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LGBT advocate challenges Cuban human rights record

Maykel González Vivero is vocal critic of Mariela Castro



Maykel González Vivero, Carlos Alejandro Rodríguez Martínez, gay news, Washington Blade

Maykel González Vivero, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Maykel González Vivero in his apartment in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, on May 17, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

SAGUA LA GRANDE, Cuba — A gay blogger who is a member of an independent Cuban LGBT advocacy group told the Washington Blade last week that human rights factor prominently into his work.

“Definitely for a situation like ours (in Cuba,) human rights are something that are suppressed,” Maykel González Vivero told the Blade on May 18 as he sat at a table in the small apartment in the city of Sagua la Grande that he shares with Carlos Alejandro Rodríguez Martínez, his boyfriend of three years. He discussed the Cuban government’s crackdown on political dissent and disapproval of unauthorized gatherings, intimidation and other issues.

“As activists we have concluded that it is important that we integrate all of these issues into our work,” said González.

González, who is a reporter for a government-run radio station in Sagua la Grande, which is roughly 165 miles east of Havana along Cuba’s Atlantic coastline, began his blog Nictálope, a Spanish word that describes a person or an animal that can see better at night than during the day, in 2007.

He told the Blade that his blog initially did not have a “clear LGBT perspective.” González noted this position began to change when he decided to publicly challenge Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who has emerged as the public face of Cuba’s LGBT rights movement as director of the National Center for Sexual Education.

“Bit by bit we said that we had discovered the need, the urgency to offer an alternative image, a distinct option to what CENESEX and Mariela Castro is offering,” said González.

González, 31, spoke with the Blade a day after Mariela Castro led a march in the city of Las Tunas that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Members of Proyecto Arcoiris, an independent LGBT advocacy group of which González has been a member since last year, organized their own events in Sagua la Grande and in the nearby city of Santa Clara to mark the annual commemoration and to highlight their support of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Cuba.

A picture that González posted to his blog on May 18 shows two Cuban police officers at the Santa Clara march. He said they were “apparently” there to “provide security.”

“In other Cuban cities, as has been recently reported, the police maintain its aggressive homophobic practices,” González told the Blade.

Criticizing Mariela Castro brings ‘risks’

Maykel González Vivero, Carlos Alejandro Rodríguez Martínez, gay news, Washington Blade

From left: Carlos Alejandro Rodríguez Martínez and Maykel González Vivero on the roof of their apartment building in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, on May 17, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

González told the Blade that CENESEX, which works with the Cuban Ministry of Health, did not invite him and other independent advocates to a 2013 conference in the beach resort of Varadero that drew hundreds of LGBT rights advocates from across the Americas and the Caribbean.

“The only Cubans who went to the conference were those who were involved in CENESEX’s work or those who CENESEX considered politically acceptable,” he said, noting he supports Cuban Socialism.

González in 2012 publicly objected to the omission of statistics from the Cuban census that noted the number same-sex couples who live together in the country. He told the Blade that CENESEX’s reaction “was silence,” even though he said he and Rodríguez provided evidence of what they described as the “homophobic removal” of the information.

“Mariela Castro apparently thought it was important to maintain her politically correct attitude, rather than coherently stick to her activism and denounce the homophobia uncovered in the census,” González told the Blade.

Mariela Castro publicly supports marriage rights for same-sex couples. Clergy from the U.S. and Canada earlier this month blessed the relationships of 20 gay and lesbian couples in Havana during another series of events that marked the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

The Cuban Constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman, but Mariela Castro and her supporters claim that CENESEX is working to build support for nuptials for gays and lesbians among the country’s lawmakers. González told the Blade that Mariela Castro has remained silent about the status of the issue in the Cuban Parliament, even though she is a member of it.

“She even said a few years ago that we are not yet ready for marriage,” said González. “And she did this as though she was speaking on behalf of the LGBTI community. Clearly, as is frequently the case in Cuba, she speaks on behalf of everyone and does not consult with anyone.”

González added he feels CENESEX’s influence outside of Havana is minimal, even though Mariela Castro frequently travels abroad to promote its work on behalf of LGBT Cubans.

A government-run radio station in the city of Camagüey on May 15 advertised the Las Tunas march and other events in the provincial capital that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. González told the Blade that Cuban television showed Mariela Castro paying tribute to Vicente García, a leading figure in the 10 Years’ War from 1868-1878 during which Cuba fought for independence from Spain, in Las Tunas after leading the march through its streets.

“Trans people, gay people, lesbians in Sagua la Grande don’t really feel that CENESEX is working for them,” said González.

González told the Blade there are “risks” for criticizing Mariela Castro or any other government official and organization. He said he has faced harassment at his job and difficulties accessing the Internet because of his independent advocacy.

“There is a risk of quickly falling into a sort of social isolation zone,” he said. “People quickly assume that you are a dangerous person because you are someone who asks questions. As a result you find yourself in this zone where you are seen as a social pariah…it is very problematic.”

Neither Mariela Castro, nor CENESEX responded to the Blade’s request for comment on González’s criticisms. Manuel Vázquez Seijido, a lawyer who is a senior CENESEX staffer, last month during a speech at a global LGBT rights conference at Rutgers University School of Law in New Jersey dismissed independent advocates who criticize his organization and the Castro government.

“Their goal is to simply criticize institutions like CENESEX and of course the Cuban government,” Vázquez told the Blade.

Cuban people have ‘love and hate’ relationship with U.S.

González spoke with the Blade days before officials from the U.S. and Cuban governments met in Washington for the fourth round of negotiations in the process of normalizing relations between the two countries.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and State Department spokesperson Marie Harf both told the Blade on May 22 that the expansion of rights to LGBT Cubans factors into the process of normalizing relations between Washington and Havana.

González joked sarcastically that the Cuban people have a “very special” relationship with the U.S. that can be described as one of “love and hate,” which dates back to the 19th century. He told the Blade he is “not an optimistic man” when asked about the future of his country and his thoughts about the normalization of relations between it and the U.S.

“It is an issue that almost nobody talks about,” González told the Blade, referring to the prospect of closer ties between Washington and Havana. “It is not in people’s daily conversation.”

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards



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



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



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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