BY GARY MARX | Chicago Tribune

It was bad enough when Belkis suspected that her husband, a construction worker and loving father named Yassel, was having an affair with another woman. Then she learned the truth: Yassel was in love with another man.

“You’re not a man, not a woman, nothing!” Belkis shouted. “I don’t want to see you again!”

The confrontation between Belkis and Yassel was a dramatic high point of a groundbreaking soap opera titled “The Dark Side of the Moon,” which in recent months has captivated and roiled this intensely macho nation.

While the soap opera’s five story lines all focus on HIV infection and AIDS, Cuban gays describe the second narrative capturing Yassel’s sexual awakening as a pivotal moment in this country’s long history of discrimination against homosexuals.

They say it is the first time Cuba’s state-run television has portrayed homosexuality openly and realistically, let alone during a prime-time soap opera, a must-see event for many of the island’s 11 million residents.

“Ten years ago this would have been impossible,” said Daniel Hernandez, a gay 22-year-old student. “A lot of things have evolved.”

Magda Gonzalez, chief of the drama division for the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, which oversees the nation’s television stations, said the series has been among the most-watched in Cuban history. Viewers have responded with a flood of mostly favorable e-mails, she said, and Yassel’s relationship has been grist for radio talk shows and newspaper articles.

“If you are going to talk about AIDS, then you have to deal with the theme of sex between men,” Gonzalez said.

Not everyone is pleased.

Ramiro Navarro, a 44-year-old security guard from Havana’s Regla neighborhood, said he was glued to the soap opera yet sickened by its portrayal of a married man involved with a male lover.

“The message of the soap opera is that you should accept people for who they are,” Navarro said. “I don’t agree with that. I am against homosexuality. It’s immoral.”

But Margarita Parrado, 35, of Havana said the soap opera’s message of tolerance is a step forward for Cuba. “Each person has their own way of living and you have to respect them,” she said. “Homosexuals are human beings too.”

While Cuba’s socialist government portrays itself as being dedicated to equality and justice, its leaders often have displayed little tolerance for those who do not fit their definition of a proper revolutionary.

During the two decades after Fidel Castro’s triumph in 1959, men sporting long hair, rock musicians and other Cubans deemed anti-social by Communist Party leaders were ostracized.

Cuban authorities viewed homosexuality as deviant behavior, and openly gay men and women were barred from top political positions and other jobs. Some homosexuals were sent to rehabilitation camps.

Official attitudes began to change in the late 1970s, and today Cuban gays say they suffer far less discrimination. Yet there are no prominent gay or lesbian organizations in Cuba, and no gay rights movement to speak of. Homosexuals say they are mostly tolerated rather than accepted.

“This is a macho society where, even now, a gay man hides being with another gay like me,” said Juan Miguel Mas, a 40-year-old dancer.

One of the few places in Cuba where gay men are not afraid to gather is along a narrow stretch of the Malecon, Havana’s sweeping seaside boulevard.

On a recent Saturday evening, dozens of men chatted, flirted and drank rum and cola from white plastic cups. Two of them kissed as uniformed police strolled by, checking identification and arresting those suspected of prostitution.

Perched on the seawall, Oswald Alarcon and several friends said the portrayal of Yassel’s homosexual relationship on television means that Cuban officialdom, which approves all programming, finally has acknowledged reality.

Even the award-winning 1993 Cuban film “Strawberry and Chocolate,” which told of the relationship between an intellectual homosexual and a devout communist, never was broadcast on Cuban television.

“There was never any space in the public discourse (about homosexuality). It’s as if gays didn’t exist,” explained Alarcon, 26, a biochemist.

“This is an important step in terms of getting the message about homosexuality to the people,” he said. “We’ve seen it in movies, but everyone watches the soap opera. It helps people understand what it means to be gay.”

Alarcon and his friends hope the series will lead to a broader acceptance. But the circumstances surrounding the telenovela, or soap opera, show how much ground needs to be covered.

The series is broadcast at 9:30 p.m. so fewer children will watch. The producers also were careful how they portrayed Yassel’s homosexual relationship. Yassel and his lover, Mario, are never shown kissing, hugging or holding hands.

“Images are very powerful,” said scriptwriter Freddy Dominguez. “There is a way to get the message across without offending the viewer.”

At the same time, the soap opera captured the homophobia that persists in Cuba and other Latin American nations, with the characters employing the derogatory word maricon to describe homosexuals.

In one emotional scene, Yassel’s mother, Marcia, pleads with her husband, David, to allow Yassel to live with them after his wife throws him out.

“This fairy is not my son,” responds David, his face twisting in anguish. “I raised a man, a man. ... Tell him to leave here and go far away.”

But David eventually accepted his son after learning Yassel had been infected with HIV.

In the end, Yassel also seems at peace with himself. “You don’t know what it’s like living with a mask, Belkis,” he says to his wife, “trying to please everyone in the world, repressing your desires and annulling who you are.”