“This discussion has changed my mind about homosexuality. Now I understand what my Lesbian friend went through. When she graduated from medical school in Cuba, she cried. She told me that she could live her life the way she wanted to when she was in Cuba. But now she would return to Honduras as a doctor and would have to hide her lifestyle, hide who she is.”
These were the words of a young woman wearing the medical school bata (white shirt) who identified herself as Honduran. The Honduran medical student spoke at an open forum which was part of the International Day Against Homophobia (May 17, 2012) in Cienfuegos, Cuba. The forum featured Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, who is director of the National Sex Education Center (CENESEX).
Castro is internationally recognized for her successful effort to overcome resistance to offering sex education in Cuban schools and her current attempt to have gay marriage legalized in Cuba. About 500, including many medical students, attended the forum at the Medical University of Cienfuegos. We were part of a group of 15 who came with the “Gender and Health Care” program offered by Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC).1
The day before, we had traveled to Cienfuegos by bus from Havana and were greeted by initial celebrations against homophobia. They included five “social network workshops.” Our group broke up and picked workgroups based on our interests: Gay Men, Men and Diversity, Lesbians, Youth, or Transgender.
The Men and Diversity workshop had been going on for a few minutes when we walked in. The group leader wrote on a large tablet while group members shared stories of victimization as gay individuals in Cuba. The group of about 40 related how they had been rejected, ignored, ridiculed, or attacked. We then divided into smaller groups to prepare skits role-playing hostility against gays expressed at home, work, education, or in the media. Group members willingly and eagerly expressed themselves. They were also learning how to run workshops in their own towns as a means of helping others articulate their feelings and share their experiences.
In some ways, the workshops were much like those in the US. Even though it was hard to follow the fast-paced and word-clipping Cuban Spanish, it was clear that an emotional intensity pervaded the room. Every lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Cuban knows of the years 1965-68 when homosexuals were grouped with counterrevolutionaries and sent to obligatory work duty with UMAP (Military Units to Assist Production). Although the practice faded out by the 1980s and the massive HIV education campaigns in the 1990s treated homosexuality as a fact of life, the scars remain.
March Against Homophobia
May 17 began with the “March Against Homophobia” down Cienfuegos’ beautifully historic Paseo del Prado. Just before it started, a British TV crew interviewed our MEDICC coordinator, Anna Dorman. Several in our group recognized Mariela Castro and went to have their photos taken with her. While walking over to lead the parade, she motioned to Dale Mitchell (director of a Jamaica Plain agency which provides services to elders in their homes) and Barbara Chicherio (president of the Green Party USA). They were among those who joined her in holding the multi-colored gay banner at the head of the march, which seemed to stop at every other corner for press photos.
Two of the 1,000 marchers towered on stilts above the rest. Soon, we were not just walking but chanting and dancing down Paseo del Prado, accompanied by drums and trumpets. A few wore bright pink shirts. Others sported t-shirts with a double male insignia.
One man who must have been 70 or 80 was overjoyed that Americans were a part of Cuba’s gay rights parade. With perfect English and only a slight accent, he said that he had fought with the US Army in the Korean War.
There were at least as many onlookers as marchers. Many had a very doubtful, almost frowning look; but faces often turned to smiles as they waved to a marcher they knew. Not everyone smiled, though. Some were heard to make comments like “Why do they bring this crap here?”; “Damn queers”; and “They will make our city look dirty.”
The contradiction between past and present, between government policy and social reality, left a deep impression on those who participated. Our MEDICC translator, Georgina (“Yoyi”) Gómez Tablo, said: “This is important to me — my best friend died of AIDS. This shows we are doing something right. It makes me proud of being Cuban. It is so good to be part of a large group in favor of human rights.”
The MEDICC medical consultant, Maricela Torres Esperón, added: “There is a tradition of machismo not just in Cuba but in all of Latin America. People should not be defined by their sexual orientation. I am glad that the government was in favor of the demonstration.”
It is a time of tremendous social transformation which could make Cuba a model for all of Latin America. As Anna Dorman observed, “It is so powerful to be a part of something at a time when the culture is in transition. It is inspiring to see Cubans taking on the liberation of gays and we are here participating with them.”
Medical University of Cienfuegos
After lunch, we heard Mariela Castro direct the open forum at the Medical University of Cienfuegos. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the forum was that basic questions were so frequent. Many in the audience had absorbed myths and wanted answers. “Why are people homosexuals?” “Is homosexuality a disease?” “Do we need to cure it?”
Mariela Castro proved highly skilled at addressing their questions. One person asked how she could justify the cost of sex change operations given that Cuba has such extreme financial stress. She answered the man by illustrating how devastating it would be to spend your entire life feeling that you were in the wrong body. “How would you feel if you woke up one morning to find that you had large breasts? And how would you feel if your penis were to shrink up and become a clitoris?”
Another wanted to know why, as a heterosexual woman, the CENESEX director would be so passionate about sexual orientation. Ms. Castro responded that her mother, the late Vilma Espín, had founded and led the Federation of Cuban Women and devoted her life to bringing gender equality to Cuba. Extending that to full LGBT rights is Mariela Castro’s way to honor her mother and honor the revolution.
MEDICC, Cuba, and Revolutionary Transformation
We would not have been able to see any of this without the coordination of MEDICC, which does research and offers a wide array of programs to increase understanding of Cuban medicine. Our weeklong program included five days of intense participation, learning, and conversation. We arrived in Havana and began by interacting with staff at the semi-rural 4 Caminos University Polyclinic. After visiting a neighborhood doctor’s office (consultorio) we heard a general overview of the way the Cuban medical system approaches gender and health issues. The next day we visited a clinic specializing in natural and traditional medicine, heard of Cuba’s approach to the HIV epidemic, and toured the museum at the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine.
At the middle of the week, we heard a detailed talk on Cuba’s National Maternal and Child Care Program, rode the bus to Cienfuegos, and participated in the social network workshops. The next day was the International Day Against Homophobia activities, including the march down Paseo del Prado, forum with Mariela Castro, and evening “Gala,” a dance performance against homophobia. The final day began with a trip to a maternity home (where women with high-risk pregnancies stay) and return trip to Havana.
This array of activities, typical of MEDICC’s educational programs, was interactive and hands-on.2 A mix of lectures, tours, discussions, forums, marches, and performances offers the wholeness of a gestalt that would be missed by experiencing one part in isolation. It concretizes the reality that medical care is not a static structure but is a dynamically unfolding and developing relationship between science, education, practice, and culture.
Understanding Cuba’s gender health requires exploration into the joys and prejudices that accompany changing gender roles within Cuban society. The International Day Against Homophobia is like the rebirth of a revolution that turned its back on human respect. From its earliest years, the new Cuba devoted itself to providing health care, housing, education, employment, and gender equality as basic rights. But at the same time, the revolution’s own actions reinforced the homophobia that it is now struggling against.
Cuba learned from experience that gender health means placing emphasis on groups at risk. Thus, special attention is now being paid to maternal and child health, those with high-risk pregnancies, and those with sexually transmitted diseases. Cuba has also learned that gender health requires an emphasis on preventive medicine through neighborhood consultorios, polyclinics, and traditional and natural medicine. But gender health must transcend (i.e. include and go beyond) these. Cuba has found that a revolution in health care cannot be complete if people are excluded from social acceptance due to their sexual orientation.
As it changes its laws on homosexuality, Cuba is becoming a model for challenging machismo throughout Latin America. But historically ingrained prejudices cannot be overcome by laws alone. In Cuba, the LGBT community is marching through the streets, demanding an end to ridicule and exclusion. This openness on the part of the victims of prejudice is necessary for closing the gaps in the medical system and fulfilling the humanitarian goals of the revolution. A revolution is nothing if it fails to be an ongoing process of social transformation.
1 The 15 included 11 participants and a MEDICC coordinator from the US and a translator, liaison, and medical consultant from Cuba.
2 MEDICC programs include topics such as Nutrition, Agriculture, and Health; Integrative Medicine; Healthy Aging; Rural Health; Children’s Health; Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation; and Health, Climate Change, and the Environment. For information about its programs, see <http://www.medicc.org/ns/index.php?s=19> or contact MEDICC Program Manager Elena Huezo at <email@example.com> or 510-350-3053.
“Cuba’s Gay Rights March Led by Raul Castro’s Daughter.” Video. The Guardian May 18, 2012.
Gorry, Conner. “Cuban Maternity Homes: A Model to Address At-Risk Pregnancy.” MEDICC Review 13.3 (July 2011): 12-15.
Reed, Gail. “Revolutionizing Gender: Mariela Castro MS.” MEDICC Review 14.2 (April 2012): 6-9.
Sweig, Julia E. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2009.
For another video of the May 17 march in Cienfuegos, see <www.perlavision.icrt.cu/index.php/sociedad/77-sociedad/7851-debaten-en-cienfuegos-acerca-de-problemas-generados-por-la-homofobia>.
Don Fitz produces Green Time TV in St. Louis and is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is sent to members of the Green Party USA. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Jacquelyn Omotalade is Senior Program Manager for California Pacific Public Health Training Center, which seeks to strengthen the technical, scientific, managerial, and leadership competencies of the public health workforce. She can be reached at <email@example.com>.