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BOOKS Photography book looks at trans life in Cuba
by Joe Franco

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Cuba: The small island nation has captivated Americans for decades. It's a veritable lost world unto itself, full of vintage cars and the memory of a revolution.

Californian photographer Eric Politzer had the unique opportunity to visit and chronicle Havana's transgender and gay cabaret subculture. His new book, Out! Las Transformitas of Havana, follows the lives of a number of transgender women and out gay men as they, like the rest of the island, come into the open.

Politzer was fascinated with Cuba for most of his life. Oddly enough, it was his love of baseball and the Cuban baseball legends that brought him into closer contact with the country's gay and trans cabaret. His work with Cuba's national pastime allowed him some latitude in getting to explore Havana more than perhaps other artists with a visa may have ever had. "I began researching Cuban gay culture and came across a number of YouTube videos," Politzer said to Windy City Times. These were his first glimpses at the life of the cabaret in Havana. "I'd never seen camaraderie or encouragement the way these women and men interacted. Even the crowd at the cabarets was mixed—men and women with gay and straight," added Politzer.

He was not initially given carte blanche to explore the city. Politzer began slowly infiltrating the Cuban photography scene and befriended other gay photographers who could introduce him into the subculture. Politzer said of the experience, "It was difficult at first. It took tremendous work on trust in order to gain access to the lives of these men and women. It didn't help that, for some reason, I was not introduced as a gay man." Politzer was lost in translation. The notoriously shy cabaret girls thought he was straight. Later during the project, he was finally able to come out properly and the entire dynamic of his work changed.

Politzer has a body of work that seeks to promote social justice. But as he worked within the cabaret, he began to find the story to be told bigger than trans issues or gay rights. "I started to hear the stories about their lives and what they contended with every day," said Politzer, who noticed that the photos he had already amassed did not "scream Cuba." So he decided to do something out of the ordinary: He left the gay ghettos and the safety of the cabarets and brought these women into the sunlight.

Politzer said, "I decided to rent an old, vintage convertible. I took the girls out to the gay beach and photographed them there. For all of them, it was the first time they had been out to the beach or really out of the ghetto in full makeup and dress. The driver who came with the car was not even aware that some of these women were, in fact, men."

His work began to strip away a deeply ingrained culture of machismo that has resulted in continued oppression and vulgar transphobia in Cuba. However, with the United States' recent moves at reopening Cuba to all people, tourism has rocketed to number one on the island's list of industries. Cuba is softening as a result of economic necessity.

Gay and trans issues also have a very big ally: Mariela Castro, daughter of Raoul and niece to Fidel. Surprisingly, the state runs the disco in Havana. "She overseas sexual health concerns in Cuba and is a vocal proponent of both gays and transgender individuals," said Politzer. "She singlehandedly made it a matter of Cuban health policy to cover all costs of Cuban citizens who seek to have a gender reassignment. That's not only the surgery that also covers the costs of counseling, psychological care and the cost of hormones." That means that Cuba—often seen as backward and conservative—has one of the most liberal policies regarding treatment of transgender individuals in the Western Hemisphere.

Politzer also said that Mariela "is considered a saint in gay culture. She has made it much easier to be gay or transgender in a city where you might not consider that an option. One of the cabarets I visited, the owner was being serenaded for his accomplishments but it wasn't the cabaret performers singing to him, it was the straight men and women who had come out that night."

Homophobia in Cuba is complicated but is not that dissimilar from what people face in the States. In the island's conservative east, it is still very difficult for young LGBT individuals. Like in the United States, rural life can be stifling. For Cubans, family and friendships are the most important relationships and—despite the nation's history of traditional Catholicism—families will not abandon their gay and transgender children. Even Fidel Castro, in his waning years, has come out and said his biggest regret of the Revolution was criminalizing homosexual behavior. While he lacks any political power outright, the father of Communist Cuba still holds tremendous clout. The future for Cuban marriage equality and continued reform of human rights are on the horizon. "Mary Ella Castro held a mock wedding for hundreds of same-sex couples during Havana's last Pride. This is an event sponsored by the community and by the Cuban government," said Politzer.

As Cuba is opened to the West and to new economic and educational opportunities, even the gay subculture will not be immune to the changes bound to sweep the island. Politzer, in Out! Las Transformitas of Havana, has compiled what may be the first ( and last ) record of the gay cabaret subculture of Cuba in the world.

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