Delegation from U.S. reports “The Cuban Communist Party supports progress for LGBTQ people”
Havana, Cuba – In a rose and butter-yellow building held up by Greek columns, Cuba’s LGBTQ activists work every day to advance equality. This building, formerly someone’s mansion and now repurposed by the socialist government, houses the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX).
From May 7 to 14, an LGBTQ delegation from the U.S. got to meet with CENESEX organizers, health workers and other public servants.
CENESEX helped organize hundreds of neighborhood meetings to debate and amend the new Families Code, covered in our last delegation report. The law went through 25 drafts to account for commentary from the people. But well before the Code, CENESEX led the country through advance after advance on LGBTQ issues.
“The basis of a socialist democracy”
In 1972, the Federation of Cuban Women founded the National Sex Education Working Group, CENESEX’s predecessor. This was a response to the growing demand for sex education as women gained reproductive autonomy.
The working group helped provide hormones and eventually surgery to a trans man for the first time in Cuba’s history. It had to fight strong pushback from conservatives for doing so. But it only gained strength and support.
By 1989, the working group became CENESEX, its own government organization under the Ministry of Health. Over the next few years, CENESEX fought hard for transgender people. By 2007, it won approval from the legislature to ensure free gender-affirming surgery as part of the national health system.
“We are building the basis of a socialist democracy. Socialism cannot be declared by law or decree, it is built by consensus,” CENESEX director Mariela Castro told the delegation.
The surgeon who performed Cuba’s first gender-affirming surgery would later transition herself, with CENESEX’s support.
Today, CENESEX is creating work teams to promote gender medicine access in every province. The organization also teaches trans inclusivity to government agencies, including tourism officials and the police. The delegation asked Gustavo Valdés Pi of CENESEX where a trans person could go if they experienced police harassment. He pointed to a corner of his building’s wrap-around indoor balcony.
“To the second floor, that’s our free legal office” he said. Cuba has far fewer police officers than the U.S., and they suffer severe penalties for misconduct. They are also frequently unarmed.
“You cannot just export our health system”
The delegation met with representatives of three LGBTQ community networks. “Men Sexually Relating with Men” (HSH) is officially its own agency of non-professional healthcare workers under the Ministry of Health. It’s mainly active in preventing HIV transmission. The “Network of Lesbian and Bisexual Women,” directly under CENESEX, combats bullying and runs national workshops promoting lesbian and bisexual visibility.
“TransCuba,” the largest network, was founded to address three main problems of police harassment, surgery access, and legal ID recognition. It also distributes condoms and helps to prevent HIV transmission. While the organization mostly recruits trans women, members like Verde Gil Jímenez of Santa Clara are leading programs for trans men.
To learn about the world-class healthcare system at the base of Cuba’s HIV prevention, the delegation also visited a polyclinic. The country ensures that doctors are accessible in every neighborhood. CENESEX integrates its educational programs throughout the health system, and polyclinics participate in the annual “working days against homophobia and transphobia.”
“You cannot just export our health system because it depends on the political will of the government,” said Dr. Ruben García Lopez de Villavicenci of the Plaza de la Revolución Polyclinic.
“The U.S. has tried to recruit from CENESEX”
When asked about their biggest obstacle to promoting LGBTQ rights, Cuban activists were clear: the United States.
Valdés Pi discussed how, since the defeat of the Soviet Union, Christian fundamentalists trickled into the island. They came with American money and preached bigotry.
The softer imperialist approach tries to co-opt community organizers. “The U.S. has tried to recruit from CENESEX and use them against us,” Castro told the delegation. She noted that recruits get paid speaking tours across the U.S. but do nothing for the LGBTQ community in Cuba.
The United States’ criminal blockade prevents hormones, surgical supplies, condoms, syringes and other basic medical necessities from entering the island. The delegation brought 10,000 condoms and a suitcase full of medical equipment to combat this. After a visit to a biotechnology center, the group learned how the blockade impacts the U.S. as well. Because of it, U.S. residents can’t access Cuba’s breakthrough treatments for cancer, diabetes, COVID-19 and other diseases.
“Down with the blockade, up with the love!”
While LGBTQ Cubans can’t count on their northern neighbor, they can count on their party. “The Communist Party supports progress for LGBTQ people. The Party promoted the first gender affirming surgery, discrimination protections in the 2019 constitution, and supports CENESEX. I am a member,” Mariela Castro told a delegate. Because working people run the government and get representation through the Communist Party, Cuban leaders are constantly thinking about how to put people’s needs first.
On May 13, the delegation ended its visit by marching in the annual “Conga Against Homophobia and Transphobia.” There were no police or corporate ads in sight. Up and down 23rd Street, LGBTQ Cubans sang, danced, kissed, held hands, showed off their glittered outfits, and waved both rainbow and Cuban flags. Signs reading “LGBTQ against the U.S. blockade” by the U.S. organization “Women in Struggle – Mujeres en Lucha” were visible from sidewalk to sidewalk. A flag reading “Cuba Yes! Blockade No!” by Real Name Campaign NOLA blew in the wind by the front of the march.
Participants chanted “Down with the blockade, up with the love!” and “What do we celebrate? Love is the law!” They held nothing back to show their pride, in their true selves and in the power of the working class.