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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 profile.

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 recommendations.”

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 them.”

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 and prejudice.

“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, 2006)

Castro Espín noted, “We have been given procedural guidelines so these people know how to defend themselves in case of police transgression of the regulations.”

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 sexuality.

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 annexes.

“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 workers.org.

E-mail: [email protected]