March 29, 2016 at 10:30 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Gay men’s chorus from Los Angeles travels to Cuba

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Members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles at the Havana home of Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis. (Photo courtesy of James Geiger)

More than a dozen members of a gay men’s chorus from Los Angeles traveled to Cuba earlier this month to meet their counterparts on the Communist island.

Fourteen members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, filmmaker Fermin Rojas and his husband, Jay Kubesch, arrived in Havana on Feb. 29. They returned to the U.S. on March 7.

Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles Executive Director Chris Verdugo told the Washington Blade shortly after he returned to the U.S. that the purpose of the trip “was really to go there to meet with” their Cuban counterparts known as Mano a Mano.

Rojas and Kubesch founded Mano a Mano in 2014.

Mano a Mano and members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington performed together in series of concerts in Havana last July.

Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the National Center for Sexual Education, promotes LGBT-specific issues in Cuba that include free sex-reassignment surgery under the country’s national health care system. Mano a Mano has performed at several events that Mariela Castro’s organization has organized.

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Mariela Castro speaks at an International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia rally in Las Tunas, Cuba, on May 16, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers) (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Mano a Mano is scheduled to travel to U.S. in June.

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles will hold two concerts with their Cuban counterparts in Los Angeles on June 26-27. Mano a Mano is scheduled to travel to D.C.; New York; Philadelphia; Denver and Provincetown, Mass., before returning to Cuba at the end of July.

“The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and Mano a Mano fell in love with each other from the moment they met,” Rojas told the Blade on Monday during a telephone interview from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Trip to Cuba was ‘personal journey’

Members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles traveled to Cuba less than 15 months after President Obama announced the U.S. would move to normalize relations with Cuba that ended in 1961.

Obama arrived on the Communist island on March 21, hours after Cuban authorities detained several members of a dissident group in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood.

Nelson Gandulla Díaz, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, an independent LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade that a police officer harassed him at his home in the city of Cienfuegos three days earlier. Two LGBT rights advocates were among the dissidents with whom Obama met in Havana on March 22 before he left the Communist island.

Verdugo, a Cuban American who grew up in Miami, told the Blade that the trip “wound up being a personal journey for me as well.”

His family is originally from the city of Camagüey, which is roughly 335 miles southeast of Havana.

“What was striking for me was that the stories that I heard from my childhood,” Verdugo told the Blade, referring to Cuba’s crumbling homes and low salaries.

He said that a member of Mano a Mano used his first paycheck to buy a stove for his family. Verdugo told the Blade that others who are part of the gay Cuban chorus support their parents and other relatives.

“That’s extraordinary,” said Verdugo.

Cubans ‘very hopeful for change’

Rojas was born in Havana in 1960, a year after the Cuban Revolution. He and his family left the island in 1966.

Then-President Fidel Castro 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 UMAPs in Spanish. Authorities forcibly quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Fidel Castro during a 2010 interview with a Mexican newspaper described the persecution of gay Cubans in the years after he came to power as a “great injustice.”

“It’s always interesting for me to see this new flow of ideas and information,” Rojas told the Blade on Monday, referring to the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

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A tattered rainbow flag flies over Mi Cayito, a gay beach east of Havana on May 18, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

He added that Obama’s visit to the Communist island brought hope to the Cuban people.

“People seem very hopeful of change,” said Rojas. “They just want to live more comfortably. They don’t want to stress out everyday.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

1 Comment
  • So what next, we gay men go to Saudi Arabia or Syria and sing for ISIS? Supporting regimes who persecute gays is shameful, embarrassing and just plain rude to the gay community.

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