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The ‘gay-friendly’ president

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel supported LGBT-friendly cultural center

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Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel (Photo public domain)

Editor’s note: Tremenda Nota is an independent e-magazine in Cuba that reports on the country’s LGBT and other minority communities and young people. It is a Washington Blade media partner in Latin America.

Tremenda Nota originally published this story on its website in Spanish.

The new Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, has defended the presence of Cuba’s gay Pride mecca, El Mejunje. However, his gay-friendly record conflicts with his support of other kinds of censorship, such as independent media. How tolerant is Raúl Castro’s successor?

The new head of state is remembered in Villa Clara, a province in the center of Cuba, as a kind of revolutionary messiah: The man who always greeted strangers on the street, who mixed with the common people and asked for their opinions to solve problems in the community.

People would make the names of other Villa Clara leaders diminutives to feign some kind of familiarity. Humberto Rodríguez, the former president of the Provincial Assembly of People’s Power, was nicknamed Humbertico. Omar Martín and Julio Lima, each first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in Villa Clara at different times, were called Omarito and Julito. But Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez has always been Díaz-Canel, showing familiarity with respect.

In the early 1990s, when he was named the first secretary of the PCC in the province, Díaz-Canel was a scrawny young man with a strawberry-blonde mane who went to work on a bicycle and wore frayed striped pullovers. People say he was a Santa Clara sex symbol, who mastered a look that was “feline, naval and powerful.”

However, according to El Mejunje’s founder, Ramón Silverio, in the late 80s and the early 90s Díaz-Canel was “a charismatic man, like a Hollywood star, very elegant. He knew how to dress and he was very sensitive to the culture.” He was in power at a difficult time; he had to find resources when there were none.

Silverio believes that El Mejunje’s continued existence is thanks to the new president and he is grateful. In Cuba the relationship between a citizen and a politician is not so much between representative and represented but rather between a debtor and creditor. The asymmetry makes all the power flow upwards.

Silverio, El Mejunje’s mentor, is about to turn 70. He is a person with an unhurried nature, contrasted by his deep voice. His eyes are always half closed and his small hunchback is only slightly noticeable. He does not have any children but he is the father and grandfather of many generations, “the savior of the marginalized.”

When some decision makers of the province and other conservatives with political influence attempted to defame El Mejunje and its “suspicious” activities (referring to the LGBTI+ meetings that were held there) Díaz-Canel understood the value of a place where a diverse range of sexual preferences, people and opinions could be expressed. At the time Ramón Silverio himself was concerned that people would be able to understand what El Mejunje was about.

El Mejunje is an LGBT cultural center and nightclub in Santa Clara, Cuba. President Miguel Díaz-Canel supported El Mejunje when he was first secretary of the Communist Party in Villa Clara Province. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Side by side

Nelys Valdés was a member of the team chosen by Díaz-Canel in the early 90s to develop Villa Clara’s cultural sector with the limited resources available. Thanks to him she visited El Mejunje for the first time. Díaz-Canel convinced her that “nothing negative can happen in a place that is so frequented by artists and writers.” Nelys says, “I’ll never forget that night.” “He had an objective vision about artistic hierarchies. He always knew that you have to take risks.”

Nelys, the former provincial director of Culture, is retired from the Santa Clara’s nightlife. Her hair is going grey now but at the time she was in the prime of her life and worked “side by side” with Díaz-Canel to defend the artistic events generated by El Mejunje.

Now it is almost an honor to be a mejunjero, but Nelys and Silverio both concede that at the time there was a lot of prejudice around homosexuality and diversity in general. Silverio recalls that, “While he [Díaz-Canel] was around there was no fear. You wouldn’t hear about any campaigns against any issues connected with El Mejunje, whether it was a Miss Travesti or a Halloween event. There was never a threat against the cultural center.” The founder believes that “El Mejunje gets closest to the kind of country we’d like to have.”

Although the Cuban president has never made a public statement regarding the definitive approval of equal marriage in Cuba, he has participated in galas against homophobia and transphobia in the Karl Marx Theater. To date he has been “the state leader and highest ranking politician who has supported the Cuban Days [Against Homophobia and Transphobia],” according to the Cuban journalist and LGBTI+ activist Francisco Rodríguez Cruz in an article published in his blog Paquito el de Cuba.

The famous Cuban blogger emphasizes that the most important event demonstrating the new Cuban president’s understanding of diversity and sexual rights happened during the Labor Code debate in December 2013. Díaz-Canel suggested entrusting a parliamentary commission with the definitive redaction of a law in favor of LGBTI+ rights, and sought to reach consensus around some parliamentarians’ technical (presumably prejudiced) arguments against it.

Argentinian journalist Martín Caparrós recently revealed details about his meeting with the new president over 20 years ago. The journalist asked the Cuban leader if it was true that he had declared himself to be, “The secretary for all, the workers, students, farmers, homosexuals.” Díaz-Canel responded, “I didn’t say it, but I have always said that we have to give a space to everyone, to work for everyone.”

Mariela Castro, Raúl Castro’s daughter and director of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), also said that when Díaz-Canel was an official in the Young Communist Union he was responsible for working with CENESEX. Therefore, he had received training in the area of sexual rights when he became first secretary of the PCC in Villa Clara.

Nevertheless, many are not hopeful about a constitutional change that recognizes all of the rights related to sexual orientation, gender and gender identity. Díaz-Canel also has a tough position. No one could guarantee that he would support all parties and positions.

Months before his “election” the Cuban president appeared in a leaked video where he advocated closing down independent media, some members of which are spokespeople of the Cuban LGBTI+ community.

The alternative digital media appearing in Cuba over the last decade has brought to light the stories of many transsexuals, gays and lesbians in Cuba for the first time, which had not found a place in official newspapers. An article published in the digital newspaper Infobae adds that the orthodox image of Díaz-Canel contrasts with the perception of him as a simple man, affable but demanding, that many of his fellow citizens in the Villa Clara Province have of him.

After less than a month of becoming the president of the Councils of State and Ministers of Cuba it is only possible to confirm that Díaz-Canel, while he encouraged El Mejunje and has discretely supported the LGBTI+ community, has also repressed or tolerated the repression of other groups, such as independent journalists, political activists and dissident artists. None of these groups have received the same kind of “encouragement” from the president as the homosexual community; quite the opposite in fact.

Conjecture aside, opinion leaders like Ramón Silverio, cross their fingers and hope “Díaz-Canel is not homophobic at all. If he was, he would have been a detractor and not a defender of El Mejunje.” Silverio remembers that the current president often attended children’s activities with his children and, at that time, he wasn’t even the first secretary of the PCC. Back then parents who took their children to El Mejunje were more progressive. Díaz-Canel would recommend many that many artists, many important people like Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada (former president of the National Assembly of People’s Power) visit El Mejunje. In the cultural center they still believe that Díaz-Canel speaks about it and that he recognizes it as an important part of Cuban culture and uses it as an example.

María Caridad Jorge has been manager of El Mejunje, the most inclusive venue in Cuba, since the 1990s when it moved to its current location. She is a lesbian and a LGBTI+ community activist in Santa Clara. She can easily remember Díaz-Canel’s visits to El Mejunje. “He supported us in every sense,” she states. María Caridad believes that Díaz-Canel had a long-term vision of the work that was being achieved and he was someone who understood that LGBTI+ groups also have the right to participate in culture. María sees Díaz-Canel as just an average run of the mill person. This is important because she believes “there’s no point leading a country where the people don’t know you.”

Miguel Díaz-Canel was not part of the revolutionary generation that believed that homosexuality was an aberration and that the “deviants” should be punished and locked up. Will he promote equal marriage now that he holds this new position of ultimate authority in the country? His actions will indicate whether his experience in El Mejunje was a precedent or an anecdote. If he promotes the rights of the LGBTI+ community but cuts short those of journalists, opposition or critical artists, his tolerance will be a frustrated synecdoche: One part will not be enough to triumph over the rest.

A Pride flag hangs from a balcony at El Mejunje, an LGBT-friendly cultural center in Santa Clara, Cuba, on May 15, 2018. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel supported the center when he was first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in Villa Clara Province. (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

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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

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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

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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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