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Cuba’s first male-to-female transsexual is Mavi Suzell, a stout yet handsome woman who seems very comfortable with her identity and her place in gay Cuban history. The 50-year-old Suzell said that her operation on May 22, 1988 not only changed her sexual identity but her life as well. “Before my procedure, I suffered a lot emotionally,” declared Suzell. “Now I am fully accepted as I was not before. I have the admiration of people who before didn’t understand what I was all about.” Reflecting on her former self, Suzell explained, “There was a period of time where I suffered a lot, and I was even rejected by the gay community. They used to say I was crazy. They had no contact with this type of situation (so) they didn’t understand it. They told me I could never achieve what I wanted and that I couldn’t live in this way. Since my procedure, I have been able to achieve things that I could not otherwise have achieved. And I have achieved more understanding from other people.” The fact that Suzell’s surgery took place at all is even more astonishing considering that the year before her operation, the Human Rights Watch reported that the Cuban government had heightened its harassment of homosexuals by “raiding nightclubs known to have gay clientele and allegedly beating and detaining dozens of patrons.” 1
Soon after Suzell’s procedure, government bureaucracy and extreme homophobia fueled by age-old taboos halted sex change operations. However, again thanks to the work of CENESEX, others like Suzell, wishing to undergo a change in sexual identity, can do so lawfully and with full financial support of Cuba’s state run health care system.
Another transsexual, “Raven”, who is hoping to someday undergo the change, had a harder struggle embracing her identity. She admitted, “When I first discovered my identity as a teenager, I couldn’t go to public acts (dressed as a female) because I would be turned away. People were very disagreeable with me and made my life miserable. There was period of time where I suffered and lot. I was even rejected by the gay community because they used to say I was crazy. They didn’t understand me. They told me I could never achieve what I wanted and that I couldn’t live in this way.” Pausing, her eyes opened wide and a smile warmed her expression, “Ironically, my family always accepted my situation even from the time I was a child. But now, I’m living a fuller life and, yes, I’m happy.”
Knowing that most Cubans live at home with their families, I figured it must be difficult for those who are in relationships, or those who want to hook up for a sexual rendezvous, to find “alone time”, especially when they are not out to their families. While speaking with a young gay couple, I just had to ask the obvious: “When and where do you have sex?” The reply from one was succinct, “It’s difficult to get private space, but we manage.”
One afternoon, I encountered another gay couple in their late-teens who have been dating for a month. In their newfound attraction and excitement the pair could not keep their hands off of each other. Walking through the streets of Havana with them provided a study of just how far Cuba has truly come. The lovebirds held hands and were quite affectionate with one another, often stealing lingering kisses on the lips. In broad daylight. Having visited Cuba many times, I was stunned by their confidence and unconcern. I was also amazed there were no looks of disgust, no double takes, no jeers, and not one snicker from passersby’s. In fact, the people who noticed the gay couple didn’t look at them any differently than if they had been a young heterosexual couple.
As we stopped in the doorway of an apartment complex, I asked the young lovers if they would pose for some photos. As they snuggled into each other’s arms and gazed longingly at each other, I noticed a woman across the street, standing on her veranda, with a direct bird’s eye view of the boys. Nervous that she might shout out some homophobic slur or alert the police, I girded myself for some kind of scene and snapped as fast as I could. But she calmly stood on her terrace and watched the photo shoot as if this was an everyday occurrence. She seemed completely unfazed. As we walked away, I glanced back to gauge her reaction, seeing only a look of curiosity.
Two lesbians, who are 30 and 31 years old respectively, have been together 5 years. They live openly with one of the women’s family. She smiled, “We are an unusual couple for Cuba I guess you could say. My family is supportive and knows fully of our relationship. We have our own bedroom and are affectionate with one another in front of the family. They don’t have a problem at all.” The other partner chimes in laughingly, “Yes we are unusual to say the least”!
On the flip side, there are probably many more stories which reflect the realities of Alejandro, a 30-something bi-sexual man who lives a closeted life, mainly for fear of backlash from his family and job. Working at a supermarket in the outlying town of Artemesia (a 45-minute drive from Havana), the gangly man likes to visit Havana to get lost in the anonymity of the big city. “Here I don’t have to look over my shoulder and wonder if people know about me. It’s a great distraction from the everyday rut of living in a smaller town.”
Moderating an IDAHO seminar, Camilo Garcia’s partner, Dr. Alberto Roque challenged the crowd to continue the steadfast fight for equality. The road ahead may be long, but if Cuba’s LGBT community adheres to Roque’s advice, and his leadership through example, the journey will undoubtedly yield significant growth in awareness and tolerance on this island nation. Roque avowed, “To love is to learn how to emancipate ourselves and to defend the values that are important to you at whatever cost. Let’s defend this love with our audacity and intelligence without violating ethical principles. It’s a mosaic of possibilities and rights. Let’s look for these rights and let’s look for alternatives. Above all, let’s look for love.”
1 Human Rights Watch World Report 1998 (Cuba) – Wikipedia