December 23, 2007
CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.
Cuban society’s traditionally chauvinistic and homophobic nature is little by little opening up to sexual diversity –a fact largely disavowed until quite recently– to the point that some strings are being pulled to give its acceptance a legal character.
Seen for centuries as the “right” rule of conduct, heterosexuality has lost ground to other sexual preferences and behaviors which turn-of-the-century Cuba can no longer deny.
Homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals and transvestites are all an increasingly visible sector, yet to be absorbed by mainstream society but partly tolerated, if not accepted, in academic, university and cultural circles, as well as among people sensitized to this issue.
According to psychologist Mayra Rodríguez from the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), “although society frowns at these non-heterosexual conducts, identities, leanings and expressions, there’s more acceptance these days”.
Rodríguez, holder of a master’s degree in Sciences, puts their success down to CENESEX, a governmental entity established in the seventies under the name of Sex Education Group and devoted from the very outset to this kind of work and its promotion among other institutions through the qualification of activists whose mission has since been to raise consciousness about sexual diversity in a very ethical and humane way.
“We came to realize that we also needed to make people more aware, so there’s been a significant social impact which paved the way for better understanding and tolerance”, she remarks.
“I’m amazed sometimes when a man holds out his hand to help me get off the bus. I never dreamed it would ever be like that. Maybe they do it by instinct or because they find me pretty, which I’m not”, points out a male-to-female transsexual.
“For a long time I stayed in the closet, but since they gave me my new papers recognizing me as a woman, I said goodbye to trousers, and I’ve worn nothing but skirts and dresses”, he cheerfully says. As a result of CENESEX’s work, a group of Cuban transsexuals were able to change their identity.
According to Rubén de Armas, coordinator of a project involving men who have sex with other men (MSM) in Havana, for all the openness that exists in the island, transsexualism is still considered by many a taboo subject and a cause for fear.
“Some journalists who are aware of this problem try to make programs about it, but then they come up against lack of understanding and are prevented from giving more information about and promote the issue”, he added.
In Cuba, as in other countries, the absence of public debate on this topic paves the way for widespread ignorance; hence academia’s advice to provide all the whys and wherefores for the sake of better understanding.
Rather than a concept, sexual diversity is based on the acceptance of, respect for, and coexistence with those who are different, assures Dr. Rodríguez. And although it belongs in contemporary society, it has long been described by various authors, including Austrian physician and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, who talked about the existence of different sexual behaviors.
Other studies in which both such variety and the struggles of the gay and lesbian movements were recognized had a considerable bearing on the disclosure of what we know today as sexual diversity, she says.
What’s new since she started her research on this topic 23 years ago, she holds, is that in the past they only talked about sexual behaviors other than heterosexual. “Nowadays heterosexuality is also a part of sexual diversity, because it’s practiced by different people who behave differently. Nevertheless, placing people within frameworks is not to my liking, as they’re all human beings, and splitting them into groups translates into a form of discrimination and stigmatization; I only use these concepts so as to make the difference more understandable.
“Sometimes sexual orientation is linked to sexual preference, namely depending on the erotic direction of the individual’s desire, of which there are three: homosexual –attraction to the same sex–, bisexual –attraction to either sex– and heterosexual –attraction to the opposite sex,” she explains.
Sexual orientation, she assures, is structured like any other behavior in a person’s sexuality, which is another constructed category. “We are born as sexed beings, but we build our sexuality with the passing of time and the experiences we live and learn from in the process”.
In the case of transsexualism, there’s disorientation and role confusion among those who identify with a physical sex different from the one that they were born with.
“A transvestite man with homosexual leanings is different from a male-to-female transsexual in that he’s biologically and psychologically a male and was classified as such when he was born, but he prefers to have same-sex relations, while the latter feels like a woman even if he’s biologically a male, also classified as a male at birth”, she holds.
This feeling of belonging forces individuals to fit their body to their mind, and that’s why most apply for sex-reassignment surgery in order to change their genitalia, since their biological sex remains the same.
Some who are reluctant to make such decision are wrongly seen as transvestites. “In the old days, those who wanted surgery were said to be truly transsexual. That’s not the case today, as some transsexuals are known to feel the inconsistency but still refuse surgery for a number of reasons, say, they’re too old, afraid or socially visible”, she comments.
Then came the term transgender in reference to transsexuals unwilling to have a sex change, but eventually the concept extended to everything that goes beyond the social standards and now includes any kind of sexual preference, be it transvestism or transsexualism.
For an individual to be classified as a transsexual beyond any doubt, he/she must have a series of tests done by the CENESEX-based National Commission for Transsexuals’ Issues, provided the person is above 18 –no diagnosis is possible before that age– and receives treatment for at least two years.
“You cannot really tell what someone’s identity or sexual orientation is on the basis of outward aspect only. There’s more to it than that, and everyone must be studied from the psychological and biological point of view. It’s very difficult to make a differential diagnosis,” she says.
In the article Gender disorders and transsexualism: the Cuban experience –‘Sexología y Sociedad’ No. 13. 2007– Rodríguez and two other experts describe various difficult situations facing Cuban transsexuals, including problems to maintain a love relationship, family and social pressure, long periods of loneliness, limited interaction with society, and renunciation of erotic-emotional experiences.
Towards a legislation
Ending the legal isolation of these individuals is one of CENESEX’s major goals.
“If you’re protected neither by law nor by policy, you’re left somehow ostracized and helpless,” stated CENESEX director Mariela Castro in a 2005 interview with SEMlac. They therefore put forward a strategy “centered on the provision of all-embracing attention to whoever requests it, not only from the standpoint of healthcare but also taking into account society’s responsibility for facilitating their integration into society and the respect they deserve”.
This strategy is based on efforts to raise consciousness about transsexualism among various sectors of Cuban society, projects to foster their understanding and regard, and measures to give them employment opportunities, with all due respect to their physical appearance as befits their gender identity, even if their identity papers are yet to be changed.
In addition to the strategy –submitted to the Parliament in 2006– an offer to reform the Family Code was proposed to the Communist Party last June, and there’s a resolution by the Ministry of Public Health.
If approved, the new code would give recognition to heterosexual and homosexual couples alike, including their personal, patrimonial, hereditary and housing rights, and it would make the current laws on adoption more flexible to favor both types of couples.
According to Dr. Castro, what all levels of authority consulted on the matter oppose the most, for reasons of ignorance and prejudice, is the idea of recognizing a homosexual couple’s right to adopt a child.
As to the Ministry of Public Health, its resolution covers a specialized integral healthcare process for transsexuals, including a medical unit specifically designed to this effect.
sociedad cubana, tradicionalmente machista y homofóbica,
comienza poco a poco a abrir los ojos a la diversidad sexual, un
lado hacia el que, hasta hace no tanto, prefería no mirar.
Incluso, se mueven algunos resortes para que su aceptación,
aunque demore, llegue a lo legal.