Journal article
30 August 2023

More like a woman: Activa/Pasiva subjectivities in Cuba

Author: Evie Browne
Published by: Sexualities Journal
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This article explores the gender and sexuality of activa/pasiva women in Cuba. The construction of activa and pasiva is very similar to other masculine/feminine female relationships around the world, often referred to in English as ‘butch’ and ‘femme’. In 2017, I interviewed 33 self-identified lesbian and bisexual women and 23 policymakers, officials, cultural contributors, and activists, in the cities of Havana, Santa Clara, and Matanzas. The women I met enjoyed and found power in their masculine/feminine partnerships. However, in contrast to a view of Cuba as increasingly tolerant and progressive towards LGBT people, my case study analyses how other lesbian and bisexual women vilify activas and pasivas in order to elevate themselves through distance, as a route to social inclusion. It demonstrates how political and social tolerance for lesbian and bisexual women is a gendered discourse that relies on their correct performance of white, middle-class, feminine gender normativity. I explore how feminine lesbian presentation is attached in Cuba to ideas of whiteness, modernity, education, and progressiveness, while masculine presentation is denigrated as old-fashioned, patriarchal, and replicating heterosexist norms. I analyse this discourse, showing it to be embedded in racist and traditional ideas of femininity which themselves uphold the gender binary. In particular, I argue that masculine women are made into abject others, using homonormativity theory and the black politics of respectability to show how gender normativity underpins social and political tolerance for lesbian and bisexual women.