Mariela Castro and Cuba’s LGBT revolution

jan-2017-marielaBy ANN MONTAGUE

“Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution,” directed by Jon Albert and Sual Landau. Cuban producer Roberto Chile. An HBO Documentary Production.

This just released film follows Mariela Castro and Cuban LGBT activists as they travel through rural towns to engage with Cubans about the upcoming International Day Against Homophobia on May 17, 1990.

They travel to the region of Matanzas, the small towns of San Pablo de Yao and Ciego de Avila, and a farm in the Sierra Maestra mountains. There are also more recent interviews with lesbians, gay men, and transgender Cubans and their families throughout the island. The film begins and ends with the 2013 Day Against Homophobia marches, which illustrates how far the movement has come.

In the beginning, the film explains that Mariela Castro is the daughter of Raul Castro and the niece of Fidel Castro. But it fails to mention the more important fact that she is very much the daughter of Vilma Espin, who was a Cuban revolutionary, feminist, and president of the Federation of Cuban Women from 1960 until her death in 2007. Mariela likes to say that she is a Castro by accident of birth. When she is asked about marriage equality for Cuba, she says that when her father tells her she is going too fast, she reminds him that her mother supported gay marriage in the 1980s.

Mariela is the director of CENESEX (Cuban Center For Sex Education), which she describes as “running outreach programs to the community to change minds and fight prejudice. We also offer classes and health services.”

The film does not pull any punches about the shameful history of Cuba’s revolutionary government’s treatment of LGBT persons. “Public displays of homosexuality, performance of homosexual acts, association with homosexuals” were forbidden for decades. In addition, thousands of gay men were sent to forced labor camps, which were euphemistically called “Military Units To Aid Production” (UMAP).

The film interviews one gay man who describes his experience and films a support group of survivors of the camps who talk about their encounters with Mariela Castro and say they deserve an apology. She apologizes and says, “We must remember so that it will never happen again.”

A lot of the stories are universal experiences of family rejection, acceptance, and mere tolerance. What makes the film compelling is the Cuban context. The factory workers who accept their co-worker, the factory manager who discriminates against a lesbian worker, the first Cuban to experience female to male sex reassignment surgery with Mariela Castro at his bedside, LGBT baseball games, and lesbian farmers living openly in the Sierra Maestra mountains, where the revolution began.

Mariela Castro is an elected member of Cuba’s Parliament (Asamblea del Poder Popular). There is interesting footage of her testifying for the inclusion of transgender rights in Cuba’s Labor Code. When it was not included, she votes “no.” She says, “I cannot support humiliation and suffering and the denial of human rights.”

The film ends at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana, where the first Gala Against Homophobia and Transphobia is being televised. Mariela says with a smile, “This is the first year that the festivities are being televised. Change takes time. We will continue fighting.”

This documentary is definitely worth seeing for LGBT people, but also anyone interested in the changes happening in Cuba. While the focus is on the LGBT experience in Cuba, it also gives us a close look at a Cuban leader and activist whom U.S. officials have rarely allowed to visit the United States.

Photo: Mariela Castro is in center, wearing the hat.