3. 14. 2023

Cuba’s Family Code is a Guiding Light for Queer Activism

Chittajit Mitra

In 2018, when the
Supreme Court of India removed the contentious colonial law that for 157 years had criminalized consensual same-sex intimacy between adults, I was extremely elated, hopeful that the country where I live would keep progressing towards justice for queer people. The struggle against that law had been a long one, filled with hurdles, the state against us most of the time, and yet we persevered and won. But now, as I look back at the five years since that success, it’s becoming clearer than ever that the Indian queer community is falling prey to the same kind of capitalist propaganda from which Western countries are suffering. We’re in urgent need of alternative visions of queer life. Cuba’s Family Code, a transformative constitutional amendment ratified in that country last fall, offers important inspiration.


Against homonationalism and capitalist conformity

In India, mainstream queer activism has too often been dominated by English-speaking elites, who organize galas at five-star hotels in major cities, their entry fees making them inaccessible for most working-class queer people. Organizers of Pride parades in this country now urge queer people to participate without raising any “political slogans” – more of a leisurely stroll on the roadside than an event genuinely expressing queer pride. The most “radical” local queer activism too often consists of legal battles to formalize conformity with the majority’s capitalist societal norms.

We also see a rising trend of homonationalism in India. Coined by the queer theorist Jasbir Puar, homonationalism involves an unholy alliance between homosexuality and hyper-nationalism, creating a distinction between the “good” gay who embraces and defends the national majority’s values and the dangerous queer “other” who transgresses those. With a far-right government in power in India, a process of right-wing radicalization is also rapidly spreading within the queer community – perhaps the biggest danger that we face today. In particular, many queer people whose class and other social identities mean they benefit from capitalist rule are quick to cheer for these developments. Class and/or caste solidarity becomes articulated in terms of a larger “national interest.”

The gradual degradation of queer politics in India has made me reflect on a similar trend in the United Kingdom, where the transgender community is being targeted by trans-exclusionary elements within the queer community (e.g. so-called LGB alliances), often backed by right-wing forces; and in the United States, where a notable proportion of queer people seem to incline towards conservative politics. Such patterns have suggested to me that all these experiences are byproducts of our moment’s broader global socio-economic condition. At least it’s not just my local queer communities that are devolving, I’ve reassured myself. There are trans-local historical forces at play.


A different road

Yet, if reactionary developments in liberal capitalist states are chipping away at years of queer wins, recent events in Cuba suggest other possibilities. Last September, Cuba held a referendum that led to the amending of the country’s Family Code – a part of its constitution – on several important issues. Though queer life remains precarious in Cuban civil society, and a lot of mass political education still needs to be done to challenge conservative social norms, the Code’s updated provisions are compelling. There wasn’t much buzz in my local mainstream media about this development in Cuba, nor was it discussed prominently in the queer spaces with which I’m familiar. I was lucky to become aware of it through a queer Indian room on the chat app Clubhouse. I used Google to translate the new Family Code into English so I could understand it in detail.

The Family Code expands the Cuban state’s definition of marriage by removing gender markers from the constitutional text that describes marital relationships. It focuses on community-building and safeguarding the rights of minors as well as elderly people, which are among the most vulnerable groups in any society. Foregrounding the holistic development of children and adolescents in the country, the Code encourages transparent sex education and open-minded, supportive parenting, with an emphasis on non-violence and non-discrimination. It urges families to create a healthy environment in which children can participate and make decisions. It gives adoption rights to people irrespective of their sexual orientation, and also recognizes the rights of surrogate mothers. 

By contrast, the Indian government has categorically opposed gay marriage – still illegal in India, though that could change soon – stating that there’s a legitimate state interest in limiting recognition of marriage to persons of the opposite sex only, and that gay marriage goes against Indian culture. And in 2016, India limited the right of legal surrogacy to family members, directly promoting caste endogamy, which is similar to concepts of racial purity that exist in the West. The minister who paved the way for this policy change stated that the option of surrogacy for homosexual couples is “against our cultural ethos.”

Last year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that non-traditional families, including same-sex couples, should have access to various social welfare benefits, such as maternity leave. But the state remains beholden to a traditional family system that is patriarchal and feudalistic in nature, in which, as recently as 2019, a former Chief Justice of India said that the country shouldn’t criminalize marital rape as doing so would create absolute anarchy in families, posing a grievous challenge to the family values that sustain India. Cuba’s Family Code suggests how much further we need to go: how we need to fight for an inclusive definition of family itself, and for legal recognition and more equitable distribution of the domestic labour that is performed mostly by women. Crucially, the Code also aims at creating a violence-free household by identifying the different factors that enable gendered violence in the home.

Queer advocacy often centres young, able-bodied people, spending comparatively little time building the social ecosystem that must exist if we’re to take care of fellow queer people who are elderly and/or disabled. Cuba’s Family Code focuses on keeping such community members integrated into society, rather than leaving them alone at a care centre. It aims to incorporate them into a family environment where their mental health needs can be met, too. The Code’s holistic vision is awesome and rejuvenating. It deserves to be studied as a guiding light for queer activism in India, and in every other country where capitalist co-optation and homonationalism limit the revolutionary potentials of queer life.

Chittajit Mitra (he/him) is a queer writer, translator, and editor from Allahabad, India. He is a co-founder of RAQS, a collective working on gender, sexuality, and mental health. He can be reached at chittajit.mitra@gmail.com.