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Fidel Castro dies at 90

Gay men sent to camps after 1959 Cuban revolution



Cuba, Revolution is Unity, gay news, Washington Blade

A sign on the road between the cities of Santa Clara and Sagua la Grande, Cuba, with former Cuban President Fidel Castro’s picture reads “revolution is unity.” (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro died on Friday at the age of 90.

Castro’s brother, Cuban President Raúl Castro, made the announcement on Cuban television.

Cuba will observe nine days of mourning that will end at noon on Dec. 4. The Cuban government has also announced his cremated remains will retrace the route that he took from the city of Santiago de Cuba to Havana before he toppled then-President Fulgencio Batista in the 1959 Cuban revolution.

Cuban advocates have mixed reaction to Fidel Castro’s death

Fidel Castro’s supporters note the revolution brought free health care and education to Cuba. They also credit him with combating rural poverty and fighting discrimination against black Cubans.

Fidel Castro in the years after he came to power sent thousands of gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production.

Cuba decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations in 1979. Fidel Castro’s government forcibly quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Fidel Castro resigned in 2008.

He apologized for the camps, known by the Spanish acronym UMAP, during an interview with a Mexican newspaper in 2010. His niece, Mariela Castro, over the last decade has spearheaded LGBT-specific issues in Cuba as director of the country’s National Center for Sexual Education.

“Yes to socialism, no to homophobia,” chanted Mariela Castro in May during a march in the Cuban city of Matanzas that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Mariela Castro, gay news, Washington Blade

Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, takes part in a march to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Havana on May 14, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Frank Zamora, a gay man from Matanzas with whom the Washington Blade spoke before the march, participated in it while holding a hand-written poster that read, “revolution and socialism is diversity.” Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a gay Cuban blogger who supports the Castros, and his partner, Miguel Angel Plasencia Rodríguez, also took part in the IDAHOT march and another event that took place in Havana a few days earlier.

“Pain, emptiness, commitment are very intense and difficult feelings to separate,” Rodríguez told the Blade on Saturday after he learned that Fidel Castro had died. “It’s like going through the story of my life.”

Nelson Gandulla Díaz, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, an independent advocacy group on the Communist island, had a very different reaction to Fidel Castro’s death.

“Fidel Castro’s death invites us to remain calm and to focus on our activism to achieve change in Cuba, as opposed to rejoice over his death,” Gandulla told the Blade on Saturday from Madrid.

Gandulla and other independent Cuban LGBT advocates were in Geneva this week to attend U.N. meetings.

“Fidel is gone, but Raúl remains,” said Gandulla. “The fight continues.”

Cuban-born congresswoman: Fidel Castro was ‘tyrant’

Fidel Castro died nearly two years after the U.S. announced it would begin the process of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba that ended in 1961.

The U.S. and Cuba reopened their embassies in Havana and Washington in 2015.

President Obama in March became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Communist island in nearly 90 years.

He appeared at a joint press conference with Raúl Castro, delivered a speech that was broadcast on Cuban television and met with two independent LGBT rights advocates while he was in Havana. Gandulla told the Blade that a police officer harassed him at his home near the city of Cienfuegos before Obama arrived.

The Adonia, a cruise ship that Carnival Corp. operates, in May became the first cruise ship to sail from the U.S. to Cuba in more than 50 years. Commercial flights between the two countries resumed in August.

“At this time of Fidel Castro’s passing, we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” said Obama in a statement. “We know that this moment fills Cubans — in Cuba and in the United States — with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”

“For nearly six decades, the relationship between the United States and Cuba was marked by discord and profound political disagreements,” he added. “During my presidency, we have worked hard to put the past behind us, pursuing a future in which the relationship between our two countries is defined not by our differences but by the many things that we share as neighbors and friends — bonds of family, culture, commerce, and common humanity. This engagement includes the contributions of Cuban Americans, who have done so much for our country and who care deeply about their loved ones in Cuba.”

The Adonia, gay news, Washington Blade

The Adonia, a U.S. cruise ship, docked in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on May 19, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who was born in Havana, is among those who sharply criticized the Obama administration’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. She described Fidel Castro as a “tyrant” in a statement that she issued on Saturday.

“The day that the people, both inside the island and out, have waited for has arrived: A tyrant is dead and a new beginning can dawn on the last remaining communist bastion of the Western hemisphere,” said Ros-Lehtinen. “The message is now very clear to those who think they will continue to misrule Cuba through oppression and fear. Enough is enough. The Cuban people have been shortchanged for too long to continue down this reviled path.”

Wendy Iriepa, Ignacio Estrada, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, House of Representatives, Republicans, Florida, Gay News, Washington Blade

Independent Cuban LGBT advocates Wendy Iriepa and Ignacio Estrada, meet with U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in her Capitol Hill office in July 2013. (Washington Blade photo by Damien Salas)

Other Cuban Americans and members of the exile community gathered in Miami’s Little Havana on Saturday to celebrate Fidel Castro’s death.

Herb Sosa, a first generation Cuban American who is president of the Unity Coalition, a Miami-based LGBT advocacy group, noted to the Blade on Saturday that his grandparents left Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power.

“I would never be happy about anyone’s death — anyone,” said Sosa. “But the long-awaited passing of one of the Castro monsters that have imposed nearly 6 decades of oppression, pain and death to so many Cubans, does bring a certain closure for many.”

“Sadly, tens of thousands, including my grandparents, did not live long enough to witness this day,” he added. “Cuba’s sunrise will certainly be much brighter this morning. I continue to pray for a free and united Cuba and its people.”

President-elect Trump — who has criticized Obama over the decision to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba — responded to Fidel Castro’s death in a tweet.

He later described the former Cuban president as a “brutal dictator” in a statement.

A mural on the side of an apartment building in Ciego de Ávila, Cuba, that reads "we will conquer." (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A mural on the side of an apartment building in Ciego de Ávila, Cuba, that reads “we will conquer.” (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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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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