Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cuba: For macho island, a shift on civil unions

Cuba: For macho island, a shift on civil unions
Cuba is close to recognizing civil unions for same-sex couples.
Nick MiroffJuly 28, 2011 06:49

HAVANA, Cuba — There was no mention of it in the pages of Granma, the
Communist Party newspaper, but when word came that Cuban authorities
were considering the legalization of same-sex civil unions, it was a
cause for quiet celebration here.

The announcement was made by Mariela Castro, daughter of Raul Castro and
the director of Cuba's national sex education center, during an
interview with Spanish broadcaster Cadena Ser earlier this month.
Castro, the island's leading gay rights advocate, said Cuban authorities
are already studying the proposal in preparation for the upcoming
Community Party conference on Jan. 28.

"This is a historic opportunity, and I think we're close to having draft
legislation," said Castro, who also revealed in the interview that gay
Cubans can serve in the military. "We've been working on this issue for
a long time, with a lot of activism. We're starting to see results and a
political solution."

Certainly the recognition of same-sex civil unions would be a landmark
achievement — for Mariela Castro and the island's gay rights activists.
But it also prompts the question: Why has it taken Cuba so long?

After all, six other Latin American nations already recognize same-sex
civil unions: Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico
(in certain states). Why then is Cuba, a largely secular society where
left-wing politics have dominated for 50 years, still slow to grant full
legal equality for gays and lesbians? As Castro told the interviewer, "A
socialist society can't be a homophobic one."

But it has been one in the past.

In the decades following Fidel Castro's 1959 Cuban Revolution, gay
Cubans endured various forms of harassment, and many in the late 1960s
were sent to military labor camps to be "rehabilitated" by grueling
agricultural work. The socialist "New Man" envisioned by Che Guevara was
strong, self-sacrificing, masculine — and unambiguously heterosexual.

Several of Cuba's leading artists and intellectuals at the time,
including some of Castro's fiercest critics, were gay, contributing to
perceptions among some Party stalwarts that homosexuals were inherently
"subversive" or "counter-revolutionary." Acclaimed Cuban writer Reinaldo
Arenas, who fled the island in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, was a case in

Much has changed since then. Cubans now march in government-sanctioned
gay pride parades each year, and the state has even begun offering a
limited number of sexual reassignment surgeries to transgender Cubans at
no cost, in keeping with the spirit of the island's socialist health
care system.

Yet many gays here remain closeted about their sexuality. There are no
designated gay bars, and a macho-male culture that either mocks or
rejects homosexuality remains deeply engrained, just as it is in many
parts of North America.

Gay rights activists, led by Mariela Castro (who is not gay herself),
have made uneven progress, while continuing to face considerable
push-back from a culture that has casual attitudes about sex, but not

And while Cuba's Catholic Church is not as powerful as it is in other
Latin American countries, it remains a formidable institution on the
island and a moral authority for many. It has openly stated its
opposition to any move to formally recognize homosexual relationships,
even if its protests have been quieter in recent years.

When the Cuban government screened the film "Brokeback Mountain" on
national television in 2008, church spokesman Orlando Marquez wrote "I
respect homosexual individuals, but not the promotion of homosexuality.
We're going down a dangerous path when our own state institutions
promote programs that undermine the foundations of our society."

"While homosexual behavior isn't new," he wrote, "the international
agenda that promotes homosexuality at all levels is."

Marquez, who is also the editor of Palabra Nueva, the church's magazine,
declined to comment on Mariela Castro's announcement, referring
inquiries about the Church's views to previously published statements
opposing same-sex unions, including declarations on the subject by the
Vatican and Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

In Cuba's gay community, the reaction to Mariela Castro's announcement
has been enthusiastic, but also mixed. Ailec Garcia, 32, said that while
her partner of seven years was eager to formalize their relationship, it
wasn't a priority for her.

"It's hard to get excited about it when you still live with your parents
and can't think about having a house of your own," Garcia said,
explaining how Cuba's miserably low salaries and acute housing shortages
make sobering realities of many couples' domestic aspirations, whether
they're gay or straight.

Castro did not go into detail about what legal benefits the unions might
bring. But Cuba is also a country where the practice of marriage has
also been in dramatic decline and many heterosexual couples go unwed,
even after they've had children, since they can't afford to have a
wedding and would derive few legal benefits.

Still, Garcia said, the legalization of same-sex civil unions would
carry enormous symbolic importance for the country. "We still have a
long way to go toward eliminating machista attitudes and taboos," she
said. "But it would be a huge step forward."

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