By Osmel Almaguer
Havana Times interviewed 20-year-old Angel Raicel Merencio Llanes, from Ciego de Avila province. This freshman English student at the University of Havana is a former member of the Tony Menendez Dance Company, and he’s homosexual.
HT: We know that historically people who have preferred their same sex have been discriminated against. Do you believe that presently there is a trend to eliminate this type of social segregation?
Angel Raicel Merencio Llanes: I’m well aware that things in the past were very different for gays. In the last several years there has been formidable work in Cuba aimed at eliminating discrimination against homosexuals. Now we can say that there’s a little more freedom to express ourselves in public. Though it hasn’t been possible to eliminate the taboo, it’s good there are people standing up for us to be treated as the human beings we are.
In your opinion are the gains that have been made sufficient for a person of a different sexual orientation to be harmoniously integrated into the rest of society?
AR: Clearly not. There’s still much that has to be done. People still see you in the street and look at you with an uncomfortable curiosity. Things get even more complicated for those of us like me who have a gender identity that makes us want to be seen as women. It’s not easy to want to put on lipstick and wear high heels to go outside when you know that all attention will be focused on you.
But even with all that, you still prefer to assume that challenge? Why?
AR: Of course. I don’t believe that living a lifetime behind a mask is a way to be happy. Being homosexual has created many conflicts for me, but I can affirm with all certainty that if there’s something that really makes me feel proud it’s that I’m being true to the world and to myself. You can’t get along well with others if you’re not at peace with yourself.
What do you think then of those people who choose to sacrifice themselves by maintaining their identities hidden all their lives?
AR: I think they’re afraid. It’s necessary to be very brave and shout out to the world that you’re different. I thank life for having given me that strength. I think the decisions people make should be respected and we should try to understand the way each person chooses to live. On the other hand, those who lead a double life, one day — as almost always happens — the truth will come crashing down on them and many people will end up getting hurt.
Has your situation ever been an obstacle to relating to friends or comrades?
AR: Up to now I think I can consider myself lucky. To tell the truth, since I put my fear to the side and decided to carry myself as I am, it’s much easier to make friends. It seems ironic but before I never had a single male friend – now I do. Everything depends on how you’re able to demonstrate to others the true feelings that define you as a human being, that’s in fact what counts.
Among the taboos you referred to at the beginning, there are stereotypes, so to speak, that portray gays as talkative, gossipy, etc. How much of this do you believe is true in those characterizations?
AR: Everything in life is relative. Perhaps there is some truth in those portrayals, I don’t want to absolutize. But women spend most of their time chattering when they’re not around men, and almost all gays like to be around women. Women and gays are very good friends.
Do you consider machismo and sexists as the enemies of homosexuals? And if so, why?
AR: Not necessarily. From my own experience I can say that many men who try to come off as macho in public are simply trying to look the very opposite of how they really they feel inside. There are many bisexual sexists.
For some time the revolutionary government, in the person of Mariela Castro Espin (the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education), has taken strong positions against homophobia. Many public and mass activities as well as various pieces of legislation are evidence of this. How do you assess her work?
AR: If the Nobel Peace Prize were granted in Cuba, I would give it to Mariela. She has been the driving force in a battle that might have seemed impossible. In the name of all people for whom she has raised her voice, she has earned all my respect and admiration. It’s also good that our government has been willing to listen and be part of that necessary transformation. Homosexuals are part of this island, and as such we deserve to be dealt with, without caring about our sexual orientation.
If you had the opportunity to sit down with Mariela to ask her or to suggest something, what would you say?
AR: First I would thank her. I would also ask her to help me realize my dream of changing my sex, and I would also suggest to her that she never stop struggling for us, we need her.
And if, instead of finding yourself next to Mariela, you were granted limitless power, let’s say like that of God, how would you use it?
AR: I would transform the world into a happier place for everyone, not only for gays, but for all people who need to be heard. I would try to make everyone understand that we are all the same race. We are all human beings and we deserve respect and understanding.