HAVANA TIMES, June 20 (IPS) — The idea emerged spontaneously, and then snowballed. In just a few months, more than 100 people in Cuba became part of a young people’s social network for diversity, in a society where machismo and homophobia are seen as natural.
Cuban psychologist Yasmany Díaz told IPS he uses gender neutral terms, “so nobody complains or feels left out.” Díaz works with the government-run National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), which took over coordination of the Young People for Diversity social network this year.
But he said that more than coordination, it involves “accompanying” the process. “Accompaniment cannot be from up ahead, it must be shoulder to shoulder,” he said. In other words, “no rigid plans or bosses.
“Young people today are avid to participate, but in a real way, without leaders, horizontally, with a focus on being able to do things and on constant dialogue,” he added.
“It doesn’t matter what you are” has become the slogan of the group, which does not distinguish among its members based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“You just have to be young, feel young, and want to do things, to be part of our group,” added the 26-year-old psychologist, who uses the methodology of grassroots education in his work.
Young People for Diversity is just one of the networks that have sprung up in recent years around CENESEX, whose work is aimed at raising awareness about sexual rights as human rights. The process includes three women’s groups, a trans group and Men for Diversity.
The new group’s history goes back to 2009, when CENESEX began working at the main centre of the Federation of University Students (FEU), one of the principal youth organizations in Cuba. The first meetings were followed by conferences, video-debates and workshops for training sex education and rights promoters.
Since late 2010, work with university students has gained strength and has even exceeded expectations, thanks to improved organization and to financial support for a CENESEX project from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID).
Within just a few months, the group has been joined by students from various fields, including journalism, psychology, law, sociology, geography, arts and letters, education, industrial design, medicine, and various technical and computer science careers. Young people from the provinces of Pinar del Rio and Matanzas in western Cuba have also joined in.
“Homophobia affects everyone, including heterosexuals, because it conditions whom they can or cannot hang out with,” Ana Lucía Gómez, a 22-year-old sociology student, told IPS. “This is a struggle for changing mentalities, against all forms of machismo that predominate in society.”
Like her, Antonio Alejo, at the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Havana, found in CENESEX an opportunity to “learn more and work for a new openness in society” regarding an issue about which he had always had questions, and which he described as “being against a socially-imposed culture.”
Some of the network’s most active members took part in the May activities for the Cuba Anti-Homophobia Campaign, a high point in a much broader program for free sexual orientation and gender identity that lasts throughout the year, with activities in different provinces.
As part of these experiences, Wilfredo Mederos, a young professor at the Enrique José Varona University of Pedagogical Sciences (UCP), decided on his own to take one of his classes to a debate on sexual diversity at the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba.
“Raising awareness among teachers is a real challenge,” Mederos, who is a member of Men for Diversity, told IPS. “School, along with the family and the community, are the key factors in the socialization of children. That is where the child learns to love or hate, to accept or reject, to be homophobic or not.”
The professor, who also forms part of the Department of Gender, Sexology and Sex Education at the UCP, said heterosexual people need to join the fight against homophobia, because this type of hatred is not exclusive to any one population group, and extends even to the youngest generations.
As a result of their experience in the “conga” or parade against homophobia on a central avenue in Havana on May 14, a group of young people spontaneously joined together to create the Heterosexual Cubans against Homophobia community on the Facebook social networking site.
According to Díaz, today’s younger generations in Cuba may have a greater potential for change, but that does not mean they are free of the dominant culture of machismo and, therefore, of prejudice toward homosexual, bisexual and trans people and deep-rooted homophobia.
“While young people may be a little more open, there is still a great deal of resistance,” the psychologist said. “We cannot ignore the fact that we are the product of a culture, nor can we ignore the socialization process. Moreover, an individual may change, but the family has to change with us.”
Nevertheless, “our work sees the younger generations as a force for social change,” he said.
“If we look at the history of this country, young people have been the driving force behind social changes that have led to economic and political change, and to one extent or another, a change in awareness,” he noted.