Mariela Castro Espín, who directs the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), was among those who held a giant Pride flag as they and hundreds of others walked towards the city’s main square.
Marchers chanted “Yes to Socialism, no to homophobia,” and other slogans that included “rights to all people” and “Las Tunas is present.” Members of Colmanita de Balcón, a group of young dancers and singers from Las Tunas, also took part in the march alongside a number of stilt walkers holding Pride flags and a group of local residents who covered themselves with a clay-like substance.
Two activists, including a member of CENESEX’s Network of Young People for Health and Sexual Rights (Red de Jóvenes por la Salud y los Derechos Sexuales in Spanish) at the end of the march placed a wreath of flowers and palm fronds from the organization under a statue of Vicente García, a leading figure in the 10 Years’ War from 1868-1878 during which Cubans fought for independence from Spain, that noted its events commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Mariela Castro paid homage to García in a brief ceremony.
“Long live our martyrs,” she proclaimed to the crowd gathered around the statute. “Long live the revolution!”
Mariela Castro during a speech to her supporters highlighted the ban against discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation the country’s lawmakers approved in late 2013. Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban Parliament, voted against it because it did not include trans-specific protections.
“The laws are not sufficient to guarantee in full plurality the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and transsexuals in our workplaces,” she said. “The processes of sensitization, education must be articulated positively for Cubans who experience discrimination.”
Mariela Castro added her father’s government has pledged to include “our citizens in all forms of social integration.”
“We do not want exclusion,” she said. “We are working for the social participation of everyone. We want unity. We are fighting for unity.”
Mariela Castro left the event without speaking to the Blade and reporters from a handful of other foreign media outlets who were covering it. CENESEX supporters who took part in an information fair after her speech and the march were quick to applaud the Cuban president’s daughter and what they insist are her efforts to advance the Communist island’s LGBT rights movement.
Marilyn Ávila, a trans woman from Las Tunas who is a member of Proyecto HSH, which works to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country, described Mariela Castro to the Blade as “the best.” She said that CENESEX provides her organization with support and other assistance.
“They support us in everything,” said Ávila. “She (Mariela Castro) is an incredible person, as a human being.”
The Las Tunas events occurred a week after another march took place in Havana to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on Sunday. Pastors from the U.S. and Canada blessed the relationships of 20 Cuban same-sex couples during the event, even though gays and lesbians lack marriage rights on the island.
Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Churches who led a delegation to Cuba earlier this month, was among those who attended the Havana event. He too praised Mariela Castro during a telephone interview with the Blade shortly after returning to his Los Angeles home.
“Mariela Castro as far as the gay community goes, they all had nothing but good things to say about her,” said Perry. “She is a star in the gay community, just like I knew she would be.”
Cuban LGBT advocates who are not affiliated with CENESEX have repeatedly criticized Mariela Castro over the number of people they say have received free sex reassignment surgeries under the country’s national health care system and other issues. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban-born Republican who vocally supports LGBT rights, also remains sharply critical of her and her father’s government and the process to normalize relations between it and the U.S.
Cristal, a trans woman from Havana who is a member of the Trans Network of Cuba (Red Trans de Cuba in Spanish), which is also affiliated with CENESEX, said as she spoke to the Blade after Mariela Castro’s speech that any suggestion she works on LGBT-specific issues in Cuba “for money is not true.”
“It’s absurd,” said Cristal. “She has her husband. She has her life, her children and she has many bad things to worry about.”