Strides in Transgender Rights—and Rites—in Cuba

Cuban Graffiti of a Party

Cuba’s track record for LGBT rights—and rights in general—is one of the worst in the world. Despite decades of successful propaganda that still has Hollywood and The New York Times convinced that the island was an all-equality Eden, the reality of transphobia and persecution of gays and lesbians has been horrific.

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Almost 25 years ago, former fighter for Castro Reinaldo Arenas, who escaped Cuba, released a shocking memoir, Before Night Falls, detailing his suppression, imprisonment and torture for being gay.

Transgender people are not gay, but trans rights are intricately bound with gay rights for two reasons: first, the world lumps gay people and transgender people together as if they are interchangeable. And second, because of this phenomenon, gay liberationists took transgender rights to battle along with their own, giving shelter to trans people wherever strides were made for their own struggles.

For these reasons, gay and trans rights are linked in Cuba, as they are everywhere. And today we rejoice because Cuba held an iconic moment of change for trans people and people of faith, another persecuted group under Cuba’s iron fist history.

May 2017 will go down as a transformative time, when transgender pastors from Brazil, Canada and the USA joined together to share Catholic mass. Considering the uneasy relationship of the church to transgender people, along with the scars of Cuba’s persecution of trans people and people of faith, this was an iconic event.

Although technically Cuba provided sexual reassignment surgery in its health care plan, this was limited to five women a year. It was also contrasted crudely by another reality—home raids for trans people and arrests of doctors suspected of providing hormone therapy or treatments. In 2012, the BBC reported dozens of arrests in Havana of health care providers looking after the needs of trans women.

Trans women have reported that it’s not just the government who oppresses them, but the macho culture. “People always make fun of you. They yell, they throw rocks, bottles, anything,” a trans woman reported to On Cuba Magazine

But strides have been made in recent years even though the country is still not democratic, in part because Fidel Castro’s daughter Mariela is a lesbian. She has fought tradition, her father and the culture on behalf of rights for women, gay people and trans people. Castro himself had a begrudging change of heart on the issue and wrote that he was wrong to treat LGBT people differently.

A church service may not sound like a radical moment to those of us used to religious freedom, or who are too often victims of religion. In a state where there was no such thing and religious people were forbidden worship, it is different, and a major landmark of inclusivity to have mass celebrated by transgender people.

“Friday was the first time a trans pastor held a Holy Communion in Cuba, highlighting how much the island nation has changed since both religious believers and homosexuals went to ‘correctional’ labor camps in the early years after the 1959 revolution,” writes Sarah Marsh and Anett Rios for Reuters.

Amen to that!

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