Despite its setting of poverty and oppression there is a real sense of joy and elation in the lives of the Cuban drag queens captured in Transformistas (the local term for Drag) this new documentary.
Cuba has always held conflicting and ambiguous views on homosexuality. Even though in 1981, the Ministry of Culture stated in a publication entitled “In Defence of Love” that homosexuality was a variant of human sexuality. They argued that homophobic bigotry was an unacceptable attitude inherited by the revolution and that all sanctions against gays should be opposed.
Yet in reality homophobia was rampant and probably encouraged by the Soviet Union who bankrolled the country until its own collapse in the 1990’s. Many LGBTQ people chose to escape when and if they could. Even now with Mariel Castro, the President’s daughter spearheading change with her Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana many of the country’s LGBTQ Community have to lead restricted or closeted lives for their own safety.
So much so that Filmmaker Chad Hahne shot the entire film on his Iphone on the downlow without permission from the Cuban regime.
The story is focused on the inland city of Santa Clara wherein 1992 a small group of drag queens defied the Government and set up weekly performances in a gay bar/community space called El Mejunje (The Mixture) They called themselves El Futuro (The Future).
Founded by Ramón Silverio, an impoverished local man who had always dreamed of a place where artists, rock musicians, drag performers and intellectuals of all kinds could gather and find acceptance. It was set in the middle of the courtyard. in a ruined hotel with trees
This ragged makeshift theater was the setting for the drag queens who discovered both their art and also fame. Most of them were penniless but somehow they used their ingenuity in making their costumes and discover alternatives to use for makeup.
They could survive well on their dollar tips in a culture where even now a factory job just pays $13 a month.
“Samantha” achieved such star status that even though he was locked away in one of the isolated State Sanitariums where the Authorities banished everyone with HIV, he was allowed out (under escort) to perform once a week. It seems like another contradiction in the Regime’s attitude towards gay men.
Hanhe’s film includes some glorious archival footage of the club’s early days which he mixes with some talking head pieces with some of the performers. There are evidently more drag queens in this small town than in Havana itself, so even getting a spot to play at the Club is very tough indeed.
The younger new transformistas have to rely on an invitation to participate from one of the older queens, which are rare and so can be problematic. This new generation of performers have moved on from the traditional melodramatic acts lip syncing to old-school Cuban/Spanish divas and it’s sad that they lack the opportunities to perform.
There is a downside being on the downlow living in Cuba with all its restrictions. Cosmetic Surgery is banned so when performers like Omega decide to do illegal back-street gender realignment surgery, the results, as in her case can be fatal
Despite all the restrictions, the homophobia, the poverty and the shabby living conditions, Hanhe captures the sheer joy the queens get from performing and their remarkably optimism to life. It’s quite a revelation and makes us really feel somehow connected to them, even though we may not always be able to completely understand why they so proud to be Cubans under these circumstances.
This fascinating documentary does makes a valuable contribution to our LGBTQ history by highlighting this remarkable community.