Cuban activists are facing a wall of protest police and barricades after activists blocked traffic on one of the island’s major highways to protest what they say is rampant discrimination against homosexuals on the communist island.
The activists say police have banned many local gay clubs from opening or shutting down during the weekend, when Cuba holds high street festivals. They say there are no or limited rooms or venues for them to hold meetings and they face obstruction from traditional business owners.
Raul Castro’s government has made some concessions to the gay community in recent years, such as legalizing same-sex civil unions and allowing LGBT people to enter the country’s notoriously intimidating police stations without threat of imprisonment. However, the small number of gay people in Cuba remain greatly out of the public eye and regarded as a “special interest” in a society that is overwhelmingly socially conservative.
Castro’s government says it does not discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgender Cubans, and insists there is no shortage of private space for people to meet and support each other.
A Cuban opposition group called Metroes, translated as “the Oriente,” says LGBT rights are an important part of Cuba’s struggle for political freedom.
“The main thing we can ask is for a demonstration” of support for the activists, said Walter Gomez, an activist with Metroes. “It’s a shame because some people do get free of discrimination for a little time, but don’t think about what happens when it disappears.”
The activists reportedly blocked a section of the Havana-Havana Highway on Saturday and arrested one police officer. Later Saturday, a crowd of gay supporters gathered in front of the home of one of the arrested activists.
The Cuban Communist Party publishes a newspaper that covers a wide range of issues, including those related to homosexuals. The paper, Granma, states clearly that “The Party, State and Revolution of the Republic do not discriminate against any race, gender, national group or social class.”
The state remains the main arbiter of what is and is not allowed to be considered normal in the daily life of the average Cuban, and includes gay and lesbian people as part of the general category of “socially vulnerable” members of the population.
Rights groups say Cuba is one of only seven countries to have not repealed laws requiring physical proof of virginity in rape cases. Civil unions and other legal protections are limited to heterosexual couples. At state-run nurseries, gays and lesbians are forced to cover their genitals to avoid detection.
Ramiro Valdes, Cuba’s former ambassador to the United Nations and head of the research and advocacy group TransCuba, said that although Havana has taken some small steps to open up the island to gays and lesbians, other aspects of the economy remain largely unreformed, including employment and travel policies.
According to an International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission survey released last year, 63 percent of gay men and lesbians said their status made them fear for their safety if they wore pink t-shirts on a national holiday, while 47 percent said they were “afraid” to travel during their peak tourist season.
The survey found that two-thirds of LGBT people in Cuba had experienced discrimination or abuse. It also found that about 30 percent of them had problems getting approved for a marriage license.
Similar surveys have been done regularly by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the Cuban Studies Center in Havana. These surveys, however, usually require that survey respondents have first-hand experience of mistreatment, and are generally limited to written statements, which can sometimes be inaccurate.
In a statement posted Saturday on its website, Cuba’s Institute of Sexology said that LGBT couples should be treated with dignity and said there are no legal grounds for the ban on parades or other public entertainment that the activists say they face.
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