A Cuban March Against Homophobia

Celebrating a New Outlook Toward Gays

A Cuban March Against Homophobia

by DON FITZ and JACQUELYN OMOTALADE
Originally Posted by CounterPunch.org

“This discussion has changed my mind about homosexuality. Now I understand what my lesbian friend went through. When she graduated from medical school in Cuba, she cried. She told me that she could live her life the way she wanted to when she was in Cuba. But now she would return to Honduras as a doctor and would have to hide her lifestyle, hide who she is.”

These were the words of a young woman wearing the medical school bata (white shirt) who identified herself as Honduran. The Honduran medical student spoke at an open forum which was part of the International Day Against Homophobia (May 17, 2012) in Cienfuegos, Cuba. The forum featured Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, who is director of the National Sex Education Center.

Mariela Castro & Barbara Chicherio March Against Homophobia, Cienfuegos, Cuba, May 17, 2012. Photo by Don Fitz.

Castro is internationally recognized for her successful effort to overcome resistance to offering sex education in Cuban schools and her current attempt to have gay marriage legalized in Cuba. About 500, including many medical students, attended the forum at the Medical University of Cienfuegos. We were part of a group of 15 who came with the “Gender and Health Care” program offered by Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC). [1]

The day before, we had traveled to Cienfuegos by bus from Havana and were greeted by initial celebrations against homophobia. They included five “social network workshops.” Our group broke up and picked workgroups based on our interests: Gay Men, Men and Diversity, Lesbians, Youth or Transgender.

The Men and Diversity workshop had been going on for a few minutes when we walked in. The group leader wrote on a large tablet while group members shared stories of victimization as gay individuals in Cuba. The group of about 40 related how they had been rejected, ignored, ridiculed or attacked. We then divided into smaller groups to prepare skits role-playing hostility against gays expressed at home, work, education or in the media. Group members willingly and eagerly expressed themselves. They were also learning how to run workshops in their own towns as a means of helping others articulate their feelings and share their experiences.

Men & Diversity workshop, Cienfuegos, Cuba, May 16, 2012. Photo by Don Fitz.

In some ways, the workshops were much like those in the US. Even though it was hard to follow the fast-paced and word-clipping Cuban Spanish, it was clear that an emotional intensity pervaded the room. Every lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Cuban knows of the years 1965–68 when homosexuals were grouped with counterrevolutionaries and sent to obligatory work duty with UMAP (Military Units to Assist Production). Although the practice faded out by the 1980s and the massive HIV education campaigns in the 1990s treated homosexuality as a fact of life, the scars remain.

March Against Homophobia

May 17 began with the “March Against Homophobia” down Cienfuegos’ beautifully historic Paseo del Prado. Just before it started, a British TV crew interviewed our MEDICC coordinator, Anna Dorman. Several in our group recognized Mariela Castro and went to have their photos taken with her. While walking over to lead the parade, she motioned to Dale Mitchell (director of a Jamaica Plain agency which provides services to elders in their homes) and Barbara Chicherio (president of the Green Party USA). They were among those who joined her in holding the multi-colored gay banner at the head of the march, which seemed to stop at every other corner for press photos.

Two of the 1000 marchers towered on stilts above the rest. Soon, we were not just walking but chanting and dancing down Paseo del Prado, accompanied by drums and trumpets. A few wore bright pink shirts. Others sported t-shirts with a double male insignia.

One man who must have been 70 or 80 was overjoyed that Americans were a part of Cuba’s gay rights parade. With perfect English and only a slight accent, he said that he had fought with the US Army in the Korean War.

There were at least as many onlookers as marchers. Many had a very doubtful, almost frowning look; but faces often turned to smiles as they waved to a marcher they knew. Not everyone smiled, though. Some were heard to make comments like “Why do they bring this crap here?” “Damn queers,” and “They will make our city look dirty.”

The contradiction between past and present, between government policy and social reality left a deep impression on those who participated. Our MEDICC translator, Georgina (“Yoyi”) Gómez Tablo, said “This is important to me — my best friend died of AIDS. This shows we are doing something right. It makes me proud of being Cuban. It is so good to be part of a large group in favor of human rights.”

The MEDICC medical consultant, Maricela Torres Esperón, added “There is a tradition of machismo not just in Cuba but in all of Latin America. People should not be defined by their sexual orientation. I am glad that the government was in favor of the demonstration.”

It is a time of tremendous social transformation which could make Cuba a model for all of Latin America. As Anna Dorman observed, “It is so powerful to be a part of something at a time when the culture is in transition. It is inspiring to see Cubans taking on the liberation of gays and we are here participating with them.”

Walking tall at March Against Homophobia, Cienfuegos, Cuba, May 17, 2012. Photo by Don Fitz.

Medical University of Cienfuegos

After lunch, we heard Mariela Castro direct the open forum at the Medical University of Cienfuegos. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the forum was that basic questions were so frequent. Many in the audience had absorbed myths and wanted answers. “Why are people homosexuals?” “Is homosexuality a disease?” “Do we need to cure it?”

Mariela Castro proved highly skilled at addressing their questions. One person asked how she could justify the cost of sex change operations given that Cuba has such extreme financial stress. She answered the man by illustrating how devastating it would be to spend your entire life feeling that you were in the wrong body. “How would you feel if you woke up one morning to find that you had large breasts? And how would you feel if your penis were to shrink up and become a clitoris?”

Another wanted to know why, as a heterosexual woman, she would be so passionate about sexual orientation. Ms. Castro responded that her mother, the late Vilma Espín, had founded and led the Federation of Cuban Women and devoted her life to bringing gender equality to Cuba. Extending that to full LGBT rights is Mariela Castro’s way to honor her mother and honor the revolution.

MEDICC, Cuba and Revolutionary Transformation

We would not have been able to see any of this without the coordination of MEDICC, which does research and offers a wide array of programs to increase understanding of Cuban medicine. Our week long program included five days of intense participation, learning and conversation. We arrived in Havana and begin by interacting with staff at the semi-rural 4 Caminos University Polyclinic. After visiting a neighborhood doctor’s office (consultorio) we heard a general overview of the way the Cuban medical system approaches gender and health issues. The next day we visited a clinic specializing in natural and traditional medicine, heard of Cuba’s approach to the HIV epidemic, and toured the museum at the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine.

At the middle of the week, we heard a detailed talk on Cuba’s National Maternal and Child Care Program, rode the bus to Cienfuegos, and participated in the social network workshops. The next day was the International Day Against Homophobia activities, including the march down Paseo del Prado, forum with Mariela Castro and evening “Gala,” a dance performance against homophobia. The final day began with a trip to a maternity home (where women with high risk pregnancies stay) and return trip to Havana.

This array of activities, typical of MEDICC’s educational programs, was interactive and hands-on. [2] A mix of lectures, tours, discussions, forums, marches and performances offers the wholeness of a gestalt that would be missed by experiencing one part in isolation. It concretizes the reality that medical care is not a static structure but is a dynamically unfolding and developing relationship between science, education, practice and culture.

Understanding Cuba’s gender health requires exploration into the joys and prejudices that accompany changing gender roles within Cuban society. The International Day Against Homophobia is like the rebirth of a revolution that turned its back on human respect. From its earliest years, the new Cuba devoted itself to providing health care, housing, education, employment and gender equality as basic rights. But at the same time, the revolution’s own actions reinforced the homophobia that it is now struggling against.

Cuba learned from experience that gender health means placing emphasis on groups at risk. Thus, special attention is now being paid to maternal and child health, those with high risk pregnancies, and those with sexually transmitted diseases. Cuba has also learned that gender health requires an emphasis on preventive medicine through neighborhood consultorios, polyclinics and traditional and natural medicine. But gender health must transcend these (meaning including and going beyond). Cuba has found that a revolution in health care cannot be complete if people are excluded from social acceptance due to their sexual orientation.

As it changes its laws on homosexuality, Cuba is becoming a model for challenging machismo throughout Latin America. But historically ingrained prejudices cannot be overcome by laws alone. In Cuba, the LGBT community is marching through the streets, demanding an end to ridicule and exclusion. This openness by the victims of prejudice is necessary for closing the gaps in the medical system and fulfilling the humanitarian goals of the revolution. A revolution is nothing if it fails to be an ongoing process of social transformation.

Don Fitz produces Green Time TV in St. Louis and is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is sent to members of the Green Party USA. He can be reached at fitzdon@aol.com

Jacquelyn Omotalade is Senior Program Manager for California Pacific Public Health Training Center which seeks to strengthen the technical, scientific, managerial and leadership competencies of the public health workforce. She can be reached at jomotalade@gmail.com

Notes

1. The 15 included 11 participants and a MEDICC coordinator from the US and a translator, liaison and medical consultant from Cuba.

2. MEDICC programs include topics such as Nutrition, Agriculture and Health, Integrative Medicine, Healthy Aging, Rural Health, Children’s Health, Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation and Health, and Climate Change and the Environment. For information about its programs see MEDICC PROGRAMS or contact MEDICC Program Manager Elena Huezo at ehuezo@mediccglobal.org or 510-350-3053.

References

Cuba’s gay rights march led by Raul Castro’s daughter – video. (May 18, 2012). The Guardian. article

Gorry, C. (July, 2011). Cuban maternity homes: A model to address at-risk pregnancy. MEDICC Review, 13 (3), 12–15.

Reed, G. (April, 2012). Revolutionizing gender: Mariela Castro MS. MEDICC Review, 14 (2), 6–9.

Sweig, J.E. (2009). Cuba: What everyone needs to know. Oxford University Press.

For another video of the May 17 march in Cienfuegos see video

93 thoughts on “A Cuban March Against Homophobia

  1. After I originally commented I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is an easy method you can remove me from that service? Thank you!

  2. Hi, I do believe this is a great blog. I stumbledupon it 😉 I will come back once again since i have saved as a favorite it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to help others.

  3. Having read this I believed it was extremely informative. I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this short article together. I once again find myself personally spending way too much time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

  4. I truly love your website.. Excellent colors & theme. Did you make this site yourself? Please reply back as Iím wanting to create my own site and would love to learn where you got this from or just what the theme is called. Thank you!

  5. After looking over a few of the blog articles on your website, I seriously appreciate your way of blogging. I saved it to my bookmark site list and will be checking back soon. Take a look at my website as well and let me know your opinion.

  6. After looking at a handful of the blog posts on your web page, I honestly appreciate your technique of writing a blog. I book marked it to my bookmark site list and will be checking back in the near future. Please check out my website too and let me know what you think.

  7. Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon every day. It will always be helpful to read content from other authors and practice a little something from their sites.

  8. You have made some decent points there. I checked on the net for more info about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this site.

  9. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a colleague who has been conducting a little homework on this. And he in fact bought me breakfast simply because I found it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to discuss this topic here on your website.

  10. Howdy! I could have sworn Iíve been to this blog before but after browsing through a few of the posts I realized itís new to me. Anyhow, Iím definitely pleased I discovered it and Iíll be bookmarking it and checking back frequently!

  11. Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to produce a superb article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a lot and never manage to get anything done.

  12. Hi there! I could have sworn Iíve been to this site before but after looking at some of the articles I realized itís new to me. Regardless, Iím certainly happy I discovered it and Iíll be book-marking it and checking back often!

  13. I truly love your site.. Great colors & theme. Did you create this website yourself? Please reply back as Iím planning to create my own personal website and want to find out where you got this from or just what the theme is called. Appreciate it!

  14. Spot on with this write-up, I really feel this web site needs a great deal more attention. Iíll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the info!

  15. Howdy! I just would like to offer you a big thumbs up for your excellent info you have got right here on this post. I am coming back to your web site for more soon.

  16. Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve visited this site before but after going through a few of the posts I realized it’s new to me. Regardless, I’m definitely delighted I discovered it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back frequently.

  17. Right here is the right site for anybody who really wants to understand this topic. You understand so much its almost tough to argue with you (not that I actually would want to…HaHa). You certainly put a fresh spin on a topic which has been written about for ages. Great stuff, just excellent.

  18. You are so awesome! I don’t think I’ve read a single thing like this before. So great to find somebody with genuine thoughts on this topic. Really.. thank you for starting this up. This website is something that’s needed on the web, someone with a bit of originality!

  19. Hi, I do believe this is a great website. I stumbledupon it 😉 I am going to return yet again since I saved as a favorite it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide others.

  20. Aw, this was an incredibly nice post. Taking the time and actual effort to produce a really good articleÖ but what can I sayÖ I procrastinate a lot and don’t manage to get nearly anything done.

  21. An intriguing discussion is definitely worth comment. I do think that you should write more on this subject, it may not be a taboo matter but usually people don’t discuss such issues. To the next! Cheers!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.