A moving look at LGBT revolution in Cuba
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.