Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2131. Mariela Castro Leads Cuba’s LGBT Revolution

By Garance Franke Ruta, yahoo.com, December 16, 2015

HAVANA — The moment that Mariela Castro Espin met Rory Kennedy on a Monday evening in early December seemed to encapsulate all the promise of a Cuba in transition as relations with America thaw.
Here was the niece of Fidel Castro and daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro agreeably posing for pictures and gabbing with the niece of former President John F. Kennedy and daughter of Sen. Bobby Kennedy.
More than half a century after their uncles faced off during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the two scions of legendary political families sat down for an in-translation tête-à-tête at a dinner at the San Cristobal paladar, or private restaurant, in central Havana.

Mariela Castro led the annual parade against transphobia and homophobia in Havana, May 2015. (Photo: Desmond Boylan/AP)
The moment came toward the tail end of an evening of good food, music and well-aged rum sponsored by HBO in celebration of Jon Alpert’s documentary “Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution,” about Castro’s emergence as the most prominent gay rights advocate in Cuba.
Of all the unexpected facts about Cuba today, perhaps none is more so than that the 53-year-old Castro daughter — straight, married, a mother of three — has become its most vocal political advocate on behalf of gay, lesbian, bi and trans rights.
Alpert traveled with Castro four times to tell that story in a 47-minute film that completes the work of the late filmmaker Saul Landau, famous since his controversial 1968 movie “Fidel!” for his pro-Cuban films. Kennedy, also a documentary filmmaker, was in town to showcase “Ethel,” about her mother, at the 37th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema here, where the Castro movie and other HBO documentaries screened amid others from across the Americas.
Set to air in the U.S. in June 2016, the film is sure to catapult Castro from a slightly controversial figure even in Cuba — where she is director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, or CENESEX, and a member of parliament — into one of the island nation’s most internationally visible political leaders.
If it is surprising to find the daughter of a sitting president leading the fight for gay, lesbian, bi and trans rights in a nation still struggling with a macho, often homophobic culture and where, under the leadership of her uncle, gay men were once sequestered in military camps — well, welcome to Cuba. In the United States, the gay rights movement was one of the new social movements of the 20th century, a grassroots civil rights fight against the government and social conventions that only began to draw the support of powerful politicians after decades of organizing work. In Cuba, the LGBT revolution is coming — and coming decades later — thanks to the support of an entrenched political establishment still wary about the influence of independent groups but bent on creating social change.

Mariela Castro Espin, left, and Rory Kennedy at an HBO dinner at the San Cristobal paladar, or private restaurant, in central Havana in early December 2015. (Photo: Garance Franke-Ruta/Yahoo News)
In fact, far from being a break with Cuba’s revolutionary legacy, Mariela Castro situates her gay rights advocacy work within Cuba’s history of left-wing political transformation even as she is seeking to push forward social and political changes that would have been inconceivable at the revolution’s launch.
“Many people thought we had the strength to make a perfect revolution. And maybe to make a revolution can be a utopian project, but to make it perfect is impossible,” she said in remarks before the Havana screening of the HBO film, which was attended by senior cultural figures in the government as well as by the trans and gay men and women featured in it. “Though we were fighting and trying to make important changes for social justice, the issues of homophobia and transphobia were not clear, and they had to be put on the agenda.”
“I’m satisfied in the last few years this has been a political project of the revolution. All the work you can witness through the documentary has been the result of a political agenda,” she continued. “… And I hope this can be an example for other people who want to make this kind of revolution also.”
She concluded with something she said came from the deepest part of her heart: “Viva la Revolucion Cubana!”
I sat down with Castro at CENESEX, located in a lovingly restored building painted shades of yellow amid the shabby gentility of Havana’s Vedado neighborhood two days after the movie screening for an exclusive conversation about how she came to be the leading gay rights advocate in Cuba, about social change in her homeland and about her famous Castro name.
Portraits of trans women and men lined the center’s walls, and in the central courtyard were stone statues that, among other things, featured an erect phallus and a rather clinical carving of a vulva — a clear reflection of Cuba’s famously more relaxed attitudes toward sexuality, or at least heterosexuality. Turtles in the courtyard fountain at first also appeared to be sculptures, but then they started to move toward me, hungrily.
Modestly dressed in sandal flats, black-and-white patterned pants and a white T-shirt, Castro had just come from a three-hour test related to her PhD credentialing when we met. She did her sociological sciences doctoral dissertation on transsexuals and had spent the previous two days studying, largely inaccessible to the flock of moviemakers and media vying to talk with her during the film fest. Sometimes rather than making it easy on her, Castro’s famous name can make people within the Cuban bureaucracy a bit harder on her, Alpert has observed.

At the Havana screening of “Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution,” December 2015. (Photo: Garance Franke-Ruta/Yahoo News)
Yet her efforts are very much of a piece with her family heritage, in particular the work of her feminist mother, Vilma Espin, who worked to advance the cause of women’s legal equality as the head of the Federation of Cuban Women from its founding in 1960 until her death in 2007.
CENESEX was created in 1989 by the women’s federation out of earlier national sex education efforts, “in response to women’s demand for guidance in educating themselves and their children about their sexuality, so as not to experience the problems of the past,” as Castro put it.
Castro’s role today at CENESEX is a direct response and continuation of her mother’s work. “At the point where I became director of the CENESEX in 2000, she was about to retire, and a few years later, she passed on,” she says. “I decided I had to take up the struggle because I didn’t see anyone else doing it, and otherwise it would be forgotten.”
And she had more painful personal reasons to take on the project as well. “The event that really impacted me was the suicide of a teenage friend,” she revealed in the HBO film. The teen’s father told him he’d rather have “un hijo muerto que maricón” — that he’d rather have “a dead son than a faggot.”
“A friend of one of my sisters killed himself,” she elaborated to Yahoo, though she declined to get into more detail. “I talk about him in the documentary, but I heard other stories” — here she gestured, as if perhaps to say many other stories — “that made an impact on me as well.”
There is no question but that her work, in turn, is having an impact in Cuba, softening opinions high and low. Her father “has told me he supports me, that he supports the personal rights of homosexuals,” she told the New York Times. “He always says go slowly, though, so you don’t build walls.”

A couple kiss at a march against homophobia led by Mariela Castro in Havana, May 9, 2015. (Photo: Alejandro Ernesto/EPA)
Interviews with gay and trans people in Havana reveal a picture of daily life that has improved markedly for sexual and gender minorities in the 21st century, and especially in the last five years. Where gay bars and clubs were once illegal, they are now permitted, and some — like most restaurants and other businesses in Cuba — are even run by the government. Laws that criminalized gay people and made same-sex displays of affection an object for police attention have been repealed. And thanks to Castro’s work, the state’s socialized medical services have since 2008 covered sex-reassignment surgery. She even cast a rare “No” vote in the National Assembly for a labor law, because it failed to include protections for gender identity — a provision that would have included trans people.
“We have had significant change,” said Castro. “The Communist Party has established the fight against homophobia as a guideline. This is quite different from what there was before. The Communist Party has a major role in society. National policies of the Ministry of Health and CENESEX are influencing legislation. This was unthinkable before, when there was no way to make these ideas work in politics. There is a comprehensive campaign of education and communication. Our aim is to change the mindset, and the culture. And the people take part in this change. There is a dialogue within Cuban society. Even in the LGBT community, which was set apart, people have acquired skills to work better as activists, to become a power and promoters of change.”

Malu, a trans woman and activist deeply involved with CENESEX, poses with her parents and sister in front of their home in Cienfuegos. (Photo: Mariette Pathy Allen)
But social attitudes can be harder to change than laws. Mario Martinez Morales, 23, a part of the youth group Red de Jovenes por los Salud y los Derechos Sexuales, can name six different bars where he can go out as a gay man but says he wouldn’t feel comfortable walking hand in hand with his boyfriend on the street, even in Havana.
When I take a picture of him and his beau later in the evening at a meeting of the youth group at CENESEX — there’s a special guest lecture on violence against women, then a conversation, then ham and cheese sandwiches and local sodas, thanks to a grant from the U.N. Population Fund — he asks me to both email him the picture and not post it publicly.
Still, he has fun being part of a group run by a Castro, getting the overflow generosity from her role as a bit of a cultural ambassador to the outside world that’s flocking to Cuba as a new global hotspot. For example, Castro introduced youth network members to singer Katy Perry when she visited Havana in October.
“It was like a dream. I love her,” said a starstruck Martinez of the American pop icon. “It was, I don’t know, I think the best day of my life.”
Life is harder in the countryside, outside the net of government-sanctioned groups. “Like everywhere, people with money, they can do certain things. But people from the countryside, poor people — there is nothing to protect [them],” said one person who grew up outside Havana, and who asked to remain anonymous other than being identified as “queer” in order to speak freely.
Outside the Las Vegas nightclub up the street from the corner of 23rd and Malecón, a hangout for gay men and trans women in Havana — a sort of Christopher Street piers area — two young men described their difficulties just surviving. They’d come to Havana from Santiago de Cuba to hustle, in every sense of the word. “We’re here hustling to be able to survive and to have our own things, because of the necessities to help our families. So we are renting a place here in Havana and it’s quite hard,” said a slight 18-year-old named Darien, with a countenance both magnetic and radiating sadness. “Everything is going backwards right now. … We can’t live out of this. Jobs pay really low. You can’t live on your job and survive.”

A transvestite artist known as Blanquita performs at the Fashion Bar Havana, in Havana, May 2015. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)
Inside the nightclub, a trans performer who goes by the stage name Paloma Dietrich — also a CENESEX meeting regular — put on a show at 1 a.m. Interviewed days later at her house, Dietrich had nothing but praise for the group, which has freed her from the threat of arrest by police for walking around Havana as a woman and also provided her with psychological and institutional support and the freedom to work and earn money as performer — something that used to be impossible. “They gave us the opportunity to work and to make a living,” she says. “Mariela is everything to us. Like a mother.”
Even critics of Castro recognize the work she has done on behalf of the trans community. “Some of our transgender women have the assignment surgeries, and then that means a lot for a lot of people. I’m not saying that’s nothing,” one said. 
And yet the question of self-representation remains. “Straight psychologists, straight politicians like Mariela, they don’t represent queer people. … What she is doing now, we were asking for 20 years ago, and she was like laughing at us and saying our population is not ready for you. She was deciding for herself when it was the right time.”
There is, clearly, a reluctance to push too hard for social change in Cuba out of fear of provoking a backlash. The first sex change operation in Cuba, for example, occurred in 1988. It wasn’t until 2007 that the second one was performed.
“When it was reported in the national press, there was a great outcry. People complained to the hospital, to the ministry of health, to the press. They wrote letters to Fidel and Raúl about this craziness, called it the mutilation of a person. The minister of health himself was not entirely convinced, and decided to postpone further surgeries until he had stronger arguments in its defense,” recounts Castro.
In recent years, though, trans women — there are fewer female-to-male transsexuals in Cuba — and performers have become subjects of artistic fascination, with a surprising number of Cuban photographers producing work seeking to illuminate their lives. Among those photographers is Paolo Titolo, who also happens to be the husband of Mariela Castro.
In the HBO film, Castro takes an opportunity to apologize directly to Luis Perez, who had been in one of the military’s UMAP camps, where dissidents, religious minorities and homosexuals were sent to work in the fields. “I am very sorry,” she tells him. Asked by Yahoo News if she wanted to say anything to everyone who had been in the camps, Castro didn’t apologize further, but tried to put the program in the context of the early years of Cuban Revolution.

Mariela Castro Espin, a member of Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power, attends a July 2015 meeting of a group for cooperation between the assembly and the Russian Federation Council. (Photo: Korotayev Artyom/TASS via ZUMA Press)
“At a time when the country was under constant attack from the United States, with kidnappings, killings, terror, a very stressful time, we had mandatory military service, we still do. Many people with wealth said they were gay to avoid serving, but since homophobia was very strong at the time within the army and the government, it was decided to put these gay people into separate army units, in fact all targets of prejudice went into these units. All military units worked to support food production, not just the UMAP units,” she said.
“The stigma arose because … these units were a place where all targets of discrimination were mixed, in a place for the socially unacceptable. The UMAP lasted from 1965 to 1968 in total. … The question has been overblown, in retrospect. In those years, homophobia was worse in society, when it came to studying, to getting a decent job or a place to live. And there was the fantasy of the perfect revolution. But we were inventing socialism, not a utopia. But because hopes were so high, any mistake was judged harshly. The rest of the world was as homophobic as we were, or worse.
She continued, returning to the present and to the future: “The most important thing for me is banish homophobia, [to foster] the sense of personal independence that comes with emancipation. That’s what we’re trying to do in this experiment of creating a just and fair society.”
If the topic of the camps — set up and then disbanded when she was a young girl — made her bristle, she brightened when we turned to other topics.
Asked about her impressions of the U.S., which she has now visited twice, Castro expressed friendship for the people, but had somewhat less enthusiasm for America’s economic arrangements.
“I like the U.S.,” she said. “I like the people, the great variety and mix of origins, religions, cultures.” Of course, freedom in the U.S. “exists only for those with great resources,” and there are “important civil rights” fights still ongoing in the States, she noted. Mark it down as one more thing the two nations have in common: bound by geography and history, estranged for five decades, they are now each marching in their own way in the fight for greater acceptance for sexual and gender minorities.

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