Cuba’s New Offensive vs. Homophobia

Dalia Acosta

Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, May 3 (IPS) — LGBT social networks and experts with Cuba’s National Sex Education Centre (CENESEX) announced Tuesday that events surrounding the Day Against Homophobia will last a month this year in this Caribbean island nation.

“There are places where gay pride day is celebrated; we are going to dedicate the entire month of May to the fight against homophobia,” said sexologist Mariela Castro, director of CENESEX, a government agency.

“Although our activities take place year-round, this is the time of greatest visibility,” she said.

In a press conference held to present the planned events, Castro – who happens to be the daughter of President Raul Castro – stressed the central role to be played by social networks of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people that have emerged with ties to CENESEX since 2003.

The members of the networks “are sexual rights activists who have been participating in organizing the activities,” Castro explained, after pointing to the increase in the number of blogs and other individual communication initiatives in Cuba promoting respect for freedom of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Representatives of the social networks accompanied Castro and other CENESEX experts in the International Workers’ Day march on May 1 in Havana, holding up the Cuban flag and the rainbow flag – the international symbol of the LGBT movement – side by side.

The activities prepared for this month, under the slogan “Diversity Is Humanity”, include conferences, debates, films, concerts, exhibitions, street processions of conga bands, and a gala performance by leading artistes and crossdressers in the Karl Marx theatre, which seats 5,000.

Santiago de Cuba to host Central Event for Cuba

The central events on the International Day Against Homophobia, celebrated on May 17 because homosexuality was removed from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Classification of Diseases on May 17, 1990, will take place this year in Santiago de Cuba, 861 km east of Havana.

“Students from the University of Santiago asked us to hold the events there,” Castro said.

Local groups from Santiago and Las Isabelas, the first of the three associations of lesbians that exist in Cuba, set forth a proposed program in line with the general objectives promoted by CENESEX and have worked intensely to organize the May 16-17 activities.

Castro also underlined the specific commitment by the leadership of the governing Communist Party to open up spaces for discussion of these issues in the national press, which is controlled by the state and has only timidly and sporadically addressed the question of sexual diversity, generally from a health point of view.

The terms gay, lesbian and transsexual were totally absent from the media in Cuba for decades and, to a large extent, from academic research and social programs. Isolated cases of public assistance policies, such as support for trans people, were kept silent for 30 years or more.

The congress of the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC) held in the second half of the 1980s called for eliminating the taboo surrounding certain subjects in Cuban journalism. But in areas like sexual diversity, the new openness never went beyond good intentions.

The situation began to change, however, with the impact of the AIDS epidemic among men who have sex with men, which gradually brought visibility to this population group, while the fight against homophobia began to be seen as a priority in HIV/AIDS prevention policies.

To that was added CENESEX’s decision, prompted by complaints from trans people in the capital, to carry out awareness-raising work which, more than five years after it began, has grown into an integrated program that includes aspects ranging from media strategies to legislative proposals.

With respect to the debate in the public health sector on free sex-change operations for transsexuals, at a time of severe economic troubles, Castro clarified that the basic costs of the procedure are covered by international aid funds raised by the institution.

Meanwhile, a reform of the family code, which would include recognition of the rights of same-sex couples and the family’s responsibility and duty to accept and care for all of its members, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, is to be introduced in parliament.

Castro said things are “finally moving,” now that the Communist Party has specifically expressed the intention to involve the media in the effort against homophobia, and because of the possible inclusion of the issue in the party’s next national conference, to be held Jan. 28, 2012.

While waiting for the legal reform to go through, CENESEX has been working with the police, the Supreme Court and the Education Ministry in order to move towards the design and implementation of policies and strategies that would help create an inclusive society marked by respect for diversity.

“We insist that it is necessary to work closely with teacher training schools and universities. If teachers are not clear on these issues, we can’t do anything. If teachers are homophobic, they will pass on their homophobia; if they are misogynistic, they will transmit their discriminatory attitude towards women,” Castro said in response to a question from IPS.