BY Michael Rowe

September 14 2009 8:00 AM ET

CUBA HAVANA YOUTH MALECON X390 (BYRON MOTLEY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Castro Espín recalls walking with a group of trans women through the streets of Havana en route to a theater. A small crowd gathered, and the scene quickly turned ugly. “People were becoming very aggressive and saying ‘Look, it’s a bunch of faggots! Look, it’s disgusting!’” It made me feel like I was being humiliated and not able to do anything -- a cold feeling,” she says. “I was feeling what the women with me were feeling. I felt like a transsexual walking down the street. It hardened my resolve to change things, and I realized I needed to do much, much more.”

The following year she proposed to government officials a nationwide Day Against Homophobia: “I made it very clear that I wasn’t going over there to ask anyone’s permission. I was going over there to advise.” To her surprise, officials counterproposed a weeklong series of antihomophobia cultural activities including plays, discussion panels, and film screenings.

In evaluating Castro Espín’s gay pride festival coup with the Cuban government, Dr. Carrie Hamilton, a historian at London’s Roehampton University who is currently writing a book on sexuality in revolutionary Cuba, stresses the need for context -- both political and social. “Her father is now the head of state. In that sense, it would be wrong to confuse her work with more grassroots initiatives. It’s not that the Cuban government wouldn’t allow a grassroots gay and lesbian movement -- it wouldn’t allow any grassroots organization.”

As both a gay rights activist and a card-carrying member of the 820,000-strong Cuban Communist Party, Dr. Alberto Roque maintains a full roster of rounds at the hospital and devotes countless unpaid hours to antihomophobia and AIDS education, in addition to his work at CENESEX. He bristles at criticism by some Miami pundits who have dismissed Castro Espín’s work as little more than her father’s government trying to put on a shiny new face.

“I respect all of the [American] LGBT organizations who are fighting for our rights, even if their [political] ideology is different than mine. But they call attention to the fact that CENESEX is a government organization headed by Mariela Castro, and they use that to generate a lot of hate based on what happened in Cuba in the '60s and '70s. Many of the [gay] people who lived through that time, and now live abroad, are still suffering, and cannot recover from what they suffered.” But, says Roque, “they never talk about the people who stayed in Cuba and fought -- and continue to fight -- against [homophobia]. Why are they attacking CENESEX? We’re already fighting for those rights."

Given the dynastic nature of the Cuban political structure, it wouldn’t be out of place to wonder about the possibility of Mariela Castro Espín taking high political office at some point. Though she denies an interest in politics, questions remain.

“A lot of people ask me if I think Mariela could be the next president of Cuba,” Elizabeth Dore says. “And also, if Mariela thinks she could be the next president of Cuba. My answer about what Mariela thinks is, I don’t know. When I first met her, she said she didn’t like politics, and she didn’t want her work to be thought of as political, she wanted it to be thought of as social. I think she’s evolved somewhat from that [position]. She’s a very, very good politician.”

While Mariela Castro Espín concedes that the proximity of the Unites States has -- and will -- continue to impact the trajectory of Cuba’s future, especially as it is affected by the embargo, she studiously avoids the political issue of U.S.–Cuba relations until nearly the end of the conversation, when I ask her whether or not she hopes a change will occur under the Obama presidency.

“I still have a lot of faith and hopes invested in Obama,” she says. “And I want to continue to be hopeful, in spite of the fact that he has not helped the people who have lost their houses in the mortgage crisis, and that he’s sending troops to Afghanistan. Though he has shown no real democratic outreach to Cuba, I’m still very proud of the miracle brought about by the American people in making the president of the United States a young, intelligent black man."

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