Mariela Castro Brings The Fight For LGBTQ Rights Home In Cuba

 

The promise that Marxism would level the playing field of human dignity never quite worked out for the LGBTQ community in Cuba.

Until they found a friend in a high place: Mariela Castro, a member of the National Assembly and also, oh yes, the daughter of President Raul Castro.

Mariela Castro at a rally in Cuba.
Mariela Castro at a rally in Cuba.

Mariela Castro has made it her life’s mission to change not just laws, but hearts and minds.

Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution, which premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, follows Castro across the island as she encourages the gay community to live without shame and patiently explains to homophobes that someone else’s sexual preference threatens nothing in their lives.

It’s a compelling argument, but despite this documentary’s optimism, it clearly has not yet completely carried the day.

In Cuba as in almost every other nation, favoring a same-gender partner can expose a person to danger, and not so long ago, the Cuban government was an active participant in that oppression. Luis, one of several interview subjects here, describes how, as a young man, he was sent to a “work camp” that was really incarceration to segregate men suspected of homosexuality.

When he was released, his national ID card was stamped with the information he had spent time at that camp. Luis found it almost impossible to continue his education or be hired for a job.

As that experience suggests, discrimination was practiced both by fearful individuals and Cuba’s all-powerful state. Margarita, a lesbian, recalls how she was kicked off the national tennis team and how it devastated her life.

With that sort of official sanction, it’s hardly surprising that bias sometimes took extreme forms. One interview subject here had acid thrown in her face, leaving her blind in one eye, and the producers show a brief contemporary interview with a Cuban man who spits his disdain for the familiar homophobic f-word.

The picture painted here of attitudes in the late 20th century makes Cuba seem neither measurably more nor less enlightened than most other societies.

Happily, the new century has brought sometimes rapid change in many nations, and the premise of Mariela Castro’s March is that Cuba too has awoken.

Activists see the Cuban flag and the rainbow flag as wholly compatible.
Activists see the Cuban flag and the rainbow flag as wholly compatible.

The surface evidence does sound promising, from open LGBTQ rallies, parades and celebrations to Mariela’s own public crusade.

What’s lacking is evidence that the government has embraced or encouraged these changes. It may not be sending suspected gay men to labor camps any more, but if there has been any official shift in policy, starting with Mariela’s powerful father, we don’t hear about it here.

It’s hard to believe, in fact, that Cuban society doesn’t still harbor some of the irrational fear and loathing that have plagued the LGBTQ community in much of the world.

If that’s the case, it’s downplayed here, perhaps because Mariela’s effort seems so tireless and hopeful that the filmmakers prefer to accentuate the positive.

It is, in truth, impossible not to admire her. She mixes deep passion and at times indignation with a disarming tone of conciliation, and she forcefully links the cause of LGBTQ equality with the higher human aspirations of the Cuban revolution.

Pride parade in Cuba.
Pride parade in Cuba.

She could have found easier causes, and she chose this one. However far she has pushed it, things are better for her efforts.

Mariela Castro’s March follows an 8 p.m. ET documentary on Cuba titled Patria o Muerte: Cuba, meaning Fatherland or Death. Obviously filmed before this weekend’s death of Mariela’s uncle Fidel, Patria o Muerte talks about the evolution under way on the island today, both in attitude and policy.

You have the feeling that the success or failure of Mariela’s crusade will reflect in an important way how deep the changes run elsewhere.

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