May 17, 2017 at 1:59 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Cuba marks International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia

Participants in LGBT march in Santa Clara, Cuba, that Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, organized on May 17, 2017, carry a large rainbow flag along the march route. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

SANTA CLARA, Cuba — The daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro on Wednesday led a march through the city of Santa Clara that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Mariela Castro, who is the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education, which is known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX, and hundreds of her supporters marched to and from El Mejunje, an LGBT cultural center and nightclub near Santa Clara’s Parque Vidal. Mariela Castro spoke after the march ended.

Dixon Ricardo is originally from the city of Holguín, but moved to Santa Clara in January. He told the Washington Blade before the march that the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia Is a “very special day where Cubans are able to show” the country has become more accepting of people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity over the last decade.

A woman who marched with her daughter, who was wearing her school uniform, agreed.

“I support diversity,” she told the Blade before the march began.

A mother and her daughter take part in an LGBT march in Santa Clara, Cuba, that Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, organized on May 17, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The woman and her daughter were among those who were holding a large rainbow flag during the march. Others held an equally large Cuban flag as drummers and congueros (conga players) played. Several drag queens wearing elaborate costumes and headdresses also took part in the march.

Cuba first marked IDAHOT in 2007

The International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia — which is May 17 — commemorates the World Health Organization’s decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday in a statement his office released noted, among other things, the ongoing persecution of gay men in Chechnya. LGBT advocacy groups in the U.S. and around the world have also publicly commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia with their own statements, events and initiatives.

American embassies and consulates around the world during the Obama administration routinely flew rainbow flags to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana on Wednesday flew the rainbow flag to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. It is unclear whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday issued a formal directive that allows embassies and consulates to formally commemorate it.

The first International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia commemorations in Cuba took place in 2007. This year’s events seek to highlight efforts to combat bullying in the country’s schools.

More than 2,000 people on Saturday took part in a march through Havana’s Vedado neighborhood that Mariela Castro and CENESEX organized.

CENESEX on May 13 honored Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Churches, at a gala that took place at Havana’s Karl Marx Theater. Gender Rights Maryland Executive Director Dana Beyer, Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito are among those who attended the march.

Activists in Santiago and other cities across Cuba have also held events around the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. They are scheduled to continue to take place through the end of this month.

“I’m very pleased to be in Havana to celebrate Pride with the Cuban LGBT community,” Beyer told the Blade on Saturday after the march, noting her maternal grandparents lived in Havana when her mother was conceived because Jewish people could not immigrate to the U.S. in the early 20th century.

Cuba president ‘supportive’ of daughter’s LGBT efforts

Mariela Castro’s uncle, former President Fidel Castro, in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought him to power sent gay men and others to work camps that were known by the Spanish acronym UMAPs. The government forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Fidel Castro in 2010 publicly apologized for the UMAPs during an interview with a Mexican newspaper.

The Cuban government since 2008 has offered free sex-reassignment surgeries to trans women.

Mariela Castro told reporters earlier this month during a Havana press conference that 35 people — roughly half a dozen a year — have undergone the procedure. Independent activists with whom the Blade regularly speaks have pointed out the low numbers of sex-reassignment surgeries that have taken place in Cuba.

Mariela Castro told Hatzel Vela, the Havana-based reporter for WPLG, a South Florida television station, in a recent interview that her father “understands” her LGBT-specific efforts and is “supportive” of them. She has also repeatedly denied speculation that she will succeed Raúl Castro as president in 2018 when he expected to step down.

‘Necessary to diversity the Cuban voices’ on LGBT issues

Trans Cubans’ access to sex-reassignment surgery are among the issues on which independent LGBT rights advocates have criticized Mariela Castro. Others include marriage rights for same-sex couples and the country’s human rights record.

Nelson Gandulla, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, which is based in the city of Cienfuegos, told the Blade that authorities prevented him from meeting with Smith and other U.S. advocates in Havana last week.

Gandulla says security agents routinely harass him — including visiting his home ahead of Obama’s visit to Cuba in March 2016 — because he publicly criticizes Mariela Castro and her father’s government. He said they prevented him from boarding a flight to Panama City from Havana’s José Martí International Airport in January in order to travel to the Colombian city of Cartagena to attend a workshop that focused on documenting human rights abuses.

The Blade has made repeated requests to interview Mariela Castro in Cuba in recent weeks. The Cuban government has not responded to any of them.

A group of LGBT activists and their supporters in the town of Santo Domingo, which is roughly 45 minutes west of Santa Clara on Cuba’s Carretera Nacional, on Tuesday gathered to attend a discussion group that focused on LGBT-specific issues around the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. They also ate homemade coconut cake, drank shots of wine and and glasses of orange soda and took pictures with each other after the event ended.

The event took place at the Centro Comunitario de Cultura, an LGBT community center in the backyard of Victor Manuel Dueñas, an activist who is among those behind a campaign that urges Cuban lawmakers to discuss whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Two Cuban school girls read about International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia commemorations in Santa Clara, Cuba, on May 16, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Cuban constitution currently defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban National Assembly, publicly supports the issue. She has not officially acknowledged the independent activists’ campaign that began in 2015.

Dueñas told the group that he and his partner — who had a symbolic marriage last year — had their picture taken with Mariela Castro in Havana on Saturday after the march. Dueñas said Mariela Castro smiled when he and his partner asked her about marriage rights for same-sex couples and when gay and lesbian Cubans can legally exchange vows in the Communist country.

“It is necessary to diversify the Cuban voices around issues the LGBT community faces,” said Dueñas.

“There are many people working inside Cuba — whether they are members of the LGBT community or not — very hard on not only the marriage equality question,” he added.

A man takes part in an International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia march in Santa Clara, Cuba, on May 17, 2017. Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, and her group organized the event. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

  • Sharia Syeeda

    Lets not forget the most pressing and serious phobia of them all, Islamophobia. I hope the Cubans were not being intentionally Islamophobic by excluding Islamophobia.

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