By Irina Echarry, photos: Caridad
HAVANA TIMES, May 19 – Havana’s 23rd Street was a grand fiesta on Saturday as people of all ages and sexual orientations formed a winding conga line that extended to Pavilion Cuba, the place where Sexual Diversity Day was formally initiated. Havana Times was on the scene to listen to speakers, capture photos, and talk with several participants.
In her opening words, Sexual Education Center (CENESEX) director Mariela Castro Espin noted, “This it is not a gay pride march, that’s not our intention at this time. In reality, we’re identifying with a proposal made by a French activist to designate a World Day against Homophobia. Gays are not a problem, the problem is homophobia!”
CENESEX-supported by other institutions across the country-encouraged discussion and reflection within families about sexual diversity on Saturday the day before the World Day on May 17, said Mariela.
The aim was not to question the family structure that predominates in Cuban society, but to consider other forms, which people are less accustomed to, but are part of the country’s reality. Lesbians, gays, transsexuals and their families all had their chance to speak and exchange experiences-some bitter, others buoyant.
Thanks to educational campaigns such as this, the issue of homophobia is being addressed at some levels, though generally Cuban society continues to be homophobic.
During the first years of the Cuban Revolution, homosexuality was harshly repressed. There are countless stories about incidents occurring in forced internment centers. Felix Luis Sierra’s book, El ciervo herido (The Wounded Deer), is only one example of the ordeal of someone who was in the Military Production Support Units: forced labor camps set up in the 1960s in Camagüey Province, where homosexuals and believers of different religions were taken, along with other “anti-social elements.” A harrowing book, the work reveals testimonies of intolerance and hatred.
That’s homophobia: a feeling that repels people from gays, who are viewed as a threat. Typically, Cuban society does not recognize homosexuals, and when it does, it is through usually negative stereotypes. Little tolerance is shown for erotic homosexual relationships, jokes are made in bad taste, and they are pointed out and accused of anything.
The cost of this disparity remains high in this 21st century era of post-modernity. It continues to be paid when some intellectuals and artists undertake work aimed at introducing us to themes of sexual diversity, or as current fashions favor the influence of one sex over another in terms of styles of dress or hairstyles. Discrimination continues to reign supreme.
Day-to-day anecdotes are abundant, from people recounting stories about a group of women harassed by policemen at the beach, or nighttime soap operas that caricature gays, putting them on public display to be judged for their “immoral behavior.” These shows imply that HIV is a punishment for being gay, as their poorly focused characters become recorded in the public’s minds.
Homophobia is not limited to one strata of society. There are professionals who hate homosexuals because they “go against nature.” These individuals recognize that gays are the same as other human beings, but also that they are “misguided.” So what’s to expect from people who are less educated?
Prisoners of Fear
Where does a female teen go who begins to feel something strange for her female math teacher, despite knowing that this is “not normal”? What does a young gay or lesbian person do who hates military life and is surrounded by people who constantly humiliate them? Where does a person go who is kicked out of their house by their own family? There are many questions and few answers.
Many times people who feel attraction for their same sex repress their feelings so as not to be mistreated. Prisoners of fear, they are denied the right to love and be loved freely.
Jackeline is lesbian, though few people know it. She has not been very lucky in her love life, she is afraid of being ostracized. “My position is quite healthy with respect to others. I’ve tried to follow the canons that society imposes, to not complicate my life. Seeing the situations of my friends, I believe that it’s better like that way. I believe discrimination continues. It’s contradictory, but the more people learn that homosexuals are asking for social recognition, the more they reject them; it should be the other way around, but that’s how it is.
“I don’t want that to happen to me. Despite these campaigns, there’s no change taking place. I come here and see people applauding. I recognize myself in those who speak and say with pride that they’re gay or lesbian, but then I think it through, and I realize that this isn’t going to work. It’s going to be a long time before we see any progress.”
The lesbian group Fenix from Cienfuegos Province doesn’t think the same way. They have a place at what’s called the Health Palace in their city where they meet to give and receive seminars on the inclusion of homosexuals in the active life of society as they work to seek greater acceptance. Vivian and Miyita told HT: “We’re doing a study on lesbophobia, which consists of socializing lesbians with the family, and vice versa. The objective of the initiative is to ensure that society understands that the woman has always been the matriarch of the family, whether or not she has children or is married or divorced.
“We see the woman as a primordial link in society, from the creative point of view, as a creator, incorporating society, independent of her sexual orientation. Our families have come all the way from Cienfuegos to give support today. In a past we had problems with heterosexuals, now there’s a bit more understanding. We are advancing little by little, step by step.”
Twenty-five years in an undesirable marriage
A moving testimony was given by Amparo, a resident from a town in Pinar del Río Province who was obligated to marry a man she didn’t love. She was a member of the Catholic Church, almost the right hand of the town’s parish priest. She had had “that feeling” for a long time, but it was repressed by her parents, who were much older and did not understand anything.
“They forced me to marry when they saw something different in me. In a rural community, everything is more complicated. I was married for 25 years, and I suffered a great deal. The only good thing from that time are my two children. Then came a person who made me realize my sexual orientation; we fell in love and I decided to break with everything.
“My parents had already died. I understood that this was the moment to give myself a chance. At what other time was I going to do it? I had waited long enough. I thought about myself for the first time in my life, and I acted. I was ostracized by the church, but I knew that would happen. I dropped out on my own, I stopped going to communion. I believe in God; God is love, and I think that if I feel love for a person, even though they are of my same sex, then God is still there.
“But that goes against the commandments of the church, and people put us down a lot. They say it’s not right if a woman loves another woman, and she feels sexual desire for her. I advise all people who have that type of feeling in their heart that they not hesitate for anybody. Life is yours and there’s only one. There’s no reason to waste it for the sake of being accepted, people will always talk. I worried about my children a great deal, but they are wonderful, they’re mine.
“No one can take away my being a mother, on the contrary. My older child is now 24, and he is very loving with my current partner, he very respectful. My daughter is 13 and is my best friend. They accept me because I’m their mom. Like I say, when there’s love everything flows. They love me as a mother, as a woman, as Amparo.
“The sexual relationship is something that’s yours; you don’t have to share it with anybody. It’s like when somebody prefers a certain flavor of ice cream; why would you take the flavor that somebody else wants? I suffered a lot when I made my decision; I broke a lot of chains, but my children supported me, as did my partner back then. I finally overcame it all, and today I’m a happy woman. At my job I’ve been accepted as a human being, and that’s the fundamental thing.”
Many Homosexuals Face Cruelness
The life of homosexual people in Cuba is not rose-colored; they have to face prejudices, dogma, labels, hate and machismo.
Raydel, a 40-year-old professional, talked about his experience as a person who is gay: “I went to eat with my partner and we were stopped up by the police more than five times in less than 15 minutes, each asking us for our IDs. They dealt with us badly, even though we were not in a gay place or dressed in women’s clothes. They looked at us as if we were robbers or murder suspects.
“Bad behavior exists among all social groups. Once I was held an entire night for riding on a bike with my partner. And then when you’re in jail they’ll accuse you of anything; they can say that you were in a park naked having sex openly with another person, or they’ll say that there is a law against you, against male prostitution. It’s your word against theirs. The police of the Ministry of the Interior do not wear badges, so you can’t identify them or accuse them. Without proof, you can’t do anything. When they want to, they can destroy you and screw up your life.”
Injustice Goes Unanswered
This information doesn’t come out in the press; there is no coverage about the injustices committed. It is difficult to sensitize a population that doesn’t know that these persons suffer or what they must endure. Gays are often rounded up; the truck arrives and takes them away even though they have not done anything. These are only stories that circulate by word of mouth and don’t make it to higher-ups, to people who could do something to improve the situation.
Homophobia among police, soldiers and officials is a thorny issue. Groups like Cenesex have been trying to sensitize them but it’s a difficult slow process. There is no stipulation in Cuban law against someone dressing in the clothes of another sex, nor is it illegal to express one’s homosexual orientation openly, the 1997 criminal code modified a previous article. What the police do stems from their own prejudices, from their macho perceptions that have failed to change.
In the ongoing campaign “Diversity is Natural,” focus is being placed on university students, those who will one day be able to change the thinking of society. The drive is also appealing to the family as the fundamental base for the creation of values, feelings, and principles among the next generation.
According to Mariela Castro, “An effort is being made from the grassroots. You cannot go directly to the army and impose measures on those who are not prepared. If through educational campaigns it is possible to influence the family, subsequently soldiers, officials, and police officers who are a part of Cuban life will also change, and they themselves will introduce transformations in military institutions.”
To affect change we must continue working for people’s mutual respect in all spaces. We must work for harmony between people, and especially not forget that there are human beings who discriminate and are discriminated against, those that humiliate and those humiliated. There are people who accept or don’t accept their neighbor. Homophobia is a wrong that can be eradicated, although it will take time, tenacity and persistence.
It is a complicated matter, but not impossible.
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