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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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Latest Uganda anti-homosexuality bill incites new wave of anti-LGBTQ hate

Mbarara Rise Foundation appeals to international community for help

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(Image by rarrarorro/Bigstock)

To the international community, 

I write to you today on behalf of the organization I lead, Mbarara Rise Foundation.

Since the year began, our rural grassroots LGBTQI+ communities have faced life threatening problems including an increased number of mob attacks, individual threats, police arrests and non-stop fears and insecurities arising from the homophobic campaigns happening in Uganda. Sadly, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2023 was introduced on March 9, inciting a new wave of anti-LGBTQI+ hatred.

This anti-homosexuality bill is worse than previous bills because, under this new law, simply identifying as LGBTQI+ means you have committed a crime. Even before the bill has passed, this homophobic action in Parliament has encouraged more of the general population, bloggers, celebrities and politicians to increase their hate campaigns all over the country. More than ever, Uganda is not a safe environment for us now. 

Currently, attacks are happening all over Uganda. Our communities have faced mob “justice” scenarios, threats and arrests and we have no legal recourse. Many of our constituents have received death threats, and in fact some have gone into hiding. This all increased dramatically when the bill was read in the Parliament and homophobic people are using it as a new excuse to inflict harm upon us. In just one of many examples, a transgender woman associated with our organization was beaten, publicly, by a group of cis men and she now sustains serious wounds. The police do not care.

Your voices are needed to speak out against these human rights abuses in Uganda. Your kind support is crucial and timely for us because we need protection, visibility and defense of our basic human rights. Mbarara Rise Foundation is working tirelessly to help LGBTIQ persons through building the capacity of the LGBTQI+ community, by documenting and advocating against violence, and through providing safety and security where we are able. We are fighting to increase access to legal counsel and justice and working to repeal homophobic laws and transform the attitudes of duty bearers towards LGBTQI+ persons. We cannot do this work alone.

These matters are urgent because Uganda needs interventions to protect the rights of LGBTQI+ persons amidst escalating violence and homophobia given the limited capacity of LGBTQI-led organizations, a shrinking civic space. In short, we need your outrage, your voices, and your support and we need it now.

Yours sincerely,

Real Raymond

Executive Director

Mbarara Rise Foundation

www.mbarararisefoundation.org

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Brazil insurrection proves Trump remains global threat

Jair Bolsonsaro took page out of former U.S. president’s playbook

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. (Washington Blade Trump photo by Michael Key; Bolsonaro photo by Celso Pupo/Bigstock)

I was at home in Dupont Circle on Sunday afternoon when I learned that thousands of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro supporters had stormed their country’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace. I grabbed my iPhone, used Google Translate to translate my initial thoughts into Brazilian Portuguese and sent them to many of the sources with whom I have worked while on assignment for the Washington Blade in the country.

“Muito perturbador a que está aconterendo em Brasília,” I said. “What is happening in Brasília is very disturbing.”

One source described the insurrection as “terrible.” Another told me that “everything is chaos.”

Toni Reis, president of Aliança Nacional LGBTI+, a Brazilian LGBTQ and intersex advocacy group, said what happened in Brasília was “horrible.” Associaçao Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais (the National Association of Travestis and Transsexuals) in a statement said the insurrectionists “attacked democracy.” Congresswoman Erika Hilton, who is transgender, described them as “terrorists.”

The insurrection, which has been described as a “coup” and a “terrorist” act, took place two days after the U.S. marked the second anniversary of Jan. 6. I felt a real sense of déjà vu because what happened in Brasília was nearly identical to what I witnessed here in D.C. two years and two days earlier with Blade Photo Editor Michael Key and then-Blade intern Kaela Roeder.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump refused to accept the 2020 presidential election results, and thousands of his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, laid siege to the Capitol after he spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally on the Ellipse. The insurrection began after lawmakers began to certify the Electoral College results.

supporters of former u.s. president donald trump storm the u.s. capitol on jan. 6, 2021. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

Bolsonaro, who has yet to publicly acknowledge he lost to current Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, flew to Florida on Dec. 30.

Da Silva’s inauguration took place in Brasília on Jan. 1. Bolsonaristas laid siege to their country’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace a week later. 

“The Brazilian presidential election has fueled a misinformation emergency that has tipped the LGBT+ community into a boiling pot of fake news,” wrote Egerton Neto, a Brazilian LGBTQ and intersex activist who is also an Aspen New Voices Fellow and manager of Oxford University’s XX, in an op-ed the Blade published last Oct. 28, two days before Da Silva defeated Bolsonaro in the second round of Brazil’s presidential election. “This is part of a broader global problem and we need a global plan to stop it.”

supporters of then-brazilian president jair bolsonaro rally near the brazilian congress in brasÍlia, Brazil, on oct. 1, 2022. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

I was on assignment in Mexico City on July 16, 2018, when Trump defended Russian President Vladimir Putin after their summit in Helsinki. I wrote in a Blade oped the “ridiculous spectacle … proved one and for all the U.S. under (the Trump) administration cannot claim with any credibility that it stands for human rights around the world.”

“American exceptionalism, however flawed, teaches us the U.S. is a beacon of hope to those around the world who suffer persecution. American exceptionalism, however flawed, teaches us the U.S. is the land of opportunity where people can build a better life for themselves and for their families,” I wrote. “Trump has turned his back on these ideals. He has also proven himself to be a danger not only to his country, but to the world as a whole.”

Bolsonaro during a press conference with Trump at the White House on March 19, 2019, said he has “always admired the United States of America.”

“This admiration has only increased since you took office,” said Bolsonaro.

The so-called “Trump of the Tropics” clearly took a page out of his American ideological counterpart’s anti-democratic playbook, and Sunday’s insurrection in Brasília is the implementation of it. The bolsonaristas who stormed the Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace perpetrated an assault on democracy in the name of their country’s former president who cannot bring himself to publicly acknowledge that he lost re-election. Sunday’s insurrection also proves that Trump, his enablers and those who continue to blindly defend and worship him remain as dangerous as ever.

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New York Times’ decision to hire anti-LGBTQ attorney as columnist is appalling

David French has worked for Alliance Defending Freedom

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David French (Screen capture via Wheaton College/YouTube)

GLAAD, the world’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) media advocacy organization, is responding to the New York Times’ recent announcement of their hiring of anti-LGBTQ attorney and writer David French as a columnist.

“It is appalling that the New York Times hired and is now boasting about bringing on David French, a writer and attorney with a deep history of anti-LGBTQ activism. After more than a year of inaccurate, misleading LGBTQ coverage in the Times opinion and news pages, the Times started 2023 by announcing a second anti-transgender opinion columnist, without a single known trans voice represented on staff,” responded GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis. “A cursory search for French turns up numerous anti-LGBTQ articles and his record as an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group that actively spreads misinformation about LGBTQ people and pushes baseless legislation and lawsuits to legalize discrimination, including just last month at the Supreme Court. The Times left out these facts in its glowing announcement of French’s hiring, and also forgot to mention his work as a co-signer on the 2017 Nashville Statement, which erased LGBTQ voices of faith and falsely stated ‘that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism.’ The Times had the gall to claim French as a ‘faith’ expert despite this known history.

The Times’ opinion section continues to platform non-LGBTQ voices speaking up inaccurately and harmfully about LGBTQ people and issues. This is damaging to the paper’s credibility. The Times opinion section editors’ love letter to French yesterday shows a willful disregard of LGBTQ community voices and the concerns so many have shared about their inaccurate, exclusionary, often ridiculous pieces. Last year, the Times ended popular trans writer Jenny Boylan’s column, leaving the opinion section with no trans columnists and a known lack of transgender representation on its overall staff. Who was brought on after Boylan? Pamela Paul, who has devoted columns to anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ disinformation, and David French. This reflects a growing trend on the news and opinion pages of misguided, inaccurate, and disingenuous ‘both sides’ fearmongering and bad faith ‘just asking questions’ coverage. The Times started 2023 by bragging about hiring another anti-trans writer, so LGBTQ leaders, organizations, and allies should make a 2023 resolution not to stay silent as the Times platforms lies, bias, fringe theories and dangerous inaccuracies.”

Examples of French’s anti-LGBTQ activism:

Examples of NYT columnist Pamela Paul’s anti-LGBTQ work:

Recent examples of inaccurate news coverage of LGBTQ people and youth, and their consequences:

  • In court documents, the state of Texas quoted Emily Bazelon’s June 15 report in the New York Times Magazine to further target families of trans youth over their private, evidence-based healthcare decisions. Every major medical association supports gender affirming care as best practices care that is safe and lifesaving and has widespread consensus of the medical and scientific communities.
  • The World Professional Association of Transgender Healthcare (WPATH), the world’s leading medical and research authority on transgender healthcare, criticized the Times’ November 2022 article “They Paused Puberty, But Is There a Cost?” as “furthering the atmosphere of misinformation” about healthcare for trans youth, noting its inaccurate narratives, interpretations and non-expert voices. WPATH noted the Times elevated false and inflammatory notions about medications that have been used safely in non-LGBTQ populations for decades without an explicit statement about how the benefits of the treatment far outweigh potential risks.
  • Writer Michael Powell elevated anti-transgender voices to falsely assert, in a piece about one successful transgender athlete, that transgender athletes are a threat to women’s sports. Powell’s other pieces have been used to support Pamela Paul’s inaccurate opinion essays falsely claiming “women” are being erased by the inclusion of trans people in discussions about abortion access. 
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