I’ve never liked the phrase, “queer as a 3-dollar bill.” To me, it always suggested two ugly things: first, that the person speaking chose to do so in a deliberately mean tone, which always raises my hackles. And second, that a gay person is somehow a counterfeit person. To me, it takes a substantial arrogance to suggest that a person is less-than-authentically human just because I don’t agree with or understand him or her. That attitude contributes to our awful ability to compartmentalize our fellow human beings as “others,” as “not like us,” and I contend that we need fewer compartments.
Still, I keep hearing that phrase bounce around in my head here in Havana, because I regularly receive $3 CUC bills as change here. (The CUC, or the convertible peso, is the Cuban tourist currency. It’s worth pretty much the same as the US dollar.)
The first time I got one, it looked like play money to me; really, any time we get used to a new currency, it takes awhile for it to seem like real money. The denomination is so different from what I’m used to that I did a double-take, and then the ugly phrase rang in my mind.
Queer as a three-dollar bill.
Honestly, there are aspects of living in Cuba, ones that have nothing to do with being gay, that seem most accurately summed up by that phrase. When we drive around and I see beautiful homes or buildings sagging with neglect and decay, it’s hard to understand how anyone would allow such beauty to come to ruin, especially when the goal of the government (as I perceive it) is to achieve a society in which everyone is educated and has access to medical care. Why would you allow your physical assets to rot while trying to reach a higher level of education and health for all citizens? That is strangeness that I find so incomprehensible as to make the goals appear counterfeit to me.
Also, everywhere you look, you see the name “Palco”: on small restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, real estate companies, tourism offices, and so on. Palco is the government-run business group. What seems like free commerce at first glance is actually the government running everything. Imagine your grocery check-out person as a federal employee. Or try finding a better cell-phone plan when all the cell-phone companies are not just regulated, but actually run by the federal government. Government posing as commerce? Yeah, that feels inauthentic, coming from an American point of view.
The faces I see most often here in Havana are those of Fidel Castro (naturally), Che Guevara (more than Castro, surprisingly), and José Martí, a Cuban from the second half of the 19th century who strongly opposed colonial rule of Cuba. (In fairness, I must tell you that both sides of the Cuba debate point to Martí as one of their heroes.) Signs everywhere celebrate “The Revolution,” “The Party,” and important dates in revolutionary history. Repetition of an idea often promotes wider acceptance of that idea, and the government here clearly subscribes to that belief. In between the kids’ school and our house, a ten-minute ride, I counted at least five pro-government notices. The constant barrage of one-sided political messages? Well, just having come off an election year in Washington, D.C., last year, let me tell you, political ads often ring false in the U.S., yes, but I certainly heard no shortage of opposing viewpoints. So this inundation of signs for only the ruling government makes me peer closer, worrying about a simulacrum of public support.
In between these almost-constant reminders, other faces peek out in surprising places: Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley on old records at an open-air market, Margaret Mitchell, Malcolm X, or W.E.B. Dubois from books on bookstore shelves, or the Little Prince (of the children’s book) painted on bathtubs in a short street completely covered in murals and art made of recycled materials. They catch me off-guard; they are not at all what I expected to find in Havana.
Sometimes life has a way of feeling the least authentic even when I know how important it is to be noticing reality around you every day. Instead, it feels like play money. It tempts me to believe that tossing words around carelessly is okay. It offers me something false – a sense of being able to dismiss other points of view as invalid instead of trying to soak up every lesson I can, even if (maybe especially if) I don’t change my mind. That sense of entitlement could cause me to look down on people for sexual orientation, political viewpoint, level of education, or many other ways of saying “other.”
But to buy into that falsehood is to allow myself to become inauthentic. Fake. And you know by now exactly what mean-spirited phrase would come to mind for me.
I won’t say it again. But I’ll be guarding against it every time I pocket my change here in Havana, and I hope from now on.