The first time I met Michael Petrelis was minutes after landing at José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba. It was May 2018, and along with Hornet’s video editor, I was on the island to document Cuba’s country-wide celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), which takes place worldwide each year. Michael was a friendly face that night in the airport, decked out head-to-toe in full rainbow gear and gung-ho to spread a little gay cheer to all Cubans.
Like us, Michael was in Cuba last May for IDAHOT, and he’d arrived on a mission: With literally hundreds of rainbow trinkets in tow — rainbow and trans flags, bracelets and stickers — he planned to dole them out to queer Cubans at the planned festivities. It didn’t take long to uncover that this man, a longtime San Francisco-based LGBT activist, cared for the island of Cuba and its residents. Which makes it all the more upsetting that he’s now apparently unable to return to a place he loves.
Just two weeks ago, Michael Petrelis was set to visit Cuba for his fourth time. As he’d done in the past, he flew from San Francisco to Cancún, where he would board a plane to Havana. But upon check-in for the last leg of his trip — a visa must be purchased at the airport by Americans seeking entry into Cuba — an employee of Interjet Airlines informed him that Cuban immigration authorities had denied him entry into the country.
Disappointed but determined to get to the bottom of why he’d been denied entry, Michael boarded a plane later that night, returning to San Francisco.
Michael Petrelis first visited Cuba in March 2018
Raised in New Jersey, Michael Petrelis tells me his interest in Cuba was first sparked back in Social Studies class in the mid-’70s. “We studied Cuba, and we were told that everyday, school children would have to sing ‘The Internationale,’ the communist solidarity song,” he says. It wasn’t until March 2018, though, that he was able to visit the island for the first time.
That March, Michael and his husband vacationed in Puerto Vallarta and continued their trip in Havana, where he had a few contacts he’d met through Facebook.
“When I arrived there and got my bearings, I found that I was embraced as an openly gay man,” he says. “I brought a rainbow cape with me, and I would get a lot of attention for wearing this cape. It sparked a good number of conversations with people on the street. They certainly knew, looking at me, that I was not a Cuban, and when they came over to me, one thing they really wanted was to practice their English.”
He noticed, however, that there were no rainbow flags to be found on the island.
“It was really hard to find rainbow flags anywhere, whether it was on a stand, or someone wearing a rainbow as a piece of jewelry,” Michael says. “And talking to folks, I asked if they would appreciate me coming back with a whole bunch of rainbow items, without any message. In other words, I didn’t have a political agenda per se, in terms of gay marriage. There was no gay marriage message on any of my rainbow materials. These were just rainbow gifts to share. And Cubans by and large said to me, yes, please come back for IDAHOT, and bring whatever rainbows you can.”
He tells me that much like the gay hanky code of decades gone by, for some gay Cubans, sporting a rainbow was a simple ‘gay identifier.’ He says, “I felt like it was my duty as a global gay activist to respond to their needs for rainbows as way to show their pride.”
Upon heading back to the United States, Michael Petrelis began a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for rainbow items. He ultimately raised $1,500 (an amount that Hornet matched) and spent it on rainbow flags, jewelry, hats, stickers and shipping costs.
It was Michael’s next trip to Cuba, for IDAHOT 2018, when I witnessed firsthand his mission to spread the rainbow far and wide in Cuba. That year the festivities for IDAHOT, comparable to Pride celebrations elsewhere in the world, took place both in Havana and in the province of Pinar del Río. (Each year a different province of the island is chosen to play host.)
Amid Michael’s bombardment by swarms of queer Cubans asking for his rainbow trinkets, he was able to snap a pic with Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban National Center for Sexual Education, CENESEX, which produces Cuba’s IDAHOT celebration each year. Just days before, Castro had participated in a press conference in which she said she’d push for same-sex marriage to be included in a constitutional reform process, and spoke of the need for harsher punishment for LGBTQ hate crimes.
Mariela Castro and Michael Petrelis posed for a photo (you’ll find it at the top of this story), Castro smiling and holding one of Michael’s homemade IDAHOT signs, and the duo holding the trans flag. “That image is so powerful,” Michael says. “Here’s the Cuban revolution. I’m embracing the revolution with my arm around Mariela. We’re displaying the trans flag. You can see my rainbow cape. Then we have a sign promoting IDAHOT. What we did there was feed four birds with one seed, and that was something good, in terms of me as a gay activist from America, building solidarity with Mariela Castro and the revolution.”
“So that was May last year,” Michael Petrelis tells Hornet. “I come back to San Francisco, I take classes to brush up on my Spanish and then I return to Cuba on Jan. 2 of this year. And then things had changed.”
Michael Petrelis’s third trip to Cuba was in January 2019
“In January, I went back to Cuba by myself, and I had one big suitcase stuffed with rainbow trinkets,” Michael says. “Right after I got through immigration at the Jose Martí airport in Havana, I got a tap on the shoulder, and an immigration agent who spoke English asked me to come with him to answer a few questions. That began my surveillance and engagement with the Cuban government, which came with a lot of restrictions on me.”
Michael Petrelis had heavily documented both of his previous trips to the island nation on social media, with photos and posts about his adventures and new friends. Cuban immigration officials had printouts of his Facebook page, on which he’d previously laid out his travel plans. During a 30-to-40-minute interview by Cuban authorities, he was questioned as to why he’d brought all the rainbows. “That was the primary question: ‘Why so many of these items?'” he says.
When Michael asked if he might be deported, the Cuban authorities told him no. “I was told I had nothing to worry about,” he says, “but on the other hand, they made it clear they were gonna come visit me where I was staying. They wanted to know where I was staying, and they wanted to see my ticket to leave the country, too.”
Michael feels it was his openness in sharing his past Cuban exploits on Facebook that ultimately got him in trouble with the nation’s authorities.
“I now have hundreds of Facebook friends, and there are many Cuban eyeballs looking at my Facebook page,” he says, referring to both expats and some queer Cubans who still live on the island. “And I have been chastised by many Cuban gays for putting all my stuff publicly on the web. But that’s how I am — I’m a flamboyant, out-of-the-closet organizer here, you know? That’s how we do things here. But by Cuban standards, sharing information like this is not accepted, and many Cuban gays are just so sorry that I was so public, because that’s what got me in trouble.”
“The Cuban government eyeballs are on my Facebook page, and I was very cognizant of that in January, when I was dealing with the restrictions that were placed upon me,” he says. Carlos, the Cuban Interior Ministry agent assigned to monitor Michael, interviewed him for two hours the day after his arrival in January. That’s when he was told he could attend no meetings or public gatherings, including one of the reasons he’d traveled to the island in the first place, a human rainbow flag demonstration in John Lennon Park. (Michael had spoken of that event in particular on Facebook before heading to Cuba.) He was also told he couldn’t distribute any of his rainbow items; they were all to be donated to CENESEX.
Upon his return to the United States, the Washington Blade ran a story sharing the news that a prominent American LGBT activist had been “harassed” by the Cuban government. That open criticism of the Cuban government — known to be a bad idea by locals and many tourists alike — most likely contributed to Michael’s incident last month in which he was prevented from entering the country altogether.
Last month Michael Petrelis was denied entry into Cuba
“I flew overnight to Cancun, and when I got to the Interjet check-in desk for the flight to Havana, the ticket agent said, ‘Oh, there’s been a change in your reservation,’ which I of course denied,” Michael says. “I hadn’t made any change. I’ve just flown overnight. I didn’t change anything. They said, ‘Oh, wait a minute, there’s a note attached to your reservation from the airline.'”
The note was courtesy of Cuban immigration authorities, a generic message denying Michael Petrelis entry into the country. No reason was given. Michael asked the ticket agent to print out the message, but was told “We can’t print out anything.” Instead he had the agent write down the message for him and was able to snap a picture of it.
Michael says he never did get anything in writing from the Cuban government. “I understand this is standard operating procedure for the Cuban government,” he says. “The activists who have been and are harassed or monitored in Cuba, they’re always getting visits; they’re always having these interviews. Rarely is anything put down on paper.”
He’s exploring his options, but Michael Petrelis may not be able to return to Cuba
Upon returning stateside, Michael has made efforts to reach out to Mariela Castro and CENESEX. He says he posted an appeal on the organization’s site and also sent it to “eight or 10 friends” at CENESEX, asking them to forward it Castro’s way. (You can read it here.) He’s sent a certified letter to the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. and says he’s applied to the embassy for a tourist visa for the month of May. Michael wants to return for IDAHOT 2019.
So far he’s heard nothing back from anyone.
“Even if the Cuban government were, by a miracle, to contact me from the embassy and say, ‘Yes, we grant you a visa,’ I would still be very nervous until I actually arrived at Jose Martí airport,” Michael says.
He’s sad and disappointed that he might not see his Cuban friends again, and says it’s been difficult to see pictures of Cuba’s vibrant queer community while he’s unable to join them. But regardless of whether he’s able to return to Cuba, Michael Petrelis is proud of what he’s accomplished on the island thus far.
He’s built solidarity with the island’s locals, who have embraced him. During his January trip, when he was unable to attend the human rainbow flag ceremony, it took place still, in Michael’s honor, and similar ceremonies are continuing to take place, outside of state-sanctioned organizing. The queer community of Cuba is now organizing itself. “That’s just amazing,” he says.
Michael believes the Cuban government is missing out on a great opportunity; he says letting him return to the country, rainbows in tow, would “reap tons of good publicity” for the government, which wants to court American dollars. Presenting themselves as progressive on LGBTQ rights could help with that.
“Letting me come in would show they can accept mild criticism, and that the work I do with the activists is building solidarity,” he says. “They could make lemonade out of this lemons, if you will.”
I can tell that Cuba will always hold a special place in Michael’s heart, regardless of whether he’s able to return for IDAHOT this year or is never allowed to step foot on the island again. And he’s never going to stop his activism work, even if going forward it has to happen from afar.
“It’s been such a privilege to have been to Cuba three times as this important community is blossoming. They planted seeds themselves in the past few years, you know, for demanding gay marriage. And I just came along at the right time with rainbows and, I don’t know, I’m just trying to find the balance of not being too big-headed about what I’ve done, but also recognizing just how wonderful it’s been to have engaged with these people. Even when I didn’t have trinkets to hand out in January, they still were embracing what I was saying,” he says. “There’s really only just good coming out of this work I was doing with them.”