Five years after 11M in Cuba: LGBTI+ activism, stories of repression, jail, and forced exile


On the occasion of the commemoration of the conga against homophobia and transphobia on May 11, 2019, which ended with dozens of people arbitrarily detained and besieged, we speak with activists in this country about the challenges they face for their activism and struggle for LGBTI+ rights.

Washington D.C., May 10, 2024 – This Saturday, May 11, marks five years since a public demonstration in Havana, Cuba, that ended with dozens of LGBTI+ people detained and assaulted. 

On that day in 2019, also known as 11M, dozens of people with diverse sexual orientation and gender identity were getting ready to participate in a conga (Cuban dance that is accompanied by drums) for the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, which is commemorated worldwide every May 17; but the event was canceled at the last minute, generating indignation among those preparing to attend, who spontaneously continued with the plan to take to the streets to demand their rights, even though they did not have the approval of the official body that coordinates this activity, the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (Cenesex).

Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans and non-binary people gathered in Havana’s Central Park, and starting at 4 pm they began to march without a set course. They mobilized peacefully and held a besatón (the name given to the act in which several LGBTI+ people kiss in public as a sign of protest), until the Cuban authorities, including members of the State Security blocked the demonstration, assaulted and arbitrarily detained dozens of demonstrators who had attended thanks to a call made through social networks.

On this date, we spoke with activists from this country about the challenges that come with activism and the struggle for LGBTI+ rights.

“Washing and putting away the laundry”

This phrase is mentioned by Yennys Hernández, lesbian activist and reporter for the independent media Periodismo de Barrio, to explain how the activism of LGBTI+ people goes “between a rock and a hard place”. 

She has been a victim of harassment by Cuban authorities. More than a year ago, she watched in amazement as State Security showed up at her wedding celebration to take down the names of the human rights defenders who attended the wedding to put pressure on the dissident voices that had gathered at the event. 

Hernandez says that, as she and her wife did, in Cuba same-sex couples can marry and adopt; assisted reproduction is also legal, discrimination in the workplace and in education is prohibited, and people with diverse gender identities can change their names on their documents. However, in this country there is no gender identity law, and the macho violence that exists in all public and private spheres punishes, represses, and assaults lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans and non-binary people. 

LGBTI+ people who fight for their rights are also victims of repression and harassment by Cuban authorities, as are artists, independent journalists and, in general, dissident voices against the Cuban government. Most people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, according to Hernández, avoid reporting that they have been summoned for interrogation to avoid being excluded from the dialogues and processes that seek to advance the recognition of the rights of this population in Cuba. 

LGBTI+ people “wash and put away their clothes”, that is, they censor themselves to survive in this country, where there are no official records that address the gender-based violence suffered daily by lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans and non-binary people.

Behind bars 

The story of Brenda Díaz García, a trans woman who remains in a male penitentiary center for participating in the peaceful protests of July 11, 2021 (known as 11J) in the municipality of Güira de Melena, in the province of Artemisa, demonstrates the discrimination and, in general, the violence suffered by trans people in Cuba. 

She was arrested because, according to Cuban authorities, she had “dressed as a woman to infiltrate” the demonstrations. And as soon as she arrived in prison, they cut her hair and did not recognize her chosen name, two symbolic aggressions that annulled her rights. 

Brenda Díaz was initially sentenced to more than 14 years in prison, but eight months ago her sentence was reduced to 7 years and nine months, according to Ana María García, her mother, who has repeatedly denounced that her daughter has been beaten and has been the victim of sexual violence inside the prison, where she remains for demanding changes in Cuba. 

Living in fear

“Doing activism in Cuba and being an LGBTI+ person is complicated because you know very well what happens inside the Island, and the fear that exists is a fear that they put inside your body; and, from here it is easier to do it because you feel free to be able to do it, because you are not watched,” says Nornardo Perea, a Cuban artivist exiled in Spain since 2019. 

The writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker participated in the 00 Havana Biennial in May 2018, which was organized by the San Isidro Movement (of which he is still part). As a result of this event where he openly exposed his political position and sexual orientation, Perea was threatened and interrogated three times by Cuban authorities.

“In the third interview they made me sign a paper with several slogans. In the end, they (the authorities) do with you whatever they want. There were five hours of interrogation in Marianao (municipality of Havana). They forced me to collaborate with them,” says the artivist, who after participating in March 2019 in a journalism workshop in Prague, Czech Republic, went into exile in Madrid, Spain, and still, he says, continues to adapt to that city and that country.  

The stories revealed by Hernandez, Garcia, and Perea show how complex it is to be an activist and fight for LGBTI+ rights in Cuba, a country where advances such as equal marriage or adoption between same-sex couples have occurred, and at the same time lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans and non-binary people are prohibited from participating in marches independently and demanding their rights without participating in the actions organized by Cenesex. 

From the Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) we commemorate 11M by recognizing the work of activists working for the recognition of the rights of people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities in this country. We also call on the State of Cuba to promote gender identity laws and laws against gender violence, and to refrain from repressing and harassing defenders of the rights of this population. 

Join Our Efforts

Help empower individuals and communities to achieve structural changes in Latin America.