Is Cuba Taking the Lead on LGBT Equality in Latin America?

My trip to Cuba was a chance to hear what Cubans have to say about all the changes and victories for their LGBT community. After talking to many of Mariela Castro's activists and volunteers, I can't help but think that what's potentially around the corner could be monumental for Cuba.
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Last May I had the pleasure of hearing Mariela Castro, daughter of current Cuban president Raúl Castro and niece of the infamous dictator Fidel Castro, speak while she was visiting on her extremely controversial trip to the United States. The following night I was fortunate enough to be granted direct access to her at a private event where I was able to hear more about her efforts to change Cuba with respect to human rights issues, particularly LGBT rights.

Mariela's mother, Vilma Lucila Espín Guillois, was a revolutionary who was the head of the Federation of Cuban Women and helped change policy and the lives of women in her country. There's no doubt that her daughter didn't fall far from the tree. On her visit to the U.S., she spoke of Cuba's progress toward LGBT rights and how Cuba was leading the way. She also hinted that she was not as impressed with where the United States currently is with regard to LGBT rights.

Honestly, it was hard to truly believe what she was saying about her country. When most think of Cuba, they think of repressed people, dictatorship and depression. Some may also recall 1979's "public scandal" laws that sentenced those who "publicly flaunted their homosexual condition" to between three months and one year in prison. The 1979 penal code also categorized "homosexual acts in public, or in private but exposed to being involuntarily seen by other people" as "crimes against the normal development of sexual relations." Moreover, hearing her express her support for her uncle and the revolution left a sickening confusion as to who she really is and whether there is an agenda behind her support for the LGBT community in Cuba.

Being Cuban-American and gay, this topic fascinates me. Before seeing Mariela Castro speak, I had never been to Cuba or endured any of the revolution or its aftermath. I grew up in Southern California, which is conservative, to say the least, but I was never in danger of anything close to what gay Cubans (and many gay Americans, for that matter) have to deal with. Given the stories my family had told me about growing up in conservative Cuba, I was shocked at what Mariela was preaching. Looking back, my Cuban family didn't take my coming out as harshly as I thought they did at the time. It was mostly just denial and not talking about my life in front of family members. That's all different now, and I am loved and accepted by my family and am grateful to them. After hearing how Cuba was changing, I finally felt a deep connection to my mother's homeland and a longing to visit it, so I did.

This trip was a chance not only to connect with family I had never met but to engage with Cubans and hear what they have to say about all the changes and victories for their LGBT community. Mariela, who is the director of Cuba's National Center for Sex Education, decided to take her fight in strides, focusing on one issue over the course of a year. She went on national television and educated the population first. With the support of the people, she then took her fight to her father and his government, where, surprisingly enough, she got through to them. First focusing on transgender rights, Mariela broke ground by helping pass legislation to allow gender reassignment surgery to be covered under the basic government health care system. The next year she took on the issues of gay men, followed by those of the bisexual population, and most recently she focused her efforts on HIV services for all, as well as on Cuba's lesbians. After talking to many of Mariela's activists and volunteers, I can't help but think that what's potentially around the corner could be monumental for Cuba.

Cuba's gay scene is alive and active. Although it's not normal to see two people of the same sex walking around holding hands, there are areas in Havana that are now considered spots for gay cruising or meeting. There's a large area in the city where everyone feels comfortable to be who they are and find out where the gay parties are happening that particular night. And it's not only in Havana. Even in the small town of Trinidad, I met gay men who couldn't wait to tell me about the monthly drag show that's held where the entire town comes to watch. Cuba wasn't nearly as repressed as I had imagined. When asking gay Cubans about Mariela, I noticed an overwhelming sense of support, love, respect and gratitude toward her. I couldn't find one person who had anything negative to say about her. I even went out of my way on the street to ask apparently heterosexual people of all ages about Mariela, just to gauge their attitudes. Again, I found nothing but praise for the woman who was helping change the minds of so many in her country.

So maybe she truly was speaking from the heart during her U.S. tour. In Cuba I also spent time with a very special person, Miguel, who spends his time volunteering on Mariela's various campaigns and told me he is HIV-positive, which was something I never expected to discuss on my trip. Miguel's story opened my eyes to other questions I had about Cuba. It was enlightening to know that Cuba offers complete medical care and even extra nourishment to those living with HIV. Miguel and I discussed treatments in the U.S. and what we are taught about HIV here, and he was pleasantly surprised to hear that what I told him was precisely what he knew about the disease that he and I are both living with.

So I ask myself: Is Cuba leading the way on LGBT rights for other Latin American countries? I absolutely believe they are. Cuba is leading by example and positively affecting the lives of not only the LGBT people who reside there but others all over the world who see these massive changes taking place so quickly in a country where most would think the topic of homosexuality would be off-limits. So what's Mariela Castro's focus for 2013? At this point it's all speculation, but all signs point toward marriage equality or at least some sort of reform to provide all the same rights and benefits to same-sex couples that are afforded to heterosexual couples in marriages.

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