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Cuba activists push for same-sex marriage

Lawmakers to consider changes to constitution this month



Violeta Cardoso, second from left, and her partner, Isabel Pacheco, second from right, attend an International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia march in Havana on May 12, 2018, that the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) organized. Cardoso last October received custody of her late daughter’s three children who she is raising with her partner. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

HAVANA — A torrential downpour was passing over the Cuban capital on May 11 when Violeta Cardoso and her partner of 32 years, Isabel Pacheco, arrived at a coffee shop in the Vedado neighborhood.

The women soon began to speak passionately about LGBTI-specific issues with Juana Mora and Lidia Romero of Acepto, a group that advocates for marriage rights for same-sex couples in Cuba. It was sweltering inside the coffee shop because of a power outage, but the women nevertheless spoke with each other for more than an hour as they drank iced tea and coffee.

“I am optimistic,” Cardoso told the Washington Blade.

Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the country’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), during a May 4 press conference said her organization will submit proposals to the Cuban National Assembly that would extend marriage and other rights to LGBTI Cubans. Cardoso and Pacheco met with Mora and Romero at the coffee shop a week later.

The National Assembly is expected to consider amendments to the country’s constitution — which currently defines marriage as between a man and a woman — when it reconvenes later this month.

Neither Mariela Castro nor CENESEX have publicly commented on how they plan to build support for their efforts in the National Assembly. Acepto and other independent LGBTI advocacy groups are nevertheless optimistic, citing recent legal and societal advances on the Communist island.

A three-judge panel in Havana last October granted Cardoso custody of her late daughter’s three young children who she is raising with Pacheco.

The ruling is believed to be the first time the Cuban government has legally recognized a same-sex couple. Cardoso pointed out to the Blade that one of the three judges — a man who she described as a “big black man” — who heard her case was crying after he and the other two judges ruled in her favor.

“There was no problem,” said Cardoso.

Cardoso, Pacheco and their children were among the thousands who took part in an International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia march in Havana on May 12 that CENESEX organized. Pacheco at the coffee shop told the Blade she is also optimistic because new President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who was born after the 1959 revolution that brought Mariela Castro’s uncle, Fidel Castro, to power, is more supportive of LGBTI issues than his predecessors.

“This is a good moment,” she added as Cardoso, Mora and Romero listened. “Our president is a man who was born with the revolution.”

Pacheco also noted Díaz-Canel supported El Mejunje, an LGBTI cultural center in Santa Clara, when he was secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in Villa Clara Province.

“He does not reject the community,” Pacheco told the Blade. “He does not see the community as a danger at all.”

Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, in 2016 traveled to Cuba. Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith and other U.S. activists has also met with same-sex marriage advocates on the Communist island.

Cuban church groups publicly oppose marriage

More than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service were sent to labor camps known by the Spanish acronym UMAP after the revolution. The Cuban government until 1993 forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria.

Cuba in 1979 repealed its sodomy law. Fidel Castro in 2010 apologized for the work camps during an interview with a Mexican newspaper.

Cuba since 2008 has offered free sex-reassignment surgeries through its national health care system, although only a few dozen people have been able to receive them. Mariela Castro, who is a member of the National Assembly, in 2013 voted against a proposal that sought to add sexual orientation to Cuba’s labor law because it did not include gender identity.

Independent LGBTI activists with whom the Blade has previously spoken say they face harassment and even arrest if they publicly criticize Mariela Castro or the Cuban government. Nelson Gandulla, the former president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, and Victor Manuel Dueñas, an activist who helped launch the “Nosotros También Amamos” campaign in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Cuba in 2015, are currently seeking asylum in Spain and in the Netherlands respectively.

Five Evangelical church groups late last month publicly expressed their opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples in a statement they posted on Facebook. The Cuban government subsequently denied their request to hold a march in Havana.

Maykel González, an independent Cuban journalist and activist who contributes to the Blade, included a copy of the declaration in an article he wrote for OnCuba, a Miami-based magazine that covers Cuba.

“The family is a divine institution created by God and marriage is exclusively a union of a man and a woman, according to Biblical teaching, the word of God,” reads the declaration.

“Gender ideology has no relation whatsoever to our culture, our fights for independence nor with the revolution’s historical leaders,” it adds. “At the same time, there are no links to other Communist countries, say the former Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and even less so North Korea.”

González reported CENESEX-affiliated LGBTI activists criticized the declaration. Yadiel Cepero, who created a social network for LGBTI Cubans on Facebook in 2017, is among the independent activists who echoed these sentiments.

“The five churches that signed the declaration from last June 28 showed their position in defense of patriarchy, machismo, sexism and hegemonic thinking that is stuck in the past,” Cepero told the Blade on Tuesday in an email.

Cepero added the churches’ use of the phrase “gender ideology” to argue against marriage rights for same-sex couples is “an attack against feminism, the just struggle of women, the contributions of science and gender studies in general.” Acepto in a statement it posted to its Facebook page on July 6 made a similar argument.

“They oppose all LGBTI rights because they feel that we distort human rights through legal institutions that guarantee our lives, abortion, women’s rights in general because they threaten patriarchy,” it reads.

‘We know the damages caused by the lack of marriage equality’

Romero did not explicitly criticize Mariela Castro while speaking with the Blade on May 11, although she said, “who knows” when asked about how she and CENESEX will convince lawmakers to support marriage rights for same-sex couples. Romero added CENESEX-affiliated activists and those who work independently of it nevertheless recognize the need to advance the issue in Cuba.

“Everyone talks about the need for the recognition of or the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples,” said Romero.

“In Mariela’s case, what she is really doing is responding to what all LGBTI people are saying,” she added. “I also think it is a good time to do it. It is a good time because of the big economic, judicial changes…and because of social changes. Cuban society has changed enormously and I think this has opened the door.”

Moisés Rodríguez of Corriente Martiana, a Cuban human rights organization that supports marriage rights for same-sex couples, largely agreed with Romero when he spoke with the Blade at his home in Cabañas in Artemisa Province on May 11.

“I think Mariela Castro really believes in what is needed,” he said, pointing out gay and lesbian Cubans who are in same-sex relationships have lost their homes and belongings after their partners have passed away. “We know the damages caused by the lack of marriage equality.”

Moisés Rodríguez of Corriente Martiana at his home in Cabañas, Cuba, on May 11, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights President Leandro Rodríguez was far more critical of Mariela Castro.

He described her statements in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples as “marketing” and “politics” when he spoke with the Blade last month from Villa Clara Province where he lives with his mother, Tanía García Hernández, who created a hotline for LGBTI Cubans.

“It’s one more falsehood, it is one more lie that she says,” said Leandro Rodríguez. “She [Mariela Castro] is a liar.”

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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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