By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA TIMES, March 30 (IPS) – The awkward silence and ambivalent looks that followed the moderator’s invitation to participate in the debate on homophobia slowly gave way after a law student spoke. Perhaps without meaning to, student Barbara Garcia broke the ice.
Among other suggestions, she proposed that education in Cuba be in both directions, so that people who are homosexual could “help us to accept them.”
The testimonies of men and women who defended their sexual orientation against the grain of prejudice and misunderstanding showed those present a new and different reality. For many in attendance, much of this information was probably unknown or misunderstood, or they had considered it having nothing to do with them.
“There are people who commit suicide because of their sexual orientation… and we’re not even going to talk about lesbians, who are put down by women and even other lesbians,” said Alberto Roque, who presented himself as a gay medical specialist and a member of the Cuban Communist Party.
“I think you have to open yourself up to a sense of respect; I’m not talking about tolerance or acceptance, but a true respect for diversity,” urged Roque.
Shortly after, a student named Ema admitted that, being a devout Protestant, she had tried to take her own life when she discovered she was lesbian – something she now accepts and no longer hides.
This was the kickoff to the 2009 “Campaign for the Respect of People’s Sexual Orientation.” Under the theme of “Diversity Is Natural,” the crusade aims to “contribute to the education of the entire society, with an emphasis on university youth, in respecting free and responsible sexual orientation and gender identity as exercises in equality and social justice.”
“The National Center for Sexual Education (Cenesex) cannot do this work alone, which is why we have called on the youth, who will be future professionals and leaders of Cuban society,” said Mariela Castro, the director of this institution that has established a broad program in support of sexual diversity in Cuba since 2004.
The activities began last Thursday with a debate forum carried out in a filled-to-capacity conference hall at the headquarters of the Federation of University Students (FEU) at the University of Havana. Participating were students, several professors, Cenesex staff and representatives of the gay community.
Biology professor Maria Fuentes said it was an excellent forum because she sees the youth as the agents of change. “It’s a future strategy,” emphasized the academic, whose only regret was that more students from her department did not attend.
As explained in the conference organized by Cenesex’ Sexual Diversity Project, the campaign will include educational activities, group discussions, workshops, and video-debates,” as well as talks and exchanges intended to “stimulate and promote reflection among university students.”
“This year we want to center ourselves among groups of people that are growing, groups that in turn can do more, like university students,” said Castro. With that objective, Cenesex has begun working with members of the Young Communist League and FEU in Havana, an action that they will subsequently extend to the provinces.
In statements to IPS, the Cenesex director said that this year’s celebration of International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia will be held in Havana on Saturday, May 16. It will be dedicated not only to youth, but also to the family, “so that fathers and mothers can better understand their homosexual or transsexual children.”
Castro added that though the date is still not officially recognized, the National Assembly (Cuba’s parliament) will include in its work agenda an initiative to reform the national Family Code, which has been effective in Cuba since 1975 and contains proposals on gender identity and rights of “sexual minorities.”
“Our work will help us to slowly change prejudices behind those processes,” she said.
Castro also indicated that although the Catholic Church presented its negative views on the issue, “they have been entering into dialog (…) they were worried about same-sex marriages, but were informed that this is not what was being proposed.” Nor has there been the intention to propose the adoption of children by homosexual couples, she affirmed.
The initiative contemplates the legal recognition of the union of couples of the same sex, whereby they will enjoy the same rights as consensually united heterosexual couples.
As for the performing of sex change operations on transsexual persons -which was approved this past June in a resolution of the Ministry of Public Health- this is another of the concerns of the Catholic Church and other religious denominations. Castro pointed out, however, that the decision remains in effect.
Resolution 126, signed by Public Health Minister Jose Ramon Balaguer, establishes the creation of a center for integral healthcare for people who are transsexual, which will be the sole institution in the country authorized to carry out total or partial medical sex change treatments.