By Michael Rowe

Originally published on Advocate.com September 14 2009 8:00 AM ET

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On sultry Saturday nights in Havana, thousands of young men and women -- including hundreds of gay men, a few lesbians, and many, many beautiful transsexuals and drag queens -- arm themselves with rum, boom boxes, and guitars, transforming the Malecón, a four-mile stretch of the city’s north-shore seawall, into a boisterous, joyous outdoor cruise bar. Diesel exhaust from 1957 Chevrolet Bel Airs and boxy, rusted Ladas mixes with cigar smoke and surprisingly sexy cheap cologne. For the most part, the gay element of the crowd consists of flamboyant young queens and tough, handsome machos who wouldn’t be out of place in any urban setting from Miami to New York. A roving gay party is spontaneously assembled every weekend, though the exact whereabouts is kept under wraps until the last minute in order to avoid a raid by the police under the pretext of enforcing Cuba’s antiprostitution laws and the selectively enforced laws governing freedom of assembly. Open flirtation, even cruising, is an accepted practice on the Malecón. A segment of the young heterosexual male population called jineteros, who would be horrified to hear themselves described as hustlers, are ready to take up for an evening with foreign gay male tourists on the assumption that some sort of gift -- from cigarettes to T-shirts to a meal to money -- will exchange hands as a matter of courtesy.

It strikes an onlooker as poignant that all this celebration happens within sight of the 16th-century El Morro fortress, perched high on a rocky promontory near the entrance of the Bay of Havana, where openly gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas was jailed for two years in the 1970s for “ideological deviation” -- a post-revolutionary code for open homosexuality -- and for unlawfully publishing his books abroad. As the light fades completely from the sky, El Morro itself seems to recede into the darkness like a bad memory, leaving only the revelry of the Malecón.

While authors as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene have extolled the worldly sophistication of Havana nightlife, homosexuality was only decriminalized in Cuba in 1979, following decades of harsh judicial treatment. The very real dangers associated with public displays of same-sex affection increase exponentially the further one travels from the urban core of Havana, but Cuban attitudes towards its LGBT minority have evolved, much in part to an unexpected and powerful ally.

Mariela Castro Espín is a slender, pale, and elegant mother of three children. Married to an Italian photographer, she is straight, even though some Havana gossips have suggested otherwise. She also happens to be the 47-year-old daughter of President Raúl Castro, who last year officially succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, as president of Cuba. As director of the government-run National Center for Sex Education, or CENESEX, Castro Espín has used her guile -- and her dynastic clout -- to push for gay rights in a country where hard-labor, “reeducation” camps were once vaunted as an antidote to homosexuality. “Homophobia in Cuba is part of what makes you a ‘man,’” she says. “It’s part of the masculine role. Boys are taught to have violent reactions so they can show their masculinity. Boys are destroyed in this country this way."

Castro Espín and I are sitting in the drawing room of a former palazzo that now houses governmental offices in Havana’s diplomatic Vedado neighborhood, about 15 minutes by car from the Malecón. With its velvet and damask antique French furniture bordering on threadbare, the room’s Norma Desmond grandeur is a reminder of Cuba’s aristocratic, pre-revolutionary past; polished marble floors gleam coolly against the patina of the cracked, ornate gold leaf and boiserie wall paneling

Press photographs rarely capture Castro Espín’s sense of humor. “Please make sure [The Advocate] doesn’t write that I live here,” she says dryly to photographer Byron Motley through the translator with a flash of wry, socialist wit, while posing gamely at the head of an opulent staircase.

As recently as a few years ago, it would have been unheard of for the daughter of the sitting Cuban president to sit for an exclusive four-hour interview with a journalist from an American LGBT newsmagazine like The Advocate -- never mind an accession on her part to the magazine’s request that there be no official government representatives present at the interview, no one from her office in attendance, or no pre-approved questions.


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But these are not ordinary times, and Mariela Castro Espín is no ordinary president’s daughter. To the Havana police she’s the thorn in their side who shows up at the station on behalf of those arrested and detained on trumped-up loitering or prostitution charges. The transgender community knows her as the woman who turned her offices into a refuge for those who have been expelled from their homes, or worse. Wendy Diaz, a beautiful young trans woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the pop star Shakira -- and who drew admiring glances from the men at the various tables around us when we met for drinks one evening on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional -- told me how Castro Espín once chased a boy for five blocks before collaring him for throwing rocks at “Mariela’s girls” outside the offices of CENESEX.

“I think Mariela’s leadership has been a key factor in the success of the work of CENESEX, and the prestige she carries because of her family name has only helped,” says Margaret Gilpin, a New York–based filmmaker whose award-winning 1996 documentary Butterflies on a Scaffold was the first to explore gay and drag culture in Cuba in the mid '90s. “Her presence, and the fact that [CENESEX] has focused its work on educating the general Cuban population on issues of concern to the LGBT community, to combating homophobia, and to trying to change laws and regulations to conform to current thinking on LGBT issues, has been critical to whatever success has been achieved so far.”

Under Castro Espín’s auspices, 2008 was a pivotal year for LGBT rights in the country. The government passed a resolution allowing transsexuals to undergo sex-reassignment surgeries free of charge. And Cuba stepped onto the stage of international gay rights discourse with its inaugural Day Against Homophobia, sanctioned at the highest levels of the Castro government and attended by thousands of ordinary gay and lesbian Cubans, as well as gay rights activists and government officials. The 2009 Day Against Homophobia numbers surpassed the attendance of the 2008 event, and organizers intend to make it an annual occurrence.

Castro Espín is also carefully but persistently lobbying on behalf of a bill to legalize same-sex civil unions that is proceeding slowly through parliament -- the term “gay marriage” being as problematic for Cubans as it is for many Americans. “Instead of just working with Cuban gays and lesbians so they could fit into the rest of society,” Castro Espín explains, “our strategy [at CENESEX] is to work with the population so that they could accept, and be educated on, sexual diversity. The people who have the problem are not gay people, but the general population.”

While Castro Espín’s star power clearly is of great public-relations value to the Cuban regime, those who have worked with her believe she’s more than just a spokesmodel for the authoritarian political clan whose nucleus is the Castro family.

“The fight for gay rights is very much her own crusade,” says Dr. Elizabeth Dore, professor of Latin American studies at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, who met Castro Espín while working on a Cuban oral history project. “Mariela has become increasingly strong in her own ideas, and even militant about them. I think she’s also a very hard-headed politician, which played a part in her slowly and delicately convincing people, including many white, elderly men [in power], that it was important for Cuba to change its policies towards gays.”

Castro Espín had not yet been born in 1959 when her uncle, Fidel Castro, and an army of guerrilla fighters overthrew the right-wing dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, under whose regime U.S. interests had flourished. By 1962, the year of her birth, Fidel Castro had seized and nationalized U.S. interests and property in retaliation for what his government considered trade provocation, and the United States had imposed the crippling embargo which remains in place today

“When Mariela was born, her father was already a very important person in Cuba … But her mother was, in a way, even more exceptional,” says Ricardo Alarcón, president of the National Assembly of Cuba and the nation’s senior diplomat.

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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.

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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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I remind her that early in his presidency Obama offered to lift the embargo if Cuba released the 54 prisoners of conscience that Amnesty International’s 2009 International Report cites as being held solely for their political views.

“What I heard from my father,” the president’s daughter volleys back, sounding suddenly more like a future stateswoman than a gay rights activist, “is that he would release all the prisoners of conscience if Obama releases the five."

The reference is to the “Cuban Five,” a group of intelligence officers who infiltrated U.S.-based Cuban exile groups and in 2001 were convicted in federal court of espionage and conspiracy to commit murder. In Cuba they are hailed as folk heroes and antiterrorist fighters.

Even as Mariela Castro Espín becomes better known internationally every year, she remains a figure of -- if not controversy -- bemusement at home. Rumors abound -- is she a lesbian? No, she says, nor is she bothered by controversy. “Being considered a lesbian would not be an insult to me,” she scoffs. “Being considered corrupt would be. Thinking that the only reason one would be sensitive to LGBT issues would be that one is a lesbian is as absurd as believing only a woman would care about being a feminist, or that you’d have to be Indian or black to care about racism.”

She relates the story of the first and only time that she says she ever invoked her father’s name in order to provoke an immediate advantage. It was 1980. She was in her first year in college at the University of Havana and already a prominent member of the Young Communist League.

“Right when I started university,” she says, “two things happened which were very important. Just before the Mariel boatlift,” -- one of the seismic events in Cuban history over the course of which some 10,000 Cubans would leave the island for the United States between April and October of 1980 with Fidel Castro’s scathing blessings -- “there was an ‘intensifying process’ organized by the Young Communist League called a ‘deepening of revolutionary consciousness.’” The process, she explains, was intended to purify the league of all but the most ardent and committed young revolutionaries. Though homosexuality had become legal the previous year, it was still grounds for expulsion from the Young Communist League. The prevailing view at the time was that homosexuality was counterrevolutionary, and a significant part of the “deepening” process was identifying and removing gays and lesbians. “I didn’t agree with any part of it,” she adds with some distaste.

So, she says, she lied. “I told the commission that my parents had said it was a mistake to eject gay people, and that the objective of this process was not being achieved by doing so. It’s the only time I ever used my parents’ names for influence.” Also, she informed the officials, her parents had told her that among the heads of the revolution, there were leaders who were gay, and they had been as “revolutionary” as the next good communist.

Given who her parents were, the lie carried some weight. The leaders who were present were astounded, but who among them cared to challenge Fidel’s niece, much less General Raúl Castro’s daughter, on a point of party ideology?

“Needless to say, I was terrified,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t know what my parents’ response would be. I got home really late, because those meetings always lasted forever. My parents were having dinner. I was very serious, and I said, ‘Look, this is what I’ve done, and I will take full responsibility.’ I was convinced that they were going to be very angry. But my father said, ‘You did the right thing. It is very unfair, and it has to end.’ And then he started to laugh. He said, ‘Who were you thinking of when you said there were leaders of the revolution who were gay?’ I told him, ‘No one in particular, I just made it up. But there must have been some.’”

She appears to derive the most satisfaction from the small, incremental indicators of her successes, repeating her mantra that education is the enemy of homophobia. She tells me about a letter she received from a woman she’d met in Santa Clara, a medium-sized city in Cuba’s central provinces where Che Guevara is buried. The woman had come up to her after a speaking engagement during which she’d lectured on the dangers of homophobia. After the speech, she says, she went to visit the woman and her transgender son, who had suffered terrible abuse at the hands of his father.

“He suffered very much because his dad was a truck driver,” she says softly. “He was beaten every day because he was effeminate.” The father had abandoned the boy and his mother, telling them he didn’t want a maricón -- a faggot -- for a son. “He showed me all of his dresses,” she says. The boy had been to a psychiatrist who told him he’d have to work hard in order to be “cured” of his homosexuality. “I told his mother and he that these prejudices were the father’s problem, and they needed to be explained to him. It looked like something I did was right, because the next year when I came back, the father was living with the family again and he went to his son’s drag shows.”

I ask her about her name again, and if she thought the boy’s father capitulated because a nice lady from Havana told him he was wrong, or because General Raúl Castro’s daughter told him he was wrong. She laughs, a light, silvery sound full of genuine humor and some delight, as though, after all the lofty talk of politics, history, and legacy, it had come down to this: two mothers -- she and the woman -- fixing a family problem with education and common sense.

“Both,” she says, smiling. “I think it made a difference. I’m glad it’s something that can be useful.”