up to defend the revolutionary values.

State sponsoring

With rising popularity, there are even cases of the authorities sponsoring drag shows.

[ image:
"America" is paid by the state
"I am lucky to be one of a kind in this country," says "America", a judge of the Drag Festival, whose normal job is to perform in a state-owned bar.

"I work in a state-run venue, I have a legal work permit provided by the state, and my salary is paid by the state."

The loudest cheers of the festival went to an artist who is HIV positive. Many participants are victims of the AIDS virus.

The chance to experience the glamour of winning a cabaret represents a form of escape, rather than an attempt to change the society.

Politics is strictly avoided. But the mere fact that such shows exist is evidence of another crack in what was once an all-controlling revolution.

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