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Cuba has ‘come a long way’ on LGBT rights

Mariela Castro accused of manipulating advocates

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Mariela Castro Espin, gay news, Washington Blade
Mariela Castro Espin, gay news, Washington Blade

Mariela Castro Espín, right, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, speaks with LGBT rights advocates attending the ILGA World Conference last month in Mexico City. (Photo courtesy of Francisco Rodríguez Cruz/Paquito el de Cuba)

MEXICO CITY — More than a dozen Cuban LGBT rights advocates on the morning of Oct. 30 were huddled on the floor along the wall of a large ballroom of a Mexico City hotel during the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association’s biennial global conference.

The activists — wearing white T-shirts that highlighted Cuba’s participation in the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia earlier this year — were finalizing their presentation in support of their country’s bid to host the 2016 ILGA World Conference. They quickly walked to the front of the room once LGBT advocates from the African country of Botswana finished their own presentation.

A lesbian and transgender woman held a large Cuban flag at the front of the ballroom as Manuel Vázquez Seijido and Yasmany Díaz Figueroa spoke from the podium. Their presentation included a slideshow with pictures of hotels in Havana, the Cuban capital, and videos of events associated with the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

ILGA World Conference, Mexico City, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Cuban LGBT rights advocates during their presentation in Mexico City on Oct. 30, 2014, to host the 2016 ILGA World Conference in Havana, Cuba. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Several of the activists passed out condoms and pro-LGBT literature as many members of the audience clapped and cheered “Cuba.” Díaz even noted during the presentation that Cuban doctors have traveled to West Africa to help combat the Ebola epidemic.

“[The ILGA conference] would be a good thing for all sectors,” said Díaz.

Delegates to the ILGA World Conference ultimately choose Thailand to host the biennial gathering in 2016, but the activists’ bid underscores the progress that many feel Cuba has made in extending rights to its LGBT citizens over the last decade.

Mariela Castro seen as champion of LGBT rights

Supporters of Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the country’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), maintain she has spearheaded a number of pro-LGBT initiatives in recent years. These include a condom distribution campaign and prompting the country’s national health care system to offer free sex-reassignment surgery to trans Cubans.

Mariela Castro was president of the local committee that organized an ILGA conference in May that drew hundreds of LGBT rights advocates from Latin America and the Caribbean to Havana and the beach resort of Varadero.

Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban Parliament, late last year voted against a proposal to add sexual orientation to the country’s labor law because it did not include trans-specific protections. She has also publicly backed marriage rights for same-sex couples on the Communist island.

Isel Calzadilla Acosta, coordinator of the Network of Lesbian and Bisexual Women in the city of Santiago de Cuba in the eastern part of the country, during an interview with the Washington Blade at the ILGA World Conference praised what she described as Mariela Castro’s advocacy on behalf of LGBT Cubans.

Calzadilla said her organization formed in 2003 in response to Mariela Castro reaching out to local activists to work for CENESEX.

“We have seen many advances,” Calzadilla told the Blade. “CENESEX supports us with capacity building and with events and we attribute everything that we are doing to them because we have a voice with Mariela Castro.”

Argelia Fellové Hernández of the Network of Lesbian and Bisexual Women in Havana agreed, noting Cuba’s gay-inclusive labor law and events that commemorated the annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

“Our island has come a long way in recent years, compared to many countries around Cuba,” Fellové told the Blade during an interview at the ILGA World Conference in Mexico City.

Mariela Castro took part in a legislative panel during the ILGA World Conference.

She did not respond to the Blade’s repeated requests for an interview while in Mexico City.

Gay Cubans sent to labor camps in 1960s

Mariela Castro’s efforts stand in stark contrast to the LGBT rights record of her uncle, former Cuban President Fidel Castro, in the years following the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Fidel Castro’s government in the 1960s sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production or the Spanish acronym UMAP. Authorities until 1993 forcibly quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria.

Cuba repealed its sodomy law in 1979.

Fidel Castro during a 2010 interview with a Mexican newspaper described the persecution of gay Cubans in the years following the revolution as “a great injustice.”

LGBT rights advocates who oppose the government — and Mariela Castro in particular — insist authorities continue to face harassment under public assembly laws.

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier were among the hundreds of people detained at a popular gay nightclub in Havana in 1997. Cuban security officials in September 2012 reportedly detained Leannes Imbert Acosta, national coordinator of the Cuban LGBT Platform, an umbrella organization of independent advocacy groups, as she left her home to deliver materials on a planned exhibit on the 1960s labor camps to CENESEX.

Cuban authorities in May reportedly arrested and “savagely” beat David Bustamante Rodríguez, an LGBT rights advocate with HIV, during a “peaceful protest” at his home near the city of Santa Clara. Neither Mariela Castro nor the Cuban government responded to the Blade’s request for comment on the incident.

A group of independent Cuban advocates criticized organizers of the ILGA conference that took place on the island in May over their decision not to invite them to the event. Mariela Castro’s supporters have repeatedly denied these claims.

Many of the Cuban advocates who attended the ILGA World Conference in Mexico City work directly with CENESEX.

‘Totalitarian regime’ leaves LGBT Cubans isolated

Ignacio Estrada Cepero, founder of the Cuban League Against AIDS, is among the independent advocates who continue to criticize Mariela Castro.

Estrada’s wife, Wendy Iriepa Díaz, is a trans woman who once worked for CENESEX.

“Mariela totally manipulates the LGBT community,” said Iriepa during a trip to D.C. in the summer of 2013 with her husband.

Cuban-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) remains among the most vocal critics of Mariela Castro and her father’s government.

The Florida Republican last month blasted the ultimately unsuccessful bid to hold the 2016 ILGA World Conference in the Cuban capital. Ros-Lehtinen in May 2013 sharply criticized Equality Forum, a Philadelphia-based LGBT advocacy group, over its decision to honor Mariela Castro at its annual dinner.

Ros-Lehtinen a few months later met with Estrada and Iriepa in her Capitol Hill office.

“It’s very important for the U.S. community to understand what is the status of LGBT rights and the denial of rights in Cuba,” said Ros-Lehtinen after the meeting to which the Blade had exclusive access. “Mariela Castro, as part of the regime, has been on a propaganda tour internationally and here in the U.S. especially trying to sell this facade that is really non-existent in Cuba.”

Wendy Iriepa, Ignacio Estrada, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, House of Representatives, Republicans, Florida, Gay News, Washington Blade

Cuban LGBT advocates Wendy Iriepa Díaz and Ignacio Estrada Cepero, meet with U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in July 2013. (Washington Blade photo by Damien Salas)

Pedro Luís García Macías, a blogger and photographer who lives in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, appeared to agree with Ros-Lehtinen during a telephone interview with the Blade on Sunday.

“The department that she directs does not do complete work,” said García, referring to CENESEX and Mariela Castro. “It does not respect the complete diversity of the human being, the diversity of thought.”

García added the government has left LGBT Cubans “very isolated.”

“Many people are afraid to think freely because of the totalitarian regime,” he told the Blade.

Cuban advocates who support Mariela Castro with whom the Blade spoke during the ILGA World Conference were quick to blast Ros-Lehtinen and others who criticize her.

“When someone offends [Mariela Castro] it is very offensive to us,” said Calzadilla. “She has been able to understand our pain, our problems and we defend her at all levels. These people who left Cuba don’t know our Cuban reality.”

Fellové told the Blade she has “never” heard these criticisms.

“They are lies,” she said.

U.S. embargo is a ‘great impediment’

Both Calzadilla and Fellové told the Blade the U.S. embargo against Cuba has adversely affected the island’s LGBT residents.

Calzadilla said she and other advocates have faced difficulties obtaining certain medical instruments. She told the Blade the embargo makes it impossible for her to travel to the U.S. with a group of women who work in Cuba.

“I, as a Cuban activist of the people, have the opportunity to go there to demonstrate to them what the women in Cuba are doing,” said Calzadilla. “It appears that in my case the embargo is a great impediment because I will not be able to express what we are doing.”

Fellové stressed the embargo continues to have a widespread effect.

“It affects our children, our neighbors, our parents in the area of medicine,” she said. “The blockade affects a lot.”

García has a far different view.

“The blockade does not exist,” he told the Blade. “An embargo is what exists; better yet what we have is a mental embargo. The mental embargo that we have as Cubans here ensures that we cannot move forward.”

García said he wants to leave Cuba, but is unable to do so because of the cost.

“We are exhausted,” he told the Blade. “We are out of thoughts. We are out of ideas.”

Calzadilla on the other hand is far more optimistic about their future and that of their fellow LGBT Cubans.

“I am clearly optimistic,” she told the Blade. “I could say that because I have been in activism for many years and because I have seen the positive changes.”

Fellové agreed.

“We are well-respected,” she said.

ILGA World Conference, Mexico City, Cuba, LGBT, gay news, Washington Blade

Cuban LGBT rights advocates at the ILGA World conference in Mexico City. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami

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Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)

 

MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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