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From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.

Mariela Castro march Havana
Cuban director of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENSEX) Mariela Castro (2nd-L), daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, leads a march agaisnt homophobia on May 14, 2011 in Havana. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Cuba's gay rights revolution

President Raul Castro's daughter Mariela leads a movement for LGBT tolerance, but critics say it masks government oppression.

HAVANA, Cuba — Niurka says she is "halfway out of the closet" as a lesbian in Cuban society. She doesn't talk about her sexuality in public, and she's thankful nobody asks at work. But with her curly cropped hair and more masculine dress — most notably gym shoes on an island where most women prefer sandals — she says she can't conceal it.

On the streets of Havana, people sometimes call her "tortillera," she says, at first just mouthing the prerogative Cuban Spanish term for a lesbian. Niurka repeats the word in a whisper, leaning across the institutional waiting room chairs so that nobody else can hear her on the broad, airy porch at the Cuban National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX).

CENESEX, a government-funded institution founded in 1989, made headlines in the United States last month when Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro and director of the center, met with American gay rights activists and chaired a panel on sexual diversity at an academic conference in San Francisco. The visit drew criticism from several US leaders, including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who called Castro "a vociferous advocate of the regime and an opponent of democracy."

“If we don’t change our patriarchal and homophobic culture…we cannot advance as a new society, and that’s what we want, the power of emancipation through socialism,” Mariela Castro said. “We will establish relationships on the basis of social justice and social equality...It seems like a utopia, but we can change it.”

The Cuban government now touts its record on LGBT rights, including the governing Communist Party’s endorsement of an International Day Against Homophobia march last month, but its history bears many wounds for gay Cubans. For years following the successful socialist overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, homosexuals were imprisoned for “re-education,” branded traitors who didn’t fit Che Guevara’s definition of the “new man” who would move the country forward.

“I was interested in adding my grain of sand to this fight.”
~Niurka, CENESEX participant

"The object was to make adequate this 'new man,'' said Lázaro Hernández, a psychiatrist at CENESEX.

Official persecution ended in the mid-1970s, and Fidel Castro ultimately took personal responsibility for the revolution's treatment of gays in a 2010 interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. Homosexual acts were decriminalized in 1979, but homophobia remains common in Cuba. 

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At the same time, Cubans who fled the island for the US argue that Castro's support for gay rights is disingenuous. Her visit to the US served as a public relations trip, they said, making Cuba look progressive even as the government denies its citizens basic rights.

"For Mariela Castro, or anybody else under the Castro dictatorship, to say they are representing the rights of anyone is an insult to the hundreds of thousands who have either been killed, jailed or assassinated by their own hands, or the nearly 100,000 people who’ve jumped into the ocean looking for freedom who haven’t made it here," Herb Sosa, executive director of Unity Coalition, a Miami-based Hispanic gay rights group, told the Miami Herald.

Culture shift

Despite criticism from the Cuban community in the US, CENESEX aims to change Cuban culture through government policies and citizen participation. As such, the Castros’ efforts on gay rights offer a peek into how Cuba may be changing.

Mariela Castro says she's continuing the work of her mother, Vilma Espín, a feminist revolutionary who started the Federation of Cuban Women. Espín, who passed away in 2007, wanted Cuba to legalize gay marriage.

Today, CENESEX is pushing for civil unions. While Castro says this is a compromise, other Cuban activists say they do not want "matrimonio" because the term is sexist, rooted in motherhood.

Hernández says a bill legalizing civil unions will pass "very soon," but Lourdes Fernández Rius, who studies family life at the University of Havana, is less optimistic. "The Cuban government is focused on many other problems that are very urgent, especially the changes to the economic sectors," she says, but homophobia also hinders legislation.

Mariela Castro successfully fought opposition based in economics and homophobia when she convinced the government to cover sex reassignment surgeries under Cuba's universal health care system in 2008. A limited number are performed each year due to the surgery's high cost.

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