October 02, 2009

Cuban Gays Have an Ally Named Castro

From the Advocate:

Mariela Castro Espín is a slender, pale, and elegant mother of three children. Married to an Italian photographer, she is straight, even though some Havana gossips have suggested otherwise. She also happens to be the 47-year-old daughter of President Raúl Castro, who last year officially succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, as president of Cuba. As director of the government-run National Center for Sex Education, or CENESEX, Castro Espín has used her guile -- and her dynastic clout -- to push for gay rights in a country where hard-labor, “reeducation” camps were once vaunted as an antidote to homosexuality. “Homophobia in Cuba is part of what makes you a ‘man,’” she says. “It’s part of the masculine role. Boys are taught to have violent reactions so they can show their masculinity. Boys are destroyed in this country this way."

...these are not ordinary times, and Mariela Castro Espín is no ordinary president’s daughter. To the Havana police she’s the thorn in their side who shows up at the station on behalf of those arrested and detained on trumped-up loitering or prostitution charges. The transgender community knows her as the woman who turned her offices into a refuge for those who have been expelled from their homes, or worse. Wendy Diaz, a beautiful young trans woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the pop star Shakira -- and who drew admiring glances from the men at the various tables around us when we met for drinks one evening on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional -- told me how Castro Espín once chased a boy for five blocks before collaring him for throwing rocks at “Mariela’s girls” outside the offices of CENESEX.

“I think Mariela’s leadership has been a key factor in the success of the work of CENESEX, and the prestige she carries because of her family name has only helped,” says Margaret Gilpin, a New York–based filmmaker whose award-winning 1996 documentary Butterflies on a Scaffold was the first to explore gay and drag culture in Cuba in the mid '90s. “Her presence, and the fact that [CENESEX] has focused its work on educating the general Cuban population on issues of concern to the LGBT community, to combating homophobia, and to trying to change laws and regulations to conform to current thinking on LGBT issues, has been critical to whatever success has been achieved so far.”

Under Castro Espín’s auspices, 2008 was a pivotal year for LGBT rights in the country. The government passed a resolution allowing transsexuals to undergo sex-reassignment surgeries free of charge. And Cuba stepped onto the stage of international gay rights discourse with its inaugural Day Against Homophobia, sanctioned at the highest levels of the Castro government and attended by thousands of ordinary gay and lesbian Cubans, as well as gay rights activists and government officials. The 2009 Day Against Homophobia numbers surpassed the attendance of the 2008 event, and organizers intend to make it an annual occurrence.

Castro Espín is also carefully but persistently lobbying on behalf of a bill to legalize same-sex civil unions that is proceeding slowly through parliament -- the term “gay marriage” being as problematic for Cubans as it is for many Americans. “Instead of just working with Cuban gays and lesbians so they could fit into the rest of society,” Castro Espín explains, “our strategy [at CENESEX] is to work with the population so that they could accept, and be educated on, sexual diversity. The people who have the problem are not gay people, but the general population.”

Click here to read the rest of the feature on a remarkable woman and LGBT ally.

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