BY Michael Rowe
September 14 2009 7:00 AM ET
At a time when well-to-do Cuban women had defined social roles centered on matrimony and motherhood, Vilma Espín was an underground guerrilla fighter against the regime that Fidel Castro would eventually overthrow. After the revolution, Espín, who had completed postgraduate work in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955, took on an activist role in Cuba, particularly in the area of rights for women and children. “In a way, they’re not so different,” Alarcón says of mother and daughter. “Especially in terms of educating society on sexual matters. In Mariela, I see her mother 40 years ago when she was trying to teach people that a man was equal to his wife and needed to respect her.”
Alarcón isn’t surprised by Castro Espín’s commitment to gay rights. “I was a good friend of Vilma,” he says. “And I can tell you that she would never hide her conviction that, for her, socialism meant complete emancipation for everyone. That the existence of discrimination of any sort, against any kind of person, meant that one had not achieved the goals of the revolution. For Vilma, gay rights were one of the eventual goals of the revolution.”
Elizabeth Dore points out that Castro Espín’s advocacy work on behalf of LGBT Cubans faced challenges of its own, ironically based on her own family’s role in forming those very traditions.
“I think it would have been a huge challenge for her,” Dore says. “We’re talking about her going up against her own family’s history. The whole cult of manhood in Cuba is the revolutionary hero, the hero who is willing to fight and die for his country -- Che [Guevara], Camilo Cienfuegos, and of course, the one who didn’t die, Fidel. Their personae are that they’re tough military men.”
Despite her family’s prominence, Castro Espín and her three siblings, Deborah, Nilsa, and their brother, Alejandro Castro-Espin, currently a colonel in the Cuban army, had an ordinary upbringing. They lived modestly, attended public schools with their peers, and spent a great deal of time with their parents. “My father was a macho,” Castro Espín says with affection. “A military man. But he was in love. And that would make him very tender. … I think both of my parents imbued me with a rather critical spirit. At home, things were constantly being discussed and constantly being questioned.”
Castro Espín’s first encounters with the ingrained Cuban antigay bias came early. “As a child, I’d heard pejorative comments about gay people,” she says, recalling her first brushes with homophobia, and even her early participation in it. She mocked an effeminate little boy while in grade school, because that’s what she’d been taught to do. There were, she says, adults who would applaud any homophobic slur towards anyone who was even slightly effeminate. “The boy came up to me at one point and said, ‘I hope you know that what you’re doing hurts me very much.’” When it occurred to her that what she was doing to the little boy was exactly what she saw done to her nanny, who was black, it was a revelation. “From the moment he said that to me, I never did it again.”
As she grew older, Castro Espín became aware of how the corrosive machismo of post-revolutionary Cuba had fueled antigay brutality. Gay men (or those merely seen as effeminate) were forced into the “Military Units to Aid Production” camps alongside those perceived as politically dissident, including missionaries, Jehovah’s Witnesses, vagrants, and other “undesirables” in the mid 1960s, often without charge or trial. While imprisoned, they were “reformed” through shaved heads, dirt floors, and backbreaking forced labor in an attempt to root out homosexual desire, which the government considered a manifestation of capitalist degeneracy. Raúl Castro was head of the Cuban army at the time, and the camps were under military jurisdiction. In 1968, according to sources, all official references to the camps were expunged from the record. In his 2006 autobiography, Fidel Castro denied that the camps were intended to punish and reform homosexuals (a decade earlier, he had declared homosexuality a natural variant of human behavior).
“As I began to recognize the damage that homophobia was doing to society,” Castro Espín says, “I would come home and confront [my parents] with the issues.” A favorite teacher had been thrown out of the communist party for forgiving his wife’s adultery, a serious breach of the code of Cuban macho, the same code that demanded the brutalization of gay men. “When I got home, I said to my father, ‘How could you [people] have been so savage?’ My dad said, ‘Well, we were like that in those days. That’s what we were taught. But people learn.’”
Castro Espín is pensive when I ask her when she became aware of her family’s role in the oppression of Cuba’s gays. “It was a difficult process,” she says honestly.
“As a child, I saw Fidel as my uncle -- if an uncle who would wear interesting clothing -- and one whom people adored, me especially. An uncle I loved to ask questions of and who loved to answer, and whose answers I loved. And then, as I grew up, I started studying Marxist philosophy in university and started looking with a more critical eye. I guess you could say that I became more flexible in my viewpoints towards people I admire, to understand that they weren’t gods. They were people with virtues and faults, who made mistakes. And slowly I began to realize that Fidel is a brilliant man, but he’s a man who belongs to his time. And he’s also the product of a patriarchal society. I can also be critical, because there are things I like and things that I don’t like, but I respect him and admire him -- his history, and his capacity to transform history.” She pauses, and continues, her voice profoundly respectful. “I’ve seen the evolution in my father and in Fidel. He’s changed in his way of perceiving homosexuality, and the reality around it. And I’m sure that if I had the opportunity to speak to [Fidel] I might be able to change his mind even more, but I don’t have that opportunity.”
In 2000, after a variety of education-related jobs and the ongoing pursuit of her postgraduate studies, Mariela Castro Espín became director of CENESEX, the organization founded in its earliest incarnation in 1972 (it was renamed CENESEX in 1989) in part by her mother, who died in 2007 (and was respectfully eulogized in both The New York Times and TheWashington Post). There she was first approached by a group of transgender women who were being harassed by the police. A kinship was born, as was Castro Espín’s sense of duty as an activist.
In 2007, Dr. Alberto Roque, a Havana gay rights activist and an internal medicine specialist at Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras in Havana (where he became known to gay viewers of Michael Moore’s film Sicko as “the cute Cuban doctor” who treated Moore’s phalanx of unwell American visitors), had been working in a volunteer capacity at CENESEX with his partner. The consensus at CENESEX was that Cuba needed its own version of a “gay pride” event, and on May 17, 2007 -- the anniversary of the date in 1990 when the World Health Organization resolved that homosexuality be delisted everywhere as a disorder -- they organized a screening of the film Boys Don’t Cry at a Havana repertory theater, to be followed by a discussion.