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LGBT rights group honors Mariela Castro

Ros-Lehtinen calls her ‘standard bearer’ for ‘oppressive’ regime

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Mariela Castro, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade
Mariela Castro, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Mariela Castro spoke during a press conference in Philadelphia on May 4. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

PHILADELPHIA – An advocacy group on Saturday honored Cuban President Raúl Castro’s daughter for her efforts in support of LGBT rights in Cuba.

“I’m very honored that this organization, Equality Forum, invited me to participate in this event this year,” Mariela Castro said during a press conference with the group’s executive director, Malcolm Lazin, at the National Museum of American Jewish History before she accepted her award.

“She is truly an international hero for LGBT equality,” Lazin added, noting there have been what he described as “remarkable changes for LGBT Cubans” because of Mariela Castro’s work as executive director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX.) “We are really very honored to have her here in the United States in an open forum.”

Mariela Castro has spearheaded a number of campaigns over the last decade to promote acceptance of LGBT Cubans and to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS on the island.

She successfully lobbied the Cuban government to begin offering free sex-reassignment surgery under the country’s national health care system in 2010.

Observers have credited Cuba’s condom distribution campaign and sexual education curriculum with producing one of the world’s lowest HIV infection rates. Cubans with the virus also have access to free anti-retroviral drugs through the country’s health care system.

Mariela Castro, whose uncle is former Cuban President Fidel Castro, in May 2012 appeared on a panel with Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in New York while she and other Cuban scholars visited the United States. She also met with LGBT advocates in San Francisco during the trip.

CENESEX has also scheduled a series of events across the country between May 7-18 to commemorate the annual International Day Against Homophobia.

“I am very proud of how we have advanced [LGBT rights in Cuba,]” she said during a panel at the University of the Arts earlier on Saturday that former GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios moderated.

Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas; Wilfredo Labiosa of the group Acceso and Philadelphia resident Ada Bella, who emigrated from Cuba to the United States in 1958 were the other panelists who joined Mariela Castro at the University of the Arts in Center City.

Mariela Castro, who has also spoken out in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Cuba, pointed out her mother, who directed CENESEX until she died in 2007, in the 1990s proposed an amendment to the country’s family code that would have defined marriage as a union between two people regardless of gender. She said during the panel that religious leaders and other Cubans questioned and even criticized her previous efforts to extend marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples.

Mariela Castro added she plans to continue to fight for these issues once she returns to Cuba.

“We want everybody to have the same rights,” she said. “I think that same-sex couples should have the same rights.”

Some Cuban LGBT advocates remain critical of the government and Mariela Castro herself in spite of these efforts.

Leannes Imbert Acosta of the Cuban LGBT Platform claims authorities detained her last September as she left her Havana home to bring materials to CENESEX on a planned exhibit on forced labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production – or UMAPs in Spanish — to which the government sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military services during the 1960s. Ignacio Estrada Cepero, a gay man with HIV who founded the Cuban League Against AIDS in 2003, stressed during a New York City panel last year sponsored by Cuba Archive, a group that documents the Cuban government’s human rights abuses, that those with the virus on the island continue to face discrimination — including more than 500 people with HIV/AIDS he claims remain in prison for what he described as the crime of “pre-criminal social dangerousness.”

The Cuban government in 1979 repealed the country’s sodomy laws, but its critics continue to stress authorities use public decency and assembly laws to harass LGBT Cubans. Those with HIV/AIDS were forcibly quarantined in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Fla. congresswoman blasts Mariela Castro

The State Department had initially denied Mariela Castro’s request to travel to Philadelphia, but Lazin on April 29 announced she had received the visa that allowed her to attend the event.

“Mariela Castro is the standard bearer for the oppressive Cuban dictatorship that has been wantonly violating people’s human rights for over 50 years,” Cuban-born Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement she released on Friday. “To allow her to come to the U.S. yet again so she can proliferate the Castro propaganda machine is appalling.”

Herb Sosa, a first-generation Cuban American who is president of the Miami-based Unity Coalition, an LGBT advocacy group, also blasted Equality Forum’s decision to honor Mariela Castro.

“To reward any element of the decades-old dictatorship, especially for positive efforts on human rights — is a sad joke,” he told the Washington Blade. “The daughter and niece of the Castro dictators have blood on their hands. Her marches and public spectacles are nothing more than photo ops for a willing and enabling media that does not seem to want to ask too many questions.”

Lazin interrupted this reporter when he started to repeat his question to Mariela Castro’s interpreter about her reaction to those Cuban LGBT rights advocates and others on the island who have criticized both her and her father’s government.

“Let’s keep the questions to the award that Mariela is here for tonight, which is the International Ally for LGBT Equality,” Equality Forum Communications Director Chip Alfred told reporters during the press conference at the National Museum for American Jewish History. “She’s not here to talk about the politics in Cuba.”

Labiosa earlier in the day applauded Mariela Castro and the Cuban government for what he described as their efforts to advance the island’s LGBT rights movement.

“They have been able to move it to the new century,” he said as he compared it to those in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries and territories. “We as a country, as a movement can learn and should be able to be open to learn from the Cuban government and also from the CENESEX and from the people.”

Mariela Castro, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Mariela Castro at University of the Arts in Philadelphia on May 4, 2013 (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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The White House

Biden, Harris, deliver remarks for White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf among those who spoke

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris listen as U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) addresses an audience in the Rose Garden including federal, state and local officials, survivors and family members, and gun violence prevention advocates on Sept. 22, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wolf)

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) addressed an audience from the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday to honor the establishment of a first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

In a press release Thursday announcing the move, the administration said its aim is to implement and expand the provisions of last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act along with those contained in the president’s executive orders targeting issues of gun violence.

Additionally, Biden explained in his remarks, the office will coordinate more support for survivors, families and communities, including mental health services and financial aid; identify new avenues for executive action; and “expand our coalition of partners in states and cities across America” given the need for legislative solutions on the local and state level.

Harris, who will oversee the office, pledged to “use the full power of the federal government to strengthen the coalition of survivors and advocates and students and teachers and elected leaders to save lives and fight for the right of all people to be safe from fear and to be able to live a life where they understand that they are supported in that desire and that right.”

The vice president noted her close experiences with the devastating consequences of gun violence in her work as a federal prosecutor, San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and in her current role.

Biden’s comments also included highlights of his administration’s accomplishments combatting gun violence and a call to action for Congress to do more. “It’s time again to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines,” he told lawmakers.

The president also credited the the work of advocates including those who were gathered at the White House on Friday: “all of you here today, all across the country, survivors, families, advocates — especially young people who demand our nation do better to protect all; who protested, organized, voted, and ran for office, and, yes, marched for their lives.”

Taking the stage before introducing Biden, Frost noted that “Right before I was elected to Congress, I served as the national organizing director for March for Our Lives, a movement that inspired young people across the nation to demand safe communities.”

“The president understands that this issue especially for young people, especially for marginalized communities, is a matter of survival,” the congressman said. And the formation of this office, “comes from Pulse to Parkland,” he said, adding, “we fight because we love.”

Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which was America’s second deadliest mass shooting and the deadliest against the LGBTQ community, shared a comment with the Washington Blade after Friday’s ceremony:

“Seven years ago, when my best friends and 47 others were murdered at our safe place — Pulse Nightclub — we promised to honor them with action. This is what that looks like. This deep investment in the fight to end gun violence matters, and I cannot wait to see Vice President Harris lead these efforts. We can blaze the path toward a future free of gun violence. And today marked an important step in that direction.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge: drag is ‘vulgar and lewd,’ ‘sexualized conduct’

Ruling ‘bristles with hostility toward LGBTQ people’

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J. Marvin Jones Federal Building, U.S. Courthouse in Amarillo, Texas (Photo: Library of Congress)

Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a ruling Thursday denying relief to a group of university students who sought to host a drag show over the objections of their school’s president.

A Trump appointed jurist with deep ties to anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion conservative legal activists, Kacsmaryk argued that drag performances probably do not constitute speech protected by the First Amendment.

As Slate Senior Writer Mark Joseph Stern wrote on X, this conclusion “conflicts with decisions from Texas, Florida, Tennessee and Montana which held that drag is constitutionally protected expression.”

“It also bristles with undisguised hostility toward LGBTQ people,” he added.

Kacsmaryk’s 26-page decision describes drag performances as lewd and licentious, obscene and sexually prurient, despite arguments the plaintiffs had presented about the social, political, and artistic merit of this art form.

As the Human Rights Campaign recently wrote, “drag artists and the spaces that host their performances have long served as a communal environment for queer expression.”

The group added, “It is a form of art and entertainment, but, historically, the performances haven’t only served to entertain, but also to truly advance the empowerment and visibility of LGBTQ+ people.”

Nevertheless, anti-LGBTQ conservative activists and organizations have perpetuated conspiracy theories about members of the community targeting children for sexual abuse including by bringing them to drag performances.

Among these is a group with ties to the Proud Boys that was cited by Kacsmaryk in his ruling: Gays Against Groomers, an anti-LGBTQ and anti-transgender extremist group, according to the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.

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The White House

Harris to oversee White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Goal is to implement and expand upon legislation, executive actions

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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, September 2023. (Official White House photograph by Lawrence Jackson)

The White House announced Thursday evening that President Joe Biden on Friday will establish the first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, to be overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The office will focus on implementing and expanding upon executive and legislative actions, including the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, “to reduce gun violence, which has ravaged communities across the country.”

Serving under Harris will be Stefanie Feldman, “a longtime policy advisor to President Biden on gun violence prevention,” and “leading gun violence prevention advocates Greg Jackson and Rob Wilcox.”

“Every time I’ve met with families impacted by gun violence as they mourn their loved ones, and I’ve met with so many throughout the country, they all have the same message for their elected officials: ‘do something,'” Biden said in a statement.

The president noted his signing of last year’s bipartisan gun violence prevention law, a flagship legislative accomplishment for the administration, along with his issuance of more executive actions than any president in history to address this problem.

Calling these “just the first steps,” Biden said the establishment of the White House Office on Gun Violence Prevention will “build upon these measures and keep Americans safe.”

He also urged Congress to do more by passing legislation requiring universal background checks, and baning assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

In a statement, Harris said, “This epidemic of gun violence requires urgent leadership to end the fear and trauma that Americans experience every day.”

“The new Office of Gun Violence Prevention will play a critical role in implementing President Biden’s and my efforts to reduce violence to the fullest extent under the law,” she said, “while also engaging and encouraging Congressional leaders, state and local leaders, and advocates to come together to build upon the meaningful progress that we have made to save lives.”

“Our promise to the American people is this: we will not stop working to end the epidemic of gun violence in every community, because we do not have a moment, nor a life to spare,” the vice president said.

Then Vice President Biden hugs Brandon J. Wolf as he talks with family members of the victims and survivors in the June 12th mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, June 16, 2016.
Wolf, a Pulse survivor, was recently appointed National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign.
(Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
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