“I got that cold, helpless feeling in my chest,” recalls Mariela Castro Espín in an anecdote which reveals – and I would even go as far as saying perfectly conveys – why and how one of Cuban society’s many struggles began.
Mariela, who holds a PhD in Sociology and is director of the National Center for Sex Education (Cenesex), spoke about how much work has been done to arrive at the 9th edition of the Cuban Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, and her unwavering commitment to defending justice.
Castro Espín noted that Cenesex organized the first edition in 2007, when, “We marched from Cenesex to 23 and 12, myself and a group of transsexual people. I was the smallest, all the rest were so big and tall and wearing heels,” noting that this was one of her most important professional experiences.
”The aggressive looks and comments from the people made me feel personally afraid. No one was violent as such, but you could hear unpleasant judgmental comments, people looking surprised but also irritated. I said to myself: I hope it doesn’t go beyond this. And it didn’t go any further than feeling that sense of disapproval. It wasn’t overt violence, but the energy of the people we passed along the way was charged with a strong sense of rejection,” she stated.
Once at the cinema, people who had specifically come to watch the film, Boys Don’t Cry and discuss it, arrived. “They didn’t even know why we were discussing the film, but it was very interesting because that day we received feedback from the public themselves, who told us that it was a good thing we had organized the event, because if not, they never would have learned about these issues and the need to work on them. This first time confirmed it.”
From that moment Cenesex began to formally establish links with the government, Party, Ministry of Public Health, National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, and the Federation of Cuban Women, in order to continue over all these years, what has now become not only a single day of commemoration, but a series of events against homophobia and transphobia.
SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS AND TRANFORMATION
Progress made as a country in regards to transforming public policy, people’s opinions and ideas around the LGBTI (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual intersex) community, was one of the key issues addressed by the expert, while speaking to Granma.
“We must start by overcoming society’s stereotypical view of LGBTI people, its belief that they only want recognition. The issue goes beyond that, it extends to the sphere of respect and guaranteeing these people their rights.
“Over the last 10 years, I have noticed - and as some studies, investigations, Master’s thesis and doctorates have also confirmed - significant progress in regards to public policy. The social policy of the 1959 Revolution went about laying important foundations in this sense; even in regards to legislation such as the 1959 revolutionary law which established that both men and women receive equal pay for equal work. This was a big step forward, and a struggle which continues to be fought in the developed world,” stated Dr. Castro Espín.
Since then, she notes, great progress has been made in the area of human, women’s, farmer’s, children’s and young people’s rights, with measures geared toward elderly people given the country’s ageing population, currently being implemented.
“All the country’s public policies establish general and important bases from which to then identify new challenges. Emerging from these new challenges was the need to focus on a pending issue in Revolutionary policy - comprehensive action to tackle the issue of transsexual people.”
The expert recalls, “From this basis we took experiences which enabled us to later present our ideas aimed at promoting respect for freedom of sexual orientation and gender identity. And when I talk about freedom, I am talking about the idea of freedom as expressed by renowned intellectual Juan Marinello, which he described as a great responsibility.”
According to Mariela, although transsexual people have been incorporated into institutional policy since 1979, some areas remain to be addressed, which led to a change in strategy: “How, from a policy perspective, to address all the problems and shortcomings of Cuban society with regard to the rights of these diverse people, who are also part of the prism of human existence, continued to be an issue.
“This is what we worked on, and in 2007, bearing in mind that in 2005 the French-Caribbean activist Louis George-Tin had proposed celebrating International Day Against Homophobia on May 17, but despite this we looked to do something original which fit with the characteristics and sensitivity of our people: the struggle for social justice, and that’s how the Cuban Day against Homophobia and Transphobia was born.
“Why social justice? Well, because it is one of the principles and values established by the Cuban Revolution and not just that, but also owing to our liberation struggles that began with Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. This is the main tool in our work.”
Hence, she notes, the vital need to continue educating the population in the importance of making greater headway in these issues, repeating that “social justice…still hasn’t been completely resolved, nor have the mechanisms been created, or laws, judicial, legal and regulatory bases sufficiently developed to guarantee these people their rights.”
According to Castro Espín it is important to understand “as citizens that, although these people enjoy certain rights, we still need to ensure other elements regarding their sexual orientation and gender identity – areas in which we have gradually been making ground.”
She highlighted that Cuba has been recognized for the progress it has made in its social policy. “What has been highlighted to us in the international sphere in regards to sexual rights has been that we must make more progress at a legislative level.
“The Central Report of the 7th Party Congress noted that even the implementation of Guidelines was delayed by a slow legislative response which should be supporting the process. The fact that this issue is included in the report is proof that it is a challenge which is specifically being addressed,” stated Castro Espín.
“I was able to see, in the Congress itself, how one of the main challenges is to create mechanisms for the effective functioning of a society in transition to socialism. It’s a complicated and extremely difficult issue, which demands both creativity and inter-institutional articulation. The Party has shown itself to be at the vanguard, a position it has maintained in many issues where it has been the driving force of the Revolution. However, sometimes not all issues were addressed in Party policy. This 7th Congress fully acknowledged non-discrimination as one of its key objectives, specifically in regards to combating prejudices and discriminatory attitudes based on a variety of reasons, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
“This shows an important advance in policy and one which is reflected in the law, and continues to follow the route charted at the First PCC Conference, where this issue was also included,” she emphasized.
Of course, this document will be submitted to popular debate, but we are aware of the fact that there are more and more people, both heterosexual and LGBTI activists, participating in these processes and will defend this cause.
According to Castro Espín, there is a key element to this consciousness building process – inclusiveness. In this regard, she highlighted that Cenesex is focusing its efforts on developing ideas around ways to improve policy, as well as organizing concrete actions linked to, for example, the National Sexual Health and Education Program, a vital tool in the process of integration, which works toward preventing segmentation and social exclusion.
“We have made a great deal of progress in the last five years in regards to modifying and up-dating the program, done through various workshops with the support of the United Nations Population Fund and the use of participatory methodologies with representatives from the program’s most committed state and civil society organizations,” she noted.
In this regard she mentioned the ministries of Education, Higher Education, Public Health, and Labor and Social Security, among others, and noted that the response from the majority of institutions involved has been positive.
Speaking about the 9th Cuban Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, Castro Espín explained that this year’s event is dedicated for a second time to demanding homophobia and transphobia free work spaces. She highlighted that Cenesex’s work is primarily focused on the family and workplace environments where, through its legal advice services, key vulnerabilities have been identified. The institution’s previous strategy was solely aimed at the family, she noted, emphasizing however, that current efforts have contributed to strengthening links with the Cuban Workers’ Federation.
TWO ACTS OF JUSITCE
“It is a happy coincidence that on May 17, 1959 the Comandante en Jefe signed the First Agrarian Reform Law, one of the Revolution’s first acts of social justice; and also that on this day in 1990, the World Health Organization de-pathologized homosexuality. This was a very significant event because the pathologization of homosexuality had been identified as one of the main causes of rejection, stigma and discrimination toward homosexual and transsexual peoples in social perception studies conducted in various countries.” stated Mariela.
We must remember, she stressed, that pathologizing homosexuality was an act of exerting power over others. “Its one thing to recognize the existence of an illness in order to ensure treatment for the public, and another to turn it into something which harms, belittles and stigmatizes people.”
However, for Dr. Mariela Castro, despite this transcendental act, de-pathologizing homosexuality wasn’t enough, thus she considers the idea to commemorate May 17, a positive action which ensures the issue remains visible, people learn about it and that this act of social justice is recognized.
“In the same way activities are held to celebrate other historic dates, the same way we must celebrate National Farmer’s Day with all our energy and joy, in order to educate the new generation about the importance of this law, and what it means to farmers in Cuba’s revolutionary process; we must also celebrate International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
“They are two acts of justice which share the same date. The advances made by the Revolution in regards to farmers’ rights are extremely important, in the same way the Revolution is working on developing policies in the field of social justice and equality with regard to sexual rights, including respect for freedom of sexual orientation and gender identity,” stated the expert.