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CUBA: Familiarity Breeds Tolerance for Sexual Diversity, Specialists Hope

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Oct 12 2004 (IPS) - They were born men, but they rarely refer to themselves as such. They are Cuba’s transvestites and transsexuals, who are increasingly determined to defend their right to be themselves when they leave the refuge of their homes dressed as women.

In their own neighbourhoods, they are usually well-known and largely accepted, but the real world starts when they venture out into the rest of the city. Nevertheless, very few say they have been the targets of physical violence or any other direct attacks in public places.

In Cuba, murders of gays, transvestites or transsexuals are almost unheard of, unlike many other parts of the world.

An alarming example is Brazil, where the murders of 132 homosexuals were reported in 2001 alone, and 41 of the victims were transvestites.

But life is still far from a bed of roses for sexual minorities in Cuba. “We aren’t mistreated, but we aren’t totally accepted by the majority, either. We’re kind of kept at a distance. People think we’re just homosexuals, and don’t understand why we dress like women,” explained Chabeli, a 26-year-old transvestite

With her long black hair pulled into a braid and the youthful glow of a teenage girl, Chabeli says she has never felt rejected by her family. “And nothing bad has ever happened to me on the street,” she added.

Although she works in the field of AIDS prevention and awareness-raising among her peers, in addition to performing as a drag artist, she has found herself in a police station on more than one occasion, whenever a problem arises that sheds suspicion on the gay and transvestite community.

The anti-homosexual Public Ostentation Law, enacted in the 1930s, was finally repealed in 1988. But men who dress as women or women who dress as men can still be charged for the crime of peligrosidad – literally, “dangerousness”, loosely defined as “anti-social” behaviour or a “special proclivity” to commit crime – and face sentences of up to four years in prison, under the Cuban penal code.

“I live in an area of the city where there are a lot of transvestites and everyone knows you, starting with the police. Whenever there’s a problem, they pull everyone in, all together, as if we were all the same, prostitutes or criminals,” Chabeli said.

A series of incidents like these, reported this past summer, led the state-run National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX) to organise an education and awareness-raising seminar for police officers, in conjunction with the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees law enforcement.

CENESEX offers similar seminars, aimed at promoting understanding and sensitivity towards different sexual orientations, for a range of other social sectors, including university students, social workers and prisoners.

The less-than-tolerant attitudes towards any non-heterosexual behaviour in Cuba have traditionally been the result of a deep-rooted culture of “machismo”, which tends to breed homophobia, according to specialists.

CENESEX, while promoting respect for sexual diversity by raising public awareness, also provides special services for homosexuals, transvestites and transsexuals through its ties with the health care and education sectors.

Among a host of other initiatives, the centre offers a training course for health care counsellors to work in the sexual minority community. The centre has also helped roughly 20 transsexuals – individuals born as males who permanently adopt a female identity – to have their name and gender changed on official identification documents.

“We make people uncomfortable, often because of ignorance. People don’t get enough information, and so they find it difficult to accept anyone who is different,” explained Dany (not her real name), a transsexual who works with CENESEX.

Dany found “a reason to live” when she started attending counselling sessions at the centre. Feeling like a woman is no longer a source of inner conflict, because she now lives her life as a woman, and even her ID reflects this fact. She is currently assisting in the training of health care counsellors.

Both Dany and Chabeli, along with other specialists consulted by IPS, say a lack of information on these issues in the Cuban media – a state monopoly – contributes to the intolerance towards sexual diversity.

“When people get to know us, it’s different. My neighbours defend me, and are really supportive and caring. People who know me accept me the way I am,” said Dany.

This tendency was reflected in a study carried out in Cuba between 1998 and 2003 by psychologists Janet Mesa and Diley Hernández. The results of their research, which included interviews with 19 transvestites and transsexuals, were published earlier this year in the Cuban magazine Temas.

After observing, in all of the cases they studied, that their subjects were largely accepted and often well-liked in the neighbourhoods where they grew up and lived, the authors were led to ask if intolerance towards transvestites and transsexuals is the result of beliefs and convictions, or simply a product of ignorance.

Although full social acceptance of sexual diversity may still be a distant goal in Cuba, there is at least growing awareness and discussion of the issue, thanks to initiatives like the Forum on Masculinity and Diversity, organised by CENESEX and attended by specialists from a range of different sectors.

Kiriam, a transvestite who lives for the stage, was hired this year by the Cuban Film Institute to appear in Havana Blues, a movie by Spanish director Benito Zembrano.

“It’s good for people to see transvestite performers, which is the world I represent. That way they know that we have something to offer, that we are artists, and can sing and dance,” she enthused.

“We want people to appreciate us for who we are. I don’t want to have to put on a baseball cap and a baggy T-shirt to go out on the street, just because that’s the way people want me to look. I want to go out dressed as what I am. Anything else is like wearing a disguise,” she said.

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