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‘Did this really just happen to me?’

Cuban cell phone was only link to outside world

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Washington Blade International News Editor Michael K. Lavers wrote notes in his travel journal about his experience at Havana’s José Martí International Airport on May 8, 2019, after Cuba authorities told him he could not enter the country. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Wednesday was to have been the first day of my seventh trip to Cuba. The country’s government put a quick end to that plan.

My American Airlines flight from Miami landed at Havana’s José Martí International Airport shortly before noon. I was one of the first passengers off the plane.

There were a few dozen people — mostly customs employees — in the large customs hall downstairs when I approached an officer who was sitting in one of the more than a dozen booths. I said “good afternoon” to her in Spanish and handed her my passport and “tourist card” visa that I bought after I purchased my flights last month. She began to enter my information into a computer and after a couple of minutes she told me to stand behind the line at which people wait before they approach the booths.

A woman who I later realized was a customs manager — who subordinates called “la jefa” or “the boss” in Spanish — approached me and asked for my passport and visa. I gave them to her, and then walked over to where Cleve Jones — a San Francisco-based activist who was to have been the grand marshal of a government-approved International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia march in Havana that was cancelled earlier in the week with little explanation — and two other Americans who were on my flight were waiting for a contact to escort them through customs. The four of us chatted for a few minutes until the customs manager called my name. I walked over to her and a male colleague with whom she was standing asked me three questions: How many times have I been to Cuba? What is my profession? What was the purpose of my trip? I answered each of the three questions and the man then told me I was not allowed to enter the country. I asked him why and the only thing he said was my name was on a list. He directed me to a row of seats near an emergency exit and I sat there with my backpack, carry-on and a plastic bag with things I bought at Miami International Airport before the flight. Someone from Jones’ group asked me what was happening, and I said something to the effect that I was not being allowed into the country. I don’t know if they heard what I said.

I used my iPhone to call my husband in D.C. and text Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff to let them know what was happening. I also used my Cuban cell phone to call a contact in Havana. The person who escorted Jones and the other two Americans through customs arrived a short time later and they left about half an hour after our flight landed. I knew I was going to be on an American Airlines flight to Miami that was scheduled to leave at 7 p.m., but I asked the customs manager to confirm this information and to tell me why the government had refused to allow me to enter the country. She said she didn’t know and apologized to me. She also asked me if I wanted any water or food. I thanked her; but said no because I had a full water bottle, snacks and half a breakfast sandwich from Miami with me. I asked her if I could use the restroom. She said yes and I walked over by myself.

The thought of spending more than six hours in a Cuban airport was dreadful, but I was not overly scared because I had not been formally detained and the customs manager was doing what she could to keep me comfortable. I spent the next couple of hours walking back and forth to the restroom, pacing around the customs hall, using my iPhone’s notes app to write the Blade’s article about what happened and talking to a man from Angola who was not allowed to enter Cuba after he arrived on a flight from Panama. I also called a contact in Havana and told them I was “bored out of my mind.”

A contact in the U.S. called my iPhone at around 3 p.m., and I began to tell them what was happening. The customs manager and the same male colleague who told me I was not allowed to enter Cuba approached me about 15 minutes later and told me I could not use cell phones in the customs hall, even though several of their colleagues were using theirs. The customs manager then told me to turn off my iPhone and give it to her. She then told me she would keep it with my passport and give them back to me before I boarded my flight to Miami.

I felt even more disconnected from the world after they took my iPhone, but I still had my Cuban cell phone. I muted the ringer, placed it into the hat I was wearing and used it to text the contact in Havana with whom I was in contact and to and Maykel González Vivero, publisher of Tremenda Nota, the Blade’s media partner in Cuba. I also took my travel journal out of my backpack and began to write down what was happening. At 3:59 p.m. I wrote “awaiting deportation from Cuba.” I also noted a young male customs employee about 20 minutes earlier walked me upstairs to the departures lounge and allowed me to buy bottles of water and a coffee with Cuban pesos I had from my last trip to the country earlier this year. I wrote in my journal he told me, “I don’t like politics when (we) talked about Trump.” I bought an extra bottle of water for the Angolan man who was sitting next to me downstairs and gave him some of the cookies and dried fruit and nuts I had with me.

The air conditioning was not very strong and it was 90 degrees outside, but I was otherwise comfortable over the next two hours as I waited for my flight back to Miami. At around 6:30 p.m. the customs manager called me over to an elevator. She gave me back my passport and iPhone, handed me my boarding pass and escorted me to the gate. She handed my passport and boarding pass to a gate agent and told a male airport employee to escort me onto the plane. The customs manager said thank you to me as I entered the jet way.

I was the first person to board the plane, which made me feel extremely self-conscious because I was escorted past a group of elderly people in wheelchairs who would have normally boarded well before a 37-year-old man with no health and/or mobility issues. The person who escorted me onto the plane told me before I left customs that American had upgraded me to business class. I sat down in my seat and thought to myself, “Did this really just happen to me?”

I called my husband, Naff and my Havana contact and let them know I was about to leave Cuba. The onboard WiFi allowed me to connect to the Internet, write Facebook and Twitter posts about what happened and text contacts who were able to receive iMessages. I remained on the Internet during the safety demonstration video and take off that a thunderstorm south of the airport made extremely turbulent. The flight landed in Miami shortly after 8 p.m. and I was able to call my mother in New Hampshire and let my relatives know what had happened. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent in customs flagged me for a “hard” interview, but it turned out to be nothing more than a simple passport check. I cleared customs in less than 10 minutes and walked downstairs to baggage claim where I retrieved my suitcase that had been damaged. I reserved a rental car, drove to Miami Beach and arrived at a hotel on Collins Avenue I found online shortly after 9:30 p.m.

Coverage of LGBTI issues in Cuba will continue

I first traveled to Cuba in 2015 to cover government-approved IDAHOBiT events. Blade Photo Editor Michael Key and I in 2017 received press visas from the Cuban government that allowed us to cover that year’s IDAHOBiT commemorations in Havana as credentialed journalists. The Cuban government has also allowed me to enter the country with a “tourist card” three times — the most recent time on Feb. 28 — with no questions asked.

I have reported across Cuba over the last four years, from Santiago de Cuba in the east to Pinar del Rio in the west.  

I have interviewed pro-government and independent activists and have become friends with many of them. I have interviewed vocal critics of the government in Cuba. I have published photo essays and recorded dozens of videos that document life on the island. I am also all too aware of the Cuban government’s human rights record and its treatment of journalists, regardless of who they may be or the credentials they may have.

Yariel Valdés González, a Blade contributor from Cuba, has asked for asylum in the U.S. because of the persecution he said he faced in his homeland because he is a journalist. The Cuban government blocked access to Tremenda Nota’s website on the island on the eve of the Feb. 24 referendum on a new constitution that once promised to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. Authorities detained González in October 2016 as he was covering the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba and again in September 2017 while reporting on preparations ahead of Hurricane Irma in his hometown of Sagua la Grande in Villa Clara province.

Authorities on Wednesday detained Luz Escobar, a reporter for 14ymedio, a website founded by Yoani Sánchez, a journalist who is a vocal critic of the Cuban government, for several hours after she tried to interview Havana residents who were displaced by a freak tornado that tore through parts of the city on Jan. 27. The contact in Havana with whom I had been speaking from customs told me about Escobar’s arrest after I boarded my flight to Miami. The U.S. Embassy in Havana also tweeted about it.

I tagged Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and other government entities in a Tweet that asks for additional information about why I was prevented from entering the country. I have not received a response, and am not holding my breath for one.

I know there are increased concerns over an IDAHOBiT march that independent activists have said they plan to hold in Havana on Saturday. I know from Tremenda Nota and other independent Cuban media outlets the country’s economic situation has grown even more dire since I was last in Cuba less than three months ago. I also know President Trump last week threatened to impose a “full and complete embargo” and additional sanctions against Cuba over its continued support of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

The last two days have been quite surreal, and I continue to process what happened in Havana. I am quite uncomfortable with the fact that I find myself at the center of a story about a country for which I have a deep affection. I also want to avoid the politics and rhetoric over U.S. policy towards Cuba.

I am so incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel to Cuba over the last four years, to have had the chance to meet many of the island’s LGBTI activists and to have developed lifelong friendships. These feelings — and my commitment to continue my coverage of LGBTI issues in Cuba — have not changed.

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Commentary

To comply or not to comply is not the question

Implementation of pro-LGBTQI+ rulings in Botswana and Namibia is unsatisfactory

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Over the past five years, the highest courts in Namibia and Botswana have made significant decisions in favor of minority groups’ human rights through favorable judgments and court orders. However, the implementation of these orders related to the rights of LGBTQI+ in Botswana and Namibia has not been satisfactory so far. 

In 2016, the Botswana Court of Appeal ordered the Registrar of Societies to register the Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) after they had been denied registration based on the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct. In 2017, the High Court of Botswana pronounced that denying a transgender man legal gender recognition undermines their dignity and humanity and ordered the Ministry of Home Affairs to change his identity documents from female to male. In 2021, the Court of Appeal in Botswana decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual conduct. In May 2023, the Supreme Court of Namibia ordered the government to recognize same-sex unions concluded outside Namibia, where same-sex marriages are legal in terms of the Immigration Act. While all these cases constitute landmark cases in securing and guaranteeing the rights of LGBTIQ persons, there is a growing trend of non-implementation when it comes to such judgements.

Government officials have partially or selectively implemented or completely disregarded the court decisions. In the LEGABIBO registration case, the Botswana Court of Appeal found that it is unconstitutional to deny registration under the assumption that LGBTQI+ are not recognized in the Bill of Rights and will offend the morality of the nation. The court found that LGBTQI+, like any other citizen or group of people in Botswana, have the right to freedom of association, expression and assembly, and issued an order for LEGABIBO to be registered, an order that was fulfilled promptly. However, seven years later, in March 2024, an LBQ group’s efforts to register are met with sentiments similar to those before the LEGABIBO jurisprudence. Senior public officials resisted the highest court decision to register this new group. Although their reasons are not stated as clearly as LEGABIBO rejection, government officials are still surreptitiously blocking the registration of LGBTQI+ organizations. 

Similarly, we have observed the selective application technique unfolding in legal gender recognition cases. In this case, the government officials have interpreted this as a single order that only applies to the applicants and not “all persons.” According to anecdotal evidence based on the experiences of individuals who sought legal gender recognition, they are instructed to acquire individualized court orders, a complete misinterpretation of the court’s instructions, burdening the courts to issue duplicate orders. This selective interpretation is a covert move by government officials to undermine judicial decisions and transfer the responsibility and burden of implementation to resource-constrained individuals, limiting access to justice. What is also curious is why the court system does not address repeat applications on the same issue. 

With the decriminalization court order, the attorney general acted in contempt of the judgment when he, instead of scrapping Sections 164 (a) and (c), blatantly ignored the court order and put a bill before parliament for debate. The highest court in Botswana had made a carefully considered decision to decriminalize, as indicated by a statement from SALC (Southern Africa Litigation Center) and by many contributors to this issue; there is no need to debate; the court has decided.

In Namibia’s case, compliance with the court order means recognizing foreign partners in same-sex marriages with their Namibian partners as spouses, thereby issuing them an immigration status that allows them to reside and work in Namibia. Despite the commitment by the Ministry of Home Affairs to comply, government Officials still refuse to respect the Supreme Court ruling, as indicated by Mr. Digashu’s experience: 

“In one of my many visits to the immigration offices, the officer informed me that the court order was only meant for the couples directly engaged in the court case, unaware that I was one of those couples. I got the impression that the immigration officials have adopted a dishonest tactic to deter other same-sex couples, letting them believe that the judgement does not protect them.”

One of the most significant contributors to non-compliance is the media. The media reports on the Supreme Court decision on the Digashu/Seiller-lilies matter ran with the sensational headline “Supreme Court gives legal status to same-sex marriages,” misinforming the public and fueling negativity. Misinformation affects not only the litigants and community members but also feeds the already hostile public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ persons. Members of parliament and religious communities put pressure on government officials. Unfortunately, parliament responded with a marriage bill that contradicted the judgment, Instead of clarifying what the ruling means and whom it affects. Public officials reflect legislators’ sentiments, disregarding principles of democracy, the rule of law, and justice for all, which are clearly stated in the constitution, and further undermining the independence of the judiciary. 

These are only a few of the many court orders that government officials have disregarded to the disadvantage and inconvenience of the minority who went to court to seek redress. For example, in the case of Mr. Daniel Digashu, he is given a visitor’s visa every time he leaves the country, which means he is forced to exit the country at its expiration date or face the wrath of the law. The cost of frequent travel and the personal emotional toll on himself and his family is insurmountable. Let alone constant dealings with questions, often followed by ridicule from immigration officials.

The question, therefore, is, what must happen to government officials who disregard court orders? 

The chief justice in Kenya offers a solution to this conundrum. Recently, the chief justice observed that senior government officials are guilty of defying court orders and suggested remedies such as impeachment of individual officers responsible. Botswana and Namibia must take a leaf out of that book.   

Of great concern is also that government officials are not transparent about the limitations of the court orders to enable the litigants and beneficiaries to seek clarification from the courts, nor are they open to engaging with civil society and affected communities to improve compliance. Are the court orders vague and, therefore, challenging to implement? Being transparent about implementation constraints will go a long way in guiding civil society on how they can support the government. Even in their resource-constrained status, CSOs must continue to monitor compliance and return to the courts for enforcement, including publicizing non-compliance in the media for public engagement. 

In conclusion, the rule of law requires that all court decisions be implemented promptly, thoroughly and effectively. The government has no choice whether to execute or not execute the court orders. 

The authors are consultants at the Southern Africa Litigation Center (SALC). SALC promotes and advances human rights and the rule of law in Southern Africa, primarily through strategic litigation and capacity-strengthening support to lawyers and grassroots organizations.

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Celebrating 15th anniversary of Harvey Milk Day

A powerful reminder that one person can make a difference

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The Harvey Milk Forever Stamp was unveiled at a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on May 22, 2014. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Harvey Milk’s birthday, May 22, is officially a Day of Special Significance in California. Other states also honor Milk.

Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in U.S. history. In 1977, he was elected to a seat on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. His term began in January 1978 and ended in November when disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White assassinated Milk and Mayor George Moscone at City Hall.

In his 1982 book “Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,” Randy Shilts wrote a moving account of San Francisco’s 1978 memorial for Milk. A “massive crowd stretched the entire distance from City Hall to Castro Street, some 40,000 strong utterly silent,” Shilts wrote. The crowd “ostensibly memorialized both George Moscone and Harvey, but few speakers quarreled that the crowd had amassed chiefly to remember the gangly ward politician [Milk] who had once called himself the mayor of Castro Street.”

Shilts quoted Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein, at the time acting mayor, telling the mourners that Milk “was a leader who represented your voices.” Another speaker said Milk “was to us what Dr. King was to his people. Harvey was a prophet [who] lived by a vision.” Equality was Milk’s vision.

Shilts presciently titled the last section in his book “The Legend Begins.” In 1979, after a jury gave assassin White a light seven-year sentence, LGBT rioters rocked San Francisco in what is called “The White Night Riots.” During the riots, Shilts wrote that “a lesbian university professor yelled into a feeble bullhorn: ‘Harvey Milk lives.’” Since 1978, Harvey Milk’s courageous leadership has been celebrated globally.

Over four years, 2006-2010, San Francisco reminded the country that Milk was a gay man worthy of great honors. The 2008 movie “Milk,” filmed partly in San Francisco, with Sean Penn as Milk, ignited greater public interest in the legendary gay activist. Gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and Penn won Academy Awards in 2009.

The film led Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign legislation making Milk’s birthday a Day of Special Significance. Also, President Barack Obama awarded Milk with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. On Milk’s 84th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative Forever stamp in his honor.

California’s Harvey Milk Day recognizes Milk for his contributions to the state. It also encourages public schools to conduct “suitable commemorative exercises” to honor Milk.

“To me, [Milk] was a man who was a capitalist, and an entrepreneur who happened to be gay,” said Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado, the only Republican to vote for the bill to create Harvey Milk Day.

The newer scholarship about Milk provided additional insight into his activism. “An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings” edited by James Edward Black, Charles Morris, and Frank Robinson, published in 2013 by the Univ. of California Press, is an excellent example.

The book’s title is drawn from Milk’s 1978 speech called “The Hope Speech.” He spoke about people [gays, seniors, Black Americans, disabled, Latinos, Asians] “who’ve lost hope.” He proceeds to talk about inspiring hope in others who are struggling when the “pressures at home are too great.” It is a passionate speech, based largely on Milk’s conversations with people in the Castro. In a review of the book for The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, I wrote it is: “An important contribution to the corpus of work on Harvey Milk as a writer and orator.”

Milk believed that it was important for members of the LGBTQIA+ community to come out. If more people were aware of their LGBTQIA+ associates who were their friends, family, and loved ones, then discrimination would end. To Milk, coming out would lead to ensuring LGBTQIA+ civil rights.

In 2007, during Pride in San Francisco I worked at a nonprofit’s booth in Civic Center Plaza. A man stopped to talk. I mostly listened. He was a veterinarian from a small town in Arkansas. He was gay and closeted. He regularly visited San Francisco for Pride. Afterward, he regularly returned to his closeted life in Arkansas. I felt sorry for him. Though I was a stranger to him, he needed to come out to me. I was reminded of Milk’s wisdom about the freedom of coming out.    

Harvey Milk Day is for all people who need hope. Milk’s life is a lesson that one person can make a difference. A strong, united community inspired by Milk and others has changed and continues to change the world.  

Milk’s short political career led to long-term LGBTQIA+ political leadership from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C. to Miami to Seattle. To paraphrase a Woody Guthrie song: This LGBTQIA+ Land is Our Land. Happy Milk Day 2024!

James Patterson is a lifetime member of the American Foreign Service Association.

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Commentary

BookMen DC: Still going strong at 25

Celebrating the longest-running LGBTQ literary group in the area

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On May 11, 1999, what was originally known as the Potomac Gay Men’s Book Group convened for its first meeting. A lot has changed over the ensuing quarter-century, starting with our name. But our identity remains true to the description on our blog: “an informal group of men who are interested in gay literature (both fiction and non-fiction).”

Our founder, Bill Malone, worked at the Whitman-Walker Clinic and started the group using donations of remainder books from a wholesaler in New York. Soon after that, members decided to get their own books, and began purchasing them through Lambda Rising, which offered a discount for such orders until it closed in 2010. The group later renamed itself BoysnBooks, and then became BookMen DC in 2007, which is also when we started our blog

Following Bill’s tenure, Tom Wischer, Greg Farber and Tim Walton (who set up our blog) have served as our facilitators. I succeeded Tim in that role in 2009, and am grateful to him and all my predecessors for laying such a solid foundation for our group. 

Twenty-five years after our founding, we are the longest-running LGBTQ literary group in the DMV. So far, we have discussed nearly 400 books, ranging from classics like Plato’s Symposium to graphic novels, gay history and memoirs, and novels by James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, E.M. Forster and Edmund White—to name just a few of the many authors and genres we’ve explored.

Currently, we have more than 120 names on our mailing list, of whom about a quarter attend meetings at least occasionally. (Average attendance at our meetings is about 10.) Our members variously consider themselves gay, queer, bisexual, or transgender, and those varying perspectives enhance our discussions. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that, like many LGBTQ organizations, we are not nearly as diverse as I wish we were. Although we do have young members and people of color within our ranks, we are predominantly white and middle-aged or older. We have tried various forms of outreach to further diversify our membership, and will keep working on that.

How has BookMen DC not just survived, but thrived, when so many other book clubs and LGBTQ groups have foundered? I would identify several factors.

First and foremost, we are welcoming. We have no minimum attendance requirements and charge no dues. And we expressly encourage members to join us at meetings even if they haven’t finished the selection we’re discussing.

We are also collaborative. Each fall, members nominate titles for the next year’s reading list; I then compile those suggestions into a list for members to weigh in on, and the results of that vote determine what we will read. 

Finally, we are flexible and adaptable. Over the years, we have met in locations all over the District. Currently, we meet on the first Wednesday of each month at the Cleveland Park Library (3310 Connecticut Ave. NW) from 6:30-7:30 p.m. to discuss entire books; afterward, those interested go to dinner at a neighborhood restaurant.

When the pandemic struck four years ago, we took a break for a couple of months before moving operations online. (Thank God for Zoom!) Even after the venues where we’d been meeting reopened, we have continued to meet virtually on the third Wednesday of each month, from 7-8 p.m. During those Zoom sessions, we discuss sections of anthologies of poetry and short stories, as well as short standalone works (e.g.,  plays and novellas).

If you enjoy LGBTQ literature and would like to try us out, visit our blog: https://bookmendc.blogspot.com/ and click the link to email me. We’d love to meet you!

Steven Alan Honley, a semi-retired musician, editor, and writer, has been a member of BookMen DC since 2000 and its facilitator since 2009.

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