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MCC founder reflects on Cuba trip

Mariela Castro’s group honored Rev. Troy Perry in Havana



Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, takes part in a march in Havana on May 13, 2017, that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

HAVANA — It was shortly after 6 p.m. on May 13 when Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, sat down with the Washington Blade at Havana’s iconic Hotel Nacional.

Perry’s husband, Phillip De Blieck, and Rev. Hector Gutiérrez, an MCC elder from the Mexican city of Guadalajara, joined Perry in his suite in the hotel that overlooks the Cuban capital’s oceanfront promenade and the Florida Straits. Perry spoke with the Blade hours after he and De Blieck rode alongside Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the country’s National Center for Sexual Education, in a 1950s-era car during a march that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

“I don’t ever want us in America to think we’re better than other people because,” said Perry.

More than 2,000 people took part in the march the National Center for Sexual Education, which is known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX, organized.

Perry told the Blade he received a standing ovation from the more than 5,000 people who attended a CENESEX gala at Havana’s Karl Marx Theater on May 12. He said CENESEX honored him with what he described as an international human rights award.

“I’m deeply honored by that,” said Perry. “I am a little boy from North Florida.”

Perry, 77, met Mariela Castro in 2015 when he traveled to Cuba for the first time. He told the Blade his father — a former bootlegger who owned a tobacco farm — visited the island in the 1930s.

“That was a part of my speech last night,” said Perry, referring to the CENESEX gala.

Perry founded MCC in Los Angeles in 1968. It now has more than 200 congregations around the world.

MCC has congregations in Havana and in the cities of Santa Clara and Matanzas. Perry noted MCC provided housing to gay men who were among the more than 100,000 Cuban refugees — “Marielitos” in Spanish — who arrived in the U.S. during the 1980 Mariel boatlift after then-President Fidel Castro allowed them to leave the country.

Some of the “Marielitos” who arrived in the U.S. were criminals or people with mental illness who Fidel Castro had released from prisons and institutions.

“A lot of them weren’t good people as I can testify because we housed 10,000 of them in MCC houses all over the country,” Perry told the Blade. “Scripture tells me I am to help aliens. You’re an alien one time, Hebrew scripture told the Jews. So as a Christian I believe that, so we housed people.”

Mariela Castro is ‘just like the Kennedys’

Fidel Castro, who was Mariela Castro’s uncle, in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought him to power sent gay men and others to work camps known by the Spanish acronym UMAPs.

Cuba in 1979 decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations.

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

“He apologized finally,” Perry told the Blade.

Mariela Castro over the last decade has spearheaded LGBT-specific issues on the Communist island, with her supporters noting the country since 2008 has provided free sex-reassignment surgeries through its national health care system. They also highlight Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban Parliament, in 2013 voted against a proposal to add sexual orientation to Cuba’s labor law because it did not include gender identity.

Mariela Castro earlier this year during an interview with Hatzel Vela, a Havana-based reporter for the South Florida television station WPLG, that her father is “supportive” of her LGBT-specific work. Perry noted to the Blade that Mariela Castro’s mother, Vilma Espín, who was the president of the Cuban Federation of Women, taught her at a young age to respect gay men.

“Her mother . . . instilled that into her,” said Perry.

Independent Cuban activists with whom the Blade has spoken say the face harassment and even arrest if they publicly criticize Mariela Castro or her father’s government.

Perry told the Blade in response to a question about Cuba’s human rights record that he wants “to be able to talk” about human rights.

He said CENESEX “never asked to look at” the speech he delivered at the organization’s gala. Perry also told the Blade that Mariela Castro “has problems when people threaten her family,” noting the CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro and sponsored the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

“She is just like the Kennedys,” said Perry, referring to Mariela Castro. “People have tried to kill her uncle and her name is Castro. She can’t even go to South Florida really. She would probably be hurt and I understand that.”

“There are emotions about the Castro family to this day as we Americans know.”

Perry sharply criticizes U.S. embargo against Cuba

Perry’s first visited Cuba roughly six months after then-President Obama began the process of normalizing relations between the U.S. and the Communist island. President Trump in June announced the reinstatement of travel and trade restrictions with Cuba.

Perry repeatedly criticized the U.S. embargo against Cuba during the interview.

He said a Cuban pastor told him his congregation couldn’t buy Bibles, so it broke it up into separate books and checked them out to his parishioners. Perry told the Blade parishioners would receive another book once they returned the one they had checked out.

“What I saw when I came here, I could not believe what that embargo has done to this country,” he said. “We have been awful.”

A sign against the U.S. embargo against Cuba at an intersection in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on May 11, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Perry also told the Blade the Cuban people are increasingly concerned about Trump.

“They have never seen a more erratic president,” said Perry. “The Cuban people are afraid of him. They are worried more about what is going to happen now with the embargo, with the opening we have started.”

Perry said Mariela Castro told him that Fidel Castro once told the Cuban people, “I don’t care if we have to eat grass, no country is going to bully us again.” Perry also said the Cuban people “want their freedom.”

“They love Americans,” he said. “But on the other hand I don’t see any signs about Trump.”

“The government is waiting to see what’s going to happen,” added Perry.

Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, speaks to the Washington Blade on May 13, 2017, in his suite at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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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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