“Free, Legal Sex Change Operations Coming to Cuba” could have been a satirical news headline in U.S. papers during the Cold War years—and four decades later, it’s still a pretty revolutionary concept. Last week, Cuba authorized gender reassignment surgery. And while it didn’t make top headlines last week, it’s been brewing for quite some time: the law was passed in 2008, and the country’s first and only sex reassignment surgery dates back to 1988. Today, there are supposedly 28 people waiting in line for their state-funded sex change.
This is a remarkable step for human rights in Cuba, where homosexual relationships have been notoriously criminalized by the regime and haven’t been recognized by the state
since the 1970s. One example is the persecution of writer Reinaldo Arenas, which drew international attention, and was memorialized by Arenas’ own novel-turned-film, “Before Night Falls.”
As recently as 2004, state police were revisiting Cuba’s archaic and strict indecency laws by raiding gay clubs and allegedly beating and detaining patrons. But seemingly overnight, the Caribbean country has quietly made some reforms. In addition to the new law, two other LGBT rights issues are under discussion: the legalization of same-sex unions and inheritance rights.
The force behind this is a heterosexual 48-year-old sexologist, Mariela Castro. She’s the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana, and the daughter of Cuba’s top man, Raúl Castro.
When Raúl assumed the presidency in February 2008, many people around the world speculated that he would not only implement economic and diplomatic reforms, but also that his daughter would be an even greater catalyst for progressive and open social policies. Two years later, it’s clear that Mariela Castro has been pushing Cuba in that direction, in a move that’s more progressive that what’s legally allowed in many other countries.
In this month’s Foreign Policy, U.S. journalist Ann Louise Bardach, author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington, calls Mariela Castro “the great white hope” in a long line of Castros who are keeping their tight grip on power.
“All democrats and progressives are pining for Mariela because she is the bohemian. She has talked about opening up, about democracy,” Bardach writes. “She’s instituted rights for homosexuals; she’s provided for free transgendered sex surgery. You can’t get an aspirin in Cuba, but thanks to Mariela, you can get free transgender surgery.”
Could it be that an LGBT activist and sexologist is opening the door for other opportunities at pushing forward progressive policies?
*Ruxandra Guidi is a freelance journalist and one half of the collaboration group Fonografia Collective.