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As the country opens its doors even farther, U.S. fundamentalists are
looking for influence and to proselytize — not a good omen for LGBT Cubans.
Mark Segal, Philadelphia Gay News Jun 5, 2017

It was 20 years ago when I first reported on the state of LGBT life in
Cuba, and the differences between then and now could not be more apparent.

Start with the procedure to arrange my travel to the island nation. In
1997, as an out LGBT journalist, I received no assistance from the U.S.
government — except the warning that I could have trouble re-entering
the United States, since the U.S. government might not recognize LGBT
reporters as legitimate journalists.

As for Cuba, its embassy refused to return calls.

As with most Cuba-bound Americans, I had to travel via Mexico and
arrange hotel and other necessities through third- and fourth-party
connections. At times, it was almost cloak-and-dagger.

Today, travel protocols made my arrangements vastly easier than 20 years
ago. The Cuban Embassy not only sped up my visa, it arranged for me to
have official Cuban press credentials, which it also did for other U.S.
LGBT media on the same trip.

That ease of entry symbolizes Cuba's attempt to open its society — and
go after the lucrative LGBT tourism market.

My trip could not have been timed better, since Cuba was about to
commemorate the 10th annual International Day Against Homophobia and
Transphobia, spearheaded in the country by the Cuban National Center for
Sex Education. CENESEX is headed by Mariela Castro, the daughter of the
current president of Cuba and niece to its former president, Fidel Castro.

Understanding religion's role
My first evening's dinner was spent with an old friend and U.S. gay
pioneer, the Rev. Troy Perry of the LGBT-inclusive Metropolitan
Community Church, who was scheduled to receive an award from CENESEX.

We dined with members of his Cuban church, whose pastor is Elaine
Saralegui, an out lesbian from Matanzas, Cuba. Their work holds a mirror
up to the religious complexity of the Cuban people.

The Roman Catholic Church estimates that 60–70 percent of Cubans
identify as Catholic, with Protestants — like MCC members — making up
only about 5 percent. Many from both denominations also embrace
practices of the African-Caribbean Santer?a faith.

As the country opens its doors even farther, U.S. fundamentalists are
looking for influence and to proselytize — not a good omen for LGBT Cubans.

But Perry's church has a distinction: It is the first official
non-government LGBT organization in Cuba. Perry takes pride in stating
that Cuba now becomes the 34th nation with MCC churches.

The distinctions and progress don't end there. Perry says that while the
Catholic Church in Cuba imports its priests from other Latin countries,
all MCC churches will have Cuban-born ministers.

The first is Saralegui, making her the first out lesbian activist in
Cuba. She says, with a grin, that she identifies as an LGBT Christian
activist.

Saralegui was inspired by Perry's work two years ago and asked her
bishop about creating a church for LGBT people. A few disagreements
later, MCC Matanzas — a city that considers itself Cuba's art capital —
became Cuba's first out church.

When she's not tending the church, Saralegui travels the country
performing liturgies for LGBT Cubans and anyone else who wants to hear
her message of inclusion.

"I want our community to be proud," she says with a smile through a
translator.

When I ask her if she's had any issues from members of the LGBT
community about her activism, she smiles broadly and states, "Some don't
believe you can be Christian and gay."

Overcoming Cuba's dark past
Cuba's past often clashes with its present — and the government's
relative embrace of the LGBT community today belies its shameful past.

Meet Luis. Now 74, he survived one of Cuba's labor camps for gay men in
the 1960s. At 16, Luis was taken to a camp, which was apparently
unsurprising since, he smiles and says, "Everyone in my neighborhood
said I was that way." He soon discovered what his time in detention
would comprise: "The second day they yelled and yelled at me, 'Be a man,
be a man.' All day.

"They never hit those of us in the camps; they only spoke at us."

On most days, the men had to sit through what today we'd call
re-programming. "They had signs everywhere: 'The revolution needs men.'
And they kept telling us we had to be men and gay people were not men."
They also heard frequently from the psychologist camp officials brought
in from Havana.

In another attempt at reeducation, the men were put to work.

According to Luis, there were many camps and each held about 120 men.
The hard physical labor was supposed to make one a hard (read: straight)
man.

As to numbers, Luis tells me several thousand gay inmates were housed in
a section of Cuba far from Havana.

Luis is not clear about how he left the camp, but he knows what he did
afterward.

"My old life was no more and I couldn't go home or get work so I went to
the capital," he recalled. "I told them I lost my papers and was given
new papers; they never knew about my past life."

He studied and became a technical draftsman. He found love, and settled
into life.

The government used to deny it had such camps, but before his death,
Fidel Castro admitted it and apologized. Luis, a short, jovial man,
wanted a personal apology and he eventually received it from another
Castro — CENESEX's Mariela.

When I ask what he thinks the future holds for Cuba's LGBT community, he
shrugs and says he's "hopeful." He wants people not to forget their
history, but he doesn't want that connection to the past to impede progress.

It's a hard line he walks, but he does it with a joyous style.

A couple of days later I watched him dancing at the CENESEX rally, doing
a rhumba with his friends. Luis was enjoying life and its new freedoms,
but never letting go of those memories of a different time.

Nascent LGBT tourism industry
The reality is that you can't judge Cuba on its treatment of LGBT people
in the past. Louis wants to live for today, and in today's Cuba, at
least for the LGBT community, things have changed.

My tour guide, Leandro Velazco, says of LGBT tourism: "We have bars,
nightly 'inclusion' parties, a couple of good restaurants, a state-run
LGBT organization, occasional festivals and even Grindr." When I look
quizzically at him, he tells me about something called Planet Romeo,
which he said was the first LGBT social-networking site to hit Cuba
several years ago. His business, GaytoursHavana.com, like many in Cuba,
is adjusting to the internet, hoping that the promise of LGBT tourism in
Cuba becomes a reality.

I thought of that as I marched in the International Day Against
Homophobia and Transphobia rally, along with almost 1,000 Cubans. They
shouted socialist slogans peppered with "End Homophobia and Transphobia
Now." There were no corporate sponsors, and it looked more like a gay
Pride celebration than a march of defiance. At the rally, there were a
few speeches and then a dance and festival. CENESEX used the event for
HIV education, condom distribution and testing.

There's no question Cuba wants to get into the gay tourism game. There
are at least four LGBT tour-guide sites on the web and numerous
individuals and travel groups in the United States who specialize in
LGBT Cuban tourism.

Cuba is home to great weather, beaches, mountains, incredible colonial
architecture and some of the most hospitable people you'll ever meet. It
also sometimes seems the country is in a time capsule.

That can be a curse or a charm.

The old Buicks and Chevys are an example. They're charming, but their
prevalence reminds visitors that new cars are out of reach for many
Cubans — although that has begun to change, as has the hospitality
industry, which languished for years. On the way to the airport, you
notice parking lots full of new taxis and tour buses waiting for the
explosion of tourists.

Cubans call their country "The Pearl of the Caribbean," but that pearl
is still trapped by the U.S. embargo. It's a touchy subject here — some
claim the embargo is keeping this country in economic turmoil, while
others say it is the government's political repression that stifles Cuba.

Either way, it wreaks havoc on tourism. There is not one place in all of
Cuba that you can use an American credit card. Therefore, cash is a
requirement. How many Americans want to travel with a wad of cash in
their pockets?

Still, Cubans themselves say they want change — and no longer to feel
like pawns of two governments.

This article originally appeared in Phildelphia Gay News.

Source: Cuba then and now: LGBT progress is real | Lifestyle |
wisconsingazette.com -
http://www.wisconsingazette.com/lifestyle/cuba-then-and-now-lgbt-progress-is-real/article_7c2376dc-4a0c-11e7-8414-37ec2768a301.html


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