Friday, June 29, 2012

Mariela Castro: Apologizing for Cuba's homophobia would be hypocritical and won't change the past

Image: Mariela Castro, Director of the Cuban National Center for Sexual Education, listens to a translator at an event held at the New York City Public Library (Photo credit: Andrés Duque/Blabbeando).

NOTE: This will be a slog for some looking for the juicy bits.  If you are looking for those, please skip to the bottom where I've posted three exclusive videos taken at the event.

Background: In the six years since I started this blog, I have covered some pretty amazing developments happening on Latin America when it comes to LGBT rights.  Argentina, the first country in the region to pass a marriage equality law back in 2010, probably leads the pack particularly after just approving the most progressive gender identity law in the world. But I would argue that no other country in the region has experienced as big and fast a turnaround on LGBT issues as Cuba.

No small feat, considering its history of persecution and harassment against the LGBT community in the 1960's and 1970's and the quarantine policies it practiced against people with HIV in the 1980's.

The CENESEX: It would be also fair to say that these changes are due in large measure thanks to Mariela Castro's leadership as the head of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX).

During the past decade or so, Ms. Castro has used her considerable influence to raise the visibility of the LGBT community in Cuba and expose the challenges that they face.  Through the CENESEX, she has also pressured the government to extend rights to the LGBT population.  It doesn't hurt, of course, that Ms. Castro is the daughter of current Cuban president Raúl Castro and the niece of former president Fidel Castro.

My first inkling that change was afoot came in 2006 when a television soap called "The Other Side of the Moon" became a sensation in Cuba. Purportedly, the soap was produced with input from the CENESEX to educate the Cuban public on the risks of HIV transmission, but what made it a must-watch event was that it was the first state-sponsored telenovela to feature a love story between a married man the gay man he falls for.

In 2008, with guidance from the CENESEX, the Cuban health ministry became the first in Latin America to cover the costs for gender-reassignment surgery for transgender individuals.

That same year saw the launch of a series of cultural events on the month of May in observance of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.  The events are now held on an annual basis and has featured the Cuban premieres of of U.S. films such as "Milk" and "If These Walls Could Talk" and a few episodes from "Grey's Anatomy" and "Glee", which might surprise some readers.

Most recently, the CENESEX has sought to increase the visibility of the LGBT community at general public events such as the rallies last year marking the 50th year anniversary of the failed U.S.-led Bay of Pigs invasion.

And while entirely symbolic in nature, in January of this year the Communist Party of Cuba officially embraced LGBT rights for the first time in history by including the following two "Work Objectives" in an official statement meant to spell out its commitments (a PDF of the full document can be downloaded at this Spanish-language page):
Confront prejudice and discriminatory conduct based on a person’s color of skin, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, country of origin and other issues that are contrary to the Constitution and to the law, that threaten national unity, or that limit the free exercise of a person’s freedoms.

Portray Cuban reality in all its diversity through audiovisual, print and digital media in a professional and faithful manner according to their particular characteristics, including the economic, employment and social situation, people’s gender, color of skin, religious beliefs, sexual orientation and country of origin.
Mea-culpas: In the meantime, there have been a couple of less than forthcoming apologies for the sins of Cuba's past.

In July of 2006, Mexican journalist Alejandro Brito was covering the Outgames in Montreal for La Jornada which happened to double as an LGBT-rights confab.  At a meeting with the Cuban delegation, Brito noted that Ms. Castro was preemptive when it came to questions about Cuba's record on LGBT rights.

"There is no repression against gays in Cuba," she said, "what does exist is the same sociocultural response that exists in other nations."

According to Brito, Ms. Castro admitted that the Cuban Communist Party had acknowledged it had been an error to persecute the LGBT community in the 1960's and regretted banning them from reaching top political posts in the 1970's but, when pressed about it, she admitted it was something dealt as an "internal issue" and never discussed with the Cuban public.

Then came Fidel Castro's apology in an August 2010 interview with another journalist from La Jornada in which he chalked up all past abuses to the homophobia of the day and denied he ever personally held any homophobic sentiment. It was only when the reporter insisted on whether the Cuban Communist Party should have been held accountable that Fidel took ownership and admitted that if anyone was to blame it was him (Walter Lippman has a translation of the interview here).

Dissidence: Some critics, mostly those outside the island, have tried to minimize the impact of the CENESEX achievements and have argued that they are part of a public relations campaign to cover up Cuba's past and ongoing human rights violations. Dissident voices within the island also claim that efforts to organize outside the CENESEX umbrella are often met with government interference, censure and outright persecution.

In 2008 reports emerged that the Cuban government had successfully stifled what would have been the first ever Cuban LGBT pride march by harassing organizers and detaining them.  Ms. Castro herself would later categorically deny the allegations and said that the reason the march had failed to materialize was that none of the six organizers were gay or had any followers and that their only intent was to discredit Cuba before the eyes of the world.

Cuba Encuentro, which has a long history of editorializing against the Cuban government, identified at least two of the organizers as being gay: Spokesperson Mario José Delgado González who was identified as the director of the Reynaldo Arenas In-Memoriam LGBT Foundation, and Ignacio Cepero Estrada who was identified as the director of the Cuban Human Rights Commission for People Living with HIV and said to have been detained for at least two hours.

Last year, when the AFP reported that a dozen individuals had finally been able to march down the streets of Havana in what they called the first such event, Mr. Estrada was among them.

Two months later Mr. Estrada would go on to gain wider notoriety when he announced he would be marrying Wendy Iriepa, a transgender woman who had worked briefly for the CENESEX, and called it Cuba's "first gay marriage".  Ireipa had reportedly left the CENESEX alleging that she had been victimized by the agency but the couple said there was no animosity and said they had sent a wedding invite to Ms. Castro.  The maid of honor? Cuba's best known dissident voice Yoanni Sánchez.  The BBC was thrilled.

Adding to the parochial feel of the confrontation, Ms. Castro actually responded to the wedding invite.  "I am thrilled [Ms. Iriepa] is getting married even if it's not to a heterosexual man as she would have wanted," she told the EFE news agency tongue firmly in cheek, "but it seems she found the love of her life and we wish her much happiness".

She then went on to say that there were foreign forces at play. "There is North American government funding to launch LGBT organizations to counter the positions [of the CENESEX]," she told EFE, "It's political, it's a media campaign against Cuba that has a lot of money behind it and there are people who let themselves be seduced by such things."

I have opened with this long introduction because there is a lot out there about Cuban politics and dissident voices but few, if any, that thread these tensions within a recent LGBT context. It is also a preamble that contextualizes why I was looking forward to a rare U.S. appearance by Ms. Castro that took place at the New York Public Library on May 29th.

Controversy: The event announcement at the Library came only a few days after Ms. Castro got news that she had been granted a visa, a decision by the Department of State that immediately drew withering criticism from long-time critics of the Cuban government.

Before coming to New York, Ms. Castro made a few appearances in San Francisco where she got the ball rolling by insulting Castro government critics in Florida as a tiny "Cuban mafia" holding U.S. policy towards Cuba hostage to their rancor.  She also made some headlines by telling anyone who would listen that, yes, she would vote for Barack Obama for president if she was able to cast a vote in the U.S. presidential elections.

The Library also came in for some harsh criticism for changing the registration process only days before the event from one that was open to the public on a 'first come, first seated basis' to one that was by registration only with full capacity reached almost immediately as the change was announced online.  Anti-Castro critics accused the Library of deliberately manipulating the registration process as to giving them the power to choose who could get in and who to keep out.  The Library absolutely denied the allegations.

During the event I was able to sit in the second row as press and noticed that the first row had been reserved for dignitaries and staff members of the Permanent Mission of Cuba to the United Nations.  No surprise there since securing Ms. Castro's appearance must have taken some diplomatic wrangling.  My hunch is that while I very much doubt that Library staff specifically set out to select a specific audience it would not surprise me if the Mission received notice of the change in registration policy and sent out alerts to make sure their allies registered on time.  In any case, where the critics are correct is in that the event turned out to be unusually welcoming and warm towards Ms. Castro.

The program: So what actually happened at the event? Glad you asked because I took some notes!

The event started almost an hour late and lasted a little more than sixty minutes.  Carey Maloney, Co-Chair of the Library's LGBT Committee, began by introducing Ms. Castro and guest moderator Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

In an opening statement with the help of a translator, Ms. Castro said she had prepared a PowerPoint presentation she had decided to scratch due to time limitations. Nevertheless, she said she had been very impressed with the number of illustrations about Cuban art and culture that Microsoft had included in the software.  It was the first of many lines that drew hearty laughter from the audience.

Instead, Ms. Castro introduced a 10 minute documentary reflecting some of the events that took place at the 2009 anti-homophobia cultural festival (Pt. 1 is here and Pt. 2 is here).

First question - Transgender rights in Cuba: Ms. Carey began by making note of the controversy surrounding Ms. Castro's visit and the many e-mails she had received in favor and against the event. To start, though, Ms. Carey alluded to an earlier off-stage conversation they'd apparently had and she asked Ms. Castro to share the journey she had taken from an advocate for women's rights to one who was a staunch advocate for transgender rights.  She congratulated Ms. Castro on getting the government to cover gender-reassignment surgery back in 2008 and asked her to explain the process that took place before securing that victory.

Ms. Castro's response: Ms. Castro began by thanking Mr. Maloney and his husband Hermes Mallea for their hospitality and pointedly saluted the fact that their marriage was now recognized by the State of New York.  She also thanked the event organizers for giving her an opportunity to meet Ms. Carey.

She then spoke of the groundbreaking work her mother Vilma Castro Espín had done on women's rights and Cuba's vanguard role on the issue. She noted that Cuba had instituted an equal wages law back in 1959 mandating that women must be paid the same as men for equal amounts of work and that the Cuban women's movement had embraced gender issues as far back as the 1960's giving them the advantage of seeing the issue as a mental construct.  "We are all transvestites, an invention, a fashion, a style," she said.

She spoke of the human habit of controlling and dominating others through the invention of rigid schemes and the serious trouble some people could get into simply by breaking away from those schemes.  And she said that by focusing on gender as a construct provided a tool to confront those privileges.

Women in Cuba were already challenging homophobia and transphobia as far back as the 1960's, she said, but progress was extremely slow because they lacked the methodological tools to change society's attitudes.  She reminded audience members that homophobia at that time was not unique to Cuba and that most of the countries in the world saw homosexuality as an illness that should be stamped out.  And she reminded the audience that, to this day, most medical science leaders throughout the world still categorize being transgender as a mental illness in a way that excludes transgender individuals from the rest of the world. "Why pathologize and stigmatize human beings," she asked, "are we all permanently ill people?"

Providing an answer to her own question, Ms. Castro said that it was a ploy to make others feel inferior while sustaining heterosexual privilege and not having to share power.  She argued it was the same reason why minorities keep being attacked as being immoral, ill, evil beings and pedophiles and why all bad things in the world are often blamed on minorities.

Ms. Castro took scientists to task for helping to create a world of power imbalance. "How many of these illnesses were named after male doctors?" she asked, "A male doctor was the one who first invented the female G Spot as if women didn't already know they had one!"

The audience roared.

Ms. Castro then said that knowledge was power and that, unfortunately, there were many ignorant people in the world who let doctors have "medical omnipotence" over them. "When people feel bad," she said, "people run to their priest, their witch-doctor, their doctor, their santero."

In this context, Ms. Castro argued that sexual education was a liberating force and represented a form of human emancipation and that all forms of discrimination stemmed from the same root and led to inequality.

Finally, Ms. Castro shared an analogy between discrimination, the economy and a piece of bread. She said that when there is not enough bread for everybody but someone wants more than what they received, they have to come up with a convincing reason for others to willingly  hand their bread over.  Once they get their way they gain power.  And once they gain power they gain the ability to denigrate other people's religion, call them ugly or call them fat - and they can come up with a number of reasons to take away people's rights.

"When we fight for LGBT people we are not taking rights from heterosexuals," she said, "we are sharing privilege and power and the same is true for transgender rights."

Second question - Respect for different political and religious views: Highlighting once again the flood of e-mail messages she had received in advance of the event, Ms. Carey said many people clearly saw Ms. Castro as a powerful advocate for LGBT rights but added that to others this seemed to be contradictory in the broader context of human rights in Cuba.

"Many of us feel that LGBT progress is about the freedom to express our true self," Ms. Carey stated and asked Ms. Castro if she would be willing to expand her advocacy to issues of freedom of self and expression which included "people with different political and religious views."

Ms. Castro's response: Saying that she had understood only part of the question, Ms. Castro said that her work on LGBT issues was inclusive of other communities that experienced discrimination.

NOTE: At this point, someone in the audience interrupted Ms. Castro and translated the second part of the question. In what must have looked as planned to most of the audience, the first translator left the podium and was replaced by my friend Pedro Julio Serrano who was there as the Communications Manager at the Task Force and told me later that he was just as shocked to have ended up translating for Ms. Castro.

Ms. Castro's response (continued): Ms. Castro said that she too imagined what Cuba might become; a Cuba that might be able to sustain full sovereignty.

That elicited a spontaneous standing ovation from the audience and shouts of "Long live socialist Cuba!"

By 'a sovereign Cuba', Ms. Castro continued, she meant having to choose their own path to freedom.

She said that all representatives to the Cuban National Assembly were chosen by a popular vote and that their legislative process was a form of socialism that always sought full justice.

Ms. Castro then argued that by standing up to other nations, the Cuban government actually practiced a form of global dissidence.  She said that she considered herself to be a dissident and saw all the leaders of the Cuban Revolution as dissidents in that they held positions that made other governments 'uncomfortable.'

Picking up themes from earlier in the presentation, Ms. Castro said that the Cuban government was often discriminated for having chosen, as she called it, "the historic process towards full emancipation of the human being."

Clearly enjoying the moment as well as the thunderous applause from the audience, Ms. Castro stopped and smiled and then challenged the reporters present to quote her directly. "I want to see the 'freed' ones who will publish that!" she exclaimed.

Finally, Ms. Castro said that if there was a reason why she was fighting so hard to change the cultural heritage of reproducing discrimination that existed in her own country it wasn't just on behalf of the CENESEX but also to improve the lives of the LGBT community in the island.  Invoking Brazilian philosopher and education theorist Paolo Freire, she said this involved a spontaneous lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and heterosexual movement - an LGBTIH movement which was inclusive of the 'I' as in 'intersex' and the 'H' as in 'heterosexual' - coming together to change society and the world towards full human emancipation.

This, she said, was the reason other nations wanted to punish Cuba.

Third question - Marriage equality: Ms. Carey mentioned recent news reports in which Ms. Castro had gone on the record as being in favor of same-sex civil unions and other reports that said the Cuban government might be ready to allow same-sex marriages.  She said it was unclear from reports if Ms. Castro herself would be fighting for marriage equality in Cuba and asked her to clarify what her position was on same-sex unions.

Ms. Castro's response: Ms. Castro stated that a few years ago the CENESEX had approached the Cuban Communist Party and proposed a study a study on whether there were any codes and laws that were discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation and the Party agreed to back it.  She also said that when a new family code was proposed, the CENESEX had worked with several non-governmental organizations to pour over the family code text to make sure that it would extend same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.  "After all, who am I to deny those same rights?" she said, and added "There is no argument there from me and no reason for it not to be equal."

But when Ms. Castro specifically brought up the issues of same-sex marriage and adoption rights for gays, she said she met tremendous opposition from business interest groups and religious institutions and was told they would not go anywhere. Instead, the CENESEX presented a strategic plan to educate the Cuban public on these issues and got the go ahead from the Communist Party.

Speaking about the current situation, Ms. Castro said that there still existed a firm resistance from Cuban society to these issues and that it was clear that if they were put up for a vote they would be rejected.  But she also said that the CENESEX had continued to work tirelessly on educating the public to change these attitudes and that this was the first year she truly felt that Cuban media had finally come around and began to support LGBT rights.

Ultimately, Ms. Castro said there were no current efforts to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples or, as she also framed it, to "touch the sacramental word that is 'marriage'

"In Cuba almost nobody gets married anyway," she joked.

Ms. Castro also said there were no plans to touch adoption rights and that this was based on the recommendation of LGBT advocates working with the CENESEX who advised her that it was too loaded an issue to try to push forward at the moment. She added that it might not make sense on a practical basis either since there were very few children in the Cuban adoption system and a waiting list of 300 heterosexual couples awaiting a chance to adopt.

As a result, the CENESEX had decided to focus on securing patrimonial rights for same-sex couples and making sure that when one partner dies the other has the right to handle inheritance rights.  Specifically, she said, the CENESEX would focus on these areas:
  • Establish within the new family code the legal responsibility all Cuban families have towards members of the family who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
  • Establish protections under child abuse regulations for children who come out or are outed to their families and end up being insulted, abused or kicked out of home by their own parents.
  • Monitor a number of upcoming legislative changes to secure that the laws spell out specific protections for the LGBT community wherever they apply and, in doing so, insure the full inclusion of the LGBT community in the Cuban Revolution.
With that, the floor was opened to audience questions.

First audience question - Cuba's democratic LGBT process: Identifying himself as a member of Cuba Solidarity Movement in New York, a man said that Ms. Castro had a lot of friends in New York City who were fighting against the U.S. "war" against Cuba and advocating for the release of "The Cuban Five."  He said that in the United States, the Cuban government was often portrayed as a dictatorship and asked Ms. Castro to talk more about the political process in Cuba and the democratic way in which LGBT rights are are taken up legislatively.

Ms. Castro's response: Ms. Castro said that the Cuban democratic process still had room to improve but was working fine.  Legislative representatives were voted into office by members of the communities in which they lived, she said, and measures were taken to insure that each person's ballot choice remained private. She also said that political candidates were not allowed to run campaign ads which meant they had to rely entirely on community support to be elected.

As a result, Ms. Castro said, the Cuban legislature was truly diverse and ranked 4th in female representation among all legislative bodies in the world.  Where improvement was needed, she said, was in increasing racial representation and insuring that people of all ages gained access to the legislative body.  She noted that her own father had made an issue of the later back in January when he said that he was concerned about "the prominence of old people" like himself at the top echelons of the Cuban Communist Party.

Ms. Castro said that there were decisions taken by the Cuban Communist Party she liked and others not so much but said she still had trust in the process. She said that she found some decisions to be too dogmatic or dialectical for her taste and a few she felt took the country a step backward. But she also saw others as a step in the right direction including a resolution approved at the national congress back in January in which the Party, for the first time, had backed a resolution to fight all forms of discrimination in Cuban society, including that based on sexual orientation and gender identity [NOTE: The actual text, as I mention in the introduction mentions sexual orientation and gender but I don't believe it actually mentions 'gender identity'].

She said that these developments indicated that there was political will but said that political will in itself was not enough and yet it reflected the current state in which they found themselves right now and that it gave her hope that Cubans would eventually gain full justice and equality.  She said that humans had a tendency towards discrimination and that overcoming certain ideas would take a continuous battle. "It is the difficult, challenging and complex creative process in which we are at the moment", she said.

Second audience question - Should Cuba apologize for having sent LGBT individuals to forced labor camps?: Identifying herself as Anabel Evora, an audience member stood up and said that she had been born in Puerto Rico to Cuban parents and still considered herself to be more Cuban than Puerto Rican. She said she knew the Cuban community in Miami from having lived there and was well aware how difficult it might be to work with them but she said that she suspected many of them might stand with Ms. Castro and support her work if only for a single reason.

Ms. Evora said that many members of the Cuban LGBT community that lived in Miami had fled the island after being held in concentration camps for being gay.

At this point, Ms. Castro stepped in and said Ms. Evora was probably referring to individuals who participated in Cuba's mandatory military service, including gay and transgender individuals, but denied there had ever been concentration camps in Cuba.

Ms. Evora said the issue was that these men were still held against their will for being gay and said that they might appreciate it if Cuba apologized for the way they had been treated.

Some audience members who were clearly annoyed asked Ms. Evora if she was done with her question but Ms. Castro hushed them and calmly told her to go on.

Ms. Evora finished by asking if Ms. Castro might be able to talk about it with her father Raúl.

Ms. Castro's response (VIDEO): I wasn't planning to capture any part of the presentation on video partly because I didn't think that I had enough memory in my portable camera to do so but I wanted to capture Ms. Castro's response to this specific question and so I did.

Ms. Castro thanked Ms. Evora for a "wonderful question" and said that the estimated number of Cubans living in the United States was 1.5 million which she thought was a wonderful thing. She said she enjoyed close communication with many Cuban immigrants but blamed what she called "a tiny group of people without scruples" for manipulating information and lying about Cuba with the sole intention of enriching themselves at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.

Ms. Castro blamed them for the travel ban to Cuba and said that this was a violation of the civil rights of the people of the United States.  She ended with an anecdote about President John. F. Kennedy not having wanted to sign the Cuban travel ban because he didn't want to see his access to Cuban cigars restricted and noted that the ban was only enshrined into legislative policy when President Ronald Reagan handed the power to decide on it to Congress.  The audience corrected her on that last point and said President Bill Clinton was actually the one who took that step.

You can see a low-quality video of that part of her response here.

Ms. Castro then discussed government-sponsored homophobia throughout the world and the fact that a number of countries today still have death penalties for gays.  She referred to the majority of Caribbean countries that still impose jail terms for anyone found to be gay and said that these policies needed to change.

Ms. Castro said allegations that gays were ever sent to concentration camps in Cuba were false but said that there were a few years in which gay men and transgender women who enrolled in mandatory military service were sent to segregated Military Production Support Units - or UMAPs - which kept them separate from the heterosexual quarters.  She revealed that the CENESEX had started an oral history project just this year to document these experiences and claimed that the military itself had decided to shut down the gay units three years after they were instituted because the policy was not working.  She made no mention of the hard labor endured by some at the UMAP's and compared the homophobic treatment of some individuals to that of other governments at the time.

In perhaps the most disappointing part of her presentation, Ms. Castro shot down the idea that Cuba might ever apologize for its past treatment of LGBT individuals in the island.  That part of her response starts at the 2:10 mark.

"Asking for forgiveness would be an act of hypocrisy and won't change the past," Ms. Castro answered before saying that an apology would only benefit Cuban critics.  She insisted that what was needed, instead, was to build on the current track and continue to fight for LGBT rights in Cuba.

She later argued that if Cuba did ask for forgiveness, then it would be up to other nations to ask for forgiveness for an array of human rights violations which meant you'd never see the end of it.  An easy way to evade responsibility.

Third and last audience question - How to keep the LGBT movement from replicating patriarchal models:  Naomi Brussel from WBAI stood up and said that she had visited Cuba in 1980, 2000 and 2009 and seen the changes that had taken place on the issue during that time.  She asked if Ms. Castro thought it would eventually be possible for an "autonomous" LGBT group like the Task Force to form in Cuba perhaps indirectly raising the issue that few voices represented the face of the LGBT community in Cuba other than Mariela Castro's.

Mariela Castro's response (VIDEO): Ms. Castro said that she expected such a time would come but that in the meantime she was dedicating her time to train activists from a "profound ideology of non-exclusion".  She said she was worried that in promoting LGBT rights others might promote certain hegemonic ideologies that she sees in the global LGBT movement that perpetuate patriarchal models. "Gay men dominate in ways that hurt the lesbian and transgender rights movements," she said.

This is were the conversation picks up in this final video:

Ms. Castro said that she was surprised by what she saw at The Castro museum in San Francisco when she saw documents and flyers from the 1960's showing that the modern LGBT rights movement used to be much more open to different movements and ideologies and embraced activists from the Communist Party of the United States. She also said she was shocked to see that they didn't just fight for LGBT right but also other sorts of discrimination including that based on race.  She joked that for years she thought she was the one who had invented such a progressive outlook.  To close, she argued that it was the fight for HIV funding that created divisions with people fighting over who experienced more discrimination than others.

The hosts of the event closed the presentation and a member of the audience handed Ms. Castro a bouquet of flower.

Accepting a bouquet of flowers from an audience member, Ms. Castro then led the crowd in a chant to "Free the Cuban Five".

Coda: It has been a month to the day since the event took place and her comments are still reverberating online and in the press.  Ms. Castro herself is back in Cuba and posted her own thoughts on the visit on her blog in Spanish and English ("A Message of Friendship").

In the meantime life goes on.  Ignacio Estrada and his wife Wendy Iriepa were among fifty or so dissident LGBT activists who announced a second annual pride march to take place this Sunday and took part in a 'kiss-in' yesterday to draw attention to their efforts.

According to reports they also handed a document to parliamentary representatives in which they ask the government to protect their rights.  Interestingly, they also demand that the CENESEX launch an investigation of the UMAPs and their discriminatory record during the 1960's which Ms. Castro preempted in New York by saying that an investigation had been launched.

Extra: The editors of The Nation magazine also had a chance to sit down with Mariela Castro during her stay in New York City and posted the following video on their online site ("Should the United Nations police sexual discrimination around the globe?").

I'll ad one more detail just in case people are still reading this far down the post: Even as Ms. Castro was evasive about Cuba's responsibility for human rights abuses and invokes the fact that other nations had worse records when it comes to LGBT rights, Iranian Vice President Ali Saeedlu was in Havana announcing "bilateral ties" with Cuba on the same day she appeared at the New York Public Library.

Iran, of course, is one of the countries Ms. Castro indirectly invoked as having death penalties for gay men found guilty of sodomy. One would think that if Cuba is truly committed to eradicating homophobia throughout the world, they would put pressure on Iran to change their policies as well.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Wilson Cruz on this week's EW 'Coming Out' cover story

"Um, one of these ain't like the others. I think even EW knew this which is why they included Ms. Wanda Sykes - whom I love - on the cover, but then they barely mention her in the article. It is an interesting and ultimately positive article but for that one glaring omission. The truth is that yes, coming out if you're male and white might be less of an issue, but actors of color must still contend with the other truth: If you're an actor of color you're opportunities for quality work are ALREADY limited, which is why so few POC gay actors come out. So, yes, it is a new day... for some. AS USUAL. ...just sayin'..." - Out Latino actor Wilson Cruz on this week's Entertainment Weekly cover story as posted on Facebook (quote reprinted by permission).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Guest Post: When Pride alone is not enough

As you know if you read this blog, I rarely feature guest posts. This is one of those exceptions and it happens to be an extraordinary opinion piece by someone I consider to be one of my best friends, Gloria Nieto.  Additionally, I'll make this pitch even if she hasn't asked me to do so: If you know of any job leads for one fierce Latina lesbian please feel free to contact her through Twitter. Details at the bottom of this post...

Photo: Gloria Nieto appearing on Orgullo Latino, an In The Life pride month special airing on some PBS stations.

When Pride alone is not enough
by Gloria Nieto

June 19, 2012

Ah, the sun is out, the bees are buzzing, the Pride flags are unfurled all over the country and many LGBT people across the globe are planning what to wear to the biggest parade of their year. The change in décor can mean only one thing - Pride month is upon us!

I have been lucky enough to get a couple of spots on national media this June, which together encompass some pretty big portions of my life right now – and where I am, unfortunately, is not cause for unambiguous celebration.

In The Life, the national LGBT newsmagazine airing on PBS, is doing an episode, “Orgullo Latino,” on Latino/a LGBT people during this month of Pride. I am in that show because of my involvement with what used to be the national LGBT organization, LLEGO. It used to be based in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, it no longer exists.

I was also featured in a recent report on NPR’s All Things Considered about long-term unemployment. I am now three-plus years without a job with no change in sight. I am no longer getting interviews for anything. It has always been my contention that I am past the expiration date for employment these days. I have all the basics one would think an employer would want: marketable skills, a history of success and even awards.

But I am fifty-seven years old. I am pretty sure that the dye job doesn’t cover the wrinkles popping up around my eyes. As I said in the NPR interview, I am looking at the prospect of never working again in my life.

I am now in the group of people I have always worked to assist: Those with diminished opportunities and limited resources, and who are struggling to make it one month to the next. My physical condition, which no one can figure out, does not allow me to just take a job at the local Michael’s or PetSmart. I am on disability, but I don’t have insurance.

This can make Pride month difficult. The long-term effects of this unemployment on my psyche and sense of self-worth are really an enormous detriment to facing every day with any kind of hope, let alone Pride.

Being unemployed does not help when it comes to experiencing pride – and nor does not having a national LGBT Latino organization. We are not there at the meetings at the White House. We, the Latino LGBT community, don’t have a representative for our very specific concerns regarding immigration, schools, hate crimes, and employment discrimination.

In my previous life as a member of the Democratic National Committee, I was able to have conversations with candidates like John Kerry, Howard Dean, Tom Udall, Bill Richardson, Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin. I was part of a small meeting with President Bill Clinton in the White House. As a Latina lesbian, my experience was different than many of my colleagues who were there representing their respective interests. For example, I was not there to represent the transgender community because that is not my experience. Being supportive of my brothers and sisters does not make me an expert nor make me a representative of communities I am not part of.

In the same way, I don’t expect our national organizations to represent my experience as part of the broad advocacy of the LGBT communities. I do, however, expect to see Latino representation at all levels in every organization. I think this has been missing for a while.

In that regard, also, some of us who are unemployed and have a rich history of success, failure and breaking barriers are still ignored. Somehow we are no longer valued in so many different places, and all our skills are wasted while we try to find things to do and ways to be helpful. We continue to seek to show our Pride in whatever way we can in the limited ways we can do it.

I volunteer at a couple of different places now. I am learning more about urban farming. We eat the potatoes I grow, and the tomatoes are hopefully coming in big bunches soon. There are onions and garlic, squash and cucumbers. My animals are happy because I am home all the time.

During Pride month, I will continue to be proud of who I am in my community and with my family and neighbors. My Latino community will continue to find ways to support each other in the ways we know. It is my hope that some day we will find a way to recreate a national organization that speaks for us in our distinctive way. Until then, seguiremos celebrando nuestro Orgullo. We will continue to celebrate our Pride.

About the author: Gloria Nieto is a Latina lesbian activist and a native Californian. She has spent many years in the contact world of politics working on campaigns, as a member of the Democratic National Committee, President of the Silicon Valley LGBT Democratic Club and as a founding member of Marriage Equality Silicon Valley. She is also the only Latina lesbian to have ever spoken on the floor of the National Democratic Convention.  She currently writes for City Brights - the online blog section of the San Francisco Chronicle - and at Miss Wild Thing. Gloria lives with her esposa, three dogs and three cats and is an avid gardener and Sharks fan.

Editor's note: This guest post has also been cross-posted at LGBT POV by journalist Karen Oacamb.  Karen ads an introductory note that is well-worth reading. Read her comment here.

  • The full episode of In The Life's Orgullo Latino can be seen here.
  • Gloria Nieto tweets at @sjgloria

Monday, June 18, 2012

Chile, Colombia and Buenos Aires to lift gay blood donor bans?

Photo: "I am not allowed because I am gay" reads a flyer plastered on top of a poster that says "Thanks for donating blood". Image from a 2007 protest organized by the Argentinean Homosexual Community (CHA).

With a number of legislators renewing their push to have a blood donor ban on gay and bisexual men lifted in the United States, the Irish health minister doubling down against a similar push in the European country and the French health ministry taking the opposite road by announcing they are taking steps to lift their own ban, there seems to be an extraordinary amount of international movement on this issue. That includes several countries from Latin America.

Chile: On May 23rd representatives from the Chilean Homosexual Integration and Liberation Movement (MOVILH) emerged from a meeting with the country's health minister, Jaime Mañalich, and announced that the government would stop enforcing a law banning gay men from donating blood. MOVILH had made a similar announcement in 2009 under a different presidential administration but nothing seemed to come from it.

Under current guidelines public and private clinics are required to ask potential donors about their sexual orientation and turn away men who have had sex with other men without protection. The new measure, which will take effect in July, would specifically prohibit clinics from asking the sexual orientation of prospective donors.  This time, the government appears to mean what they say.

In a statement posted on the health ministry's website on May 24th, Minister Mañalich stated that banning gay men from donating blood "made no sense from a scientific standpoint and even less when taking discrimination into consideration".

In the meantime, on June 5th, the MOVILH brought forward two cases in which gay men were kept from donating blood at two medical centers.  At least one of the clinics apologized that same day and said that it was a misunderstanding stemming from brochures left in the waiting room spelling out the old regulations.  The clinic announced they would remove all brochures and await new material from the government come July.

Colombia: Meanwhile, on May 28th, El Espectador reported that the Colombian Constitutional Court had ruled in favor of a man from Bucaramanga who argued that a clinic had discriminated against him when they asked about his sexual orientation and turned him away when he revealed he was gay.

Part of the Court's ruling reads as follows:
The risk of contamination depends on the behavioral risk and not on the donor population; hence, a heterosexual person who has multiple sexual relations with unknown persons without protection on a long term basis than a gay man with a long term partner who uses protection.  The [clinic's] guidelines do not take this into account, which makes them worthless or inadequate.  Furthermore, public policy should focus on selecting all donors based on high risk behaviors, instead of excluding donors based on who they choose to have sexual relations with.
This Court has determined that individuals and state agencies should stop perpetuating discrimination against the homosexual community in a manner that sends a message of stigma as in the current case.
The Court also stated that using sexual orientation as criteria was unnecessary because all blood centers are required to test blood donations for HIV.  A 1996 regulation still in the books bans anyone who has had "homosexual relations" in the past fifteen years from donating blood.

The Court ordered the Colombian health ministry to draft new regulations. No word on the health ministry's response so far.

Argentina: In the meantime, a Buenos Aires councilmember has introduced a municipal bill that would ban clinics from asking blood donors about their sexual orientation.

Councilmember Maximiliano Ferraro's bill, introduced just this week, says "information will not be required from donors regarding their gender identity, personal or sexual life, or any other information that discriminated or violates a person's right to their privacy".

If it gains momentum and is passed, it would only apply to Buenos Aires.

In 2006, the Argentinean National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI) recommended the Argentinean blood donor ban be lifted and the Argentinean health ministry agreed to take a look at ways to lift the ban.  But the process apparently has since stalled.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mari Carmen Aponte confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador after Democrats break Republican filibuster

Led by Nevada Senator Harry Reid, this afternoon Senate Democrats were finally able to break a Republican-led filibuster against the Obama administration's nominee for U.S. Ambassador to the United States, Mari Carmen Aponte, and gain her confirmation.

Nine Republican Senators, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, joined 53 Democrats in invoking cloture securing the 60 votes needed to break the filibuster. Minutes the Senate confirmed the new Ambassador by voice vote before adjourning for the week.

A rising political star and possible Republican vice presidential nominee, Rubio had drawn withering criticism for voting against her last year not on her merits but because he wanted to use the vote to pressure the Obama administration to adopt his conservative interests in the Caribbean and Central America.

It didn't help that Ms. Aponte had actually served as interim ambassador for fifteen months before she was forced to step down when a confirmation failed to materialize last year.  She now will return to El Salvador after a six month absence.

Rubio, who is a Cuban-American, was particularly assailed by the Puerto Rican press who saw his vote as a possible nail in the coffin on the diplomatic career of a well-respected Puerto Rican figure.  In December he tried to make amends by saying he was ready to vote for Ms. Aponte and to bring some of his Republican colleagues to vote for her as well.

Yesterday, on the eve of the vote, Rubio was singing a different song indicating he had no idea how his Republican colleagues would vote and preemptively washing his hands of any responsibility should the confirmation fail to materialize.

In a statement released after the vote Rubio continued to whine accusing Democrats of "playing divisive ethnic politics" and trying to "divide two groups of Hispanics." LOL.

Particularly egregious, at least to me, was South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint's ultra-homophobic stand against the Aponte nomination, taking specific issue with an OpEd she wrote for an El Salvador newspaper saluting the Central American nation's effort to protect the rights of LGBT Salvadoreans.

Let's take one more look at statements he made on the floor of the Senate's Foreign relations Committee last year:

Today,  let's savor DeMint's failure to sustain the filibuster. He was among the 37 'nays' earlier this afternoon.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

USAID to launch LGBT Global Development Partnership Initiative

[UPDATE - 6/14/12: I have been told that Monday's event has been cancelled and will be rescheduled for the fall]

Few details are publicly available but this is something big.

On Monday, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is holding a gathering at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC, to celebrate LGBT pride month and to launch their Global LGBT Equality Partnership.

USAID was launched by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to handle civilian foreign aid. It operates based on guidelines from the U.S. President, the U.S. Secretary of State and the National Security Council and its goal is to provide "economic, development and humanitarian assistance around the world in support of the foreign policy goals of the United States."

The Partnership would make it current USAID policy to make federal foreign aid available to agencies working to strengthen LGBT rights throughout the world although I assume it would limit it to a number of nations that meet certain diplomatic standards and to organizations that have the infrastructure to handle federal grants from the United States.

From the event press announcement:
Eighty-five countries and territories criminalize LGBT behavior, seven countries have a death penalty for same-sex sexual activity, and fewer than 50 countries punish anti-gay discrimination in full or in part. The partnership will enhance LGBT equality through providing a greater voice in civil society and political processes, increased access to services including police and justice systems and improved economic security.
The Partnership will cast a worldwide net but, speaking specifically about Latin America, a lot of the limited funding that LGBT-rights organizations get comes from local and European sources. One of the few exceptions when it comes to U.S. foundations has been the work of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice which has long recognized the benefit of supporting international LGBT work.

I know from sources that USAID has been laying the groundwork and already granted some awards.  Details will have to wait another day.

The initiative follows a presidential directive last year to use U.S. foreign aid money to secure and protect LGBT rights throughout the world and the exemplary work done by the State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on these same issues.

On a related matter, today the U.S. Department of State released the following pride month message from Hillary in which she addresses several of the Department of State's international achievements.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Chile: "Why do you want a gender identity law?"

Photo: Jimena stands up for her transgender son Mitchell in a newly launched campaign urging passage of a progressive gender identity law in Chile (screen capture).

Transgender rights activists in Chile are taking a page from activists in Argentina in launching an effort to pass a comprehensive gender identity law along the lines of the one that just went into effect in the neighboring country.

The successful efforts in Argentina included a number of brilliant transgender rights ads that sought to change public perception about transgender individuals and highlight the discrimination they face on a daily basis (see this, this and this).

The Chilean Transexual Organiztion for the Dignity of Diversity (OTD) has already produced a couple of ads confronting discrimination against transgender individuals but yesterday they launched a specific campaign advocating for a nationwide gender identity law.

It has its own theme - "For the Dignity of Identity" - and its own webpage  They also want the campaign to be interactive and are urging transgender rights advocates and allies to join them and upload their own videos on YouTube answering a simple question: "Why do you want a gender identity law?" and tagging them with the title "Suma-T" (a play on the word 'súmate' which means 'join us').

You can check the first two submissions here and here.

You can follow the campaign on Facebook here.

Here is the inaugural campaign video launched yesterday by the OTD (turn annotations on for translated subtitles)...