Cuba V – Moving forward on LGBTI rights 

“I am never afraid to show my true colours because I prefer to be hated for what I am than to be loved for what I am not.”
In Matanzas, beginning in 2013, a group of LBGTI artists built an alliance with the Afro-Cuban population in their barrio, Pueblo Nuevo. Together, they got permissions and funding to restore a historic building and clear a rubbish-filled street so as to create a new street: The Callejón de las Tradiciones. The Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue supported the AfroAtenAs project, and opened a channel to the Embassy of Canada in Cuba, whose development office provided financial support.
 

The commission that is drafting Cuba’s new family law—the “Código de las Familias” that will allow same-sex marriage—is near the end of its work. On Sept. 7, the government announced that the new law will be brought to the National Assembly of People’s Power for approval, and then be put to referendum. 

A day earlier, the commission heard from Rev. Dr. Ofelia Ortega. Now 85, Ofelia has been a leading proponent of change, speaking out while many other religious leaders are either afraid to engage or are opposed to change. 

Ofelia speaks at an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Matanzas seminary in October 2016. 
In 1967, Ofelia Ortega was the first woman to be ordained in Cuba’s Presbyterian-Reformed Church. She served the World Council of Churches as its theological education secretary from 1988 to 1997. She returned to Cuba to serve as rector of the Matanzas seminary, and later created the “Christian Institute for Gender Studies.” The institute provides space for reflection, training and exchange on issues related to gender justice in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Ofelia has also served in Cuba’s parliament (the National Assembly of People’s Power) and as president for Latin America of the WCC.

A decade of debate is likely to produce a law that is broadly inclusive—not just of equal marriage and common-law unions, but of the wide variety of family relationships in Cuba. Drafters speak of “ethical and spiritual values,” and of content that is legal and also educational. In her presentation, Ofelia said that beyond the legal issues, this is “a question of life.”

Some recent examples of the debate may be found in Spanish in Cubadebate (“human dignity as the basis for rights”) and Juventud Rebelde (“confronting myths about sexuality”).


With regard to LGBTI rights, Cuba has advanced from the first decade of the revolution, when many gay men were placed in re-education camps. That experience continues to inspire films and novels, and despite apologies—including the one from Fidel Castro in 2010 in Spanish here; in English here)—feeds anti-Cuba rhetoric from people who have no interest in queer and trans rights.

Cuba has become a leader on LGBTI rights in the Latin American and Caribbean contexts:

  • Sexual activity between people of the same sex has been legal since 1979. 
  • The 1975 constitutional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman was repealed in 2019. 
  • The Cuban Constitution, amended in 2019, prohibits all discrimination on the basis of gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, among others. 
  • Since 2007, Cubans have marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (May 17) with conferences and parades.
  • Since June 2008, qualifying Cubans have been able to have free sex reassignment surgeries.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel tweeted his support for this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. The event, celebrated globally on May 17 since 2004, is celebrated in Cuba each year with parades and conferences. Images on the right are from an article in Granma newspaper on the new family law.

Perhaps the strongest advocate for change is Mariela Castro, head of the National Centre for Sexual Education (CENESEX). She’s also the daughter of Raúl Castro, the former president and head of the armed forces, and of the late Vilma Espín, founder of the Federation of Cuban Women.

In the first decade of the new millennium, Mariela and her staff at CENESEX led efforts to open up space for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. If the approach was once a bit academic, it cracked open space for open LGBTI events and organizing across Cuba. 

In 2009, two of my Toronto friends, David Fernández and Jerome Scully, made a film about LGBTI people in Cuba that features an interview with Mariela—and conversations with lots of other energetic people in different parts of Cuba. You can watch ¿Oye qué bolá? Cuban Voices on Sexual Diversity.

Left: your bloguista with Mariela Castro. Right: In March 2014, Gary Paterson (then the moderator of The United Church of Canada) and his husband Tim Stevenson (then a Vancouver city councillor) spoke with students, faculty and community members at the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas.

In Cuba, some issues become a complex weighing of certain values—construction materials to repair churches, for example, as opposed to the stated priority for schools and hospitals—in the context of the common good. When Mariela spoke to the assembly of the Council of Latin American Churches (CLAI) when it met in Havana in 2013, she referred to that process by recalling her mother’s leadership in the struggle for women’s rights that is sometimes called “the revolution within the revolution.”

“Based on the experience of Cuba,” she said, “we affirm that change can happen with political will and popular participation.” That means taking consultation seriously and that’s why it is taking more than a decade to achieve equal marriage—even while the other side, made up largely of conservative Christians, engages in hateful rhetoric and seems tied to U.S.-based efforts to align fundamentalist Christian religion with right-wing politics.

When the United Church’s then-Moderator Gary Paterson and his husband Tim Stevenson spoke with students and faculty at the seminary in Matanzas, one of the people present was Elaine Saralegui. Elaine, a graduate from the seminary who at the time was working with a local church, had formed a LGBTI group called Somos (“We Are”).

“My family is very original:” a poster co-produced by Cuba’s Metropolitan Community Church. Right: Rev. Elaine Saralegui during a visit to the AIDS Memorial in Toronto in 2016.

Elaine told me later that the conversation with Gary and Tim spurred the group to further action. They connected with the global network of the Metropolitan Community Church (known in Cuba by its Spanish acronym, ICM), and have congregations now in Matanzas, Havana and Santa Clara.

As we know from experience elsewhere, new laws and political commitments to end discrimination are not always reflected in practice. In Cuba, as elsewhere, there are sometimes issues with how police treat sexual minorities, and race is sometimes a factor. Increasingly though, abuses are reported and dealt with. In 2015, I spent an afternoon in Cárdenas with a gay Afro-Cuban writer, Alberto Abreu Arcía. He maintains a blog, Afromodernidades, where he shares news of actions he takes against racism and homophobia.

Our conversation ranged widely through current events and literature (the excellent books by Reinaldo Arenas, who left Cuba in the Mariel boats in 1980 and died in New York 10 years later) and film (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Fresa y Chocolate, 1991). “These are specific representations of gay life in Cuba that are well-known outside Cuba” but, in Alberto’s view, “do not represent the variety of life in diverse currents, identities and classes.” 

While appreciative of the work “at the top” by Mariela Castro and CENESEX, more needs to be done to address the roles of police, the justice system, schools and hospitals—whose personnel and actions have a huge impact on LGBTI people, and also to examine (not just in Cuba) the fault lines within and among the various groups lumped together under the alphabetic LGBTI: gender, race, class, incomprehension by many LGB of the T and the I, as well as to work through cultural reactions against English-language concepts represented by “Q.”

Left: With Alberto Abreu Arcía in 2015. Right: Jorge González Nuñez, president of Cuba’s Student Christian Movement.

During the most recent events marking the Day against Homophobia, Mariela joined a panel in the presentation of a new book: Paquito el de Cuba: Una década de ciberactivismo, by Francisco Rodríguez Cruz and published by Editorial Caminos of the Martin Luther King Memorial Centre in Havana. The global LGBTI rights group ILGA shared an interview (with subtitles in English) that it did with him in 2018.

In the online book launch, Mariela noted the atmosphere of “low-intensity warfare” that affects Cuba, and that LGBTI themes at times are used to “attack the revolution.” The book pulls together 90 of Paquito’s blog posts where he tries to counter cyber attacks that spread misinformation about LGBTI rights.

In an interview this month with the WCC news service, the president of Cuba’s Student Christian Movement, Jorge González Nuñez, spoke of struggles for social justice in the digital age: “In Cuba, we speak of a ‘Media War’ to refer to the continuous attacks carried out by the United States government against the island. These are actions that in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ use the digital media to censor and misinform. We are facing factories of fake news and trolls, with very sophisticated laboratory technology. Thus we live under constant siege in the digital space.”

Next: some reflections on imperialism.

Colombians ask: “Peace? What peace?”

Lilia Solano, a human rights defender who was one of the organisers of Peace, What Peace?

In recent days, I participated in a zoom-based conference with the Peace Commission of Colombia’s Senate. Since a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the largest guerrilla army, the FARC, was signed in 2016, implementation has not gone well.

By the end of 2020, at least 238 former fighters had been murdered—victims of targeted assassinations.

Meanwhile, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented more than 400 slayings of human rights defenders since 2016, of which 108 happened in 2019 and 53 in 2020. Human rights defenders include community, small-farmer, women, LGBTI, Indigenous, and Afro-Colombian leaders as well as activists for the rights of victims and their families.

My own presentation followed those of some of my friends and heroes: 

  • Former Senator Piedad Córdoba, who led efforts to free people who had been captured by the FARC in years before the peace accords
  • The Portuguese activist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who said that “what has prevailed until now is neoliberal peace” that only opens space for transnational corporations. What has to change are the conditions that led young people to join the guerrillas.
  • From ecumenical colleagues came the reminder that the struggle for peace with justice must be global. Rudelmar Bueno de Faria of the ACT Alliance noted the role of religion in the conflict in Colombia, warning that history will not forgive those who have “played with the peace processes.”

In my remarks, I went a bit further regarding the questionable role of religious organizations in the search for peace.

I was at the marvellous ecumenical seminary in Matanzas, Cuba, in October 2016, when news came that a referendum to approve Colombia’s peace agreement had failed. It was quickly understood that fundamentalist Christians had intervened in the public debate, and rallied their bases to vote no by arguing that the peace agreement promoted “gender ideology” and would destroy the family. In reality, the FARC rebel army had acknowledged its crimes against women and LGBTI people, and apologized. Both sides pledged to do better on gender justice and the rights of LGBTI people.

For me, having worked with faith-based organisations in Colombia and their allies abroad since 1993, the vote result and the reality that some Christians worked against peace, was a disappointment. I had seen people like Lilia Solano (pictured above), a Mennonite who works among human rights NGOs and in Colombia’s legislative branch, and Fr. Javier Giraldo, the Jesuit human rights defender and founder of the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, risk their lives for peace. I thought of friends who are leaders of the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Mennonite Churches and Roman Catholic religious communities who would share my disappointment, together with people in organisations like the DiPaz inter-church peace coalition, the Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz, and the popular educators and trainers of community journalists at CEPALC.

Their persistent witness guided me when I spoke the next morning to people who were gathered at the seminary to celebrate its 70th anniversary and to consider the future of ecumenical theological education in Latin America and the Caribbean, I said it seemed to me that the voices of moderate or progressive Christians were marginalised or discounted in a climate of fear generated by the shrill voices of the Christian right and their political backers. That day in Cuba, I said:

“A good theological education, offers ways to read the bible, to interpret scripture, to understand the limits church authority in civil society. In a good theological school, one learns to use the Bible to interpret the Bible, to use the texts that we have of the teachings of Jesus about the love of God and of neighbour so as to understand other parts of the bible. Without good theological education—and, by extension, good Christian education within the churches—the public square is surrendered to the most retrograde and hate-filled voices of Christian fundamentalism, empty of love and forgiveness.”

My remarks Thursday, March 18, to the Colombian Senate’s peace conference took up similar themes.

“This increase of inequality and violence contrasts with the experience of churches and social movements that uphold fullness of life and defend the dignity of women and LGBTI people. They create spaces for mutual listening, weaving networks and planting seeds of peace and justice as they raise their voices for a world of greater solidarity.

“Those of us who are too often the objects—and victims—of hate speech need your voices, you artisans of peace, and of religious leaders who promote an understanding of Christianity that is inclusive and respectful of diversity, who promote contextual and liberation theologies, who can join dialogue over differences and are reflections of the reality in which we live: who speak, in the end, of the love that should exist among all of us

“In place of fear and prejudice, let us build alliances of solidarity across all borders.”

Sustainable development, religious freedom, and LGBTI rights

Oct. 5, 2018

During my visit to Buenos Aires, I found myself in a public conversation about religious freedom. This is a topic that I usually avoid, knowing that I get angry, especially at those Christians who reduce religious freedom to their own will to discriminate against others with whom they disagree or of whom they disapprove. To me, freedom of religion is like freedom of speech: to be upheld until it imposes itself on the rights of others to be who they are, or when it becomes a threat to our personal security.

For those of us who identify ourselves anywhere in the 2SLBGTIQ+ acronym, freedom from religious fundamentalism and specifically from promotion of homophobia and transphobia is vital. We live in a time when some politicians turn gender justice against women and sexual minorities to win support from religious fundamentalists.

I was attending an inter-faith forum on sustainable development, one of several events leading up to the meeting in Buenos Aires Nov. 30-Dec. 1 of the G20 group of countries.

Having sat through an hour of praise for religious freedom, vitality, and the role of religion in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals—without any of the panelists saying anything about victims of religious fundamentalism—I rose to my feet. I was cautious, and tried to outline a different approach.Instead of blaming the speakers or making the issue about myself, I pointed to the creation in 2016 of Global Affairs Canada’s Office of Human Rights, Freedom and Inclusion as a good example of a different approach.*

To me—and this is what I said to the panelists—the greatest value of the new office is that it places religious leaders in a space with people who are too often targeted because of their race, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. I asked how the panelists viewed religious freedom in the context of other freedoms and rights.

In response, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, said religious freedom cannot be upheld in ways that undermine the rights of others. He insisted on equality. Another panelist, Elder Todd Cristofferson of the Church of Latter Day Saints’ Quorum of 12 Apostles, spoke in terms of “fairness to all”—a pleasant surprise to me. Rabbi David Silverstein—religious freedom ambassador under President Barack Obama—spoke of the rights of groups not to be discriminated against, and said limits on religious freedom are appropriate.

This exchange took place in the plenary of the interfaith summit. We then moved into four parallel sessions, and the one that I attended was on Human Rights, Faith and Sustainable Development. Many of those who had been in the plenary also attended this session, including Dr. Shaheed. And here I learned a few things.

Faith for Rights

Maybe everyone else already knows about the work of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on “Faith for Rights,” the Rabat Plan of Action and the Beirut Declaration, but I didn’t know. OHCHR staffer Michael Wiener walked us through them.

In 2012, section 36 of the Rabat Plan of Action laid out some of religious leaders’ core responsibilities against incitement to hatred:

  1. refrain from using messages of intolerance or expressions which may incite violence, hostility or discrimination
  2. speak out firmly and promptly against intolerance, discriminatory stereotyping and instances of hate speech
  3. be clear that violence can never be tolerated as a response to incitement to hatred: there is no justification for violent retaliation.

This is not white-washing, insisted Mr. Wiener: faith-based actors can do good or bad. His role is to support faith leaders in positive action for rights. There are also 18 commitments adopted by faith-based actors in the 2017 Faith for Rights Beirut Declaration.

These include pledges to ensure non-discrimination and gender equality. They use religious texts and UN declarations to prohibit so-called honour crimes and female genital mutilation, and to call for an end to blasphemy laws and use of the notion of “state religion” to discriminate against individuals or groups. They set out to “de-mystify” or take away the impression that faith is against human rights. They re-affirm humanitarian aid principles of conduct, including that aid cannot be used to promote religion—which would be tantamount to coercion. Faith groups stand up for the rights of all minorities. Faith for Rights is an umbrella to bring them together, and proposes concrete projects to implement the commitments.

Mr. Wiener said that Dr. Shaheed (the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, sitting in the audience in this session), has described the Beirut commitments as “soft law standards.” They are not formally adopted by states (yet), but by using them, over time they become norms. Along with the official UN languages, nine other translations have been made: for example, Turkish and Greek for use in Cyprus; Serb and Albanian for use in the Balkan region, etc. They have been turned into tweets and given artistic expression in different places.

In our work to overcome religion-based homophobia and transphobia, honour crimes and female genital mutilation, blasphemy laws and anti-sodomy laws, we can use those publicly-stated commitments to remind those who would promote hatred and exclusion that other faith leaders have taken a different stance, and have UN backing.

* An example of how the government of Canada talks about religious freedom and LGBTI rights. Matt DeCourcey, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, at the Ministerial on Advancing Religious Freedom in July 2018 in Washington: “We believe in fostering greater inclusion and equity for every person, including all faith and belief communities, women and children, Indigenous people, members of the LGBTI community, minority groups, and others who are often marginalized in society.… Since March 2017, Canada has been a member of the International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development where we are working with others to harness the potential positive impact of religion in sustainable development and explore the critical intersections between religion, development and gender equality –in an effort to ensure that no one is left behind.”

More information about LGBTI rights globally:

Dignity Network Canada: Since 2016, The United Church of Canada and Affirm United/S’Affirmer Ensemble have participated in the Dignity Network of NGOs, human rights groups and others that are committed to defend LGBTI rights globally and to press the Canadian government to do more.

Rainbow Faith and Freedom is a global movement that confronts religious-based LGBTI discrimination and improves the human and equality rights of LGBTI people everywhere.