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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.

Cuba's gay rights revolution

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


Angeli Carmen Bravo
(Megan Sweas/GlobalPost)

Angeli Carmen Bravo was one of the first people to take advantage of this opportunity. "I owe a lot to CENESEX because my life changed completely," she says, sitting behind the center's front desk in a tight white tank top that shows off her cleavage.

Carmen Bravo picks up the phone with pink, manicured nails. Her low voice hints at her sex change from male to female.

She is thankful not only for the physical changes, but also for the social gains. Thanks to Mariela, she says, she was able to add the "i" to her first name, legally changing it from Angel to Angeli.

She feels accepted as a straight female and integrated socially at work. Though CENESEX is undoubtedly welcoming, it has a team of lawyers to represent LGBT clients in cases of workplace discrimination.

CENESEX also has implemented sexual education and gender-neutral games in Cuban schools. Carmen Bravo hopes such programs will change future generations' attitudes toward sexuality away from the "blue is for boys, pink is for girls" culture that she grew up with.

The resources, programs and legal developments created by CENESEX show that the Cuban political system can change. "We are opening a new stage in our development," says Olga Fernández Ríos, who studies Cuban politics at the University of Havana.

Economic reforms have taken precedence, she says, and Raul Castro has talked of making the Communist Party more democratic to ensure that it reflects the will of the Cuban people.

Whether economic, political or social, though, the reforms are designed to preserve socialism in Cuba. Critics, therefore, say the changes are merely "cosmetic."

"It is necessary to maintain some achievements of the Cuban Revolution," Fernández Ríos says, naming social justice among the top priorities. Change requires "high levels of consensus" among the Cuban people, she adds. "We need to improve participation."

Government control

When Cubans talk about the participation in civic life, though, they understand civil society to be part of the government. The only sanctioned channel for fighting for LGBT rights is CENESEX, which is part of the ministry of public health.

Amnesty International reports that that outside CENESEX, gay activists "face repression, intimidation and harassment when trying to peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly," says Gerardo Ducos, a researcher on the Caribbean region.

"The problems the members of these groups face are not necessarily linked to their sexual orientation or identity but to the fact that the Cuban government doesn't allow independent organizations (outside government control) to thrive, to register and operate legally," he says.

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Niurka said she is fine working within a government organization. She's part of a lesbian group that has met weekly at CENESEX headquarters in Havana since 2004.

"As a whole, we want to fight discrimination but each of us is here for our own personal reasons," Niurka says, sitting on CENESEX's porch with three other members of the group and a counselor.

Women attend the meetings to learn about mental and physical health issues. They have been trained to promote sexual health in their communities. The group also helps them build self-esteem.

(Megan Sweas/GlobalPost)

Niurka has never lacked confidence, she says, but she joined the group as soon as it formed because just by participating she would be promoting change.

"I was interested in adding my grain of sand to this fight," she says. "I'm not the only one who is going to benefit but all the lesbian women of Cuba."

Patricia Arenas, a retired counselor and consultant with CENESEX, has been helping the lesbian group determine how they can best work toward its goal of fighting homophobia in Cuban culture.

The group has discussed fund-raising and leadership, but the process is more important than the conclusions, Arenas says. Neither she nor any government officials are telling them how to run their group, but rather they are shaping it themselves.

Outsiders' criticism of the lack of freedom on the island misses the mark, she says.

"We are not a perfect society. We have a lot of problems, but generally they are different than what is identified. I prefer the problems of my own society to the problems of other countries."

Niurka agrees. Though she's had insults yelled at her on the street, she doesn't worry about hate crimes as LGBT people in other Latin American countries must, she says.

Her friend Deisy chimes in from across the porch, sharing her reason for hope. "If discrimination were inherent in society, centers like this wouldn't exist," she says.

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