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Fidel Castro backs effort
Cuba's CENESEX proposes ground-breaking transsexual rights
Lavender & red, part 108
Published Aug 6, 2007 8:48 PM
Mariela Castro Espín, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex
Education (CENESEX), recalled that three decades ago a Cuban from Matanzas who
was born female-bodied but identified as male came to Havana for help.
In response, Cuban revolutionary leader and president of the Federation of
Cuban Women (FMC), Vilma Espín, recommended in 1979 that a special
committee be established, coordinated by the National Work Group on Sex
Education—CENESEX’s predecessor. The FMC had formed the Work Group
in 1972; CENESEX was established in 1989.
The first result, Castro Espín related, was an agreement with the Ministry
of the Interior and the Ministry of Justice to issue new identity papers. Three
transsexual Cubans got new identity documents under that accord.
In 1988, the first sex-reassignment surgery—from male to female—was
carried out successfully in Cuba. The operation was successful and the person
lives without difficulty.
But the media coverage, Castro Espín remembered, was tinged with more
sensationalism than science. Historically unchallenged prejudice welled up. As
a result, the CENESEX director explained, the operations were temporarily
halted until the need for them could be explained to the population. Clinical
and psychological care continued for transsexual Cubans, but with a lower
Castro Espín stated in the January 2006 La Jornada interview, “We
were unable to convince people of the need to carry out these operations. This
reluctance also came from the professionals in the Ministry of Public Health
who were not experts on the subject. This is where I feel the strongest
resistance, even as we speak.”
Journalist Gerardo Arreola added that in recent years, “A group of
transsexuals joined CENESEX and were trained as sex health promoters in the
campaign for the prevention of AIDS. In the center they have a permanent open
debate forum and receive specialized care. The health system provides them with
free hormone treatment.”
Sex change and social change
“At the beginning of 2004,” Arreola wrote, “there was a new
momentum when CENESEX launched a national strategy: it increased and
diversified its professional staff, obtained support from President Fidel
Castro and directly contacted ministries and social organizations to discuss,
based on entity profile, the subject of transsexuals.”
Two years later, Mariela Castro Espín said, this move has accelerated
change. “It seems all this work is now bearing fruit. People are now more
receptive. We have also articulated a more persuasive discourse. I see great
flexibility, even among official leaders.”
Castro Espín, as director of CENESEX, took a plan about expanding rights
for transsexuals to two parliamentary committees on Dec. 20, 2005.
Granma reported the following day that CENESEX had “released results of a
survey on gender identity in today’s Cuban society to the committees on
Education, Culture, Science, Technology and the Environment, and Youth,
Children and Women’s Rights.
“Mariela Castro said that for people with a non-traditional gender
identity to fully develop their potential as a member of society, it is first
necessary to identify them so as to assure that they receive adequate
specialized assistance. She also noted the need in Cuban society of a profound
understanding of gender and sexuality.”
Correspondent Gerardo Arreola interviewed Castro Espín for the Jan. 9,
2006, issue of La Jornada about the move to widen rights for transsexuals.
Castro Espín outlined that her proposal to parliament would make free sex
reassignment surgery and hormones available to all transsexual Cubans—all
forms of health care are provided cost-free on the island. New identity
documents would also be immediately issued.
Arreola reported, “This is part of a national policy to recognize the
rights of these people to live a full life in the gender they chose.”
Castro Espín stated, “The draft was very well received by the
representatives in the two commissions examining the project.” She added,
“They not only accepted the proposal, but asked many questions and made
By 2006, a transsexual Cuban woman traveled abroad on her new passport. Four
others who had sex reassignment surgeries abroad got changed identity papers as
soon as they returned home. “The Courts of Justice were finally
convinced,” Castro Espín concluded.
In early 2007, Cuba’s National Assembly of Popular Power agreed to
discuss making sex-reassignment surgery free of cost to all transsexuals on the
island who request it.
The newsletter Diversity (Diversidad) reported: “The measure would
complement the present Identity Law that already acknowledges the right of
citizens to change name and sexual identity. This places Cuba at the vanguard
of the legislations that acknowledge the rights of transvestites, transsexuals
and transgender in Latin America.”
In fact, by providing free health care, Cuba is leading the world on rights for
transsexual and gender variant people.
Revolution takes work
Mariel Castro Espín and CENESEX don’t rest on these laurels. She
emphasized the need for legislation and other actions to block discrimination
and raise popular consciousness.
A job is a right in Cuba. However, she said, “there may be transsexuals
who have a job and are not rejected, because the law protects them, even if
they go cross-dressed. But the administrators always find a way to get rid of
Addressing a conflict between revolutionary security police and trans Cubans
two years earlier, Castro Espín was very clear. She stated that neighbors
had complained about street solicitation. But when the security police arrested
transsexuals and transvestites, based on an assumption that they were
prostitutes, Castro Espín stressed that they were acting on backward ideas
“The police take measures—that’s what they are there
for,” she explained, “but they interpret things with their own way
of thinking. They have learned over their lifetimes that transsexuals and
homosexuals are intrinsically bad.” (Associated Press, Sept. 5, 2004)
“This attitude was not in keeping with the policy or the law, because
these do not penalize a person for cross-dressing.” (La Jornada, Jan. 9,
Castro Espín noted, “We have been given procedural guidelines so
these people know how to defend themselves in case of police transgression of
She explained that CENESEX intervened and set up a channel of communication
with the revolutionary security forces and the Ministry of the Interior.
Together they ordered police not to hassle transgender and transsexual Cubans.
They also agreed to provide education to Cuba’s National Revolutionary
Police officers, including a seminar on distinct expressions of gender and
Castro Espín noted that the transsexual and transgender Cubans who had
been harassed came right to CENESEX to lodge complaints and demand redress.
“Of course, they came to demand their rights, because I don’t know
if you have noticed, we Cubans have a strong sense of justice and fight when we
have to,” she said.
“They spoke of everything that bothered them. I asked if I could tape
what they had said to prepare a report. And that’s what I did; a short
report so they could read it over rapidly and then a longer one with many
“That is how a national strategy came about for attention to transsexuals
with an integral vision since 1979, which was created by my mother, Vilma
Espín, president of the Cuban Women’s Federation. What we did was to
broaden this work, to enrich it.” (BBC Mundo, Sept.18, 2006)
“We are even carrying out a very important study on representations of
transsexuality,” she concluded, “to carry out educational campaigns
to teach society to respect these people and respect their rights.”
Next: Revolution—’a battle of ideas’
To find out more about Cuba, read parts 86-107 of Lavender & Red at
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