BY KELLY COGSWELL | Late in October, a handful of independent activists appeared for the first time before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington reporting on the state of the LGBTI community in Cuba and asking the commission to pressure the Castro regime not just on behalf of queers, but of any independent group trying to work for human rights on the island.
In the video, they seemed articulate, dignified, and maybe a little desperate, offering quiet reproaches to an international LGBT community that has a blind eye where Cuba is concerned, largely ignoring actual LGBT people trying to speak and work on their own behalf, while seeming to applaud every press release from CENESEX, the government-approved National Center for Sex Education run by the straight daughter of Cuba’s dynastic ruler, RaÃºl Castro.
Carlos Quesada of the DC-based International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights, said that the “so-called visibility” of Cuba’s queers internationally was dependent on one name, Mariela Castro, and that “it contrasts with the actual situation of the members of the LGBTI community in Cuba.”
A Dyke Abroad
Determined to see if they could get something done outside the CENESEX bubble, a coalition of Cuban groups, including the Free Rainbow Alliance of Cuba (Alianza Arcoiris Libre de Cuba), the Trans Fantasy Network (RED-Trans Fantasía), the Foundation for the Rights of the LGBTI Community (Fundación por los derechos de la Comunidad LGBTI), and Divine Hope (Divina Esperanza), a Christian group, decided to conduct their own study of the state of the queer Cuban nation. They prepared a questionnaire focusing on personal experiences of discrimination and violence, and whether or not LGBTI people had basic information about their human rights.
It was an ambitious project, especially for embattled independent groups.
“By law, organizations that do not declare their support to the state are not allowed to be registered,” explained Juana Mora, of the Free Rainbow Alliance of Cuba, and former member of CENESEX. She let those words speak for themselves, knowing that the commission would be well aware that in Cuba, independent activists and journalists face harassment, discrimination, violence, and arrest. Later on in the presentation, she and Quesada described how queer activists were continually monitored and their research materials seized and copied, routinely denounced as counterrevolutionaries, threatened, and subject to detention and interrogation.
Unsurprisingly, most LGBTI people approached for the study were too afraid or too disillusioned to talk to them. Mora told the commission, “In Cuba, there’s a culture of fear surrounding any discussion of human rights. Because when Cubans hear these words they think you’re attacking the government. The other thing is, that since in Cuba there isn’t a culture of respecting human rights, many people responded that it was a waste of time, knowing that nobody would do anything about your problems.”
In the end, though, the activists persuaded 150 people nationwide to participate. Of these, 26 were lesbians, 81 gay men, 19 bi people, 23 trans women, and 1 intersex. Sixty-six self-defined as white, 28 as being of African descent, and 44 as mixed race. Forty-four were between 15 and 25 years old, 56 were between 26 and 35, and 38 were older than 36.
Their news wasn’t good. Despite the CENESEX “circus,” as Cuban queers typically call the institution’s displays, violence and discrimination are incredibly common, especially on the institutional level. Eighty-seven said they had been assaulted both verbally and physically by cops and arbitrarily detained. Forty-five had been discriminated against in the workplace, harassed, or fired. Sixty-seven had experienced violence within their own families, including being thrown out of their homes.
Violence and discrimination, both within and outside the family, were worse the further you got from Havana. Cops regularly blackmailed and extorted rural queers. Worse, if they fled to Havana, they risked constant harassment and extortion by cops there and were often deported back to their place of origin. Trans people faced the worst of the violence and discrimination, especially if they were of African descent.
Mora testified that, in general, very few of the people polled knew about international human rights agreements or worldwide advances in LGBT rights. Few had access to resources or support on the island, especially in the areas of work and education. No statistics were kept about homophobic or transphobic murders. Few victims of violence even reported assaults because they weren’t investigated, much less solved and prosecuted. “Nothing happened to the guilty,” she said. “In only one highly public case was the murderer punished.”
Sisy Montiel, coordinator of the Trans Fantasy Network, testified that she had become an activist because she was the victim of discrimination and violence, and as a young person was arrested so often for being “ostentatiously effeminate in public” that she barely finished high school.
She eventually got sex reassignment surgery and found work in the theater, but many others like her were forced into prostitution or killed themselves, literally encouraged by the state to end their lives. Things weren’t much better now, she said. Kids are harassed so much in school they either leave or are expelled. Which means they can’t go to college or get decent jobs, usually forcing them into prostitution. Discrimination prevented most from getting medical care. Access was made even worse by racism, with black trans people being refused hormones and surgery.
After screening a short film, “Situation of LGBT Population in Cuba, 2014-2015,” the activists offered a list of recommendations, which again emphasized the need to pressure the Cuban government to respect independent organizations, LGBT groups in particular and civil society in general, and how social change of any kind requires the basic rights –– to meet and assemble peacefully, to express themselves –– that Cubans simply don’t have. Not yet.
The Cuban government declined to participate in the hearing.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.