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 in cahoots with the 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.
Don’t stop there, though. Look a little deeper. You will see advances in Cuba that may astonish and even inspire the most arrogant 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.
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. The heterosexual married mother of three 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-positive 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 CENESEX, safer=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.
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, with Castro-Espin at the helm, 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.
"Five years ago CENESEX and other groups began working to help educate families to accept gay & lesbian relationships," one CENESEX worker, Luis, explains. "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."
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.
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, her rhetoric was full of 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."
Proving that Cuba is in this fight for the long haul, she stated: "Gays are criminalized in 76 countries (throughout the world) and in five 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, she said, "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. 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 (as the International Day Against Homophobia is known) was the gay Belizean Ambassador to Cuba; and 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.
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 were 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 community’s 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 citizens, 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."
In Part Two, Byron Motley will talk to everyday Cuban gay men and lesbians about their lives and travel to the provinces for a look at gay life outside Havana.