Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

CUBA: Transvestites and Transsexuals Slowly Finding a Place in Society

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Oct 15 2004 (IPS) - Transvestites and transsexuals face varying degrees of discrimination and marginalisation all over the world, but in a country like Cuba, with a firmly entrenched culture of “machismo”, life can be even more challenging.

Between 1998 and 2003, psychologists Janet Mesa and Diley Hernández conducted an in-depth research project involving interviews with 19 Cuban transvestites and transsexuals. The results of their research were recently published in the Cuban cultural magazine Temas, and can also be seen in Spanish on the website of the state-run National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX).

Cuban transvestites and transsexuals are subject to conflicting emotions, in that “they feel proud of being Cuban, but find there is no place for them in Cuban society,” according to the report.

“Being Cuban has strong social, economic and cultural implications, and this has contributed to the shaping of an identity that is very different from that of individuals in other places and other cultures,” they add.

In this socialist Caribbean island nation, there is no law that penalises sexual diversity, but there is no law protecting it, either. In addition, there is a lack of organisations that defend the rights of sexual minorities, and any initiatives in this area must be undertaken by state institutions.

Hernández and Mesa’s study is groundbreaking in that it deals with a sector of Cuban society that has been largely ignored. While there has been growing recognition and acceptance of gays and lesbians on the island, transvestites and transsexuals have never before been considered as a distinct social group.

The term transvestite is normally used to refer to individuals who dress in the manner of the opposite sex – in this case, men who dress as women, since no female-to-male transvestites were included in the study. Often they will limit their “cross-dressing” to specific times or occasions, adopting a male gender role the rest of the time.

Transsexuals, on the other hand, are people who feel they have been “born into the wrong body” and choose to fully adopt the gender role and appearance of the opposite sex.

In some countries, transsexuals can undergo gender reassignment surgery, more commonly known as a sex change operation, but this is not available in Cuba, where the health care system is fully state-run. Only one operation of this kind has ever been carried out on the island, over ten years ago.

Thanks to the efforts of CENESEX, however, Cuban transsexuals now have the possibility of having their legal identification documents changed to reflect their chosen gender.

But despite small advances like this, the majority of transsexuals and transvestites are still subject to a high degree of social marginalisation.

The discrimination and intolerance they face stems largely from the machismo and homophobia that prevail in Cuban culture, although their marginalisation is economic as well as social.

Almost all of the subjects interviewed had low educational levels as a result of dropping out of school at a relatively young age, typically during adolescence.

This is the stage when sexual identities become more defined, the report explains, and those who choose to assume the identity that feels most natural to them will typically pay the price of rejection and exclusion by their peers.

The researchers also found that although there are no legal prohibitions with regard to employment for these individuals, it is almost impossible for them to find jobs.

“Social stereotypes make it unacceptable to employ a man dressed as a woman,” the report explains.

As a result, most end up working in privately run businesses, like hair salons, and almost none are employed in the state sector, where they would have access to the benefits of social security. Professional frustration is common.

Transvestites and transsexuals tend to face economic instability, typically living in substandard housing and sharing small spaces with large numbers of other people with equally low levels of education, the report said.

The situation improves somewhat in the case of transvestites who limit their cross-dressing to certain times or occasions. The fact that they adopt a masculine image during the day gives them greater access to employment, and therefore to a higher standard of living.

Marginalisation often leads to vulnerability for transsexuals and transvestites. Some turn to prostitution as a means of making a living. Others are victims of violence inflicted by their partners, usually men who classify themselves as heterosexual, despite the fact that they are involved in homosexual relationships.

Hernández and Mesa’s findings were similar to those of an earlier study by Ada Alfonso and Mayra Rodríguez, specialists at CENESEX, who also reported that transvestites and transsexuals were at high risk for school drop-out, limited employment opportunities, social isolation and psychological and physical violence in their relationships.

There have been very few studies on sexual minorities in general in Cuba, and most are quite recent and poorly disseminated. The majority are related to the national AIDS prevention programme and “high risk” behaviours among men who engage in sex with other men.

Transvestites and transsexuals have gained a higher social profile in Cuba – or at least in the capital, Havana – since the early 1990s, when private and largely underground bars and cabarets featuring performances by transvestites began to emerge. Drag shows have also been organised from time to time in state-run venues, although these initiatives have tended to be short-lived.

For the majority of the subjects interviewed by Mesa and Hernández, the only possible professional fulfilment has come through participating in shows of this kind. Performing onstage is a way of escaping marginalisation and earning social recognition and appreciation.

In general, the researchers found, transvestites and transsexuals prefer the night to the daytime. “There is less possibility of social censure at night, because it is easier to pass unnoticed,” they explained.

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