Cuba starts to come out of closet with great discretion

June 13th, 2008 - 9:07 am ICT by IANS  

By Silvia Ayuso
Havana, June 13 (DPA) In Havana, Monica and Elizabeth hold hands and proudly wear the small golden rings that sealed their “wedding”. The party took place in December in Cuba’s National Centre for Sexual Education (CENESEX) headed by sexologist Mariela Castro - the daughter of current Cuban President Raul Castro.

Pending legislative changes that allow Cuban homosexual couples official recognition, it was an informal celebration like those that many gays and lesbians resort to on the communist island. It was, however, the first time that such a ceremony was held on the premises of a state institution.

“We did not have the money to rent a house. We talked to CENESEX and everyone joined in and they set a date, everything,” the two women recalled with a smile. “Each of our friends contributed $5, we bought the food, the clothes, and that was it.”

The families of Elizabeth, 28, and Monica, 19, did not attend the ceremony, but the two women say they have accepted the idea of having lesbian daughters little by little. They are currently living together at the home of Elizabeth’s parents in Havana Centre, where they are hoping to build their own home next to the family house.

“We have never felt rejected. Well, yes, a little from my parents at the beginning, and Monica at work for a time,” hesitated Elizabeth, a Sociology student.

Older members of Cuba’s homosexual community - for which there are no official statistics - have had it even less easy.

“We wish we had lived at this time. We would have felt better, more satisfied, more comfortable,” said Omar, who is in his fifties.

He was watching the celebration “with institutional backing” of the International Day Against Homophobia in Havana.

“Nowadays there is not the same level of repression, socially, from families, even at work or in the student community,” the man admitted. “Now they accept you better.”

Beside him, Mayra - a lesbian about to turn 60 - nodded. She still cannot forget the repression she herself suffered in the late 1970s for being a homosexual. She was thrown out of university and had to spend six months at a camp for the “re-education” of homosexuals.

“Sometimes it was just enough that someone singled you out as a homosexual,” Mayra recalled of the cause for punishment.

Never before this year - not even in 1993 with the premiere of the film “Fresa y Chocolate” (Strawberry and Chocolate), on the theme of homosexuality and widely acknowledged to be a turning point on the subject - had sexual diversity really gone public.

This year’s celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia was technically the second such event, but it was the first to be widely advertised, and to have the key support of the state, the Communist Party and the Union of Communist Youths.

Even Cuban Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon, whose institution has it in its power to give more legal backing to homosexuals, attended the event.

Cuba is currently evaluating a reform of its Family Code to acknowledge the legal union of homosexuals, even if it does not contemplate granting same-sex couples the option to adopt children.

The communist country is planning to undertake sex-change surgery on 28 people soon, and Cuban specialists are currently preparing themselves for that alongside Belgian colleagues. It would be a long step, given that the only instance of such surgery so far, back in 1988, got so much criticism that the programme was called off.

However, has Cuban society really changed that much?

“Pachuli,” 26, a transvestite hairdresser, does not think so.

“Everything is the same, and it’s getting worse,” she complained as she watched the celebrations. “This whole thing is a charade, a theatre show. Because at the end of it all, when night falls, everything will remain the same.”

Even Monica and Elizabeth agree that there are still many obstacles.

“I still have colleagues who do not understand it, who have never spoken to me,” said Monica, a computer technician at a ministry.

And although the couple show their relationship openly in relatively cosmopolitan neighbourhoods like Vedado, they keep their homosexuality to themselves even in the area where they live.

“There we would not even think of holding hands,” Elizabeth admitted.

“They throw things at you from balconies, they beat you up,” Pachuli said.

Mariela Castro and her CENESEX colleagues acknowledged that their priority is to educate society, and that is where they are focusing their efforts for now: there is a programme for schools, and a media campaign including special television programmes and even the broadcasting of the film “Brokeback Mountain”.

Quite a change, given that it took Cuban television 14 years to show “Fresa y Chocolate” in 2007.

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