In a development considered unthinkable just a few years ago, a transgender woman and a man identifying himself as gay were married in a public wedding in Havana on Aug. 13, with family members, friends and newly emerging gay activists attending the ceremony.
“This is the first wedding between a transsexual woman and a gay man,” the 31-year-old groom, Ignacio Estrada, told the Associated Press. “We celebrate it at the top of our voices and affirm that this is a step forward for the gay community in Cuba,” the AP quoted Estrada as saying.
Although same-sex marriage remains illegal in Cuba, Estrada and his new wife, Wendy Iriepa, 37, told members of a large international media contingent covering the ceremony that their relationship and wedding symbolized some of the positive changes taking place in Cuba for the LGBT community.
But the two said their relationship and wedding also represented a protest of sorts against the government’s continuing crackdown against dissent and free speech. Estrada is a member of an independent gay rights organization that formed in defiance of a strict government rule barring political organizations that are not approved by the government. Fellow gay dissidents were among those attending his wedding, he told the media.
Iriepa told the Miami Herald that her relationship with Estrada prompted officials at Cuba’s National Sex Education Center in Havana, where she worked, to warn her about her association with a dissident. She later resigned from her job in protest over what she said were accusations of disloyalty to the government for her relationship with the man she chose to marry.
Iriepa has disclosed publicly that she had gender reassignment surgery in 2007 under a new government policy that now includes such procedures as part of Cuba’s universal health care system.
One of the leading advocates of the policy change, according to reports from government officials, was Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuba’s current president, Raul Castro, and niece of Fidel Castro.
In yet another development considered remarkable by LGBT activists in the U.S. and Canada who are familiar with Cuba, Mariela Castro has emerged as a champion of LGBT equality in Cuba in her role as director of CENESEX. She has organized a Gay Pride parade and is coordinating a CENESEX-sponsored campaign to discourage prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people.
Yet some U.S. gay activists with ties to LGBT people in Cuba say the pro-LGBT policies promoted by Mariela Castro are taking place within a political system that prohibits freedom of expression and any criticism of the Communist Party-led government that runs Cuba.
While they see the changes that Mariela Castro has brought about as positive for LGBT people, these activists say LGBT people, like all other Cubans, remain under the control of a repressive government that denies its people freedoms taken for granted in other countries, including access to the Internet.
“Yes there is a trickling, if you will, of some freedoms here and there,” said Heriberto “Herb” Sosa, president of the Unity Coalition, a Miami-based LGBT Latino advocacy organization.
Sosa said his organization has developed a network of LGBT correspondents inside Cuba who communicate clandestinely with his group. He said some of them write articles for a Spanish language LGBT online magazine, Ambiente, which Sosa publishes.
“Unfortunately the regime really hasn’t changed much in the way they offer this relaxation,” he said. “It’s always if you play by the rules, if you’re part of the Communist Party, if you’re in favor of the government – those are the people that are getting a little bit more freedoms, including those within the LGBT community.”
According to Sosa, while Mariela Castro has promoted LGBT-friendly programs, “many dissidents are being thrown in jail or are being harassed and beaten – as recently as last week.”
Other LGBT activists more supportive of Cuba argue that Miami-based Cuban Americans, such as Sosa, have a longstanding bias against the Cuban government, in part, because their parents or grandparents lost financial assets when they fled Cuba for the U.S. in the 1960s following the Fidel Castro-led Cuban revolution of 1959.
The politically influential Cuban American community in South Florida has been credited with persuading Congress and at least eight U.S. presidents to continue the U.S. economic and trade boycott of Cuba, which critics say hurts the Cuban people more than the government.
Cuban American organizations argue that the U.S. trade boycott is needed to set the stage for the eventual replacement of the current Cuban regime with a new democratic government.
“This is not our personal feelings or opinions,” said Sosa. “This is based on what we know is happening inside the island from actual LGBT leaders and dissidents and writers from within the island and every single day send us factual information as to what is going on.”
The international human rights advocacy organization, Human Rights Watch, has called on the U.S. to end the trade embargo against Cuba. But the group has also been highly critical of Cuba’s human rights record, saying little has changed since Raul Castro replaced his brother Fidel as the country’s top leader.
“Cuba’s laws empower the state to criminalize virtually all forms of dissent, and grant officials extraordinary authority to penalize people who try to exercise their basic rights,” the group said in a June 1, 2011, statement.
The European-based human rights group Amnesty International issued a statement in March saying that, in response to international pressure, Cuba released about 50 political prisoners who had been jailed since 2003. However, Amnesty International said the government was detaining a new crop of political dissidents.
“Hundreds of pro-democracy activists have suffered harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest in recent weeks as the Cuban government employs new tactics to stamp out dissent,” the statement says.
The Obama administration has relaxed some restrictions that, in the past, have barred most U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba and prevented Americans, including Cuban Americans, from sending money to assist Cuban relatives.
But the administration earlier this year joined members of Congress in condemning the Cuban government for sentencing an American citizen, Alan Gross, to 15 years in prison for bringing satellite and other communications equipment into Cuba under a U.S. government sponsored program to promote democracy.
Gross said he brought in the equipment to assist the island’s small Jewish community obtain access to the Internet. Cuban authorities accused Gross of engaging in espionage activities on behalf of the U.S. government.
With that as a backdrop, the U.S. State Department surprised some political observers in June when it included an LGBT-related project in an official request for proposals from independent contractors to promote democracy in Cuba.
The request for proposals was issued by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
The bureau “seeks proposals to strengthen grassroots organizations to create the conditions that allow meaningful and unhindered participation by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in all aspects of Cuban society,” a State Department document announcing the RFP says.
One of the goals of the project, the RFP says, is “strengthening the capacity of grassroots LGBT organizations to register in Cuba as recognized non-governmental organizations.”
The document says the State Department has designated approximately $300,000 to fund the project.
State Department spokesperson Evan Owen said that as of late last week a contractor had not been selected to carry out the project.
Gay Episcopalian activist Charles Briody of D.C., who recently visited Cuba as part of a group called Pastors for Peace, said he’s troubled that the Obama administration hasn’t pushed harder to end the U.S. economic boycott of Cuba.
Briody said he has experienced firsthand Cuba’s evolving attitudes on LGBT equality when family members of his Cuban boyfriend helped organize a commitment ceremony for the couple in his boyfriend’s hometown outside Havana.
“It was really wonderful,” he said. “Everybody was there, including the kids. It was recognition of our relationship for what it is.”
Briody, however, declined to disclose his partner Samuel’s last name, saying he was worried about possible consequences for Samuel from the U.S. government, not the Cuban government.
“I hope to bring him to Washington so we can get married,” he said, adding that he’s worried that U.S. immigration or visa restrictions could prevent Samuel from entering the country. Briody said that upon his retirement as a schoolteacher in Maryland in the near future he hopes to live part of each year in Cuba with Samuel.
He said that during his recent visit to Cuba, he attended a briefing that a CENESEX official held for about 100 members of the Pastors for Peace contingent. According to Briody, the official said the Cuban National Assembly was considering a proposed law that would ban workplace discrimination in Cuba based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
“My first thought was, wow, Cuba might beat the United States in passing a national law protecting LGBT people from employment discrimination,” he said.
Repeated attempts to reach a Cuban government spokesperson for comment through the Cuban Interest Section office in Washington or through the Cuban Mission at the United Nations in New York were unsuccessful. The phones at both offices were not answered.
A staff member with the Swiss Embassy in Washington, which facilitates the Cuban interest section, said she receives frequent reports by callers who can’t reach anyone at the interest section.