By Dariela Aquique
HAVANA TIMES — Isel Calzadilla Acosta is a woman, a mother, a professional and a lesbian. One day, full of expectations, she thought about creating a project that would bring together a group of people similar to herself – though always respecting diversity. She doesn’t consider herself a leader, although she is in her own right. Her philosophy of life is “live with your body and soul, breaking the silence, defending love.
HT: When and why did the project emerge?
IC: It started out from a personal concern. I used to read the magazine Somos Jovenes (We Are Youth) and I began to see a good number of articles appearing about the topic of homosexuality. I began to frequent the places where mainly lesbians went and to observe their various behaviors and different appearances.
Also, around that time the Provincial Center for the Prevention of Sexually Transmitted Disease and HIV/AIDS had begun a whole campaign around responsible health advocacy, which was headed basically by people who were gay, though this was through an initiative called “HSH” (Men Who Have Sex with Men). So I thought, “Why not organize an effort like that for us lesbians?”
But we didn’t have information, organization or resources of any kind for this type of initiative; so we wrote to Mariela Castro, the director of CENESEX (the National Center for Sexual Education) asking for advice concerning what would be required to organize workshops and to design a program.
Because of that letter, there appeared Dr. Ada Alfonso, who is a veritable institution on the issue of sexology in Cuba. She began offering us advice and out of this the group was officially formed, with our first seminars and conferences supported by specialists from CENESEX.
HT: To what does the group owe its name?
IC: The name went through several stages. Initially, when nothing was official and we were nothing more than a group of women with common affinities and concerns who had started going out together for certain activities, we called ourselves “The suicidals.”
This was because sometimes the act of a group of lesbian women going out together without male figures can lead to difficult situations in certain contexts. There can be those ugly comments made by prejudiced heterosexual men or being viewed with disapproval by other women who don’t share our preference.
After we became “formally established,” as one might say, we called ourselves “The Santiago Group.” But we eventually dropped that name too, since it sounded too masculine. We then called ourselves “Las Isabelas,” alluding to the Isabelica Cafe, which is a meeting place for a large part of the gay and lesbian community. It’s a place that is fairly unprejudiced, where all kinds of people come together – gays, artists, Rastafarians, ordinary people, etc.
HT: At the beginning, did you always have institutional support?
IC: Yes, institutional support was in fact the starting point. The Provincial Center gave us a great deal of help and guidance in 2002. This was how several of us became health promoters. A doctor (Viviana), a psychologist (Aliuska) and a nurse (myself) did some things up to the point of contacting Mariela, and after that the support was absolute. We were then officially constituted on December 18, 2003.
HT: How does your group interact with the other two projects of this kind in the country?
IC: After we were established, Dr. Ada Alonso called for the formation of similar projects throughout the country, this was built around an initiative called Espacios amigables (Friendly Spaces). In attempting to extend this idea to other provinces, the group “Oremi” was born in Havana and later the group “Fenix” (Phoenix) emerged in Cienfuegos.
Also, here in Santiago de Cuba at the Hotel Las Americas, in 2009 we held the first National Workshop for Lesbians, and it was there that we met the members of the three projects, since we’re a large family and there’s always an exchange of experiences.
Since then we have gotten together in workshops in Havana and Cienfuegos, and at the 5th International Congress of Sex Education, which had representatives from the three groups.
HT: Don’t you think that grouping yourselves limits yourselves in some way, and that this can make you look exclusive?
IC: Well, the group has common goals, and we include diversity within the grouping – but by affinities. It may seem like we’re exclusive, but we’re not. We’re working to be inclusive. In the group we have collaborators who aren’t just lesbians; we have gays and heterosexuals. We’re not circumscribed.
HT: How many women are part of the project?
IC: Now there are 32 of us.
HT: How do you think the group is viewed by heterosexuals?
IC: We are approached by all types of people in the information panels that we conduct in the streets, where they see that our goals are sound – promoting health and achieving social reform based on changing people’s mentalities, but without any abnormal behavior. This has resulted in us being very well received for the most part.
HT: Have you ever been victims of discrimination?
IC: There are always occurrences of discrimination in life’s stories, on the job and even within families. So yes, discrimination still exists. But we hope this will change with the educational campaign that CENESEX has deployed.
HT: Do you think that the objectives of the project have been met?
IC: We’re in the middle, because things are always lacking. But I think we’ve had some success:
– We now have half of our women working as health promoters, something that has also contributed to their personal development.
– We have become more aware and educated as sexual rights activists in Cuba, we’ve promoted opportunities for information for those people interested in that subject, organized educational activities aimed at the lesbian community, collaborated with research on these specific areas, and we’ve contributed to social development.
-We have succeeded in providing awareness among the Santiago population concerning lesbian sexuality and homo-affective women, and that’s been positive.
-We have obtained grants for traveling to Peru and Costa Rica to represent Cuba on the issue of sexual diversity.
Therefore I think we have made our modest contribution in the defense of sexual rights and in the defense of love.