IN SEPTEMBER, 2018, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, above, backed same-sex marriage. The Cuban leader, who took over from Raúl Castro on April 19, said he was in favour of recognising “marriage between people without any restrictions.”

In an interview with TV Telesur, he said doing so was “part of eliminating any type of discrimination in society”.

It will come as no surprise that Christian zealots are dead against moves towards greater equality.

The Assembly of God Pentecostal Church, the Evangelical League and the Methodist Church of Cuba, among other Christian churches, issued a joint statement opposing gay marriage.

Writing for The Conversation website, María Isabel Alfonso, Professor of Spanish at St Joseph’s College of New York, pointed out that traditionally, religion has taken a back seat to politics in Cuba.

Their public letter, published on June 8, argues that such “gender ideology” has “nothing whatsoever to do with our culture, our independence struggles nor with the historic leaders of the Revolution”.

Alfonso said: “Cuba is a secular country where political ideology has historically trumped religion. Religious opposition to a government proposal is rare.

“It is even more unusual for the church to attempt to mobilise the Cuban public, as some Christian leaders are trying to do now.”

According to the Cuban magazine La Jiribilla, preachers on the streets have been handing out fliers saying gay marriage defies God’s “original design” for the family.

Alfonso added: “Gay rights groups and feminists are responding with a creative show of force.

“Clandestina, Cuba’s first online store, and the tattoo studio La Marca are spearheading a campaign called “Cuban design,” celebrating a ‘very original family’ – phrasing that rebuts Christian claims about God’s design.”

“More than anything, this is an issue of free expression,” Roberto Ramos Mori, of La Marca, said in an email. “The way to push back against hate is calmly, with intelligence – and, of course, humour.”

Cubans with Internet access use the hashtag #mifamiliaesoriginal to signal their support for LGBTQ rights on social media.

The church’s powerful opposition to marriage equality reflects a strategy commonly deployed across Latin America, says the Cuban feminist Ailynn Torres Santana. Catholic and evangelical groups in Ecuador used similar language, for example, to oppose a 2017 law allowing citizens to choose their own gender identifier, she says. In response to the legislation – which recognised gender as “a binary that is socially and culturally created, patriarchal and heteronormative” – churches called for “citizens to live in harmony with nature.”

Similar scenes played out when both Colombia and Brazil advanced LGBTQ rights, with Christian groups dismissing any attempt to change traditional gender roles as the “result” of what they pejoratively call “gender ideology.”

Writing for The Hornet website in March 2017, Daniel Villarreal said: “Ever since the Obama Administration defrosted America’s relationship with Cuba in 2015, LGBTQ tourists have begun flocking to the sunny island nation to experience its sandy beaches, tropical valleys and old city districts filled with Spanish-French colonial architecture.”

And Dayron Ortiz, a gay Cuban tour guide, said: “We’re getting a lot more Americans, especially in the last six months. Hotels are being built mostly around Old Havana, which is the most touristic area. Cubans are opening many restaurants to have sufficient demand for all of them in the near future.

“Having LGBTQ travellers in Cuba has a positive impact, because we need to learn from other cultures, hear new ideas and improve what we’ve done so far.”

Villarreal  added: “While Cuba once punished homosexuality under Fidel Castro’s regime, the last 30 years have seen the island take great strides forward. Cuba fully decriminalised homosexuality in 1997, began granting free gender-reassignment surgeries to qualifying Cuban citizens in June 2008 and held its first-ever pride parade that same year.

“In 2010, Cuba began supporting gay rights at the United Nations; in 2012, the country elected Adela Hernández, its first transgender member of parliament; and in recent years, the country’s gay choir, Mano a Mano, has begun touring around the US. All this while Cuba’s tourism offices started inviting mainstream gay publications to visit the island as a way to welcome LGBTQ travellers.”

Mariela Castro, center, daughter of Cuban former President Raul Castro and the director of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), participates
in the gay pride parade in Havana, on May 12, 2018. Photo: Yamil Lage/AFP – Getty Images

Castro’s heterosexual niece, Mariela Castro-Espin, serves as the public face of Cuba’s LGBTQ rights movement and since 1990 has overseen the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), an organisation that advocates for LGBT+ equality, familial acceptance and HIV prevention. She often leads the country’s annual pride parades. In 2016, she marched alongside Evan Wolfson of the American group Freedom to Marry and trans actress Candis Cayne. Castro-Espin has also overseen several symbolic same-sex unions as part of Pride celebrations.

Most impressively, CENESEX has also helped Cuba achieve the world’s lowest HIV rate and become the first nation to eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission.
But, while Cuba outranks most other Latin America island nations in LGBTQ rights, the country still has further to go. While the island largely accepts gay people, its Catholic and machismo influence continues to have a negative effect on local queer culture.

Large stretches of the island lack regular Internet and mobile phone access, and this, along with the country’s still-developing public transportation infrastructure, has made it challenging for gay islanders to connect and build a strong, cohesive gay Cuban identity.

Luis Paz, an independent local activist and guide who offers gay tours around Cuba, still sees a great potential for improved LGBTQ influence across the island.
Working with LGBTQ-friendly nightclubs and predominantly straight domestic DJs, he has begun creating queer-inclusive music events where the LGBTQ community can meet, dance to iconic queer music with empowering messages and create lasting social connections – a sort of “nightclub activism.” Paz sees music as one powerful way to strengthen the community and unite it with the larger queer community abroad.