Waiting for a revolution: Tackling homophobia in Cuba and beyond

Ed note: This is a guest post by Kelly Castagnaro, Communications Director at the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region (IPPF/WHR).

Only days before today, the International Day against Homophobia, a Russian man was beaten, mutilated, and murdered after revealing he was gay to two strangers.  His death reminded me of the many other deaths and injustices that occur on a daily basis, the harsh discrimination that people endure on the basis of who they choose to love, and the fact that homosexuality was only removed from the list of mental illnesses by the World Health Organization in 1990.  Most of all, the murder was a call to action, a reminder of the need to continue fighting until every individual has the freedom to live free of discrimination and violence.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the staunchest fighters in the fight for LGBT rights:  Cuban President Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro.  As Director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education and President of the Multidisciplinary Centre for the Study of Sexuality, Castro has gained international attention for her leadership in promoting LGBT rights in Cuba, a country that decriminalized homosexuality in 1979 and saw a public apology from Fidel Castro for the Revolution’s treatment of gays only three years ago.

Today, thanks to Mariela’s leadership, Cuba has one of the most progressive comprehensive sexuality education programs in the world, transgender individuals receive sex reassignment surgery free-of-charge, and each May, the streets of Havana are packed with gay pride celebrations and marches for equality.

Castro showed a video of these marches.  Interspersed between celebratory images of drag performances and marches along Havana’s legendary waterfront, man-on-the-street interviews illustrated that there is still more to be done to counter homophobia.  While some interviewed were supportive of the right of the LGBT community to mobilize, others were not:  “It is something like a plague,” said one man.  “They [LGBT individuals] have become a plague.”  Another man called the month-long pride celebration “disrespectful.”

According to Castro, homophobia is no different than discrimination against women or people of color.  “When you go deeper into all the stories of discrimination you realize in the end, they all have the same origin:  they are made up of ideas created to facilitate power relations, domination policies that have branded human relations throughout history. For example, one person can be discriminated against for being a lesbian and also being a woman.  She can also be discriminated against for being black, for being small and not tall, for being handicapped or poor.  It all depends on what terrible idea dominates the society they live in—therefore, we cannot act in isolation.”

The lessons Castro learned from other social justice movements—mainly the Cuban Revolution and the women’s rights movement—have influenced her advocacy tactics.  “The biggest credit should go to my mother, who, in the sixties, was able to talk and discuss these matters with Fidel, my father and other colleagues.  She was able to convince a lot of people, especially on women’s rights.”

Acknowledging that rhetoric—and a desire to do right—is not always enough, Castro has also invested time and resources in building alliances to conduct scientific research to back up their calls for change.  This lesson she credits to her father, who has often told her “’ I am convinced.  You do not need to convince me any further.  You need to convince the others.’”  Right now, Castro says, she is continuing to push the dialogue on gay rights forward in Cuba.  And while gay marriage isn’t yet on the table, Castro states that Cubans have moved forward in recognizing rights within same sex consensual relationships so as to talk about marriage later on.

“What makes me passionate about [gay rights] is that I cannot stand injustice,” said Castro.  “As a child, I saw it, the spirit of the revolution, to fight against all forms of injustice.  There are many more who feel this way.  It provokes us to look for ways to confront [injustice] in intelligent ways.  It cannot be with anger; it has to be with intelligence.  This is what we have learned from life and our history.  This is what motivates us.”

Today, whether we live in small town America, the bustling city of Kampala or Volgograd,  it is the responsibility of every single one of us to stand up against homophobia; to follow Mariela’s lead and create our own small and quiet revolutions for equal justice, equal opportunity, and dignity for all.

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