Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Proposed Reform Would Give Gay Couples Equal Rights

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Jun 15 2007 (IPS) - Cuba could become the first Caribbean island nation to recognise the civil and inheritance rights of gay and lesbian couples, if a proposed reform of the Family Code is approved.

“I can’t guarantee that it will reach parliament this year,” said sexologist Mariela Castro, director of the governmental National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX). “That is our hope, but it does not depend on us, and of course, it is facing a great deal of resistance,” she told IPS.

Opponents of the measure set forth arguments like “Cuban society is not prepared” or “this is not the right time.”

Castro, meanwhile, recognises that “laws by themselves are not sufficient to bring about real change,” although they are indispensable for the design of public policies.

Drawn up by the non-governmental Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) with support from CENESEX, the draft reform of the Family Code has been presented to the Political Bureau, the highest body of the ruling Communist Party. “We are waiting for approval in order to introduce it to parliament as a draft law,” said Castro.

The proposal would give homosexual couples the same civil and inheritance rights as heterosexual couples. However, it does not mention gay marriage, because a change of that magnitude would require a lengthy process of reforming the constitution, which was last amended in 1992.

“That proposal will be made when the time is ripe. For now, it is sufficient to reform the Family Code, which is recognised as a branch of Cuban law,” said Castro, who is the daughter of Raúl Castro, acting president while his brother Fidel convalesces from a series of intestinal operations.

Article 36 of the Cuban constitution rules out the possibility of homosexual marriage by establishing that “marriage is the voluntary union between a man and a woman.”

But Cuban laws give married couples the same rights as common law couples who are not linked by any legal contract, and grant the same rights to children whether they are born within or outside of matrimony, to married, cohabiting, separated or divorced couples, or to single mothers.

“The political will exists to eliminate all forms of discrimination in our laws,” said Castro during a presentation of the proposed reform on the last day of the Fifth International Congress on Culture and Development, held Jun. 11-14 in Havana. The theme of the conference, which drew some 600 people from 60 countries, was “defence of cultural diversity.”

Abelardo Estorino, Cuba’s foremost living playwright, told IPS that he was surprised by how advanced the proposal is and how fast Cuba is catching up to the relatively small group of countries that recognise the rights of homosexual couples.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, laws on gay rights have only been approved in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, while draft laws are under consideration in Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile and Uruguay.

And in the Caribbean, there are countries like Jamaica that still have laws on the books that severely punish homosexual relations.

In Cuba, “ostentatious public displays of homosexuality” were illegal for decades, as were “bothering” other people with homosexual requests or proposals and displays of homosexuality “in public or in private places exposed to being involuntarily seen by other people.”

After the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959, hundreds of homosexuals were among those placed in the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPs) – forced labour camps in the countryside – in the 1960s.

And until the early 1980s, homosexuality was viewed as a form of deviation incompatible with the Cuban revolution, and sufficient grounds for exclusion from university studies or job positions demanding high degrees of trust.

But experts say that the 1997 reform of the penal code “purged” all homophobic measures from Cuban legislation.

The Family Code, which was originally approved in 1975 and submitted to a review process by the FMC since about 15 years ago, would now stipulate that the family has the responsibility and duty to accept and care for all of its members, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

If the initiative is approved, gay and lesbian couples would enjoy the same civil, patrimonial, inheritance, housing and adoption rights as heterosexual couples.

Norma Guillart, an expert involved in the work of a group of lesbians in CENESEX, told IPS that the reform would also recognise the right of any woman to assisted reproduction services, which are currently limited to married couples.

Mentioning major advances that have been made, Castro said that even though the proposed reform has not yet been introduced to parliament, CENESEX has already begun to work with the Public Health Ministry to help three lesbian couples gain access to assisted reproduction services.

Over the past few years, Cuban state-run television has begun to open up to the issue of sexual diversity. For the first time, it broadcast this year the 1993 Oscar-nominated film “Strawberry and Chocolate”, whose main story line revolves around the friendship between a gay man and a young Communist militant.

However, Castro said that “unfortunately, very little” support has been received from the local media, a state monopoly.

With regard to the need for the debate to transcend the limits of a cultural congress, specialised publications or academic circles, journalist and writer Jaime Sarusky, a National Literature Prize-winner, told IPS that “the important thing is how to get all of this to the people.”

The FMC-CENESEX proposal would reform several laws, and would be somewhat complementary to the national strategy to address the needs of transvestites, transsexuals and trans-gender persons, promoted by CENESEX since late 2004.

The strategy, “which is already being put into effect,” as Castro revealed to IPS, has helped to get transvestites and transsexuals accepted into secondary school or institutions of higher learning and has involved awareness-raising efforts among the police.

In addition, gender reassignment operations will begin to be carried out. Only one such surgery was performed in Cuba, in 1989.

“Nearly everything is ready,” said Castro. “An internal Public Health Ministry regulation has authorised the performance of this surgery by the specialised health services, and work has been carried out in training staff and acquiring technology, medical supplies and prosthetics.”

The operations may begin this year, she said. The applicants are among a group of 24 transsexuals who have received support from CENESEX since 1979 and who in many cases have already had their names changed on their identity documents. Around 40 other cases are also being studied.

The question of gay and lesbian adoption is the aspect that has run into the heaviest opposition. It was the focus of a debate Thursday in the International Congress on Culture and Development. “We have inherited a model of a patriarchal family, and are unable to break with that model, but we have to,” argued Castro.

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