[A-List] A Castro Strives to Open Cuban’s Opinions on Sex
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Sat Jun 9 11:08:58 MDT 2007
June 9, 2007
The Saturday Profile
A Castro Strives to Open Cuban's Opinions on Sex
By MARC LACEY
TWENTY or so transsexuals sat in a circle recently discussing their
woes: harassment, boyfriend troubles, the challenge of removing hair
from their legs. Empathizing with them was Mariela Castro Espín,
Cuba's premier sexologist.
"I know, I know," she said, putting her hand on one of her own legs to
show she could relate.
Then the conversation took an interesting turn. The transsexuals, who
are receiving training as AIDS counselors at the National Center for
Sexual Education, which Ms. Castro directs, brought up sexual liaisons
some of them had had with soldiers. Maybe counseling in the barracks
was needed, the transsexuals said.
Ms. Castro smiled, raised her eyebrows but did not dismiss the
suggestion out of hand. Homosexuality is illegal in Cuba's military.
In fact, some Cubans have avoided military service altogether by
claiming to be gay.
Making the proposal even more delicate, everyone in the circle knows,
is the fact that Ms. Castro, 44, is the daughter of Raúl Castro, the
commander of Cuba's armed forces and, with the recent health problems
of his brother, Fidel, the temporary leader of the government.
Despite Ms. Castro's pedigree in Cuba's most famous family, however,
no one seems to hold his — or her — tongue around her. While her
father is known for his strait-laced bearing, Ms. Castro has a more
down-to-earth air. A mother of three who is married to an Italian
photographer, she speaks of topics that might make others blush.
"Sexuality does not just have a reproductive function," she declared
in an interview on the front porch of a Havana mansion, where the
center is located, noting that sex is also about love and pleasure and
discovery and experiment. "Human beings are much more diverse than we
CUBA, like many islands around the Caribbean, is a sexually liberal
place where relationships out of wedlock are commonplace and taboos
seem to be few, but only within heterosexual relationships.
Homosexuality, transvestitism and transsexuality, however, are another
Historically, Cuba's gays have experienced the wrath of the
government, with many sent off to labor camps. The climate has greatly
improved in recent years, most seem to agree. Still, transvestites and
transsexuals continue to complain of police harassment, and those with
AIDS remain stigmatized, making prevention programs a challenge.
"I suggest you take a stroll on La Rampa to see how freely people
express their sexual orientation," Ms. Castro said, mentioning a
popular gathering spot for gays in Havana. "This doesn't mean we don't
have to work in the political arena and in the education of all of
Ms. Castro said she felt no pressure to enter the family business of
politics. She studied psychology in college, she said, and is now on
the forefront of Cuba's effort to make sex, in all its variety, as
natural a discussion topic as it is a physical act. Her center helped
produce a soap opera on state television last year featuring a married
man who discovered he was attracted to other men. It was hugely
Ms. Castro, who is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on transvestitism,
is also pushing for an overhaul of Cuban laws so that, among other
things, the government health care system covers surgery for
transsexuals and that new official identification documents are issued
after the operation.
Already, a government panel reviews individual cases of those wishing
to change their sex and refers some transsexuals to therapy and
hormone treatment. Currently, 26 transsexuals have been approved for
treatment by the committee, with another 50 under review, Ms. Castro
She recalled several years ago her discomfort when some transvestites
and transsexuals first approached her at the center to raise their
difficulties with the authorities. "At the beginning, I didn't
understand them," she said.
But the more she listened, the more she began to believe that Cuba's
Communist state, in which she is a committed believer, ought to accept
transvestites and transsexuals as comrades along with everyone else.
NO sex-related topic is off limits in the center's publication,
Sexology and Society, which features artwork and poetry with sexual
themes and academic articles dealing with subjects like gay bashing,
domestic violence and hormone therapy for transsexuals.
Her magazine publishes research from scientists around the world
regardless of their nations' relations with Cuba. That means American
sex research sometimes finds its way onto the pages of Sexology and
Ms. Castro attended a sexology conference in California several years
ago, which was her only trip to the United States. A return trip seems
unlikely any time soon, though, she said with a smile and a shrug,
since she cannot get a visa.
Ms. Castro, who has two sisters and a brother, insists her family name
"doesn't help me at all." To the contrary, she said, when she has
tried to work with the Cuban military, commanders were so concerned
about nepotism that they were uncooperative.
But Ms. Castro acknowledges that she has access to the very top of
Cuba's bureaucracy, which certainly does not hurt in pressing her
She said she puts a copy of her center's magazine on her father's
bedside table and briefs him on her work whenever she can. "He has
told me he supports me, that he supports the personal rights of
homosexuals," she said of her father, who is 75 and spent his life as
a military man. "He always says go slowly, though, so you don't build
Making the case to her uncle, Fidel, has been even more of a
challenge. He is known for firing back questions at those briefing him
and expecting knowledgeable answers. "I was terrified he would ask me
something I didn't know," she said.
Now she gives him informal briefings whenever she can. He is a busy
man, though, she said, so getting an audience is not easy.
Ms. Castro views her work as a continuation of that of her mother,
Vilma Espín, who has been the head of the Cuban Women's Federation for
nearly half a century. The sexual education center, like just nearly
every other group in Cuba, is part of the government bureaucracy. But
Ms. Castro said she participated in politics as an everyday citizen,
not as the niece of El Commandante, whom she recently described as
being in "stupendous" condition.
Despite her government's restrictions on political speech, Ms. Castro
is an outspoken advocate for more open sexual discourse. The more
young people learn about sexuality, she contends, the less they will
pick up from the streets. And politicians, too, need to be briefed on
the topic, she said, to lead to more enlightened public policy.
"If you suppress things, they will become hidden," she said. "It has
been proven in scientific research in Cuba and other countries that
the more education you give adolescents and adults, the more people
are free to make their own decisions."
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