When our organization embarked on a study of women and gender equality in Cuba, we interviewed dozens of women across the island. After speaking to them, we became convinced that Cuba’s evolution on issues relating to equality for LGBT people had to be a part of the story.
Before coming to power, the Cuban revolution made a strong commitment to the rights of women and girls that has improved their life chances over the decades.
Cuba’s policies have resulted in a tripling of the number of women at work; a reduction in the rate of infant mortality to levels below the U.S., Canada, and Mexico; more women with graduate degrees in the workplace than men; a sharp increase in life expectancy and more.
But, Cuba took far longer to recognize the humanity and rights of its LGBT citizens.
In 1963, just four years after coming to power, Fidel Castro said in a speech at the University of Havana, “[t]he socialist society cannot permit that kind of degeneration. Youths who aspire to that sort of thing? No! For trees that grow twisted, the remedy is no longer so easy.”
In the 1970s, LGBT Cubans faced severe discrimination and many were sent to “rehabilitation and reeducation” camps. Cubans diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s were also isolated from the rest of society.
But 2013 is a different story. While full equality for LGBT Cubans is still not a reality (nor is it in the U.S. or elsewhere), progress has been made in many noteworthy ways.
While many heroes, named and anonymous, played a part in this effort, Vilma Espín, the wife of (current) President Raúl Castro, sister-in-law of Fidel, deserves special mention. Beyond serving as the head of the Cuban Federation of Women, which fought for women’s education, daycare, legal rights, and much more, she was an advocate for sex education in schools as early as 1962.
Later, she proposed the creation of a national sex education working group that eventually became institutionalized as the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) program.