Struggle Against Homophobia Takes to the Streets

Dalia Acosta

Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, May 18  (IPS) — “Governments cannot wait for a social consensus in order to guarantee respect for people’s rights,” Mariela Castro, head of Cuba’s National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), told IPS on the occasion of the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia in Cuba Monday.

State institutions, non-governmental and religious organizations, academics, artists and above all gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transvestites and transsexuals marked the Day Against Homophobia with a full two weeks of activism, celebrations, workshops, demands for full respect for sexual diversity, a street procession of conga dancers and bands in central Havana, and an ecumenical celebration in defense of the Christian principle of non-discrimination.

Since 2004, CENESEX has been working with the Federation of Cuban Women to push for legal initiatives in favor of sexual diversity.

In 2008, a Public Health Ministry resolution established the creation of a centre that carries out free gender reassignment surgery and provides integral health care for transsexuals — a major achievement for CENESEX, which is led by President Raúl Castro’s daughter.

But the government institution as well as gay rights activists and others in Cuba are still waiting for a legal reform that would guarantee equal rights to both heterosexual and same-sex couples.

The initiative — which is not calling for gay marriage, something that would require a constitutional amendment — would recognize same-sex civil unions, would require families to be responsible for their children regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and would include a specific law to guarantee the rights of transvestites and transsexuals.

“Silence on these issues is one manifestation of homophobia. It’s bad for the nation that the media turn their backs on this social reality that cannot be hidden,” journalist Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, who describes himself as “gay, communist and atheist,” wrote in his blog, “Paquito el de Cuba”.

The expanding struggle

The cultural institution “El Mejunje”, which has served as a unique gay oasis in Cuba for 25 years, held a huge street party Monday in the city of Santa Clara, 275 km east of Havana.

As the site selected for the central celebrations to mark the Day Against Homophobia in Cuba, “El Mejunje” began its schedule of activities on May 8.

And next week, a cooking show starring a transsexual will be broadcast on Cuban television.

“We can’t just limit our fight against homophobia to within the four walls of El Mejunje,” Ramón Silverio, the founder of the centre, remarked to IPS. “That’s why we are taking it outside this year, to the streets.”

According to sources at CENESEX, a similar cultural centre may be opened in Havana.

The lack of gay spaces and the apparent contradiction between the need for specific gathering spots and how to avoid the emergence of “ghettoes” that instead of being inclusive end up reinforcing the exclusion of certain groups were at the centre of a debate held Friday, May 14 at the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC).

The possibility of establishing an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) organization — or a group representing any of these specific minorities — in Cuba was also discussed in the light of failed experiences in past years of some isolated associations that received support from foreign governments and ran up against resistance from the Cuban government.

Mariela Castro, who has no doubt that an organization of this kind will emerge when “convincing proposals” are set forth, said they are working to help train activists in the LGBT community, as in the case of the more than 500 trans persons who have taken different courses organized by CENESEX around the country.

There are also three groups of lesbians and bisexuals working in cities in the western, central and eastern regions of Cuba, while thousands of activists, mainly gay men, are volunteers in a health promotion and prevention project among men who have sex with men.

Time for the leap

Many people who belong to UNEAC believe it is time to make “the big leap.” If the first phase of the struggle managed to “put the queens up on the stage” — a reference to trans people — it is now time to put an end to police harassment of people with a different sexual orientation or gender identity, they argue.

The report on State-Sponsored Homophobia 2010, published this month by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), includes Cuba in the category of countries where same sex activity between consenting adults is legal.

According to the survey, homosexuality is illegal in 76 countries, and is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Mauritania, 12 states in northern Nigeria and several states in southern Somalia.

Although no one in Cuba can be arrested or tried for their sexual orientation or gender identity, “harassment by some police of LGBT people in their gathering places is still happening,” lamented Alberto Roque with the Cuban Multidisciplinary Society for the Study of Sexuality (SOCUMES).

Speaking on a panel on family and society at the UNEAC conference on Saturday, Roque proposed a plan for sexual diversity training for the police, and pointed out that “the inclusion of these issues in curricula at every level of education is still pending.”

After stressing that passing laws to protect the most vulnerable groups “is an act of justice that brooks no delay,” the SOCUMES activist, who works closely with CENESEX, noted that any person can be “an agent of cultural and social change in terms of breaking down homophobia, machismo and patriarchal power.”

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