Updated: Oct 1, 2018
Director of CENESEX, Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana, Cuba
Cuba has become more progressive when it comes to social issues than one might realize. Its newest revolutionary of social and political reform centers around issues of equal rights for the island’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community.
At the forefront of the fight on the behalf of the LGBT community is Mariela Castro-Espín, niece of Fidel Castro and daughter of Cuba’s former president, Raul Castro. The married mother of three, Castro-Espín is the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) in Havana. Since 2005, CENESEX has been educating and campaigning for LGBT rights, HIV/AIDS prevention, gender equality and women's issues in Cuba. In the first of its kind in Latin-America, today, Cuba's medical service provides free sex-change operations for its transgender community.
With Castro-Espín at the helm, Cuba’s GLBT community has made tremendous strides in the last half-decade in terms of visibility, awareness and acceptance. The country now hosts an annual International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO).The action-packed month-long event includes symposia, lectures, films, concerts and art exhibits. While overall change is slow and methodical, and there is a still much work to do, Cuba is arguably one of the most progressive Latin-American countries with respect to homosexuality.
Castro-Espin is an affable and feisty intellectual, whose presence commands attention and inspires passion. Her political lineage no doubt gives her an edge in the fight for those who might otherwise continue to be overlooked, or worst, vilified. She is the ideal leader for the cause. As a “Castro” she is instantly recognizable, a celebrity known throughout the country, which brings weight to her words. As a heterosexual, she is able to reach a wider audience of Cuban citizens. She evokes the power and passion of Eva Peron combined with the wisdom and insight of a Kamala Harris, yet she is remarkably accessible. Her girl-next-door demeanor and welcoming smile have earned her the nickname “Sangreliviana” (sweet blood). It cannot be understated how truly loved Castro-Espin is by the LGBT community and how much she loves them in return. The mutual level of respect is palpable. Many in the LGBT community have stated, “Because of her, we have a chance.”
The country has come a long ways from the early days of the Revolution when gays were persecuted, fired from jobs, imprisoned or sent to labor and “re-education camps”. In an startling admission in 2010, Fidel Castro not only apologized for the actions against gays at the beginning of his administration, but also personally took the blame for the inhumane and unjust treatment towards gays, calling it a “great injustice.”
As Cuba continues its journey to garner equality for all her citizens, Mariela Castro-Espín and many others dedicated to the cause know it will take more time, but are happy to continue the necessary work of breaking down barriers. Castro-Espínsums up her work by saying, “Homophobia is a cultural problem. We are all born with a certain sexual identity, regardless of our gender. In the world of animals, this doesn’t exist; this exists only in the world of humans. My hope is that the gay community and the non-gay community learn how to respect each other. To overcome their prejudices and learn how to understand even the things they don’t yet understand. For now, that would be good. Later, we’ll get more.”
From the chapter "Politicos - Politics" from Byron's photo book Embracing Cuba (University Press of Florida, 2015)
I am quite honored (and still in awe of the fact), that Mariela was generous with her time and writing talents to compose the Foreword to my photo book "Embracing Cuba". This was the first time in nearly 60 years that an American and a Cuban collaborated in such a manner! Muchas Gracias Mariela!
I'm honored to call you friend! Abrazos fuerte!
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