Cuba’s Gay Rights Evolution

In Cuba, street marches have historically been government-orchestrated events or dissident protests that are swiftly crushed by the authorities. So it was downright startling when, in May 2007, Fidel Castro’s niece sauntered down the street with a small army of drag queens waving gay pride flags.

Long before the Obama administration announced a dramatic shift in Cuba policy on Wednesday, asserting that isolating the island had failed, a couple of Western governments with close ties to the United States saw the potential to help gay Cubans, even though it meant working with a prominent member of the Castro family. Havana’s first observance of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia marked the beginning of a remarkable evolution of gay rights in the most populous country in the Caribbean, a region where hostile attitudes toward sexual minorities remain the norm.

Mariela Castro, the daughter of the current president, Raúl Castro, has led the charge on legislative and societal changes that have given rise to an increasingly visible and empowered community. In the process, she has carved out a rare space for civil society in an authoritarian country where grass-roots movements rarely succeed. Some Western diplomats in Havana have seen the progress on gay rights as a potential blueprint for expansion of other personal freedoms in one of the most oppressed societies on earth.

Norway and Belgium have financially supported Ms. Castro’s organization, the National Center for Sexual Education, offering a test of the merits of supporting certain policies of a government that the United States and European capitals have largely shunned because of its bleak human rights record. As the Obama administration begins carrying out its new Cuba policy, it should draw lessons from the impact others have had by engaging.

“It’s fine to criticize, but you also have to acknowledge that they’ve done good,” said John Petter Opdahl, Norway’s ambassador to Cuba, in a recent interview. Mr. Opdahl, who is gay, said his government gave Ms. Castro’s organization $230,000 over the last two years. “She has taken off a lot of the stigma for most people in the country, and she has made life so much better for so many gay people, not only in Havana but in the provinces.”

Fidel Castro’s government ostracized sexual minorities during the 1960s and 1970s, sending some people to labor camps. The brutal treatment of gay men was poignantly chronicled by the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who was jailed in 1974 for literary works the authorities deemed an “ideological deviation.” His autobiography, “Before Night Falls,” a critically acclaimed book that was made into a movie, is perhaps the most authoritative testimony of a particularly dark chapter of Cuban history.

Ms. Castro said she and her mother, Vilma Espín, for years quietly pressed the Castro brothers to soften their attitude toward sexual minorities. A decade ago, Cuba’s gay community was no longer as persecuted, but it nonetheless operated in the shadows. Ms. Castro, a member of Cuba’s National Assembly, opted to take on the issue.

After the 2007 march, Ms. Castro, who is straight, began a public campaign to promote tolerance. She persuaded the government in recent years to offer state-paid gender reassignment surgery and hormone treatment for transgender people. Last year, when the Assembly passed a labor code that protected gays and lesbians — but not transgender people — from discrimination in the workplace, Ms. Castro became the first lawmaker in Cuban history to cast a dissenting vote in protest. Her ultimate goal, she said, was codifying full equality under the law.

Gay Cubans say that discrimination remains a problem, particularly outside big cities. Still, last year, a woman in Caribién, a municipality east of Havana, became the country’s first transgender elected official. At the urging of Ms. Castro and gay bloggers, in 2010 Cuba began voting in favor of resolutions supporting gay rights at the United Nations, breaking ranks with allies in Africa and the Caribbean.

While widely admired, Ms. Castro and her state-run organization are not without critics in Cuba’s gay community. In 2011, Yasmín Portales Machado, a gay rights activist, decided to start a new group called Proyecto Arco Iris, or Rainbow, feeling it was necessary to have a platform for other voices and ideas.

In 2012, on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Arco Iris convened a public kissing meet-up to promote diversity and equality. Hours before it began, a security official called Ms. Machado. Next time, he asked, please pick a venue in a part of Havana that isn’t close to sensitive government buildings. The kissing event was a success. The call “was a gay-friendly gesture from state security,” she said, laughing.

The Obama administration has spent millions of dollars promoting gay rights around the world and has made the issue a diplomatic priority. In the Dominican Republic, Washington took a bold stance last year when officials appeared unwilling to accept Wally Brewster, the openly gay entrepreneur President Obama nominated as ambassador. The State Department warned Santo Domingo that if it turned Mr. Brewster down, the country would find itself without an American envoy for a long time.

When Dominican officials acquiesced, they asked that Mr. Brewster be discreet about his sexual orientation. American officials responded that he, like all ambassadors in the region, would be expected to champion gay rights. To make the point, the State Department released a video of Mr. Brewster and his partner expressing their enthusiasm for the new job.

By contrast, American officials have had few opportunities to support Cuba’s gay rights evolution and have been conflicted on how to handle Ms. Castro. When the Philadelphia-based Equality Forum nominated her for an award last year, American officials initially said they would not give her a visa. After the group protested, they relented.

Ms. Machado said most gay rights activists on the island have not accepted support from Washington because its policy toward Cuba was predicated on regime change. “While the United States is the enemy of our state, we can’t work with them,” she said recently in an interview in Havana. “Any support you receive makes you a traitor.”

That entrenched view has stymied American efforts to promote things such as freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. President Obama’s changed policy will make engagement with Americans more palatable.

Correction: December 21, 2014
An earlier version of this editorial referred incorrectly to Cuba as the most populous island in the Caribbean. It is the most populous country.

by The Editorial Board
Source – The New York Times