Cuban gays and lesbians once hid from police. But today, with help from the president's daughter, Mariela Castro, LGBTs in Cuba are fighting for their rights.
HAVANA — Just over a year ago, María Caridad Jorge made a revelation that would have been unthinkable in the not-too-distant past. "I am lesbian and religious and I also want to be a Communist Party militant," she wrote in her autobiography.
Sitting, arms crossed, in the Mejunje cultural center in the Cuban city of Santa Clara, Caridad Jorge describes herself as a life-long revolutionary. "I come from a revolutionary family," she tells Clarín. "My mother was in the underground movement against Fulgencio Batista. She was with Che Guevara." Batista, the Cuban president from 1940-1944 and again from 1952-1959, was ousted by the Fidel Castro-led revolution.
Caridad Jorge, 51, always wanted to be a member of the Communist Party. But she also knew that it was impossible. "First off because I'm lesbian. And I wasn't going to stop being that for anything in this world, " she says. "Also because I'm religious. And I wasn't going to stop being that either."
And yet in August 2013, Caridad Jorge's dream finally came true: the Party officially welcomed Caridad Jorge into its fold.
The Santa Clara woman's experience is part of a larger shift taking place in Cuban society and within the Communist Party in particular. In 2012, the Party made non-discrimination for sexual orientation part of its official policy. As a result, members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities "are now backed by the policies of the Cuban state and Cuban Communist Party," says Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban leader Raúl Castro and an outspoken gay rights activist.
The policy shift may be recent, but it was years in the making, according to Castro. "When I was a child I used to listen to my mom and dad speak about this matter at home," she recalls. "They were worried that they didn't know how to resolve this."
Castro, a trained sexologist, ended up playing an influential role in the government about-face. In 2000 she took charge of Cenesex, the country's sex education agency. "LGBT people came to me asking for solutions," she recalls. "I began working on which strategy to follow, what proposals to make to the government."
Another witness to changes taking place is 60-year-old Ramón Silverio, a Party member and key figure in the movement for LGBT rights in Cuba. "The things that have been achieved in recent years were unthinkable before," he says. "This is the time for taking firm steps forward, and that is what we are doing. Because the country is going that way. But it's not like the rest of the world has been a bed of roses in this area."
"Socialism Yes! Homophobia No!"
As the world waits to see what kinds of changes will take place in the island nation as a result of its thawing relationship with the United States, the Cuban leadership is opting for discretion and secrecy. Reforms, including those that concern the LGBT community, are being discussed and decided on behind closed doors.
The first four decades after Cuba's 1959 revolution were marked by persecution of homosexuals, forcing some people into work camps. Starting in the late 1990s, however, the state began softening its stance. In 1997 Cuba modified its criminal code, removing public indecency provisions that had empowered police to arrest people for being gay.
A decade later it even began paying, in a handful of cases, for gender reassignment surgeries. And in June 2014, the National Assembly approved a new Labor Code that includes measures against discrimination for sexual orientation.
The tweaking of Cuban norms and laws in recent years favoring non-discrimination, may even reach the constitution, Mariela Castro says.
Mariela Castro at the Hamburg Pride 2010 — Photo: Northside
In May she addressed gay rights supporters in Las Tunas in eastern Cuba, rallying a crowd of hundreds with shouts of "Socialism Yes! Homophobia No! Long Live the Cuban Revolution!" The gathering was part of a series of events that began days before in Havana, where attendees included senior members of the Communist Party and guests from the U.S — another sign of changing times. The event also featured 20 gay couples exchanging rings in a "staged" wedding ceremony, in anticipation of an imagined future.
Castro says equal marriage rights would require legislation and constitutional amendments. All Cuban society "must become sensitive to these issues, and be educated and understanding," she told Clarín after the rally in Las Tunas. "I can't wait to present a motion at the Assembly."
But for many members of Cuba's LGBT communities, marriage isn't an immediate priority. Deinna and Gendris, two transvestites aged 20 and 19, left their homes in Manzanillo and came to Havana to escape homophobia. "My father can't stand me since I dress like a woman," says Deinna.
They live with a group from their town in a small house in Havana's central district, which became a safe haven for transvestites in the 1990s. A Christmas tree with red ribbons remains in the living room next to a tiny television, amidst the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee.
Outside, the streets of Havana are all chaos and bustle, with people peddling food or taxi services, and tourists arriving " to see the country before it changes," as one 60-year-old American woman named Anne explains.
The street remains hostile territory for Deinna and Gendris. "They threw hot water onto us last night when we were coming back from the Central Park," they said. Shanet, one of the flatmates, says someone once threw a bag of trash onto her head from the third floor. She is tall and thin and wears colorful dresses, which she says caused problems at university, where she is a fourth-year medical student.
"They've tried everything to get me to leave leave university," Shanet explains. "I know it's because of my female figure. They discriminate because I don't go as a boy, which is why I came from Manzanillo to Havana, to get a card from Cenesex backing me so I can continue my course."
The first of the flatmates to arrive was Angeline. She says she has managed to keep her work at a research lab despite being dressed as a woman. She is now working on changing her gender on her ID card. In 2013, the state ruled that people could change their ID pictures and name in keeping with their appearance. Angeline also wants a sex-change operation.
By night, Angeline works as a prostitute in Old Havana, and is active in TransCuba, a group formed 14 years ago to defend the rights of transgender. She works on HIV-prevention among prostitutes. "Half all trans people are HIV positive, and I think our activism has put a break on its spread," she says.
Taking center stage
Sissy is one of the people living with HIV, among other problems. She is 50, and was first jailed at the age of 15 for wearing makeup on the street. The "police walked around with a tissue they used to wipe it off your face," she recalls.
She loves Spain's Lola Flores and found her vocation in La Faraona, another of Andalucia's great flamenco figures whom Sissy began to imitate in shows in the 1990s. These were often private, clandestine spectacles that packed up in a hurry as soon as people heard the police coming.
Not anymore. She now dances in Las Vegas, a nightclub in El Vedado, created six years ago with state backing. Performances are interspersed with safe sex tips. All tables seem occupied by tourists — from China, Canada, the U.S. or Brazil.
One of its stars is Estrellita (Little Star), who sings Liza Minelli in English to a delighted audience: She wants to "wake up in a city that never sleeps..." singing New York, New York, in Havana in 2015. Fifty-seven years after the revolution, every night, in the light of day.