"The LGBT community in Cuba is going through a transition"
Daniel Abma, director of 'Transit Havana' says the regime is now
integrating gays into society
Bilbao 20 MAR 2017 - 15:50 CET
"El colectivo LGTB de Cuba vive un momento de apertura y transición"
A meeting with a Belgian surgeon gave the Dutch documentary filmmaker
and human rights activist Daniel Abma the story he was looking for:
every year, Cuba invites this surgeon along with a Dutch colleague to
carry out sex reassignment surgery on five of the island's residents.
Between November 2013 and January 2015, Abma documented the lives of
three transsexuals hoping to be among the lucky five. Then, as relations
between the US and Cuba warmed, he was given a newsworthy peg on which
to hang his film.
"The regime has gone from persecuting homosexuality to using all its
propaganda machinery to promote integration," says Abma who has just
watched his documentary, Transit Havana, premiere at the LGTBI Zinegoak
2017 Film Festival in Bilbao. " But Cuban homosexuals still have to deal
with religious intolerance, poverty, discrimination and often prostitution."
Many Cuban transsexuals have no alternative than to turn to prostitution
Cuban-trained doctors do not possess the necessary know-how to perform
sex reassignment procedures, which is why the Cuban government seeks out
experts in Europe. Through him, Abma was able to get permission to
document the new transgender residents' program, headed by President
Raúl Castro's daughter, Mariela.
"Mariela Castro supported us in every way. There was no control over
what we filmed and it became clear that she is a sort of mother figure
for the community," says the director, who visited the island four times
over the course of two years.
Mariela Castro is a member of Cuba's National Assembly and Director of
the National Center for Sex Education (Cenesex), whose push for
integration is giving the community a great deal of positive exposure
while, at the same time, making socialism a priority – the program
financing the sex reassignment surgery has adopted as its slogan:
homophobia no, socialism yes.
But it wasn't all plain sailing for Abma's project. While he was offered
unprecedented access to certain aspects of life in Cuba, some of his
footage was thought to give the wrong image of the island. "Without
Mariela's support, it would have been impossible to move so easily
around the island but when the authorities saw the results, they wanted
several changes that we didn't make," says the director, who regrets
that Mariela Castro did not show up for the premiere.
The Cuban authorities wanted some cuts to the documentary, which were
Along with Abma, the documentary's three protagonists, Odette, Malú and
Juani – three generations of different sexes facing different challenges
– were at the premiere in Bilbao. "At 64, Juani has a good life," says
Abma. "She was one of the first transsexual women and her new identity
as a man has not caused her problems."
This is not the case for Odette, who at the age of 38, has had to deal
with rejection from her family due to their religious beliefs, while
Malú, 28, was forced at times to turn to prostitution to make a living.
"Each of the three highlights the challenges that still face
transsexuals: religious prejudice, the lack of job opportunities and
social stigma," says Abma.
The director adds that Cubans are aware discrimination is wrong and
that, in the spirit of the revolution, they accept in theory that all
people are equal. But in practice traditional attitudes, combined with
Catholic convictions, mean that prejudice is widespread.
"The Church is a big problem for Odette," says Abma. "Her mother insists
that she can't be transsexual because it goes against Creation. Malú's
fight for transsexual rights has become her life and made her the leader
of the TransCuba Association. The older generation has reservations
about the country opening up, and finds it hard to understand
transsexuals. The young people are pushing for change and see the
community as normal."
The making of Transit Havana also prompted Abma to consider issues such
as how countries can implement radical change and how the most
traditional governments can turn their propaganda tools to good use. "In
Cuba, tradition exists side-by-side quite comfortably with movements
keen to open up," says Abma. "And it's Mariela Castro who is promoting
integration within the National Assembly. It's a shift that fills the
LGBTI community in many Eastern European countries with hope.
Communities can take strength from my documentary and governments can
reinforce their campaigns."
In Georgia, a transsexual was murdered on the street just days after
Transit Havana was released. But as he embarks on his next project,
these kinds of brutal responses only make the director more determined
to use cinema as a platform to bring about change and equality.
English version by Heather Galloway.
Source: Gender issues in Cuba: "The LGBT community in Cuba is going
through a transition" | In English | EL PAÍS -