Santa Clara, Cuba — As summer kicks off on this communist island, tall transvestites in short sparkling dresses and high heels line up at El Mejunje nightclub, a ruined hotel that turns into a sanctuary on Saturdays for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders.
Some patrons start shaking their hips to the beat of American hip-hop, but this is not the vibrant and multicultural capital of Havana. This is edgy Santa Clara, a small Cuban city known for its shrine to Che Guevara, the revolutionary hero who captured this town in 1958.
This is also the town where Cuba hosts its only official drag show and beauty pageant known as Miss Transvestite, every March.
Yuri Herrera, 24, a gay hairdresser in Santa Clara, brushes his eyelashes with his finger before entering the club.
“Although Cuba is a macho society, people don’t bother me because most of them accept us,” he said. “Things have changed quite a lot here in Cuba and there’s just a minority of machos, but we don’t mix up.”
Cuba has provided gender reassignment surgery for free since 2008. The Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), a government-funded institution, selects candidates for the procedure.
Cuba is also considering legalizing same-sex marriage? in this predominantly Catholic region where only four nations already do. The LGBT minority on the Caribbean island has increased its visibility by participating in international events, such as Gay Pride and the International Day Against Homophobia.
Another sign that Cuba is tolerant of gay lifestyles as it resumes diplomatic relations with the United States: The island nation’s first gay choir, Mano a Mano, is currently on a cross-country U.S. tour.
The existence of an LGBT-friendly nightclub in rural Cuba shows how far the country has come since the early days of Fidel Castro’s revolution. In the 1960s, guerrilla fighters sent gay people to labor camps for “re-education,” and HIV-positive gays were quarantined. Until 1979, homosexual acts were still classified as a crime.
But things have changed dramatically since then. Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, began publicly discussing HIV-prevention and openly pointed the finger at Cuba’s “patriarchal and homophobic culture.” She led a battle to include gender reassignment surgery in the nation’s free health system, which became law in 2008.
Castro, now the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), a government-funded institution that selects candidates for the procedures, won the Equality Forum’s International Ally for LGBT Equality Award in Philadelphia.
By 2010, even Fidel Castro conceded that his government had committed “a great injustice” to the LGBT community in its early years.
Cuba prides itself in having the lowest HIV rate, according to 2015 figures of UNAIDS. The World Health Organization found last year that Cuba was the first nation to eradicate mother-to-child HIV transmission.
In Havana, the corner of the Malecón seaside esplanade and busy Calle 23 has become a nighttime rendezvous for the LGBT community, as bars and clubs have taken root over the past several years.
About 100 yards from Cuba’s Foreign Trade Ministry, a large crowd waits outside
Policemen witness the scene, holding dogs.
“The first day of school, I stood in front of my classmates and told them I was a transvestite. They were speechless,” recalled Daniela Gonzalez, 18, a first-year university marketing student who has been on the CENESEX’s waiting list for a year to get a gender-reassignment surgery.
For six months, she consulted with a psychologist to prove she really wanted to change genders.
“This (surgery) has been a spectacular political change because we don’t pay a cent,” Gonzalez said.
Having crowds flock to the club across the street from state-owned Radio Progreso “feels like a provocation,” after years of brutality against the LGBT community, said Junio Machado, 24, a telecommunications employee.
Although Cuba has granted more gay rights, there is still discrimination and intolerance. Criminal law states that “publicly manifested” gay attitudes are punishable with a jail sentence of three months to one year. And a person can be fined too for “persistently bothering others with homosexual amorous advances.”
“Cuba’s revolution removed the institutional base of homophobia but mentalities have not always followed,” said Diego Romero, 54, a heterosexual resident of Havana.
“When I walk in the street, men sometimes bother me and call me ‘pajaro’ and ‘maricon’ (derogatory Spanish words for gay),” said Hendrika Posper, 17, an unemployed transsexual.
“??I think we must focus on issues like employment-related discriminatory policies, jokes the mass media make, the ban on gays working for public institutions, access to medical treatment for HIV-positives and sufferers of other sexual diseases among other priorities,” said Nuria Barbosa León, a local journalist at Granma International, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party.
The reality is that many transgender people work as prostitutes.
“This is what most transsexual women do as a job in this country … because of homophobia,” said Natalie Obregon, 25, a prostitute standing on the thronged Malecón esplanade on a Sunday night. She dropped out of school when she was 14.
Obregon used to be a hospital nurse but could not stand wearing men’s clothes. She got fired the day she showed up in female clothes. Obregon praises Mariela Castro’s work to help realize her own identity. “I was sure I was a homosexual for many years and then found out I was transsexual, thanks to the information provided by the CENESEX,” she said.
by Kamilia Lahrichi, Special for USA Today
Source – USA Today