‘Socialismo sí, homofobia/transfobia no!’ Cuba’s Conga celebrates advances in LGBTQ+ rights

SLL photos: Melinda Butterfield

Conga, the traditional music and dance ensemble of Cuban carnival, with its pounding percussion, colorful costumes, and swirling dance, is beloved throughout the Caribbean and around the world. 

A very special Conga took place in Havana on May 13 – the Conga Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Much like Pride Month celebrations in the U.S., Conga is both a proclamation and celebration of Cuba’s LGBTQ+ community. 

This year was the first in-person Conga held since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. With 95% of Cuba’s population vaccinated with the country’s excellent locally developed vaccines, the event was able to go full-steam ahead.

The sweltering heat and threatening clouds of previous days had relented, and there was much to celebrate. Last autumn, Cubans overwhelmingly approved a national referendum on a new Families Code – one that vastly expands the legal rights of queer families and all families. 

That victory was encapsulated in the theme of this year’s Conga, “Por todas las familias, el amor es ley”: For all families, love is the law.

Congas in Havana and Sancti Spíritus are highlights of the annual Cuban Days against Homophobia and Transphobia, marked this year from May 3-20. A visiting delegation of LGBTQ+ activists from the U.S., organized by Women in Struggle-Mujeres en Lucha, joined the Havana march.

As a crowd gathered near the Malecon in the late afternoon, friends old and new embraced, groups held aloft banners and flags, and activists posed for photos. A huge orange truck festooned with blue, white, and pink Trans Pride flags rounded the corner, carrying loudspeakers and drag performers, waved in by Malú Cano Valladares, coordinator of the Transcuba Nacional network.

Conga musicians and dancers took their places and warmed up while dozens of hands took hold of the massive rainbow flag brought by Cenesex – Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education. 

At the front of the march, holding a long banner nearly the width of the street, an array of activists from Cenesex, Transcuba, HSH gay men’s network, and the Network of Lesbian and Bisexual Women, were joined by international guests, including Puerto Rican trans matriarch Dianne Trinidad and Deirdre Deans, a Black lesbian member of the U.S. delegation.

They marched alongside Cuban First Lady Lis Cuesta Peraza, Cenesex director Mariela Castro Espín, Vice Minister of Public Health Carilda Peña, and Jorge Luís Broche, head of the Department of Attention to the Social Sector of the Communist Party of Cuba.

As the march stepped off, families, neighbors, and coworkers gathered on sidewalks and leaned out of windows to watch and cheer on the Conga. Some brought signs and banners of support.  Parents hoisted children on their shoulders to watch. No hate groups were jeering or protesting from the sidelines – only solidarity and joy.

The day’s most popular chant was “Socialismo sí, homofobia/transfobia, no!” – yes to socialism, no to homophobia and transphobia. Other chants celebrated the Families Code and denounced the U.S. blockade that causes grave harm to Cuba’s queer community and all Cuban people.

As the march concluded, the thousands of participants joined a festival prepared in their honor. People ate, danced, talked, and flirted long into the night. Tomorrow, the work continues to educate and enact “the most advanced family code in the world,” in the words of Cenesex’s Castro Espín.

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