Queens of the Revolution

We close out the Havana Glasgow Film Festival with Queens of the Revolution, and what a closer! Really interesting, really moving, really inspiring. It features the single most powerful drag performance I have ever seen.

Queens of the Revolution tells the story of queer liberation in Cuba, through the people of Mejunje, a queer cultural centre in Santa Clara. Mejunje means mixture, and was set up as a safe space for queer people to be as well as their allies. It was a hangout, for club nights, for music gigs, for drag performances, a place that could be used by the community for whatever they needed.

While every country’s path to queer liberation is different, most European countries were heavily influenced by Stonewall in the States, and you get queer rights movements developing alongside women’s lib and anti-racism organisation. Cuba’s history is a little different. They still struggled with oppression and formed grassroots resistance, but their timeline isn’t the same. Due to the Revolution, discussions about class and race were all happening simultaneously to that defining social event. And in its aftermath, there was a belief in the birth ‘the new man’, who lived for his community, who was not self-serving, who was a revolutionary. And that image was not gay and was not gender non-conforming.

The state repression of queer people in Cuba lasted right into the 90s. One guy talks about having been given a physical at his work, and being told he was HIV positive, and that just heralding his life being over. Because he lost his job, the government relocated him to a new settlement exclusively for HIV positive people. Which seems to have been set up as a temporary measure when they were still trying to find out how HIV spread but which quickly became a homophobic open-air prison. It was a ghetto, and if you left it, the only other place you could stay was jail. And he was there for 15 years. It’s unreal.

Mejunje helped him heal a lot. He says it’s the only place in the world he feels at peace. Everyone knows him there, everyone treats him with respect.

You have the Queen Mother, a trans elder, who was imprisoned repeatedly across decades. When she arrived in jail, being housed in a men’s prison, she was the only trans woman, so the other inmates dubbed her Queen of the Criminals. As more trans prisoners showed up, she took them under her wing, and got the name Queen Mother.

In some aspects, you have universal queer experiences, such as fear of rejection by family. Queen Mother was taken to psychiatrists repeatedly, for conversion therapy and other damaging interventions. Eventually she ran away from home, and when her father found her and attempted to take her back, she tried to kill herself. After that, her father decided to accept her rather than lose her, but it was an uneasy co-existence.

Nomi had a similar story, where her father refused to speak to her for 5 years, and then after 5 years said he accepted her as gay, but still wouldn’t accept her as trans. It’s clearly hard, but at least there does seem to be movement towards acceptance, even if it is painfully slow. Lola, on the other hand, says she was always accepted by her family, that she never was rejected. And while she’s experienced discrimination for being trans in jobs and education, she could always rely on her family for support.

For those without support Mejunje has been there. It was set up in 91, and its presence, the very fact that it’s not going anywhere, has opened Santa Clara up to the acceptance of queer people. Although a vital resource for the queer community, it is also a cultural centre for Santa Clara, so everyone is welcome. With it having such lively events, like drag performances, music and entertainment, it is part of the cultural life of the city and its residents.

You’d think with all the repression they face, the queer elders would be bitter, but, although the grief and trauma can be scalding, they remain dearly devoted to their homeland. They are proud Cubans, and lovers of the Revolution. But as people say over and over again in this film, revolution is eternal, it is continual, it is personal, it is one’s duty to work for the society they want to live in. For the Cuban queers in this film, Revolution wasn’t something that happened, it is something that is happening, it is how Cuba happens, with the daily decision of ordinary Cubans to strive to make the society they want to see, and they are working to make it a queer-inclusive society.

That outlook has a strong influence on how they view Cuban emigres, especially queers who fled persecution. You would expect that no one could understand more why you left than someone who suffered the same oppression alongside you, but there is a tinge of bitterness when talking about them. Because it is not viewed as some academic issue of loyalty to a nation state, but a very real and tangible sense of personal betrayal, that the community here was fighting for their rights, fighting for their very survival, and some people up and bailed. This is not on some intellectual level of political discourse, but a real heartfelt sense of being abandoned by friends, people you knew and were close to you, who knew just as well as you how bad it could get, and instead of staying in the fight and working to make things better, fucked off to somewhere where someone else had done all that work, so they could enjoy what they’d built there.

Still, if it was me, if my country locked me up for my sexuality, I might just say, Fuck this for a game of sodgies, I’m awa. For the queer elders in the film, it’s seen as cowardly, taking the easy way out. Personally, I think it’s a more than understandable choice to make.

There are so many personal stories in this. The people of Mejunje are so open, so raw. This is not a film that pulls its punches, showing the bad along with the good, and the trauma as well as the healing.

(Spoilers for the end of the film, maybe stop here if you’re already convinced to watch the movie.)

The film finishes on drag queen Crystal, on stage at Mejunje, talking about when they experienced a homophobic attack. A guy rushed Crystal and stabbed her half a dozen times in the neck and chest. She had to have 47 surgeries. She had over 200 stitches in her neck, and she thought that was the end of her singing, the end of her drag career, the end of her even being able to speak. And here she is now, back on stage, singing out and speaking up in her own voice, a survivor. And there she is, in her fancy outfit, her hairdo, and bling, and she starts to sing My Way. It’s a song which in recent years has been all too often co-opted by arseholes and narcissists (see Undergods as an example), but this is it delivered in the best spirit of the song. And as she sings, she takes off her rings, one by one, and drops her shrug. As the chorus swells she pulls the padding from her bra, and tugs off her wig. And as song hits its crescendo, she pulls down her top to reveal her torso covered in scars, the scars that were meant to stop her, the scars that could never stop her, as she stands before the audience shorn, naked, and vulnerable, and sings, “I did it MY WAY!”

Chills, tears and applause rippled through the audience in the cinema. It was an ending that just hit you full force in the chest. Such a great film.

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