In his first year in office, President Donald Trump went the entire 30 days of June without recognizing Pride.
We’ve now just finished celebrating Pride and though there are a few more days left in June, nobody in the LGBTQ community is expecting Trump to make this year any different. Instead, it has been a year of assaults, most recently the dangerous door opened by the so-called religious right in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case at the Supreme Court. In the United States, for the first time in a decade, we are in true danger of seeing our hard-won rights backslide.
Contrast this erosion with the community establishing strong roots in an unlikely country: Cuba.
Cuba compiled a terrible record of LGBTQ abuses from the very beginning of the Castro regime – imprisoning gay men in concentration camps along with political prisoners and others considered to be “undesirables.” During the rise of HIV in the 1980s, Castro confined all HIV-positive people in military-guarded sanitariums. So you can understand my surprise when a few weeks ago, I found myself in a celebration that included Mariela Castro – the niece of Fidel Castro – as part of the country’s support for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Don’t misread this as a glowing endorsement of all Cuban practices. Cuba has real work to do on human rights issues.
But in contrast to our government, which is hell-bent on pushing the LGBTQ community back into the shadows, Mariela Castro runs the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and recently expressed public support for marriage equality. And what struck me most about my meetings in Havana – organized by the Center for Democracy in the Americas – is that the U.S. has a lot to learn about the example that Cuba is setting, particularly as the country embraces the LGBTQ community, works to prevent the spread of HIV, and serves and assists HIV- positive people.
Just three years ago, the World Health Organization certified Cuba as the first country to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis. Cuba continues to make impressive progress on rates of HIV and AIDS – according to the country’s National Office of Statistics, 158 Cubans were diagnosed with AIDS in 2016, down from 687 in 2011. That’s among 11.2 million people.
In 2010, Fidel Castro actually apologized to the LGBTQ community for his human rights abuses.
Part of our recent visit overlapped with Cuba’s participation in the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia: a boisterous and meaningful day of events throughout the country meant to elevate the LGBTQ community. Our delegation joined a parade in Havana, complete with Cubans in creative costumes and parents and friends of LGBTQ youth and families surrounded by an exuberant, diverse crowd of thousands of well-wishers. Some attendees wore shirts that read, “I love my gay son.” Good deeds don’t erase Cuba’s difficult history, but it’s rare to see a country take such a dramatic turn in a totally different direction, and it’s especially heart-wrenching to see it is truly possible as our country takes steps backwards.
Last year, Donald Trump and Mike Pence put a target on the backs of LGBTQ Americans when the administration followed up attempts to ban transgender individuals in the military with a U.S. Justice Department amicus brief claiming that the federal Civil Rights Act doesn’t guarantee workplace protections for the LGBTQ community. Behind the scenes, the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Justice, and Education continue to chip away at civil rights protections.
Then in December, Trump inexplicably fired all the members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. The council still doesn’t have a single member. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly 10,000 Americans continue to die every year from an HIV diagnosis.
It’s hard to comprehend the deteriorating state of LGBTQ rights in this country, especially compared to Cuba. During our visit, our delegation attended the Cuban Gala Against Homophobia and Transphobia at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana – the state-owned venue that Fidel himself once attended. Hosting and funding the gala at the site is an overt sign of state support for LGBTQ rights.
We are truly living in different times with the U.S. needs to take human rights lessons from Cuba.
CHRISTINE QUINN was the first woman and openly LGBTQ New York City Council speaker, serving eight years from 2005-2013. She is the president and chief executive officer of Win (formerly Women in Need), the largest provider of shelter, social services, and supportive housing for homeless families in New York City.