Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the country’s National Center for Sexual Education, and Wilfredo Labiosa, an American LGBT rights advocate who lives in Puerto Rico, were among those who took part in the march that began near Matanzas’ waterfront and ended in Parque de la Libertad in the center of the city. Tico Almeida, the Cuban American president of Freedom to Work who has family in Matanzas, also participated with some of his relatives.
March participants carried large Cuban and rainbow flags, banners in support of Mariela Castro and handwritten signs in support of LGBT-specific issues and against the U.S. embargo against Cuba as they slowly made their way to Parque de la Libertad. They also chanted “socialism yes, homophobia no” and other slogans that included “down with homophobia” and “down with transphobia.”
Mariela Castro said to those who gathered in Parque de la Libertad after the march that all forms of discrimination “against exploited human beings are the same.”She highlighted efforts to combat homophobia and transphobia on the Communist island before leading the crowd in a chant of “long live the (Cuban) revolution.” Mariela Castro was holding a sign that read, “I am included! No to the U.S. embargo!” as she spoke.
Many of those who took part in the march were also holding the same signs against the U.S. embargo.
Frank Zamora, a 40-year-old gay man from Matanzas, carried a hand-written poster that read “revolution and socialism is diversity” while holding a small rainbow flag. He told the Washington Blade before the march began that it was important for him to take part “to demonstrate to those people who don’t accept social diversity for one reason or another that we are all the same.”
“We have the same rights,” said Zamora. “The Cuban constitution pertains to all of us.”
Yusleidy, who did not provide the Blade with her last name, described the march as “beautiful” and “historic” as it passed by her apartment building. She watched it from her balcony with her aunt, her cousin’s young son and a baby.
“It is very important,” Yusleidy told the Blade. “This event shows that the Cuban people are very united.”
Tuesday’s march was among the hundreds of events around the world that marked the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which commemorates the World Health Organization’s decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. Trans actress Candis Cayne was among those who took part in an International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia march on Saturday in Havana that the National Center for Sexual Education organized.
‘Cuban society is changing’
Mariela Castro’s uncle, Fidel Castro, sent thousands of gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production in the years after the 1959 revolution. The Communist country’s government also forcibly quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.
Cuba decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations in 1979. Fidel Castro more than three decades later apologized for sending gay men to labor camps — which were known by the Spanish acronym UMAP — during an interview with a Mexican newspaper.
Mariela Castro’s supporters credit her with championing LGBT-specific issues in the country.
Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban Parliament, voted against a gay-inclusive workplace discrimination bill in 2013 because it did not include gender identity. She has also publicly spoken in support of nuptials for gays and lesbians, although the Cuban constitution still defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
“She has demonstrated to the whole world that Cuban society is changing,” Zamora told the Blade.
Jhonny Santopé in 2011 became the first trans person to legally change their gender in Cuba. He told the Blade after the march that Mariela Castro and the National Center for Sexual Education, which is known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX, allowed him to receive free sex-reassignment surgery through the country’s national health care system.
“This is very important because I did not have any resources, I did not have a way to do it,” said Santopé.
Independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates have questioned this policy, noting only a few dozen people have been able to receive sex-reassignment surgeries since they became available in 2008.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban-born Florida Republican with a trans son, is among Mariela Castro’s most prominent and vocal critics. Independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates have also criticized Mariela Castro over a host of issues that include her lack of response to a petition campaign in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples on the Communist island.
Mariela Castro made no mention of the marriage campaign during Tuesday’s march or in her remarks afterwards.