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CUBA: Sexual Diversity – the Rainbow Revolution

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, May 21 2008 (IPS) - Nearly 50 years after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, sexual minorities are at last beginning to feel that their voice is being heard and that they can finally take their place in the movement towards a more just and inclusive society.

"I always wanted to be a part of all this. I can’t remember how many times I told my mother: I’m going to make it work; I’m going to make the revolution," Mónica, a young Cuban woman who held a symbolic wedding with her partner Elizabeth in December, in the inner courtyard of the governmental National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), told IPS.

Meanwhile, Danilo Rivero, who travelled 100 kilometres to attend the celebration in Havana of the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia on May 17, said he had thought that the moment would never arrive when "homosexuals were accorded the status of human beings" in his country.

Rivero was forced to leave his job in education 35 years ago to become an employee in a productive company, where he still works.

"I’m very Cuban, extremely Cuban, I wouldn’t leave my country for anything on earth. But at the age of 53, I can say that I have lived and suffered intensely. However, I don’t want to complain now, because it’s water under the bridge," he told IPS.

Mónica, Elizabeth and Danilo were only three of the hundreds of people who gathered for the central event of the day against homophobia and transphobia in Cuba, which sought to promote a set of initiatives that will take place throughout the year, rather than just a week.

The information explosion in the last few days was unprecedented in this country of 11.2 million people, which has an essentially "machista" culture. Until recently, being homosexual was a sufficient reason to be banned from certain university courses, jobs and leadership positions.

Some young people hold that "the past is over and done with," but many gays and lesbians live with the memory and the wounds of the times when hundreds of homosexuals were taken to forced labour camps called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) in the 1960s, or excluded from educational and cultural sectors in the 1970s.

"We are making great strides, but we still need more time, education and cultural changes. And I don’t mean only among heterosexuals, but also among homosexuals who, because of so many years of discrimination, have looked for ways of protesting and rebelling against the violence we have suffered," said Ernesto Rojas, a 40-year-old choreographer.

Television programmes and advertisements, the "Diferente" film club with monthly screenings, conferences and seminars, and plays and radio serials will follow over the weeks and months after Saturday’s activity, considered by many people to have been "a historic event" because of its unprecedented opening to the public at large.

The International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia commemorates May 17, 1990, when the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality and transsexuality from its list of mental illnesses.

The rainbow-coloured flag of the sexual diversity movement waved freely for the first time at the entrance of a Cuban state institution. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestite and transsexual men and women participated as speakers in debates, alongside authorities and experts.

One female-to-male transsexual told his story, and claimed his right to die as a man.

"I was surprised. I was nervous when I arrived, not knowing what to expect. And I really liked the way people participated, in such a respectful, careful and sincere way," Mariela Castro, the head of CENESEX which has developed a broad programme in support of sexual diversity in Cuba since 2004, told IPS.

Manuel Hernández, an expert who has worked in HIV/AIDS prevention since 1985, remarked to IPS that the celebration showed that "sometimes the fears we have about the public’s reactions to certain topics are unfounded. We experienced a very positive exchange of opinions."

The debates ranged from criticism of sexist education to the police harassment suffered by some people solely because of their sexual orientation, the absence of places for gays to meet that are recognised and respected by the authorities, and the stigma experienced by lesbians, even within the homosexual community.

"Schools are channels for homophobia, which they fuel, to the extent that the ‘different’ child does not fit in with the rest of his or her companions," said Alberto Roque, who works with CENESEX, in his presentation titled "Gay Identity and Homophobia".

Contrary to the position defended by CENESEX, which favours the creation of inclusive places in order to avoid "ghettos", one gay man proposed opening places specifically for the gay community, to facilitate meeting and socialising in an environment that is comfortable for same-sex couples.

Demands were also voiced for faster approval of legal same-sex unions, and for prompt sex-change operations for 28 transsexuals who, according to Castro, are on the waiting list for the surgery that will change their lives.

Among the news of the day, it was announced that the proposal to include, in reforms of the 1975 Family Code, the right of gay and lesbian couples to adopt children has been dropped for now, in the interests of speeding the approval of wider rights.

With respect to the Family Code reforms as a whole, which include other legal proposals in favour of the rights of sexual minorities, the president of the Cuban parliament, Ricardo Alarcón, told the press that "there is willingness to examine them properly, taking into account all criteria and opinions."

"It must be the object of a concerted intellectual effort of reflection," he said.

"Such topics have been taboo, and still are among many people," admitted the legislator, who attended the morning session of conferences and debates on Saturday at the main activity for the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, which was supported by the ruling Communist Party.

Sandra Álvarez, a psychologist who works as an editor and journalist, wondered aloud how long decision-makers will take to respond to the demands of gays, lesbians, transvestites and transsexuals. How much longer must they wait? Their time is obviously running out, she told IPS.

"Look at Juani, for example. He posed the problem of his situation in 1970, which opened up a series of studies and concerns, and now it’s 2008. Thirty-eight years have gone by since Juani opened up his life to be studied," said Álvarez about the female-to-male transsexual who told his story during the day’s event.

"What’s going to happen? Will we have to wait another 10, 15 or 20 years for someone to open their mind, or TO become more sensitive?" said the psychologist, who recognised the day as one more step in the debates being carried on in the country about subjects that are "never spoken of," like education, gender stereotypes and discrimination.

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