Editor's note: This article is part of a series by Boston University journalism students.
HAVANA, Cuba — In this city’s leafy Central Park, young gay men mix freely with lesbians, transsexuals, and others whose sexuality would once have made them targets of harsh repression.
On a recent afternoon in the park, an older gay Cuban, who gave his name as Jorge, marveled at how far Cuba has come since the days when gays were stigmatized and shipped to “re-education camps.”
"Life in the past for us was atrocious," Jorge said as he basked on a bench. "We had no freedom."
Being gay in Cuba today is easier than it has been at any time in at least a half-century — but it is still not without its difficulties.
That became painfully clear to a young dancer named Denis when he told his mother he is gay.
“She smashed the television set,” Denis said during a break from his rehearsals with the internationally renowned modern dance troupe, Danza Contemporanea de Cuba. As he spoke, he shouted and waved his arms to mimic her rage.
Denis is afraid to tell his father he is gay, but has told his brother. "He supports me, but only because we are blood,” Denis said. “He doesn't approve of being gay."
Even before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, gay life was largely hidden from public view because the authorities frowned on it.
Read intro by Stephen Kinzer: A specter is haunting Cuba
The seamy sex industry that attracted many American tourists during that era had a strong gay component.
Castro and his Communist comrades have been accused of being as homophobic as the previous regime. Critics say they considered nonconformist sexuality anti-social and intrinsically counterrevolutionary.
An elderly Cuban woman named Dora remembers that era. Only gays who remained discreet or closeted, she said, were able to live with a modicum of security.
"Life was very difficult for them," said Dora, who said she is not gay. "They would meet in their homes. They were very good at hiding they were gay."
These days, there is no denying homosexuals exist in Cuba. Gay men and lesbians openly flirt with each other in parks and other public places. Transsexual women walk along streets displaying impeccable hair and makeup. Young men openly prostitute themselves to older gay men — Cubans and foreigners alike — at Central Park and along the Malecon, Havana’s broad seaside avenue.
Gay life in Cuba is not confined to Havana. In the provincial capital of Matanzas, a shopkeeper named Cristina said gays in Matanzas “live normal lives and do not have trouble with the police.”
"There are more gay people in Havana, but I don't think there is more homophobia in Matanzas and the provinces," Cristina said. "The reason some young gay men go to Havana to express their sexuality is because there is a different ambiance in Havana.”
“There aren't more gay prostitutes in Havana than anywhere else in Cuba,” she said. “There are just more places gay prostitutes like to hang out in Havana than there are here."
At Havana’s Central Park, a gay man in his 40s named Ricardo said that the promise of money from sex work is one of the main reasons young gay Cuban men move from outlying provinces to Havana.
"Young people — all the young people around our park — say, 'Look at the wallet,’” said Ricardo, who works as a lab technician. "They prefer it to going to school, trying to find a job. I went to school for years, and I get $15 a month."
A gangly, pubescent-looking male prostitute who works around Central Park, named Rolando, is an example of how lucrative this business can be.
"I charge Cubans $15 or $20," Rolando said, "but I can charge foreigners up to $50 an hour."
Most Cubans earn less than $30 per month.
More by BU students: Legend of the Cuban cigar
In another part of the park, a transsexual named Cristal smoothed her long blond hair out of her face with a slender finger. She said she has known she is female since she was a small child, and that unlike some Cuban parents of gays and transsexuals, hers always accepted her.
Cristal has spent the last 11 years working as a transgender advocate for the government-funded Cuban National Center for Sex Education. The center is run by Mariela Castro Espin, a daughter of Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as president of Cuba in 2011.
In early May, Mariela Castro led a vibrant gay pride march down the streets of the capital in which supporters chanted "Homophobia no! Socialism yes!" The Associated Press reported.
Cuba’s first gay rights organization emerged in the late 1970s, when homophobia was still official government policy. Change began when Raul Castro’s wife, the late Vilma Espin, president of the Federation of Cuban Women, recommended that a special committee be established to address concerns of the homosexual and transgender community.
In 1989, after Fidel Castro expressed regret for his regime's anti-gay policies and vowed to change them, the sex education center opened.
Creative artists, including some favored by the government, took advantage of this liberalization. A film dealing with gay life, “Strawberry and Chocolate,” was immensely popular. It won first prize at the 1993 Havana Film Festival and scooped awards from Berlin to Madrid to Sundance, as well as earning a nomination at the Oscars.
More by BU students: Jewish in Havana
In 2006, one of the country’s most prominent writers, Miguel Barnet, a supporter of Castro’s revolution, published a lavishly fictionalized first-person account of a transsexual Cuban called “Fatima, Queen of the Night” that won a prestigious Mexican literary prize.
In 2010, the Cuban government began sponsoring sex change operations for transgendered individuals.
One of the gay men enjoying Central Park a few days ago was a German tourist in his mid-30s named Marco. He said he is freer to be himself in Cuba than he is at home.
“It is quite more liberal here,” he said, “than in the United States or Europe.”
This spring, Boston University journalism and photography students made a weeklong trip to Cuba. By special arrangement, GlobalPost is presenting six stories that emerged from their trip. The introductory piece is by Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times foreign correspondent who was the students' journalism professor. The five that follow were written by his students. Photos were taken by students working under the guidance of prize-winning photographer Essdras Suarez.