On Wednesday, Cuban President Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela announced that the island would reinstate sex-change operations that had been banned.
Mariela Castro, a sexologist, has also championed for gay rights. Earlier this month, in support of the International Day Against Homophobia, she led a group of hundreds in a conga line down a Cuban street.
Marina Sitrin is a writer and lawyer living in Havana, Cuba, who attended the recent street dance. She writes at “Upside Down World” to describe how life has changed for gays and lesbians in Cuba.
A rainbow flag over Havana
We are on a main city block early Saturday morning. People gathering are high spirited, almost giddy. As people begin to form a line I exhale deeply, imagining it is just one of many lines that are the Cuban reality. This line, however, is different. This line begins to shift, snake, jump and dance. This is a conga line. There are hundreds of us, perhaps even a thousand, and we are dancing in a conga line down one of the most central streets in Havana. And we are not just some random group of people, we are a group of lesbians, gay men, transvestites, transsexuals and bisexuals, along with heterosexual friends and sometimes even families, all gathering for the International Day Against Homophobia. For over a week activities have been taking place throughout Havana, as well as in a few provinces in the country to educate about sexual diversity, and, to celebrate it.
The main event Saturday began first thing in the morning, something not typical of a weekend celebration in Cuba, or, better said, a country where things typically begin early, but people attend late. But on this day, despite the early hour, by 10am thousands were flowing in and out of the Pabellon Cuba, one of Havana’s main exhibition centers.
[…] In many ways it was a scene not dissimilar from any Gay Pride event around the globe. Though this is Cuba. And this is la Rampa. It was not even a decade ago when young gay men would come and find one another outside one particular cinema on la Rampa, their dress not so flamboyant, people learning by word of mouth which theater it was, and then continuing on to the late night roving roof top parties. Parties that were gay, and were not legal, or at were always broken up by police, when found, under the pretext they were not legal. Over the years this scene has continued, and has become increasingly public, often on the Malecon, the famous wall along the sea edge that runs the length of Havana. This area too, is only a few blocks from where la Rampa meets the water. This is a long way from the 1970s, when there were jails specifically for the reeducation of those who were “counter revolutionary” and “sexually deviant”.
While the harassment of gays and lesbians is nothing like what it was in Cuba’s past, it does still exist, from the formal harassment by police on the street, to discrimination in workplaces and at school, and that is to not even speak of the cultural and social taboo. These were the main topics people spoke out about in the open mic sessions it the Pabellon. The anger and frustration spoken forcefully by one man, “In a country that says all are equal I still have to be afraid! I don’t have the same rights! I cannot kiss my partner! I can get kicked off the bus! I can lose my job! That the police always harass me! It is wrong!” was responded to with applause, whistles and a lively standing ovation of the many hundreds participating. This was an exciting and inspiring space, the diversity and openness with which people were claiming political space and equal rights was powerful. People were simultaneously celebrating identity and diversity and shouting for more space and rights. Rights they want respected in the day to day. As another man shouted “I want diversity everyday! I don’t want one day or one week of acceptance! I want a life of acceptance! A country of equality!”
A friend of mine, who identifies as a lesbian and has attended all of the past events related to sexual diversity, had more tepid enthusiasm. She commented, “Sure, this is good, sure, but it has happened before and it is not enough. What is going to happen? People will go home and things will not change.”
I don’t know. In all my years living in or visiting Cuba I have never seen such a display, and especially in such large numbers and in such an important public space.
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