A mov­ing look at LGBT revo­lu­tion in Cuba

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - Esther J. Cepeda Columnist Esther Cepeda is syn­di­cated by The Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

It is in­de­scrib­ably pow­er­ful to see an older Latin Amer­i­can man apol­o­gize to his brother for hav­ing been in­tol­er­ant of his sib­ling’s gen­der iden­tity. That’s just not the kind of open­ness you ex­pect to hear from con­ser­va­tive peo­ple liv­ing in a tra­di­tion­ally re­li­gious and ma­cho cul­ture.

Such a scene un­folded in the first few min­utes of “Mariela Cas­tro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revo­lu­tion,” a new doc­u­men­tary di­rected by Jon Alpert premier­ing on HBO this com­ing Mon­day. The film in­tro­duces view­ers to gay, les­bian and trans­gen­der ac­tivists who tell about the abuses, dis­crim­i­na­tion and vi­o­lence they’ve had to with­stand while ex­press­ing their sex­ual and gen­der iden­ti­ties in a coun­try known for its op­pres­sive po­lit­i­cal regime.

In the open­ing seg­ment, we meet Juani — whose birth name was Juana Rosa — and who is de­scribed as the first Cuban to get fe­male-to-male sex­ual re­as­sign­ment surgery. It is Juani’s brother, Santi, who re­grets his ho­mo­pho­bia and begs for for­give­ness. Their el­derly mom rem­i­nisces, also with re­gret, at hav­ing forced a very young Juana to wear dresses even though she hated it. Her ac­cep­tance of Juani is ob­vi­ously as nat­u­ral as any mother’s to­ward her grown son.

View­ers learn that dur­ing the Cuban Revo­lu­tion, pub­lic dis­plays of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, per­for­mance of ho­mo­sex­ual acts and as­so­ci­at­ing with ho­mo­sex­u­als were for­bid­den. We hear first­hand ac­counts of how the Cuban govern­ment as­saulted and im­pris­oned peo­ple thought to be gay and forced them into cruel “re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion” camps.

The film in­tro­duces us to Mariela Cas­tro, daugh­ter of pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro and niece of Fidel Cas­tro. She is a mem­ber of Cuba’s Na­tional Assem­bly and the di­rec­tor of the Cuban Na­tional Cen­ter for Sex Ed­u­ca­tion, known as CENESEX.

“When I was a girl, I mocked gays,” Ms. Cas­tro ad­mits. “But the event that re­ally im­pacted me was the sui­cide of a teenaged friend who killed him­self be­cause his father told him he’d rather have ‘a dead son than a fag­got.’ I de­cided to fight this prej­u­dice know­ing that in Cuba’s ma­cho so­ci­ety it would be dif­fi­cult even if your last name is Cas­tro.”

For those al­ready knowl­edge­able, in­ter­ested in and sym­pa­thetic to the strug­gles of LGBTQ peo­ple in Latin Amer­ica, and how Mariela Cas­tro has helped them move for­ward, “Mariela Cas­tro’s March” is a fas­ci­nat­ing look at how the fight for equal­ity plays it­self out amid crush­ing poverty in both the ru­ral and ur­ban ar­eas of a coun­try with strong be­liefs about gen­der roles.

If you are not part of such a cir­cle, this doc­u­men­tary might pique your in­ter­est but ul­ti­mately leave you want­ing more or per­haps slightly per­plexed.

For in­stance, we meet Luis Perez, an el­derly gay man who had spent two years in the Mil­i­tary Units to Aid Pro­duc­tion, which were ba­si­cally in­tern­ment camps for peo­ple deemed to be “anti-so­cials.” But we get lit­tle more than a fleet­ing glimpse of what the ex­pe­ri­ence was like and no sense of how it fits into a larger con­text of LGBTQ his­tory on the is­land and the at­tain­ment of gay rights, in­clud­ing mar­riage, across Latin Amer­ica.

The same goes for Ms. Cas­tro, who, I learned from a Google search, is col­lo­qui­ally re­ferred to as “Santa Mariela.”

Ms. Cas­tro is straight — at one point she is shown with her hus­band — and view­ers are never given much ex­pla­na­tion about why the is­sue of LGBTQ rights is so im­por­tant to her. Aside from the ex­pe­ri­ence with her friend who com­mit­ted sui­cide, we never learn how her life’s work for LGBTQ ac­cep­tance and le­gal pro­tec­tions re­ally be­gan, how it de­vel­oped into a move­ment, or what her vi­sion of to­tal suc­cess would look like.

But still, you can’t help but come away en­light­ened.

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