Washington, D.C.; May 11, 2021.- On May 11, 2019, Cuba’s LGBTI+ community staged an unprecedented event. After the Nacional Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) cancelled its annual LGBTI+ pride parade without explanation or justification, LGBTI+ Cubans and their allies held their own celebration in Havana. Although the day ended in repression, it also marked a new high point for the country’s LGBTI+ movement and gave greater visibility than ever to the community’s realities and demands.
Independent Cuban activists and members of the LGBTI+ movement told Race and Equality that despite the violence and arbitrary detentions meted out against them, they remember May 11th as an authentic expression of their community’s demands to increase LGBTI+ visibility and secure human rights for all Cubans.
“The march was the result of three key elements: the community’s rejection of the government’s decision to cancel the annual Conga (parade) against Homophobia and Transphobia, the accumulation of unmet demands from the LGBTI+ community, and the efforts by independent activists to join forces and concentrate our energy,” said Isbel Díaz Torres, a human rights defender and leader of the platform AcciónLGBTIQ-ba (Q-ba LGBTI Action).
The events of May 11
Before 2019, CENESEX had put on the annual Conga against Homophobia and Transphobia for 11 years, with the Conga serving as the kick-off to the Festival against Homophobia and Transphobia. In 2019, however, CENESEX announced that that the Conga would be cancelled due to “new tensions in the regional and international context,” causing outrage in the LGBTI+ movement and across civil society.
Isbel Díaz told Race and Equality that almost instantly, social media channels began to light up with ideas for an alternative celebration. “These ideas popped up in a decentralized way, but it was the work that we had put in previously to build networks of LGBTI+ activism that allowed a single agreed-upon proposal to form,” she explained.
The Afro-descendant LGBTI+ activist Raúl Soublett learned about the independent Conga, held in Havana’s Central Park, through social media. “I went with a group of friends,” he remembers, “when we arrived, nobody else was there. I started thinking it wasn’t going to happen, but we took out our banners and the park started to fill up. It was a little disorganized, there weren’t any specific leaders, there was no agreement about a route for the march, but we went forth. Many people came and joined in. There was no political propaganda one way or the other, we were just there making our legitimate claim to have our rights recognized and respected, and to be visible in society.”
Human rights defender Boris González Arenas remarked that cellular internet access, which had just recently been introduced in Cuba in December 2018, was crucial to the independent Conga, as it has been crucial for Cuban civil society and activism in general. Activists first saw the potential of online activism in January 2019 when, after a tornado caused deaths and severe destruction in Havana, civil society organized shows of support and solidarity with the victims while highlighting the shortcomings of the government’s response.
Raúl Soublett remembers that state security forces were present from the first moments in Central Park and that a group of security personnel initially attempted to block and disperse the march. When the marchers refused to comply, officers responded violently. “Before they struck, we conducted a peaceful sit-in and a “kiss-in.” The police wanted us to disperse, they even had buses there for us, but people refused and protested,” he recalled.
Isbel Díaz and his husband Jimmy Roque Martínez, meanwhile, could not even make it to the Conga. “That morning, as we were leaving the house at 8:30 am, two men wearing civilian clothes approached us. They demanded that we hand over our cell phones, that we not resist, and that we get in two police cars sitting nearby. They took us to the police station in Lawton, Havana, where they charged us with supposed ‘counter-revolutionary activity.’ The officer in charge told us that we were being arrested for ‘organizing and convoking an illegal act of civil disobedience against the revolution.’”
LGBTI+ activism, two years later
Boris González sees the events of May 11, 2019 as evidence of the Cuban LGBTI+ movement’s development, but also of Cuban civil society as a whole. After the Conga, he told Race and Equality, civil society began to leave behind its previous ideological divisions and seek greater cohesion. Importantly, he also sees the event as marking the eclipse of CENESEX and its director Mariela Castro as the center of Cuban LGBTI+ activity. “CENESEX had already been declining in popularity,” he said. “It had previously gained goodwill by supporting the LGBTI+ movement and had launched some interesting initiatives, but with the cancellation of the Conga and Mariela Castro’s subsequent statements, that was all lost.”
The LGBTI+ activist and member of the Latin American Federation of Rural Women Irina León, who lives in Pinar del Río, views two major obstacles to LGBTI+ activism over the years: the government’s attitude towards civil society and the patriarchal characteristics of Cuban society. “LGBTI+ Cubans are ready to demand respect for our rights. We have to come together and find common goals to work for, with which we can show the rest of the population that we are human beings like them, with the same need to be heard,” she says.
Isbel Díaz reflects that “from that moment on, we can talk about ‘the Cuban LGBTI+ community.’ Before, there were disjointed efforts, egos, and no chance of forming formal organizations, which prevented us from working together. Now, it’s possible to think of us as a community encompassing political, ideological, racial, and age diversity.”
Raúl Soublett emphasizes that the COVID-19 pandemic has had both personal and organizational impacts on the LGBTI+ community in Cuba. The pandemic has exposed and worsened the inequalities in Cuban society, especially those facing people with diverse sexual orientations and/or gender identities. “During our physical isolation and the tough public health measures, LGBTI+ activists have had to reinvent our methods, spaces, and ways of thinking. New projects, initiatives, support groups, and more have cropped up. But Cuban LGBTI+ activism is still precarious because we have been working for years and still not accomplished recognition or legal fulfillment of our rights. Furthermore, Cuba is a country with no liberties at all, which makes it hard to develop a true movement. We still rely on spontaneity, as occurred with the Conga,” he says.
The activists who spoke with Race and Equality agree that the most important issues on the LGBTI+ community’s agenda today are the enshrinement of marriage equality in the upcoming Family Code, recognition of and formal apologies for abuses against LGBTI+ Cubans in the 1960s, fighting violence and discrimination against trans Cubans, and, like other independent civil society groups, guarantees for freedom of association.
Donna Suárez, a trans woman and activist, emphasized the particular fight for trans rights on the island, pointing out the high numbers of trans people who are exposed to danger and even death as they practice sex work. Donna also warned that national dialogues about the need for a law against gender-based violence are leaving out the perspectives of trans women. This failure, along with the lack of a law on gender identity, further marginalizes trans women and their specific needs. According to Suárez, however, the independent Conga of May 11, 2019 “has made us visible and given us the perception that if we don’t fight for our rights, no part of the state will do it for us.”
Race and Equality remains committed to accompanying Cuban LGBTI+ activists as they fight for their fundamental rights. We call on the Cuban government to heed their demands and fulfill its international obligations to protect, promote, and guarantee human rights for all people, without discrimination. We urge the government to ensure that the draft Family Code is inclusive and incorporates the demands of civil society, particularly marriage equality and the legal recognition of diverse families.