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Q&A: Righting Past Wrongs – Defending the Right to Sexual Diversity in Cuba

Interview with Mariela Castro

HAVANA, Dec 13 2007 (IPS) - Cuban sexologist Mariela Castro shocked the world, and a good number of people in Cuba, this year when she announced a proposed legal reform in this socialist Caribbean island nation which would include the full recognition of the rights of gays, lesbians, transsexuals, transvestites and transgender persons.



The director of the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), Castro has followed a strategy of awareness-raising on sexual diversity in Cuba since 2004, and is one of the few people in Latin America and the Caribbean to carry out a campaign of such magnitude on this issue from a government institution.

The CENESEX proposals include non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, recognition of de facto unions between same-sex couples, the right of same-sex couples to adopt children, and the responsibilities of families and society towards transsexuals, transvestites and transgender persons.

In an interview with IPS correspondent Dalia Acosta, the niece of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and daughter of acting President Raúl Castro said that although amending current laws would not imply an automatic change in social attitudes, it would lay the foundations for such a change and prompt the country’s institutions to move towards guaranteeing the rights of sexual minorities.

IPS: What stage is your proposal at?

MARIELA CASTRO: We have three draft proposals. The first is a Ministry of Public Health resolution to implement integral health care for transsexual persons, including the creation of a clinic to provide care, from diagnosis and hormonal treatment to sex-change operations and post-operative follow-up.

The second is to include sexual orientation and gender identity in a reform of the Family Code of 1975, and the related changes needed in other bodies of law. For instance, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security would need to pass a specific resolution to guarantee employment for transvestite or transsexual people, which is often difficult to find.

And lastly, we are preparing the arguments for a draft law on gender identity which will address, among other aspects, the fact that a transsexual person need not necessarily undergo an operation to change their gender identity.

IPS: The reform of the Family Code was in the hands of the Political Bureau of the ruling Communist Party in June. What is its status now?

MC: It’s going through a consultation process. The guidance we were given by the Party was that we should go ahead with educating the public before the draft reforms are set before the people. So right now we are focusing on an educational strategy, through the media.

IPS: Is the recommendation to prepare the public a good sign?

MC: I think it’s positive. The importance of the draft law has evidently been understood, but the feeling is also that the people deserve to be informed in advance, so that they do not take offence.

IPS: Will the proposal come before the ordinary session of parliament this December, or will it have to wait until next year?

MC: It’s still too soon. Perhaps it will be ready by July 2008. I’d like that, and that’s why we’re preparing the ground to work quickly and intensively with the population on the issues of gender identity and sexual orientation.

IPS: Have you been able to maintain mechanisms for discussion with different social sectors?

MC: We have held seminars in various directorates of the Interior Ministry, especially with the police, and at the Communist Party’s Advanced School, with municipal party leaders, and with three permanent parliamentary commissions.

One achievement is that when Cuban transsexuals who went abroad for a sex-change operation return, they can now go to a municipal tribunal and obtain a legal change of identity. We’re also waiting for an agreement to be signed to provide training for lawyers in the proper defence of transsexuals, gays and lesbians.

IPS: What about the situation of transsexuals who are sent to prison for breaking the law? Is that being discussed?

MC: Modifications to the criminal code and prison regulations are needed. So far, after the seminars we gave in prisons, when they have admitted transsexual inmates they haven’t housed them with either the female or the male prison populations, but in a separate area where they face no conflicts. At present there is a transsexual convict who is biologically male. But she is in the women’s prison, in the infirmary area, and is allowed to attend her regular scheduled sessions at CENESEX.

Another thing we’d like to propose to the Interior Ministry is providing conjugal facilities in prisons for homosexual couples. I think it is extremely discriminatory that these persons have nowhere to meet for intimacy, when other prisoners do.

IPS: Another sensitive sector, as important as the media, is education, not only because of the way education influences people from their earliest childhood on, but also because of the discrimination that students may encounter at school. Have you come to a working agreement on this?

MC: Both the Ministry of Higher Education and the Education Ministry are included in our strategy, but we have achieved very little. There is also a serious problem over transgender people who drop out of school. As their mannerisms and attitudes are related to their gender identity, which is not the sex that people identify them with, they are very vulnerable to mockery and rejection.

And then there are the issues related to sexual orientation. A lot of prejudices have to be overcome to address these problems in the education system. At a more opportune moment, we’ll have to create a draft resolution specifically for this sector and, of course, for training teachers.

IPS: Absence of information about sexual diversity in the Cuban media has contributed to ignorance, and therefore prejudice. How would you describe the present situation?

MC: The media are beginning to discuss the issue, but only timidly as yet. They are overcoming their fear of addressing these subjects, which they evidently know very little about. We are willing to offer advice, and we are proposing soap operas, radio plays, documentaries and films. Different ways of making the issues visible and gradually informing people have to be found.

I’m sure that as it becomes more natural to talk about these issues, under the protection of the law, government agencies will also become more flexible. Everything has to happen gradually.

IPS: This year a spontaneous debate broke out about the so-called "five grey years" in Cuban cultural politics. But there are other past problems as well, such as the confinement of homosexuals in the so-called military production support units in the 1960s, or penalties for homosexual behaviour. Do you think it is time to start talking more clearly and rationally about these topics?

MC: It’s very healthy to talk about what has happened, and why. I think it is generally accepted that it was a mistake, but it needs to be analysed. Like human beings, institutions sometimes make mistakes, and they have to be capable of recognising that fact, and deciding what to do to avoid repeating them, what laws to pass and what values to instil.

Acknowledging mistakes can be painful, especially when what was done is in conflict with revolutionary ideology. Cuba’s mistakes were very similar to those that were committed and still are being committed in many countries. The same things happened here as in other places. But the Cuban errors were more widely commented on because of the expectation that a socialist revolution, dedicated to freeing human beings, should not make such errors.

A revolutionary ideology should be truly revolutionary throughout, not just in some aspects. But the ideology of that era was deeply prejudiced against homosexuals. Communist parties everywhere were extremely homophobic. Now they’re adopting more inclusive attitudes. Fortunately, they have learned and become aware of those errors and many others.

Apparently the Cuban Communist Party, too, is digesting all this and coming to terms with it. It’s going through a learning process on these issues. What we are doing is helping it progress along the learning curve.

But there’s no point in looking for scapegoats to blame. What we have to do is learn from experience and take steps to move forward as a society.

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