A New Revolution: The Progression of LGBTQ Rights in Cuba

By: Olivia Marple, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs 

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On the morning of April 26, Yosvani Muñoz Robaina, a 24-year-old Cuban transgender woman, was stoned to death at Roberto Amarán Park in the Cuban city of Pinar del Río. Three teenagers were jailed for their alleged participation in the crime. One of the accused was 13, another 17. While it has not been confirmed why these teenagers reportedly committed this murder, the LGBTQ community in Cuba is indignant about what they call a transphobic hate crime.[1] Local authorities, however, have declared that it was a “crime of passion” that killed Robaina, a sex worker also known as La Eterna.[2] After being found in the park, Robaina was brought to Pedro Borrás General Hospital, where she died shortly after as a result of her wounds. “The only thing I ask is for justice,” said Berta Robaina, the mother of Robaina, in an interview with the Cuban publication 14ymedio, “because today my child was chosen, but tomorrow it could be any person in the community.”[3]

Despite the progress that has been made in Cuba in regard to LGBTQ issues, homophobia and transphobia are still major problems, especially outside of Havana. According to transgender advocate Leodan Suárez Quiñones, transgender people in Pinar del Río are not “able to walk freely” like they are in Havana. “We are very discriminated against,” she told the LGBTQ newspaper the Washington Blade.[4]

Underscoring Suárez’s sentiment, Robaina’s mother said that, although other transgender individuals likely witnessed the crime, no one has dared to come forward. Even though these witnesses could help Berta obtain the justice she so desperately desires for her daughter’s death, she does not resent them for their silence. “I understand them because all of them are discriminated against and are scared,” she said. “It’s the same in their jobs as in the streets or wherever, and that is not fair; that has to change.”[5]

Cuba’s Evolving Perceptions of LGBTQ Individuals

There is hope for change when one considers how the perception of LGBTQ individuals in Cuba has changed over the past 50 years. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Fidel Castro’s government persecuted sexual minorities, sending them to labor camps.[6] Although Cuba finally decriminalized homosexual acts in 1979, persecution persisted.[7] Adela Hernández, an openly transgender city councilor, said in the 1980s she was sent to prison for two years for “dangerousness” after her family publically accused her of being gay.[8] However, 30 years later, Hernández made history when she became the first known transgender person in public office in 2012.[9] Cuba’s transgender population began to gain other rights in the 2000s when the Cuban government passed a law allowing state-funded gender reassignment surgery and hormone treatment in 2008.[10] In 2013, lawmakers on the island passed legislation that banned anti-gay discrimination in the workplace.

Indeed, many sexual minorities in Cuba understand that they live in a different world today. Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a gay journalist and advocate, told the Washington Blade in May that being able to sit on Havana’s Malecón with his boyfriend “as a couple like any other is one of those daily acts of love in Cuba that may not have been so easy five or 10 years ago for gay people. It’s not that it was specifically prohibited, but the looks of disapproval and perhaps even some unfounded police action most likely would have been brought against us for this ‘exhibitionism.’”[11]

Many of these changes in LGBTQ rights have resulted from the actions of Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro. While this may seem surprising given the actions of her uncle Fidel Castro, in fact, Fidel took personal responsibility for the injustices committed upon gays and lesbians during his Revolution. “They were moments of great injustice, great injustice!” he told the Mexican newspaper La Jornada in 2010.[12] According to The New York Times, for many years Mariela Castro and her mother, Vilma Espín, “pressed the Castro brothers to soften their attitude toward sexual minorities.”[13]

Today, Mariela uses her organization, Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (the National Center for Sexual Education; CENESEX) to promote rights for and encourage acceptance of the LGBTQ community. For instance, in 2007 CENESEX began organizing events to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which falls in the middle of May. This year, Mariela led marches through Havana and the central-eastern city of Las Tunas in observation of this holiday.[14]

It was Mariela who helped convince the Cuban government to offer state-paid gender reassignment surgery. Also, when the government passed the law in 2013 that banned anti-gay discrimination in the workplace but did not provide protection for transgender people, she became the first lawmaker to cast a dissenting vote in all of Cuba’s history. This protest on her part was done in hopes to codify “full equality under the law.”[15] Mariela defends her position by saying that she is not “causing a rupture in [the nation’s] unity,” as some Cubans might attest. Rather, she said in an interview with The New York Times that what she is doing is “part of the process of national unity around our principles, the humanistic principles that inspire us… And I’m convinced that the revolution needs to guarantee these rights and that Cuban society needs them… I can’t go backwards.” Looking ahead, then, Mariela said she will “insist” that the government legalize same-sex marriage.[16]

Despite all of her activism, Mariela has her critics in the LGBTQ community. Other LGBTQ organizations independent from CENESEX have been created because some believe there is not enough room for all ideas in Mariela’s organization. For example, Maykel González Vivero, a gay blogger and member of the independent organization Proyecto Arco Iris (Project Rainbow), asserted, “Clearly, as is frequently the case in Cuba, [Mariela] speaks on behalf of everyone and does not consult with anyone.”[17] This mistrust is reasonable when one considers Cuba’s one-party system that still does not leave much room for alternative voices. Indeed, Tanía García Hernández, who works for the LGBTI Help Line, believes CENESEX “is one more office of the government” and only “answers to the government.”[18]

CENESEX’s detachment from the community it attempts to represent is perhaps best illustrated by the organization declining to speak to independent newspaper 14ymedio after a march celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in the city of Santiago de Cuba on May 14. 14ymedio is one of the few publications not associated with the state, and it says on its website, “Those who contribute to 14ymedio are advocates of the independent journalism effort in Cuba in order to counteract the monopoly of the official media outlets.”[19] Thus, when a journalist from the publication asked the director of Santiago de Cuba’s branch of CENESEX, Ana Guisández, about her opinion on the march, she replied, “I’m not authorized to talk with independent media outlets; all the information is only for local media outlets that you can find here.”[20]

Others, however, do not agree with these critiques of CENESEX and Mariela Castro. Mariette Pathy Allen, an American photographer of the book TransCuba, has spent time interviewing and photographing transgender women in Cuba and believes that Mariela has ultimately done a lot to help these individuals (Allen’s book TransCuba features a contribution from Mariela). In an interview with COHA, Allen asserted, “[Mariela] is making a counterrevolution to what Fidel did. [And critics of the Castros] have to realize that, yeah, Fidel did lots of terrible things, [but] people do evolve and change over time.”

“You Have to Raise Awareness”

According to the article published by 14ymedio journalist Yosmany Mayeta Labrada about the march in Santiago de Cuba, some members of the LGBTQ community were disappointed by the march’s low turn out and doubted that these events would make a notable difference in changing the atmosphere for sexual minorities in Cuba, as their message does not necessarily reach those that are most biased toward them. One of the participants in the march, Sergio Gómez, said, “The work of increasing sensitivity in regard to this topic should also be brought to workplaces and student centers, because there is a high amount of homophobia in those places and there are many people who are discriminated against.” Another participant, Alexey Duany, agreed, and said that in order for sexual minorities’ situation to improve, “you have to raise awareness.”[21]

The necessity to raise awareness and educate the general public is apparent in the lack of knowledge in Cuban society about sexuality and gender and the discrimination that persists. Encounters with police remain a problem for transgender people. Allen did acknowledge that police interaction with transgender individuals used to be more dangerous “under strict communism.” She added, “the police used to automatically pick up [trans people] as soon as they saw them go outside dressed, but they don’t do that anymore.” However, transgender women still get stopped without warrant on the streets. In 2012, for example, Allen was walking through the streets of Havana at night with two of the transgender women who are the subjects of her book. A police officer stopped them in the street and asked for the identification numbers of the two transgender women but not Allen. “The police quietly wrote [the numbers] down in [their] book, and I was sort of indignant,” Allen said. After the police left, she asked the two women she was with, “Aren’t you angry?” and one responded, “No, we’re used to it.”

In addition, perhaps more notably, transgender women on the island face devastating consequences as a result of workforce discrimination. There are still many societal barriers affecting transgender individuals’ freedom to get a job. “They’re very limited as [far as] what kinds of work they can do,” Allen said, adding that some of the only jobs trans people can get have to do with performance or beautification, such as doing hair or makeup. Allen commented that, because these jobs do not provide a lot of money, many transgender women live in poverty, or are forced into prostitution. As a result, many have contracted AIDS; the lack of sex education among trans people and the influx of foreigners who brought the virus with them over the past decade have exacerbated this problem.

Allen added that transgender individuals are not able to change their birth name, even though they can obtain state-funded gender reassignment surgery. In addition, this right to have surgery comes with some caveats. According to the Washington Blade, many of the independent LGBTQ rights advocates that have spoken with the publication insist, “fewer than 30 trans Cubans have been able to receive” gender reassignment surgery since the law was implemented in 2008.[22] While Allen did not confirm any specific numbers, she did say that only one of the three main subjects of her book has been able to get genital surgery. “It’s a long, long list [to get gender reassignment surgery],” Allen said, adding that the wait can take multiple years. Allen also noted that the surgeries are not even done by Cuban doctors but rather volunteer Belgian doctors who come to the country to perform them once a year.

Continuing discrimination toward LGBTQ people in Cuba is not necessarily the result of a deep-seated devotion to the Catholic Church, as has been the case in many other Latin American countries. In fact, only 27 percent of Cubans identify as Catholic, and 44 percent identify as “not religious.”[23] These statistics sharply contrast with the large number of Catholics residing in other Caribbean islands. In the Dominican Republic, for example, 40 percent of its population is practicing Catholic and 29 percent is nonpracticing but still identifies as Catholic, while only 11 percent state that they have no religion.[24] In Puerto Rico, Catholics make up between one-half and two-thirds of the population.[25]

This paucity of Cubans who identify as Catholic in comparison with surrounding Caribbean countries is most likely a result of religious suppression by the Cuban government. For decades, in order to be a part of the ruling Communist Party, one had to be atheist. Even though Cuba ceased to be officially atheist and allowed religious groups greater freedoms starting in 1992, the originally irreligious ideals of Fidel Castro’s Revolution appear to have had an effect on attitudes regarding religion in the country.[26] This gives hope that, while discrimination toward LGBTQ people is still a major issue in Cuban society, Catholic doctrines that traditionally disapprove of the sexuality and identities of LGBTQ individuals will not present the same hurdles to equality that might be found in other Latin American countries that are more intensely grounded in Catholicism.

The U.S. Factor and the Future of LGBTQ Rights

On May 9, more than a thousand LGBTQ individuals attended the Mariela Castro-organized march against homophobia held in Havana. Mariela called for the legalization of same-sex marriage, declaring, “Same-sex marriage is already legal in Argentina, Uruguay, and in Mexico City. And we have always celebrated these countries’ achievements,” intimating that Cuba should follow suit.[27] (Since then, same-sex marriage has been legalized in all of Mexico). In addition to the procession, 20 same-sex couples participated in symbolic marriages performed by American and Canadian protestant clergy members who blessed the couples as they exchanged unofficial vows.[28]

The act of American clergy blessing gay Cubans was symbolic in more ways than one; indeed, the image seemed to exemplify the potentially positive effects of U.S. influence on Cuba as a result of rapprochement between the two countries. On May 22, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded to questions regarding Cuba’s human rights record and the treatment of LGBTQ people by saying, “You heard the president say many times that he doesn’t believe that people should be treated differently just because of who they love. That means that LGBT Cubans, or Americans, deserve the same rights and protections that everybody else gets.”[29]

Earnest went on to say, “The president is hopeful that through greater engagement that we can open up more economic opportunities both in Cuba and the United States, that through that greater engagement, including economic engagement, that we will be able to apply additional pressure to the Cuban government and support the Cuban people in their aspirations for a government that reflects their will and a government that is willing to respect and even protect their basic human rights.”[30]

There is no doubting that the United States has a certain amount of power to affect change over human rights situations in other countries, as evidenced by the Obama Administration’s efforts to promote gay rights around the world through the expenditure of millions of dollars and other pressures. In 2013, the United States sent Wally Brewster, an openly gay man, to be its ambassador in the Dominican Republic and threatened that they would no longer send an American envoy if he was turned down. Dominican officials agreed but, according to The New York Times, asked that Brewster “be discreet about his sexual orientation.” In response, the State Department sent a video of Brewster with his partner in which they expressed “their enthusiasm for the new job,” and U.S. officials insisted that Brewster would indeed be championing gay rights, as all its ambassadors do in the region.[31]

The ability of the United States to influence Cuba is certainly a possibility when considering the economic hardships that Venezuela currently faces, a country that provided Cuba with oil during the presidency of Hugo Chávez. According to an analysis by Joshua Keating from Slate, Raúl Castro most likely agreed to normalize relations with the United States due to the economic uncertainty stemming from his plans to step down and the country’s reliance on Venezuela.[32] Cuba’s potential future dependence on the United States could lead to changes in the country concerning all human rights, not just for LGBTQ individuals.

However, it should be noted that, despite the Obama Administration’s efforts to foster a more accepting environment for sexual minorities, other economic allies of the United States continue to perpetuate homophobic or even deadly atmospheres for LGBTQ individuals. For example, in Saudi Arabia, a country that provides 13 percent of all U.S. oil imports, any married man who commits sodomy can be stoned to death, and all sex outside of marriage is illegal.[33] And in Qatar, a country that has sustained diplomatic relations with the United States since 1972, any Muslim that has sex out of wedlock can be put to death, no matter what his or her sexual orientation is.[34] These draconian forms of punishment for sexual acts in countries that are economic allies with the United States illustrate that the nation may have less sway than Earnest asserts.

In addition, there is much to be desired in the way of LGBTQ rights in the United States itself. One could argue that it is hypocritical to talk down to Cuba when the U.S. Supreme Court only just legalized gay marriage for all American citizens on June 26. Transgender rights in the United States continue to prove inadequate; less than half of all U.S. states have laws clearly prohibiting discrimination against transgender people.[35]

The influx of American tourism in the country, however, may prove to have more influence in the way Cubans see LGBTQ individuals than U.S.-Cuban policy. The number of Americans who visited Cuba between January 1 and May 9 increased 36 percent compared to the same period last year. There was also a 14 percent increase in tourists overall during that period, compared to the same time frame last year. Visitors from Germany went up 22 percent, from the United Kingdom, 26 percent.[36] This tourist invasion undoubtedly will impact Cuban life, but the result of this influence is debatable. Allen is fearful that Cuban culture might become “diluted.” However, she does see the potential for some positive modifications with respect to sex and gender education for Cuban citizens.

Allen said that the only transgender individuals she has ever come across while in Cuba are male to female. In addition, the transgender women she has spoken with have only expressed interest in boys and young men. She said these women “absolutely could not understand how anybody who was trans would want any other romantic configuration. And if I told them, they didn’t care; they didn’t want to hear about it.” However, she believes that if a full spectrum of sexual minorities comes to Cuba as tourists, this will help to give transgender and questioning Cubans a broader education about what is possible in regard to gender and sexuality. This could also give other Cubans who are not male to female transgender and who might be hiding their true gender identity the ability to come out of the proverbial closet. Indeed, Allen opined, “I think they’ll have a whole new education about what transgender is.”

It is also important to note that before the easing of Cuban-U.S. relations, European and Canadian tourists had been visiting the island for decades. Therefore, U.S. tourists certainly will not be the answer to every LGBTQ issue on the island. However, it is undeniable that the increase in tourists from all countries over the past year will create a whole new set of parameters for the Cuban people.

Despite outside influence, changes in the situation of LGBTQ individuals will ultimately fall to the Cuban government and people. Indeed, there is evidence that an impending change in power, which is expected to take place in 2018 when Raúl Castro is predicted to step down, could encourage change in the country’s treatment of LGBTQ individuals. Miguel Díaz-Canel will most likely succeed him, and while Allen does not believe Díaz-Canel will be much different ideologically speaking, seeing as Raúl Castro handpicked him to be his vice president in 2013, she does believe that since the Castros have “softened” their views, Díaz-Canel “will probably move that way too.”[37]

In fact, the 52-year-old Díaz-Canel was born after the Cuban Revolution, and, according to Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director and chairman of the Cuba Working Group at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, although Díaz-Canel “is somewhat of a mystery… there is an element of a new generation that recognizes that the country has to change.”[38] Indeed, going forward, it will be up to the Cuban government to continue to create new legislation that supports the LGBTQ community, such as a same-sex marriage law and an anti-discrimination law that includes transgender individuals. Most importantly, educating the general public on these issues will be key to raising awareness and fostering a future where LGBTQ individuals will not be afraid to express their true selves.

By: Olivia Marple, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs 

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action.

Featured Photo: Mariela Castro in Hamburg. From: Northside.

[1] Juan Carlos Fernández, “Muere un transexual apedreado en la ciudad de Pinar del Río,” 14ymedio, May 11, 2015, accessed June 11, 2015, http://www.14ymedio.com/nacional/Muere-transexual-apedreado-Pinar-Rio_0_1775822401.html.

[2] Michael K. Lavers, “Cuban trans advocate: Government seeks to ‘destroy us,’” Washington Blade, May 20, 2015, accessed June 11, 2015, http://www.washingtonblade.com/2015/05/20/cuban-trans-advocate-government-seeks-to-destroy-us/.

[3] Fernández, “Muere un transexual apedreado.”

[4] Lavers, “Government seeks to ‘destroy us.’”

[5] Fernández, “Muere un transexual apedreado.”

[6] The Editorial Board, “Cuba’s Gay Rights Evolution,” The New York Times, December 20, 2014, accessed June 11, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/21/opinion/sunday/cubas-gay-rights-evolution.html?_r=0.

[7] Shasta Darlington, “Castro admits ‘injustice’ for gays and lesbians during revolution,” CNN, August 31, 2010, accessed June 11, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/americas/08/31/cuba.castro.gays/.

[8] Andrea Rodriguez, “Adela Hernandez, Transgender Woman, Wins Office in Cuba,” The Huffington Post, November 17, 2012, accessed June 11, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/17/adela-hernandez-transgender-woman-cuba_n_2151168.html.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Editorial Board, “Cuba’s Gay Rights Evolution”; Michael K. Lavers, “Amid change, LGBT Cubans face lingering challenges,” Washington Blade, May 27, 2015, accessed June 11, 2015, http://www.washingtonblade.com/2015/05/27/amid-change-lgbt-cubans-face-lingering-challenges/.

[11] Lavers, “LGBT Cubans face lingering challenges.”

[12] Darlington, “Castro admits ‘injustice.’”

[13] The Editorial Board, “Cuba’s Gay Rights Evolution.”

[14] Lavers, “LGBT Cubans face lingering challenges.”

[15] The Editorial Board, “Cuba’s Gay Rights Evolution.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Lavers, “LGBT Cubans face lingering challenges.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] “14ymedio,” 14ymedio, accessed June 11, 2015, http://www.14ymedio.com/quienes-somos.html.

[20] Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, “La marcha contra la homofobia en Santiago de Cuba no deja a todos contentos,” 14ymedio, May 14, 2015, accessed June 11, 2015, http://www.14ymedio.com/nacional/marcha-homofobia-Santiago-Cuba-contentos_0_1778822122.html.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Lavers, “LGBT Cubans face lingering challenges.”

[23] Scott Clement, “Cubans love the pope and the Catholic Church, but they’re just not that into religion,” The Washington Post, April 10, 2015, accessed June 23, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2015/04/10/cubans-love-the-pope-and-the-catholic-church-but-theyre-just-not-that-into-religion/.

[24] “International Religious Freedom Report for 2011: Dominican Republic,” United States Department of State, 2011, accessed June 23, 2015, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/193181.pdf.

[25] “Religion in Latin America,” Pew Research Center, November 13, 2014, accessed June 23, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2014/11/13/religion-in-latin-america/.

[26] Clement, “Cubans love the pope”; Nick Miroff, “Pope Francis to stop off in Cuba on way to United States in September,” The Washington Post, April 22, 2015, accessed June 23, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/pope-francis-to-stop-off-in-cuba-on-way-to-united-states-in-september/2015/04/22/7625c4a4-e8f4-11e4-8581-633c536add4b_story.html.

[27] “Comunidad LGTB marcha en Cuba contra la discriminación,” BBC, May 10, 2015, June 11, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2015/05/150509_cuba_marcha_gay_ep.

[28] Daniel Trotta, “La marcha del orgullo gay en Cuba apoya los matrimonios homosexuales,” CNN México, May 10, 2015, accessed June 11, 2015, http://mexico.cnn.com/mundo/2015/05/10/la-marcha-del-orgullo-gay-en-cuba-apoya-los-matrimonios-homosexuales; “Cuban same-sex couples ‘wed’ in march for LGBT rights led by Castro’s daughter,” The Guardian, May 9, 2015, accessed June 11, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/09/cuba-gay-marriage-lgbt-mariela-castro.

[29] Michael K. Lavers, “LGBT rights factor into normalized relations between U.S., Cuba,” Washington Blade, May 22, 2015, accessed June 11, 2015, http://www.washingtonblade.com/2015/05/22/lgbt-rights-factor-into-normalized-relations-between-u-s-cuba/.

[30] Ibid.

[31] The Editorial Board, “Cuba’s Gay Rights Evolution.”

[32] Joshua Keating, “Why Does Cuba Want to Re-establish Relations With the U.S.?” Slate. December 17, 2014, accessed June 11, 2015, http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2014/12/17/cuba_embargo_obama_s_motives_are_clear_but_why_does_raul_castro_want_to.html.

[33] “How much petroleum does the United States import and from where?” U.S. Energy Information Administration, March 11, 2015, accessed June 16, 2015, http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=727&t=6; Terri Rupar, “Here are the 10 countries where homosexuality may be punished by death,” The Washington Post, February 24, 2014, accessed June 16, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/02/24/here-are-the-10-countries-where-homosexuality-may-be-punished-by-death/.

[34] “U.S. Relations With Qatar,” U.S. Department of State, August 26, 2014, accessed June 16, 2015, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5437.htm; Rupar, “10 countries where homosexuality may be punished by death.”

[35] “Transgender People and the Law,” American Civil Liberties Union, accessed June 26, 2015, https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/transgender-people-and-law.

[36] Beth J. Harpaz, “US tourism to Cuba is booming,” Business Insider, May 26, 2015, accessed June 11, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/us-tourism-to-cuba-is-booming-2015-5.

[37] Keating, “Re-establish Relations With the U.S.”

[38] Ibid.

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