May 10, 2017 at 12:35 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
LGBT community in eastern Cuba city becomes more visible

Lulu is a drag queen in Santiago, Cuba. She performed at a public art and fashion show on May 6, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

SANTIAGO, Cuba — Hundreds of people were at a park between apartment buildings in Cuba’s second largest city on Saturday night for a weekly art and fashion show that the local government organizes. It featured male and female models who wore clothes that Cuban designers designed, a singer, a dance troupe and a magician.

Lulu, a drag queen (una transformista in Cuban Spanish) who has been performing for 12 years, performed twice during the hour-long show. The crowd cheered as she danced on the runway to Celia Cruz.

“It motivates me more to keep moving forward,” she told the Washington Blade after the show.

‘We are far from the capital’

Lulu is among the more well-known members of Santiago’s LGBT community that is becoming more visible in the city that is located more than 500 miles southeast of Havana on Cuba’s southeastern coast.

Las Isabelas is a social and advocacy group for lesbian and bisexual women that is named after an LGBT-friendly coffee shop near the Santiago’s Plaza de Marte.

The group, which has between 25-30 members, helps women access mammograms and other health-related procedures and care. Las Isabelas is also participating in anti-bullying workshops at local universities and schools and other events that are taking place around the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

“Here in Santiago we work together united,” Isel Calzadilla, coordinator of Las Isabelas, told the Blade on Saturday during an interview at a coffee shop across the street from Plaza de Marte.

Calzadilla — a nurse who has a partner and a son who is in his 20s — told the Blade that Las Isabelas formed in 2000. She said the group began its formal advocacy efforts in 2003 after Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who is the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education that is known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX, responded to her letter and provided assistance.

“We are far from the capital,” said Calzadilla. “CENESEX is our center that backs us up in all of the situations that we have.

Manuel Lescay, president of Redes Sociales Humanidad por la Diversidad, an LGBT group that is also affiliated with CENESEX, is taking part in the anti-bullying workshops alongside Las Isabelas. Redes Socials Humanidad por la Diversidad has also organized film screenings, a gala and other events in Santiago that will commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia.

Calzadilla was among the small group of people on Saturday who attended the screening of “Mujeres Rompiendo el Silencio,” a Mexican film that highlights a transgender teenager and his parents’ struggle to accept his transition from a girl into a boy. Lescay talked about bullying — which is the issue that CENESEX is highlighting with its International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia events this year — during a discussion with the group that took place at Santiago’s Centro de Información Cultural.

“[Bullying] can be rejection, hate, discrimination, exclusion for loving someone of the same sex,” he said.

“Bullying has existed for many years in different areas, not just because of sexual orientation,” added Lescay.

Mariela Castro’s mother born in Santiago

Santiago is the largest city in eastern Cuba, which is known as el Oriente.

The revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959 began in the city on July 26, 1953, when he led an attack on the Moncada Barracks. Mariela Castro’s mother, Vilma Espín, who founded the Cuban Federation of Women and was CENESEX’s director until she died in 2007, was also born in Santiago.

Fidel Castro in the years after he came to power sent thousands of gay men and others to work camps that are known by the Spanish acronym UMAPs.

Cuba decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations in 1979.

The Cuban government forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993. Fidel Castro in 2010 publicly apologized for the UMAPs during an interview with a Mexican newspaper.

CENESEX in 2007 commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia for the first time. Cuba in 2008 began to offer free sex-reassignment surgeries through its national health care system.

Independent LGBT rights advocates have repeatedly pointed out that only a few dozen people have undergone the procedure on the Communist island. Mariela Castro told reporters last week during a Havana press conference that 35 transgender women have had sex-reassignment surgery — roughly half a dozen a year — since 2008.

Lescay on Saturday said during the post-film discussion that trans women who wish to undergo sex-reassignment surgery must feel as though they are someone other than their birth gender for at least a year. He added CENESEX also requires them to undergo a psychiatric evaluation “to really see if she is a transsexual and is not experiencing a psychiatric or psychological episode.”

“They are very disciplined, said Lescay.

Activist: Mariela Castro is ‘a second mother’

Mariela Castro told Hatzel Vela, the Havana-based reporter for WPLG, a South Florida television station, late last month during an interview that her father “understands” and is “supportive” her LGBT-specific efforts. Mariela Castro also continues to deny speculation that she will succeed him as president when he stepped down in 2018.

Mariela Castro, who is also a member of the Cuban National Assembly, in 2013 voted against a bill that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace because it did not include gender identity. She highlighted the Cuban government’s efforts to combat bullying in schools during the Havana press conference, but she did not answer the Blade’s question about whether lawmakers would pass a law that would formally ban it.

“With laws anything is possible,” said Mariela Castro.

Mariela Castro has publicly said she supports nuptials for gays and lesbians, even though the Cuban constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Neither she nor the activists in Santiago with whom the Blade spoke on Saturday acknowledged a campaign that independent LGBT activists have launched that urges Cuban lawmakers to debate the issue.

“It’s because of her that we have a voice and a vote in the Cuban Parliament,” Calzadilla told the Blade.

“Mariela is a second mother to us,” she added.

Private homes, rooms for rent promoted as LGBT-friendly

Signs that Santiago is becoming more LGBT-friendly are visible throughout the city.

Lulu and several other drag queens from Santiago and the nearby city of Guantánamo performed on Saturday at a gay club that is located near Parque Céspedes. A post office that is a few blocks away had an HIV prevention sign with a caricature of a gay couple on the wall. The owners of several private homes and rooms for rent (casas particularles in Cuban Spanish) in the city have put rainbow flags on their signs that signify they are LGBT-friendly.

Leidys, a woman who works at Roy’s Terrace Inn, a casa particular in Santiago’s Tivolí neighborhood owned by a gay couple, told the Blade on Saturday that “various gay clients” have stayed at the casa particular. She also acknowledged efforts to make Santiago a more LGBT-friendly city.

“There are always people who don’t agree with this,” said Leidys. “There has been work done towards people who were not accepting.”

Iván, the co-owner of a nearby casa particular that also promotes itself as LGBT-friendly, agreed.

He told the Blade on Saturday while he was working on renovations to his home that up to 20 percent of the casas particulares in Santiago are LGBT-friendly. Iván said he also works with people who he described as “accepting of LGBT people.”

“I work with people who know, who accept LGBT people,” he added.

Iván described Mariela Castro as “a representative” of the LGBT community, but noted it is really “in the street.”

“She brings attention to it at the national and international level,” he said.

A mural in Santiago, Cuba, on May 8, 2017 (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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

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