July 7, 2016 at 6:00 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Cuba’s first gay men’s chorus to perform in D.C.

Arian Ferrer, Ernesto Lima, Cuba, Mano e Mano, gay news, Washington Blade

Carlos Raúl Torres, left, and Mano a Mano Artistic Director Ernesto Lima at the Habana Libre hotel in Havana on May 20, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

HAVANA — Members of Cuba’s first gay men’s chorus are scheduled to perform in D.C. this weekend.

The five members of Mano a Mano will perform at the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington on July 10 as part of their first U.S. tour. They are scheduled to arrive in the nation’s capital on Friday.

The tour began in Glendale, Calif., on June 25 with a joint concert with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.

The concert — which took place less than two weeks after the Pulse nightclub massacre — was dedicated to those who died inside the gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Two Cuban nationals were among the 49 people who were killed during the massacre.

Mano a Mano on Wednesday performed with members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles in Denver. Members of the Cuban gay men’s chorus are scheduled to take the stage in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; Provincetown, Mass., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., before returning to Cuba on July 25.

“I am very happy with Mano a Mano’s results during this tour,” Mano a Mano Artistic Director Ernesto Lima told the Washington Blade on Wednesday from Denver. “I think that Washington will also be a marvelous experience.”

Chorus has ‘artistic’ and ‘social’ components

Fermin Rojas, a gay man who was born in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood, and his husband, Jay Kubesch, began Mano a Mano in 2014 after they traveled to the Communist island.

More than two dozen members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington performed with Mano a Mano last July in a series of concerts that took place in and around the Cuban capital. Fourteen members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles traveled to the Communist island earlier this year to meet their Cuban counterparts.

“It was really a very beautiful experience,” Carlos Raúl Torres, a member of Mano a Mano, told the Blade on May 20 during an interview at the Habana Libre hotel in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood.

Mano a Mano on May 17 performed at an International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia event the Norwegian Embassy in Cuba hosted. Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the National Center for Sexual Education and speaks publicly in support of LGBT-specific issues on the Communist island, has also invited the gay men’s chorus to take part in her organization’s events.

Lima said as he spoke to the Blade in Havana that Mariela Castro and activists on the Communist island have had a positive impact on LGBT-specific issues over the last decade, even though Mano a Mano is not affiliated with the National Center for Sexual Education.

Lima further stressed that Mano a Mano has what he described as “artistic component” that encompasses “all of the artistic and musical work that we are doing, our vision and goals.” He told the Blade the chorus’ “social component” is “everything related to the community concerts that its members have offered and a vision of the world that is free from homophobia and transphobia.”

“Both components are very important, but don’t lose sight of the fact that all of group’s members are professional musicians,” said Lima. “Our artistic and musical work is a priority.”

Mano a Mano part of ‘fight’ for LGBT acceptance in Cuba

Mariela Castro’s uncle, Fidel Castro, sent thousands of gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps in the years after the 1959 Cuban revolution.

The Communist island’s government forcibly quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993. Fidel Castro eight years later apologized for the labor camps, known by the Spanish acronym UMAP, during an interview with a Mexican newspaper.

Mariela Castro, a member of the Cuban National Assembly who publicly supports marriage rights for same-sex couples, in 2013 voted against a bill that added sexual orientation to the country’s employment discrimination law because it did not include gender identity. Mariela Castro’s supporters also note that she pushed her father’s government to offer free sex-reassignment surgeries under its national health care system.

Independent LGBT activists on the Communist island in recent months have criticized Mariela Castro for not speaking publicly about a campaign that seeks to spur members of the National Assembly to debate marriage rights for same-sex couples in December when they hold their annual meeting in Havana.

Lima told the Blade that gay men are among those who continue to discriminate against trans Cubans.

“It is a very strong fight,” he said, referring to the efforts to promote acceptance of LGBT Cubans. “Mano a Mano is in this fight.”

Normalization of relations should be ‘based on respect’

President Obama in December 2014 announced the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba that ended in 1961.

“There are many things to consider; but (the normalization of relations) should always be based on respect, mutual respect for each other towards the particularities of the U.S., which is a marvelous country with a lot of variety, with many beautiful things,” Lima told the Blade, referring to the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana. “But Cuba also has them, from our perspective.”

“Many things must change in Cuba, but without compromising our principles,” he added.

Lima expressed optimism that the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba would allow Mano a Mano to garner additional support from abroad.

Torres agreed.

“I am very optimistic,” he said.

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

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