Sexual self-determination in socialist Cuba: An interview with CENESEX director Mariela Castro Espín
CENESEX director Mariela Castro Espín (centre).
March 23, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In Cuba, there is a LGBTT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite, transsexual] movement whose gestation is found at the intersection of the state and organised civil society. This movement seeks to tackle the main themes of LGBTT reality from the perspective of human rights, health and social integration, while inserting itself into the national project of a just society. Historically, the space for its existence was provided by the country’s women’s movement, which was largely responsible for making Cuba, in 2008, the first country in the Americas to have sex-change operations included in the universal health-care system.
In January 2011, Amsterdam-based political scientist Antonio Carmona Báez interviewed Mariela Castro Espín, president of the Havana-based National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) and a bulwark for the nascent LGBTT movement in Cuba. Daughter of the country’s current president, Raúl Castro, and of the late feminist revolutionary Vilma L. Espín Guillois, Mariela is a professional and intellectual in her own right, championing the rights of sexual self-determination. She shares some reflections on the broad educational strategy adopted for combating homophobia, including its origins, and the building of a socialist LGBTT movement.
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Antonio Carmona Báez: Could you identify an historical moment in Cuba that sparked a serious interest in sexual/gender diversity?
Mariela Castro Espin: With regards to sexual diversity, there were many contradictions during the revolutionary period and in Cuba’s entire history, the same as in the rest of the world. But institutional attention was drawn in 1979, by the National Working Group for Sex Education (GNTES) that later became CENESEX – by the initiative of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). It began tending to transgender people, when the first person requested sex change, due to the incongruence between their gender identity and genitals. Back then, it was called transexuality, at least in psychiatry.
From then on, experts in the existing sexual counselling and therapy group decided to create a more specialised and multidisciplinary subcommittee that would conduct research on this reality. We visited some European countries, information was sought and, after analysing the literature that dealt with the issue, we adopted the same standards of care that were established by the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (HBIGDA), as it was called at that time. Thereafter, they set the protocols of treatment in trans-sexuality, which was considered to be first a gender dysphoria, and then a gender identity disorder as is it currently categorised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
This past year  we established a consensus within the scientific community to promote the de-pathologisation of transexuality because we do not consider it a mental disorder, nor do we have sufficient data indicating that it is a disorder. Rather, it is a human reality that deserves attention, especially in the field of rights.
Contact with this reality was born out of an explicit demand for medical care from people who wanted surgery and hormone treatments, most of whom had already begun hormone treatments by themselves without medical attention. That is, we started with a biomedical approach that has characterised the transsexual problematic, by treating transexuality. It was not until 2004 that we began to take another approach based more on human rights, after a group of transsexuals and transvestites came to seek help because they had been harassed by the police and some residents of Havana.
It was then that I approached this group to request their participation, together with CENESEX, in the evaluation of a comprehensive care strategy that speaks to the reality they were living. This was not only covering the specific health claims they wanted, but also aspects related to the exercise of rights for which we had agreed with various state institutions and civil society organisations. That is how we built the strategy of comprehensive care for transgender people, it evolved over time and even got us modifying the terms by which we identified people and processes.
We no longer say that we diagnose transexuality, or even that we make a study to diagnose as we said before. What we do now is accompany the person to help them identify what’s going on. In other words, to identify whether a person is transsexual or is homosexual living with elements of transvestism or is a cross dresser of heterosexual or bisexual orientation. That is to say, to help the person decipher what is happening. Not everything “that happens” has a name because the issues are so diverse, there are many nuances, but at least we help people to integrate into society, not tofeel sick, not tofeel depreciated, not tofeel inferior and to find in ourinstitution a support base and space for constructing knowledge. Because who better than people living these experiences to bring awareness to and their socialisation among the entire population?
From this point, we proposed to prepare them first in advocacy and promoting sexual health, with emphasis on HIV prevention, because it was a way to integrate and link our tasks, making them visible in their humanitarian and social work. We teach them to be generous with those who had not received this experience from society; we give them an opportunity in learning to be generous and in helping to promote sexual health.
Subsequently, we began training them as sexual-rights activists with an emphasis on civil rights, using Paolo Freire’s methodology of popular education – a participatory method that also promotes very important human values in the relationships they build with other people. We also encouraged raising their level of education, in order to find better places of employment, and we have negotiated with state institutions to provide them with the opportunities to study and work without prejudice mediating their decisions.
We have created a group of activists who meet twice a week here. In other cities, othergroups have also been created. Additionally, we organised a group of families aimed at improving family relationships, to eliminate the sense of culpability and stigma, and this has really helped them a lot.
What are the main obstacles in achieving the acceptance of sexual diversity in Cuba?
The obstacles are related to the deep ignorance and prejudice that exists concerning sexuality and gender. That is why we supported the creation of an educational strategy to promote respect for sexual orientation and gender identity as a principle of social justice and equality.
In this year-round strategy, we also support educational activities of film clubs, debates, theatre shows, conferences, lectures, participatory programs, particularly in public service campaigns that have their most significant moments during the week of May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia.
For a whole week, we bring the debates to various places and institutions, schools and universities in several cities, where they have already created the conditions and demonstrated the willingness to do so. We have succeeded in creating a network of activists involved in these activities, we organise shows, artistically well prepared.
We do not have a gay pride parade. We make a Conga, a Cuban dance form which is very satisfactory and more pleasuring from a rhythmic and sound standpoint, visualising among the population the need to work-off prejudice. We do not uphold “gay pride” because there is also heterosexual pride, lesbian pride, the pride of trans people, we do not see just gay.
We focus the eyes of the population on homophobia, that is what we believe should bechanged; you must unravel homophobia in order to articulate the full respect for the dignity of individuals. Furthermore, homophobia is closely linked to other forms of discrimination that LGBTT people also experience, namely: racial discrimination, discrimination by geographical area, between those living in rural and non-urban areas, in being an immigrant and not native, as a non-white person, as a woman, age etc.
Thus, there are many forms of discrimination and we identify homophobia as a form of discrimination that has not been sufficiently dealt with, and it is not yet contemplated by international and national law; and where it is recognised, it is not sufficiently treated by law.
Internationally, the struggles related to sexual and gender diversity have emerged from social movements. From your point of view, how did the struggle surface in Cuba?
The main stage for the struggle of sexual and gender diversity in Cuba was the 1959 revolution. The revolution was the start of a process of emancipation in all senses of the word, bringing into question, those human relations based on exploitation and that have historically been learned. In this process of socialist transition, we are articulating new relationships, new kinds of relationships, by taking down myths and prejudices, especially on issues of class, race and gender.
However, the issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, which did not satisfy patriarchal and heteronormative criteria, facedmore resistance to change. It was not understood that these were also early forms of injustice and discrimination. Then, the FMC, the women's organisation that has advocated for and worked on rights of women, introduced the gender approach. Itenvisioned the need to work on the hegemonic masculinities that created many difficulties for men of any sexual orientation. This also opened the way to find the arguments that brought into the scientific-academic and political debate, the problems of people with non-heterosexual orientation and other related themes… The revolution was the setting for social justice and equality. The work of the FMC, as organised civil society, was a key factor opening the way to introduce into the institutionalised sexual education program the reality of gay or transgender people, in terms of prejudice and rights.
Can we say that there is a movement of sexual diversity, organised or not, in Cuba?
It was from within the women's movement that we started to work on LGBTT issues. Now CENESEX, that is the state sector, coordinates a national sexual education program that integrates state institutions and civil society organisations; through this it is creating a LGBTT rights movement. That is the peculiarity of the Cuban experience.
Let's talk about your personal motives for being involved in this work. What has motivated you to become a defender ofsexual and gender diversity?
Since childhood, I received these values from my family, my father and my mother. Especially my mum, who led the movement in promoting sexual education through the FMC. She fought for a lot for the rights of LGBTT people, and she faced resistance more complex and much more rigid than the onethis generation or I have faced. Next to this, my professional career allowed me to find opportunities to present arguments on this problem in Cuban society, from the institutions where I have worked.
Therefore, what motivated me was precisely the awareness of social justice that my family and this society havegiven me, especially in the schools and at the university. Throughout all the complexity of Cuban society, we were given values, established by the revolution. We were educated to fight for social justice.
All this experience allowed me to realise that sexual/gender diversity was an area that had not been sufficiently addressed previouslyinour struggles for social justice. This, in turn, was supplemented by a knowledge of history and Marxist philosophy, which gave me the tools to understand the situation from the experience of socialist construction in Cuba, to be introduced in our social practice.
[Antonio Carmona Báez lectures political science at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and is author of State Resistance to Globalisation in Cuba (Pluto, 2004).]