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CUBA
More tolerance toward homosexuals?
Patricia Olguin
9/14/2006
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Although not persecuted as in previous decades, island’s homosexual population has still not been fully accepted by Cuban society.

Orlando Torres is openly gay. The 47-year-old hospital nurse experienced years of ridicule, rejection or silence, but now he thinks that Cuba is opening up to homosexuality.

"You don’t call attention to yourself if you’re gay; not even the police care if you are or not," Torres said. "These days, there are men in the streets dressed like women. We are a prejudiced country, but there is no repression against homosexuals."

For her part, sexual health expert Mariela Castro Espín, director of the state-run National Sexual Education Center, or CENESEX, which was created in 1989, says that Cuban society became more tolerant both in public and family life after the 1990s, but she admits that this is only part of a longer process.

CENESEX, linked to both the health and education sectors, brings specialized attention to homosexuals, transsexuals and transvestites, offers sexual therapy counseling and has developed a program called Sexual Diversity. Directed at the entire population, the program aims to "provide current and scientific information" and to "knock down taboos and prejudices that still continue."

The changes in social consciousness are partly owed to the commotion caused by the 1993 award-winning film "Strawberry and Chocolate," by directors Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, about a young gay man who falls in love with a straight man.

The uproar, and subsequent debate, the movie provoked became a political phenomenon since through their careful dissection of prejudices against homosexuals, the directors also criticized the Cuban Communist Party and the Union of Young Communists in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A dark past

The film mentions the Military Units to Help Production, known by the Spanish acronym UMAP, which was founded in 1965 to place thousands of supposed criminals, including homosexuals, in forced labor camps on farmlands. The UMAP had an impressive list of abuses and mistreatments of homosexuals under its belt, and in 1967, it was closed.

"The situation changed in 1975, at first verbally, when … judicial policies toward homosexuals, hippies and other people considered antisocial were modified," said attorney María Soledad Vázquez.

"All that was understood to be antisocial conduct by old Social Defense Code was sanctioned. In 1979, the old code was thrown out and the new Criminal Code was created, eliminating flaunting of homosexuality as a crime," Vázquez said.

Today it is common for homosexuals, transvestites and transsexuals to meet on the famed Malecón of Havana.

Although homosexuality was once an untouched subject for media outlets, these days, a TV soap opera, called "The Dark Side of the Moon," about closeted homosexual is very popular.

The issue of homosexuality and quality of life are now addressed by broadcast media, focusing on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and sparking a social debate in the country.

"I don’t feel repressed for being a lesbian; the looks (I get) don’t bother me … because just as they talked about Jesus Christ without knowing him, what they say about me doesn’t interest me," says Silvana Aguirre, a 20-year-old university student.

"We have advanced but we are far from approving homosexual marriages. We don’t even have a place where we can go out and have fun freely," Aguirre continued.

Sexual orientation prejudices are wrongly rooted in fear of HIV/AIDS infection. The virus is a main concern of the Health Ministry. HIV positive Cubans between 1986 and 1993 were given hospital care that included an obligatory quarantine, generating harsh criticism.

HIV still a problem

According to the National Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention Center, which operates under the Ministry, the total number of HIV positive Cubans between 1986 and 2006 is 7,517: 6,151 men and 1,466 women, of which 69 percent or 5,185 are homosexuals and lesbians. The figure was up from the cumulative figure of 7,438 in 2005.

"Disgracefully, even though the AIDS issue helped us talk about homosexuality, it was not well-handled at first," said Luis Méndez, homosexual and HIV positive for 10 years.

HIV positive Cubans "were isolated like lepers," but "today things are different; if they detect the illness they give you your treatment, but confinement is optional." Méndez said.

"Today we are in an opportune moment for homosexuals to gain a greater space and representation in Cuban society," CENESEX director Castro Espín told the university student-run magazine Alma Mater.

Nevertheless, Castro Espín, daughter of interim President Raúl Castro, added, "I feel that yes, the people are more relaxed, both in public and in their families in terms of homosexuality, but only slightly relaxed, not more tolerant. There is a lot of work to be done in our society, so that this relaxation implies a real respect … toward sexual diversity."


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