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Cuban LGBT activists visit D.C.

Ignacio Estrada Cepero and Wendy Iriepa Díaz met with Fla. congresswoman

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Cuba, Ignacio Estrada, Wendy Iriepa, Gay News, Casa Ruby, Washington Blade

Cuba, Ignacio Estrada, Wendy Iriepa, Gay News, Casa Ruby, Washington Blade

Ignacio Estrada Cepero and Wendy Iriepa Diaz visit Casa Ruby on Monday, July 29, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Washington Blade by Damien Salas)

Two Cuban LGBT rights advocates travelled to D.C. this week to meet with activists and a member of Congress.

Ignacio Estrada Cepero and Wendy Iriepa Díaz on Monday visited Casa Ruby and Us Helping Us in Northwest Washington. They also met with Cuban-born Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) at her office on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Estrada, who founded the Cuban League against AIDS in 2005, said while he and Iriepa were at Casa Ruby that they wanted to “show how we live, how we work” in Cuba while they are in the U.S. The activists also criticized Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who is the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) that supports LGBT rights while in the U.S.

“Mariela totally manipulates the LGBT community,” Iriepa said.

Estrada and Iriepa, a transgender woman who once worked for CENESEX, married in a high-profile wedding in Havana, the Cuban capital, in 2011.

They will remain in the U.S. for three months after arriving in Miami on June 26.

Estrada and Iriepa traveled to D.C. less than three months after Mariela Castro traveled to the U.S. to accept an award from Equality Forum, a Philadelphia-based LGBT advocacy group.

“She does not recognize the work that is done on the part of the independent gay community,” Estrada told the Washington Blade during an hour-long interview on Tuesday. “She only recognizes the official part.”

Mariela Castro’s supporters note she successfully lobbied the Cuban government to begin offering free sex-reassignment surgery under the country’s national health care system in 2008. Iriepa herself underwent the procedure in 2007.

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

CENESEX in May scheduled a series of events across Cuba to commemorate the annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Mariela Castro has also spoken out in support gay nuptials, even though Cuban lawmakers have rejected efforts to legally recognize same-sex couples.

“I am very proud of how we have advanced [LGBT rights in Cuba,]” she said during an Equality Forum panel in Philadelphia.

Estrada and Iriepa reject any effort to portray Mariela Castro and her father’s government in a positive light.

Estrada noted to the Blade the Cuban government forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993. Three of these facilities remain open, but Estrada said those who receive care in them are unable to leave without an escort.

“You cannot do anything if you if these people don’t accompany you,” he said.

Estrada, who is positive, said more than 600 prisoners with HIV/AIDS live in six prisons he said the Cuban government specifically built to house them.

Official statistics indicate 18,261 Cubans were living with HIV/AIDS as of December 2012, but Estrada estimates the epidemic’s impact on the island is much greater. He also dismissed claims that those who are positive on the island have unlimited access to anti-retroviral drugs.

“It is a grave situation and it will become even worse when the government totally manipulates the statistics of the epidemic [in Cuba,]” Estrada told the Blade.

The regime’s critics continue to maintain authorities continue to harass LGBT rights advocates in spite of Mariela Castro’s advocacy against homophobia and transphobia and other issues.

Leannes Imbert Acosta of the Cuban LGBT Platform claimed authorities last September detained her as she left her Havana home to bring materials to CENESEX on a planned exhibit on forced labor camps to which the government sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military services during the 1960s. Estrada told the Blade a Cuban counter-intelligence officer approached him, Iriepa and other LGBT rights advocates during a Pride walk in Havana they held last year.

“There was no sort of opinion against Mariela, nor for Mariela, nor against Fidel,” Estrada said. “It was for LGBT rights.”

CENESEX dismissed Iriepa shortly before she married Estrada during a ceremony in which Yoani Sánchez, a prominent blogger and regime critic who visited the U.S. and other countries earlier this year during a three-month trip around the world, served as her maid of honor. Other government critics, independent journalists and human rights advocates attended the couple’s wedding.

“It was a triumph because this wedding was able to bring together in a very big way the Cuban civil society of the opposition, dissidents, bloggers, independent journalists and human rights activists,” Estrada said. “It is a success because never in the life of Cuba during the 53 years of what they call revolution has anything like this been known.”

Ros-Lehtinen applauded Estrada and Iriepa’s advocacy efforts during her meeting with them to which the Blade had exclusive access. She also blasted Mariela Castro and her father’s government for what she described as ongoing human rights abuses in Cuba.

“She [Mariela Castro] gets feted and awarded and yet these folks who are so valiant, so brave and telling the truth about what is going on in the LGBT community in Cuba are marginalized,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Blade after she met with Estrada and Iriepa. “I wanted to make sure that I had an opportunity to meet with them and let them know that their work is valued.”

A Cuban government representative did not return the Blade’s request for comment on Estrada and Iriepa’s trip and their criticisms.

As for Estrada and Iriepa, they remain upbeat about their future prospects once they return to Cuba.

Estrada told the Blade he hopes to maintain what he described as an open space that respects all “the colors of the diversity of our flag.” Iriepa added she hopes to one day open an organization similar to Casa Ruby in Havana.

“I will return (to Cuba) energized to do many positive things,” she said.

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Comings & Goings

McCarty named director of partnerships at Universe

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Steven McCarty

The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at: [email protected].

Congratulations to Steven McCarty on his new position with Universe, as Director of Partnerships. Universe supports movement organizations, labor unions, and Democratic campaigns, with the software they need to win. On accepting the new position he said, “I’m most excited to take my years of campaign and technology experience to down-ballot Democrats across the country as we fight to preserve our Democracy this election cycle.” 

Prior to this, McCarty was Business Development + Partnerships Lead, at STAC labs (State Technology Acceleration Collaborative), where he spearheaded strategic business development initiatives, expanding STAC labs’ partner network by 400% with the launch of the Progressive Tech Index and doubling DemLaunch user base from four to 11 states within a year. Prior to that he was president at The Kiwanis Club of Washington, D.C.; Senior Customer Success Manager at Crowdskout; Vice President at Circle K International, Indianapolis, Ind.; and a summer fellow at Michigan State AFL-CIO, Lansing, Mich. 

He has done a lot of volunteer work, including being an elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for ANC 2G04, representing Blagden Alley, Naylor Court, and Shepherd Court. He received a Youth Champion Award for outstanding support to LGBTQ Youth, from SMYAL; and was named a Kiwanis Member of the Year, Kiwanis Club of Washington, D.C.

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District of Columbia

Cherry Fund files lawsuit  against Republiq Hall

LGBTQ nonprofit says breach of contract led to $137,000 in lost revenue

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Cherry Fund claims Republiq Hall canceled a contract for one of its popular events. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Cherry Fund, the D.C.-based nonprofit organization that has raised money for HIV/AIDS, mental health, and LGBTQ organizations for the past 27 years, filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court on May 31 charging Republiq Hall, a large entertainment venue in Northeast D.C, with abruptly and improperly cancelling Cherry Fund’s reservation to rent the hall for an April 6 event expected to draw 2,000 paid guests.

The event was to be one of several circuit dance parties that Cherry Fund produces as part of its annual Cherry weekend in April, which has raised several million dollars for LGBTQ related organizations since the Cherry weekend  events began in 1996.  

The lawsuit, which charges Republiq Hall with breach of contract, says the contract signed by the two parties in January called for Cherry Fund to pay Republiq Hall an initial deposit of $3,500 on Jan. 10, 2024, to be applied to a nonrefundable rental fee totaling $7,000 for the one-time use of the space on April 6.

Republiq Hall is located in a large former warehouse building at 2122 24th Place, N.E., near the intersection of Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue. 

According to the lawsuit, under the contract, Cherry Fund “was responsible for promoting the event, booking talent, and managing ticket sales,” with Cherry Fund to “retain all door fee revenues and a percentage of the net bar sales.”

The lawsuit states, “On February 28, after Plaintiff had already begun promoting the event and booking talent, the Defendant unilaterally and without just cause demanded an additional $9,000 from the Plaintiff. When the Plaintiff refused to pay the additional amount, the Defendant cancelled the reservation.”

 As a result of Republiq Hall’s action, the lawsuit states, Cherry Fund was “forced to book an alternative venue with significantly less capacity, resulting in substantial financial losses.” 

It says as a direct result of the alleged breach of contract, Cherry Fund “suffered financial damages in the amount of $130,000 in lost door fees and $7,000 in a lost percentage of the net bar sales that were estimated to be collected on the date of the event.”

A spokesperson for Republiq Hall did not respond to a phone message from the Washington Blade requesting a comment and a response to the lawsuit’s allegations.

Court records show that Superior Court Judge Juliet J. McKenna, who is presiding over the case, scheduled an initial hearing for the case on Sept. 6. McKenna issued an order providing guidance for how a civil litigation case should proceed that includes a requirement that Republiq Hall must file a response to the lawsuit within 21 days of being officially served a copy of the lawsuit complaint.

Sean Morris, the Cherry Fund president, issued a statement expressing disappointment over the developments leading to the lawsuit.

“Our organization, powered by volunteer efforts, relies on our annual event to fundraise for local non-profits,” he said. “This abrupt and unforeseen demand, and subsequent cancellation, has severely affected our ability to support vital community programs focused on HIV/AIDS, mental health, and LGBTQ+ advocacy,” Morris says in his statement.

The lawsuit concludes by stating, “The Plaintiff, the Cherry Fund, respectfully requests the following relief: Direct compensatory damages for the lost benefits it was entitled to under the terms of the contract; Restitution for the benefits retained by the Defendant in unjust enrichment; Reasonable attorney fees and costs of this action; and Any other relief this court deems just and proper.”

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Maryland

Silver Spring Pride sign rebuilt in memory of beloved neighbor

GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $4,000

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Tony Brown's neighbors help repaint the Pride sign his late partner created in their Silver Spring, Md., neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Molly Chehak)

Residents of Silver Spring’s Rosemary Hills neighborhood have come together to rebuild a Pride sign. 

The sign was constructed in June 2020, and was meant to stay in place throughout Pride Month. Neighborhood residents, however, requested it stay up past its intended month-long display, and has remained in place for more than four years. 

The sign spelling LOVE is at the neighborhood’s entrance between Sundale and Richmond Streets. It was made from plywood and the O was painted in the colors of the Pride flag.

“We wanted to take it down, but we just felt it was not ours anymore and belonged to the neighborhood.” Tony Brown told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview. “It was a positive thing for the neighborhood and began to take on a life of its own.” 

Brown and his partner, Mike Heffner, designed the sign and said the Black Lives Matter movement inspired them to create it as a strong symbol of an accepting community.

The sign was vandalized numerous times last fall, resulting in neighborhood residents taking turns repairing it. Brown and his partner could not do the repairs themselves because Heffner was fighting Stage 4 lung cancer.

Heffner passed away on Oct. 6, 2023.

A GoFundMe page was set up to help raise funds for the replacement Pride sign, and it has raised more than $4,000. The replacement sign is more permanent and made of metal.

“I can’t speak for the neighborhood overall, but people who knew Mike I think are happy that we were able to honor his memory with this sign because this sign is so him,” Molly Chehak, a friend who lives next door to Brown, told the Blade. “He (Heffner) was an outgoing super social (person) who just made you feel good the way this sign does. It’s a perfect tribute to him.” 

Chehak and other neighbors created the GoFundMe account.

Heffner’s family and his neighbors are still working to rebuild the Pride sign. It has become a memorial to Heffner.

“We wanted to do one that was clearly a Pride reference,” said Brown, noting the L is a fully painted Pride flag that spirals across the entire letter. 

“For the O we wanted to do something reminiscent of times in the past, a throwback to the 60’s and 70’s so it’s a hippie montage of flowers and butterflies,” he said. 

Brown described the V as being colorful, nonbinary people hugging each other with the idea that love is more than what one may see. 

“During COVID, he had started painting rocks and putting kind and fun messages on them leaving them around places as sort of a pay it forward Karma and so the E is basically that stylized writing and to embrace a bunch of ways we embrace love,” he said. 

The final letter had the phrase “love is love” written repeatedly in various handwritings to pay homage to Heffner and what he did for his neighborhood during the pandemic. Brown’s four daughters — one of whom is a professional artist — and their friends designed it.

The landscape around the sign has also been transformed with rocks that honors Heffner’s love for Rosemary Hills and his passion for rocks.

Chehak also said Heffner always wanted a bench, and neighbors are looking to install one soon next to the Pride sign.

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