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On the outside looking in, one would assume that Cuba is stuck in a proverbial time warp. Marked by decaying buildings, antiquated facades and vintage automobiles, it seems that the island once ruled by Mafioso bosses and gluttonous dictator Fulgencio Batista during the 1940’s and ’50’s has progressed little since the U.S. placed a trade embargo on the island in the early 1960’s. But, look a little deeper and you will see advances in Cuba that may astonish and even inspire the most proud of Americans.
Amazingly, Cuba is far more progressive when it comes to social issues than one might realize. For years the island has been working to overcome racial issues that have dogged the country since its pre-Revolutionary days. More recently, one of the most impressive current day issues leading social and political reform is that of equal rights for the islands’ Lesbian, Gay Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) community.
From May 3 to May 19, Cuba celebrated its fourth annual International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) in Havana and Santiago de Cuba (Cuba’s second largest city in its southern province). The two-week event included symposiums, lectures, films, art exhibits and a theatrical festival, headlined by Cuban superstar, singer Haila Mompie.
Touting this year’s theme “Humanity is Diverse”, members from Cuba’s LGBT community and its supporters were out in full force to revel and participate in a show of solidarity.
Leading this unique revolution on the behalf of the LGBT community is activist Mariela Castro-Espin, the 48-year-old daughter of Cuba’s President, Raul Castro, and niece of Fidel Castro. Heterosexual and a married mother of three, Castro-Espin is going into her tenth year as director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) in Havana. Government funded, CENESEX campaigns for LGBT rights and has been at the forefront on AIDS prevention education.
Until recently, the Cuban government had been largely unresponsive to gay rights issues in general. Much less so were its efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. Even though many early infected persons were heterosexual aid workers who had returned to the island from work in other developing countries, it was still considered by the government and society at large as a “gay problem”. In the mid-1980’s, HIV+ Cubans were quarantined to treatment centers and educational opportunities were missed and outright ignored. The government was doing little, so a decade ago, the gay community stepped up to the plate and began efforts to rectify the problem by bringing together members of the LGBT community to create a grass-roots effort. Taking the HIV issue head on, mostly through the work of the CENESEX organization, safe sex classes are taught several times a week and HIV prevention pamphlets and condoms are commonly given out. The government fully backs the work of CENESEX and now Cuba can boast that it has the lowest HIV rate in the Americas, and one of the lowest ratios in the world.
Further progressing Cuba’s stance on homosexuality was an unprecedented admission in 2010 by the country’s iconic former president, Fidel Castro. Acknowledging that past transgressions against homosexuals whilst he was in power was “a great injustice”, El Comandante took responsibility for the half-century-long mistreatment of thousands of gays. Castro stated that “We had so many and such terrible problems, problems of life or death. In those moments I was not able to deal with that matter [of homosexuals].” Blaming Cuba’s pre-revolutionary attitudes toward homosexuality as the crux of the negative treatment of gays, he went a step further, shocking many, when he declared that homosexuality is a “natural aspect and tendency of human beings.”
In recent years, Cuba’s LGBT community has made tremendous strides in terms of visibility, awareness and acceptance. Change over the years, while slow and methodical, has become noticeably apparent. Although there is much to be done, Cuba is arguably one of the most progressive Latin-American countries regarding gay rights and societal tolerance. As one CENESEX worker, Luis, explains, “Five years ago CENESEX and other groups began working to help educate families to accept gay & lesbian relationships. We try to explain that if the family rejects a gay person, it is more dangerous for that person. If the family rejects us, where are we going to go? Family is family, and family must accept us the way we are. Because we are sons, we are mothers, we are husbands, we are fathers, we are daughters. We are everyone.”
Mariela Castro-Espin is an affable yet feisty intellectual, whose presence commands attention and inspires passion. Her political lineage no doubt gives her an edge in the fight for those who might otherwise continue to be overlooked, or worst, vilified. She is the ideal leader for the cause. As a “Castro” she is instantly recognizable, a celebrity known throughout the country, which brings weight to her words. As a heterosexual, she is able to reach a wider audience of Cuban citizens. She evokes the power and passion of Eva Peron combined with the wisdom and insight of Hillary Clinton, yet she is remarkably accessible. Her girl-next-door demeanor and welcoming smile have earned her the nickname “Sangreliviana” (sweet blood). It cannot be understated how truly loved Castro-Espin is by the LGBT community and how much she loves them in return. The mutual level of respect is palpable.
Pedro Monzon, Cuba’s current Ambassador to Australia, noted, “(The changes that) Mariela has made regarding human rights is very important and has been spirited and conscientious. Everybody can feel it. She is dedicated and working for the rights and equality of all people. The job she is doing is very systematic, influencing the whole society, day by day, year by year.” Monzon summed up his thoughts by saying, “(Mariela) has the heart of a Revolutionary! She is a revolutionary! How can she not be? It’s in her blood!
Before addressing the crowd at the initial gathering at the historic La Rampa theatre in the Vedado section of Havana, Castro-Espin privately complained to me that she was losing her voice and was feeling slightly under the weather. However, when she took the stage, there was no evidence of a weak throat or feeble body. As usual, she was on fire! Her delivery was powerful and passionate. She told the audience, “Why should we discriminate when it comes to race, religion and sex? No differences should exist in any way. That is why we organize this International Day Against Homophobia. We do it to make people aware.” She went on to say, “We have to destroy all forms of discrimination. Let’s do away with homophobia. Let’s defend the solution as a paradigm of emancipation for all human beings.”
Poised and passionate, Castro-Espin instills a sense of urgency for tolerance: “Society has been based on discrimination. People have dominated other peoples based on what they believe in. We have to stop this! We have to continue to establish other types of relationships, not relationships based on superiority and inferiority between humans.” Proving that Cuba is in this fight for the long haul, she stated, “Gays are criminalized in 76 countries (throughout the world) and in 5 countries (gays) still get life sentences. This is one of the reasons why Cuba is committed with the International community to de-penalize the LGBT population and to continue to fight for equality. It is important for us here to be respectful of all human life.”
While some cynics might minimize a “straight” person’s effectiveness in leading a gay rights movement, Castro-Espin kindly refuted this notion: “(The issue of homosexuality) is pertinent to my work and profession. Because of my background, both educationally and familial, I could provoke and initiate a debate because I had professional standing in this area.” She continues, “But I am not only involved in this struggle, but I am involved also with the struggles against racism, the struggles for women’s and children’s rights….and against war!” Keeping true to her political roots Castro-Espin announced “With this (work) we are also supporting and helping the development of Socialism.”
Adding an international presence at this year’s IDAHO was the gay Belizean Ambassador to Cuba; Barbara Hoell, a former member of Germany’s parliamentary party who is heterosexual and is now the LGBT spokesperson of the parliamentary leftist party Die Linke. Representing the United States were Wilfred Labiosa, of the National Latino LGBT Human Rights Organization, and this writer/photographer.
I was honored to be asked by the organizing committee to exhibit 30 of my male subject photographs in conjunction with this year’s IDAHO. My exhibit “Amantes, Amores y Pasiones – Lovers, Loves and Lusts” marks the first time an American photographer has been invited to participate in this event. Because of the erotic nature of the photos, my exhibit was called “scandalous yet a breakthrough”. I am thrilled to have participated.
Overall, the events in Cuba are less celebratory and more cerebral in natural. It was explained to me that the approach of IDAHO is more “scientific” in thought as opposed to an “in your face” stance in order to be more encompassing and to reach more people. The purpose is to be as inclusive as possible and to offend as few people as possible. After all the ideal of “anti-homophobia” is a relatively new venture for a Cuban society rooted in machismo.
Although Castro-Espin is Cuba’s gay communities most outspoken and unquestionable staunchest advocate, in a revealing moment, she admitted, “I am just like everyone else, and have to face daily things that society doesn’t teach you. Sometimes I have thought of what would happen if some of my children were to come out as gay. I know it would be difficult for me, but I also know I would have to understand. I would have to ask other mothers ‘how did u do it’? What I am sure of however, is that I would not discriminate against my child. We are in a society that is going to make them suffer enough, so the one thing I would do is to help make them strong when facing those hostilities. As I have been working with others, I would also give (my child) confidence, love, and the resources to respect themselves.”
As Cuba continues its journey to garner equality for all her citizen’s, Mariela and the others involved in the cause know it will take more time but are happy to continue the necessary work of breaking down barriers. Mariela summed up her work and hopes by saying thoughtfully, “My hope is that the gay community and the non-gay community learn how to respect each other. To overcome their prejudices and learn how to understand even the things they don’t understand yet. For now that would good. Later we’ll get more.”