LA JIRIBILLA No. 628 – Año XI, Havana, Cuba -18 de mayo al 24 de mayo de 2013
Interview with Mariela Castro
Socialism can not be homophobic
Helen Hernandez Hormilla • Havana, Cuba
Photo: R. A. Hdez
A CubaNews translation by Wallace Sillanpoa.
Edited by Walter Lippmann.
The movement has gained momentum due to actions undertaken by the National Center for Sexual Education [CENESEX] which, since its creation in the closing years of the 1980s, has done much to promote sexual diversity. Part of the work has assumed concrete form through the creation of National Days of Struggle against Homophobia which, since 2008, have taken place each ear around the 17th of May in recognition of that date in 1990 when the International Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.
With every passing year, the National Days of Struggle Against Homophobia grow in duration and outreach to the extent that major activities now stretch beyond those undertaken in the capital to include the provinces of Santiago de Cuba, Villa Clara, Cienfuegos and – this year, 2013 – Ciego de Ávila. Both the coverage by the mass media and the driving force of citizen activism marked this sixth edition of the “Day” which began in Havana on May 9th. This was followed by academic exercises, community panel discussions and artistic activities from May 14th to May 19th. As mentioned, similar activities also took place this year at the center’s headquarters in Ciego de Ávila.
With a Master’s degree in Sexual Studies and currently CENESEX Director, Mariela Castro Espín could be found at almost all the above-mentioned activities. Mariela Castro has emerged as the major proponent in Cuba of the demands of LGBT people. To the abbreviation, LGBT, Mariela prefers to add H [heterosexual] given that many heterosexual women and men are involved in this struggle. Moreover, since Mariela remains convinced that socialism is unattainable without a fight against homophobia, as a professional and as a deputy in Cuba’s National Assembly, she consistently champions decisions intended to achieve more equitable public policies by uniting all battles against discrimination.
Seeking to elicit and broaden responses to the question of cultural conditioning which determine many of the aspects of the LGBT community’s concerns on the island, La Jiribilla recently exchanged ideas on these thorny issues with Mariela, the woman primarily responsible for these National Days of Struggle Against Homophobia:
WHAT ARE THE CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL FORCES THAT, IN THE CASE OF CUBA, CONSTITUTE THE UNDERPINNINGS OF HOMOPHOBIA?
As with any form of discrimination, homophobia has much to do with cultural values generated in most known societies rooted in domination. This raging hunger for social power and control earmarking the history of humankind expresses itself through different forms of discrimination since, in order to dominate, it is necessary to formulate supportive arguments and ideologies. This “social imaginary” has congealed over time to constitute prejudices passed on unconsciously. Such prejudices continue to be generated even if people decry them. Above all, the continuation of such prejudices acts to the detriment of those who find themselves in the most disadvantaged of situations.
Different tendencies of thought such as feminism, sociology, gender studies, feminist anthropology, the sociology of sexuality, psychology, and medical science, among others, have contributed elements and evidence describing these instances of discrimination. It is the machinery of power that generates prejudice. The history of misogyny, for example, can be located in the case of European witch-baiting.
Meanwhile, on our continent we are witness to a history of colonial violence. Nevertheless, this very machinery continues to be employed in order to demonize people and rob them of their resources as with Muslims or the First Peoples of the Americas, both branded as heretics.
Reviewing these theoretical and methodological elements together with a re-examination of Marxist thought I garner resources helping us look at situations from within what has been the history of Cuba and the Revolution. This review helps to contribute to our social project that ponders the persistence of certain prejudices.
Apparently, some people used to embrace the illusion that revolutionary Cuba existed almost on another planet, and that in the ’60s and ’70s Cuba wasn’t as homophobic as the rest of the world. It would have been marvelous had that been the case, but such would have been impossible to expect of the Cuban people at large in an era in which medical science continued to pathologize homosexuality and transgendered people, and when many religions continued to demonize homosexuals. Prevailing ideas still tend to devalue these individuals and deny them equal opportunities. Moreover, in today’s world these same people are often the victims of hate crimes at rates so alarming as to warrant an international appeal so that policies might be established address ing this situation.
Homophobia in Cuba and throughout the world is manifested through acts of both physical and psychological violence. Nevertheless, the many years of the Revolution have succeeded in instilling a certain sense of the value of social solidarity and the necessity of a positive reaction when countering injustice. And these factors contributed to our discomfort at initiating the struggle we are looking at here. For, when someone is suffering, when a person is feeling humiliated we do respond even when all the elements necessary for a concerted struggle are not present. We acquire those necessary elements in the very course of struggle.
We went in search of what to say, what to do, how to enter into dialogue with the general public so that homosexual and transgendered people would not be discriminated against and no one would feel superior to another on the basis of sexual orientation.
The Cuban Revolution offers an example of what is possible in achieving a society both recognizing and respecting sexual diversity, be that within capitalism or within socialism . Such recognition and respect is most in keeping with the case of a country engaged in socialist transition. Moreover, when inaugurating the National Days Against Homophobia in 2008, Cuba was likewise signaling its desire to re-visit its history. In effect, such appears to me a most valuable undertaking and marks the first instance in what continues to be a revolution in these areas.
When I was in Philadelphia and San Francisco, two cities of great importance to the North American LGBT movement, I came to realize how much these processes we are discussing here have been intimately connected with other civil rights struggles and the struggles for women’s rights and independence. All these experiences provided vital tools to the LGBT movement.
After the victory of the Revolution, Fidel had in hand the Moncada Program which laid out and identified various problematic social considerations and all those involved began their work on the basis of this program. No question of sexual diversity was to be found in those deliberations, nor was any recognizable international movement favorable to social changes in this area even discernible. Presently, as part of this great new global village, we continue to make awareness of these innovations part of our over-all project.
We have taken care not to just copy modes of operation or initiatives in other countries but rather, to study the manner in which these struggles are carried out so as to adopt those we deem valuable and which may be introduced within our own, actual contexts. When a particular style or tendency is uncritically imported from afar, a movement results that is rather superficial and thus incapable of affecting real social change. We prefer to adapt all innovations to our social realities, grounded in participatory undertakings and calling upon various social institutions in the construction of projects involving all Cubans. This approach has facilitated our dialogue with all entities and with the Communist Party of Cuba.
The six years that have passed since the first National Day bear witness to an ever-increasing level of visibility.
Even without taking into consideration the impact of the National Day Against Homophobia, our research confirms our perception that substantial change has occurred. Previously, there was little discussion of these matters and when discussion did occur, it was only to dismiss, indeed, exclude LGBT people. But today Cuban society is engaged in discussing and and exposing many points of view, doubts and contradictions. Even the opposition our project generates is very beneficial to an extension of the discussion.
Many people have come to recognize what homophobia is and they are searching for new approaches. So many families as well as the general population come to us seeking assistance.
In addition, today you can see a change in the policies of mass media in regard to these issues. We have noted that this year more journalists and the media in general have expanded their coverage so as to initiate a greater social diffusion of many of our messages. For example, insofar as the opening within CENESEX of greater space calling attention to judicial issues around discrimination, more and more people are coming to us in search of assistance.
WHAT CONTRIBUTION DO YOU THINK THE CUBAN LGBT MOVEMENT OFFERS TO CIVIL SOCIETY?
A strong dose of spontaneity infused the start of this movement. It emerged from the lesbian group, THE ISABELS, in Santiago de Cuba who, in 2002, sought help from CENESEX around issues of sexual and reproductive health. From this undertaking a group formed in Havana, then one of transgendered people and thereafter, little by little, new ideas and initiatives emerged whose purpose was to form a network of homosexual men and youth. The interesting thing is that these newly formed groups turned to CENESEX for assistance. This social, communitarian network is meanwhile beginning to expand thanks to ever-growing participation in the provinces. All those prepared as activists presently engage energetically according to their own criteria and suggestions in what could be called the Cuban LGBTHI Movement.
ON VARIOUS OCCASIONS YOU HAVE SAID THAT YOU CAN’T CONCEIVE OF A SOCIALISM WITH HOMOPHOBIA.
Right, I can’t imagine it. For this reason, when we were conducting the street parade last year in Cienfuegos the slogan was: “Socialism Yes! Homophobia No!” The fact remains that the very experimentation that is Socialism can tolerte no discrimination of any kind.
HOW THEN ARE WE TO READ GESTURES LIKE THE INCLUSION OF THESE ISSUES IN THE CONFERENCE PROGRAM OF THE CUBAN COMMUNIST PARTY, OR THE PARTICIPATION OF CUBAN VICE-PRESIDENT, MIGUEL DIAZ-CANEL, AT THE GALA EVENING AGAINST HOMOPHOBIA HELD AT THE KARL MARX THEATER?
The country’s leadership is cognizant of the fact that these realities have to be part of our policies and our ideological perspectives. Our job consists in transforming ways of thinking that have to be then passed on through education and with the support of all people and institutions.
THE CUBAN ARTS COMMUNITY HAS ALWAYS BEEN IN THE FOREFRONT OF THIS CAUSE.
In all ages, the arts are ahead of the sciences in communicating these realities or social concerns. This happened likewise in Cuba, and these contradictions – in one way or another, depending on the artists’ points of view – were always reflected in works of art and literature.
My formation is in pedagogy and I always found in art a resource for educating and for communicating much more interesting than simple talk. For this reason, in our work at CENESEX, we muster the help of artists since such assistance is much more effective in communicating our message and often with greater impact.
To launch the National Day against Homophobia we went to the Ministry of Culture, UNEAC [the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists] and the Association of Saíz Brothers [AHS] to solicit support. In order that our project succeed, we needed a coming together of all those people who had in any way taken up similar initiatives. In order to struggle for full respect for all sexual diversity we have to unite as a country, a nation and a society. Isolated, we get nowhere. And the Cuban arts communities are at work full force in this struggle for social transformation.
MUCH HAS BEEN DONE TO PROMOTE THE NEED FOR A NEW FAMILY CODE WHICH ENCOMPASSES CONSENSUAL UNIONS BETWEEN PERSONS OF THE SAME SEX. HOWEVER, ONCE SUCH A MEASURE IS APPROVED, WHAT MIGHT BE OTHER LEGAL DEMANDS?
Much remains to be done, and for this I say that the new Code is not the end point, but rather one of our activities which is going to facilitate in advancing LGBT rights. But, again, it is not the only one. Laws by themselves do not guarantee human rights. The latter must be reinforced through other expressions of political will.
We have also prepared the rough draft of a proposal for a Decree Law in regard to gender identity and we are reviewing forms of legislation from other countries so as to include in our proposals those elements most in keeping with our own situation and in accordance with struggles against all forms of discrimination. The Penal Code is also going to change as will the Labor Code. And at the moment when the Constitution comes up again for revision, we shall have already looked ahead for inclusion of provisions that will facilitate broad coverage in the area of LGBT rights.