Sexual citizenship, participation, and emancipation: history and future in Cuba

Participation is fundamental to the process of constructing citizenship, and specifically sexual citizenship, on the road to achieving the true equality and emancipation of human beings.

The victorious Cuban Revolution brought a radical change to gender relations, via the joint participation of men and women in building a project for a more equitable nation. In addition, policies were formulated that have supported the empowerment and gradual exercise of the rights of heterosexual women, as well as the gradual erosion of the hegemony of masculinities.

However, the project for a sovereign, equitable nation that we have set out to build since 1959 continues to be permeated with patriarchal subjectivity. The structural changes that were made after the victory of the Cuban Revolution, backed by the Socialist Constitution of 1976, have not been able to erase the position of subordination of women to men in the Cuban social imagination, and during the first four decades, institutional policies were established that excluded Cuban citizens whose sexuality did not fit heterosexist and patriarchal norms.

We frequently use the terms citizenship and citizen. Some people believe that it is a matter of recognising one’s belonging to a given nation, or state recognition of so-called citizens’ rights. However, citizenship will be addressed in this article from a broader, more complex standpoint.

All citizenship is sexual

The concept of citizenship emerged in modern times to define the relationship between citizens and the nation state. As expressed by Marshall in the 1950s, it means the guarantee and recognition of civil, political, social and economic rights.

With the crisis of neoliberal models in post-modern times, citizenship has been redefined as something that goes beyond the aforementioned legal rights, and it is now viewed as a process through which subjects and social groups participate in the demand for, expansion, or loss of rights. Among many other contributions, the definition of citizenship became permeated with dense, cross-cutting interconnections between the categories of class, race, gender and sexuality.

Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of every subject in building his or her own personal identity, and in his or her interaction with others in society. That is why today all citizenship is sexual, and therefore, it is heterogeneous and diverse, and a matter of multiple sexual citizenships.

Diana Maffía of Argentina defines sexual citizenship as a process that “expresses and guarantees the effective access of citizens to the exercise of their sexual and reproductive rights, as well as to a political subjectivity undiminished by inequality based on sex, gender, sexuality, or reproduction.”

In Western cultures, heteronormative sexual citizenship  has prevailed through the action and coordination of historic institutions, imposed by monotheist religions and accepted by the emergence of the lay State.

Subjects with sexual identities and practices that dissent and differ from the heterosexual norm are “other citizens,” placed in subordinated categories that include people with gender identities, erotic orientations of desire, and sexual practices that have been named such as masculine or feminine homosexual, bisexual, and trans person (transvestite, transsexual, transgender).

The exclusion of non-heteronormative sexualities is constructed through the learning or internalisation of discriminatory and violent concepts, accepted as “values” within families, and reproduced at the social level, both structurally (laws, regulations, institutional operations) and subjectively. Thus, it is known that the following exist in family, social, and institutional contexts: misogyny (hate and rejection of women), homophobia (hate and rejection of masculine homosexuals), lesbophobia (hate and rejection of women homosexuals), biphobia (hate and rejection of bisexual persons), and transphobia (hate and rejection of persons with gender identities and roles different from their assigned sex at birth).

Sexual citizenships and the “conquest” of public space

The right to sexual autonomy and expression, including in public spaces, free of coercion and without hurting others, is a heterosexist privilege. It is significant that in Cuba sexual relations between people of the same sex were decriminalised in 1979, but repressive state control was maintained over any public expression of non-heteronormative sexualities. In 1987, the public display of homosexuality was (re)criminalised, and stayed that way until the 1997 Penal Code reform. At that time, the sentence was made the same as for child sexual abuse; until that year, sentences were more severe if the victim and victimiser were of the same sex. All of this was despite the fact that in Cuban and international legal practice it is known that such crimes are more frequently perpetrated by people with heterosexual practices.

While progress has been observed in changes to the Cuban social imagination regarding sexuality, it is still perceived in our culture as a matter relegated to the private sphere, despite being present in all aspects of our lives. The public visibility of these peripheral sexualities is crucial to achieving access to the exercise and enjoyment of their citizen rights. If non-heteronormative sexualities lack a place in the public space, then as far as the State is concerned they do not exist, and no policies will be implemented for attending to their specific needs.

The existence of meeting places for people with non-heteronormative sexualities has been documented by national historiography for several centuries. Since the late 1980s — and especially in the 1990s — masculine homosexuals and trans persons have been seen in meeting places in the country’s largest cities. While they are increasingly visible, they occupy geographical spaces — and not always safe ones — in provincial capitals, and are seen mostly at night and in the early morning.

These scenarios are distinguished by heterogeneous flows of citizens, many of them in precarious social and economic situations, migrants from parts of the country with poor economic opportunities. Men and trans people find these places to be fertile ground for economic survival by practicing sexual work/prostitution. These environments become references for labelling as “anti-social” all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people.

In the 1990s, trans people burst onto the public scene, and transvestites returned to some of the few sites for recreation that survived that decade’s profound crisis, but lesbian women remained relegated to the private sphere. Since then, same-sex couples have been more visible, especially in urban areas, and masculine and feminine homosexuals have displayed their sexual orientation more openly at the workplace and in political participation. Progressively, lesbians and gays were no longer banned from membership in the Communist Party of Cuba.

However, this does not mean that lesbians and bisexual women or homosexual and bisexual men enjoy now the exercise of full citizenship. The growing integration of these subjects is filtered through a sieve of tolerant assimilation that does not promote respect or an empathetic relationship with heterosexuality, and their full participation is not guaranteed in decisions related to their sexual and reproductive rights.

Many subjects with non-heteronormative identities adopt strategies of “social integration” that allow them to “pass as a heterosexual,” or they do not question the heteronormative status quo. Citizens with heterosexual privileges proclaim the supposed right to respect for their sexualities and accept or tolerate non-heterosexuals as long as they do not question their heterosexist privileges.

In this heteronormative order, trans people face even greater challenges in having their sexual citizenship recognised, given that the expression of their gender identity involves behaving and dressing in clothing and accessories different from what is expected for their assigned sex. The stigma and discrimination suffered by these individuals is generated from a very early age in their families. They have limited rights to post-secondary education, work, and social and political participation, because their legal identity does not correspond with their physical appearance, and because of explicit rejection of their feminine appearance, in the case of feminine trans people.

As occurs in the case of homosexuals and bisexuals, the cisgender  world (non trans) also tolerates feminine trans people (biological men who identify with femininity) who successfully pass as women, with all of the external attributes and behaviour that define femininity in a historically determined context; it is the same case with masculine trans people (biological women who define themselves as masculine). For many trans people, legitimate recognition of their sexual citizenship means looking like or passing as a legitimate woman or man. “Transition treatments,” including genital adaptation surgery (incorrectly referred to as “sex change”), fulfil this purpose. Some trans people who do not want it, or who have medical contraindications to undergoing these treatments remain in a legal limbo, possessing legal identities with which they do not identify in the least.

Sexuality and equitable policies: “What goes unmentioned does not exist”

Consensual sexual practices among men were part of health policies when the AIDS epidemic emerged in Cuba in 1985. The regime of obligatory internment was implemented — from 1986 to 1993 — for HIV-positive individuals, backed by Decree Law 54 of Apr. 12, 1982, Basic Health Regulations. The AIDS epidemic was confronted like that of any other transmissible disease, via the application of Article 9, Decree Law 54, which allowed for the obligatory internment of anyone with a transmissible disease who represented “a danger” to society. Citizens’ right to health was guaranteed free of charge, and with high quality services, but international criticism was sparked by limiting the right to movement and to participation, and by the violation of the principle of the autonomy of HIV-positive persons.

Framed within the National Programme for the Prevention and Control of HIV/AIDS since the year 2000, a project for preventing STDs and HIV for Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) has been implemented nationwide with the support of U.N. agencies. The objectives and actions of the MSM project, which are many, include mitigating the impact of homophobia as a social determinant in the transmission of HIV, which to date has a rate of 80 percent among men. A year later, in conjunction with the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), work began to be carried out among transvestites, whose sexual practices were epidemiologically considered as “sexual relations among men.” From a health standpoint, many social actors became promoters for the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases in the community, using education about safe sex without interfering with people’s personal freedom. This project also has promoted empowerment and solidarity, strategies for confronting homophobia and transphobia — independently of sexual orientation or gender identity — and in recent years it has highlighted the role of hegemonic masculinities as a social determinant for (gender) health in HIV transmission.

Being a person who is living with HIV does not legally limit the exercise of that person’s citizenship. That is stipulated in various resolutions of agencies that are part of the Central State Administration (Public Health Ministry, Labour and Social Security Ministry). However, HIV-positive people are not explicitly protected against acts of discrimination through administrative and civil laws; moreover, HIV tests continued to be done as part of physical exams for pre-employment and for people who travel abroad as part of the country’s cooperation programmes. This is done without due informed consent, which from a bioethical standpoint assumes respect for a person’s autonomy with regard to revealing his or her HIV-positive status, sexual practices and sexual orientation. On the contrary, Cuban penal legislation explicitly names HIV-positive persons in Article 187 of the Laws against Public Health in its First Section: Propagation of Epidemics.

In the field of education, in the past three decades CENESEX has carried out extensive work as part of the National Sex Education Programme. Together with numerous government and civil society institutions, since 2007 this state institution has commemorated International Day against Homophobia every May 17. Since 2008, activities have been carried out as part of a campaign around the date, which has promoted debate in Cuban society about respect for and recognition of sexual orientation and gender identity without stigma or discrimination.

The commemoration of the Cuban Campaign against Homophobia has been an authentic laboratory for citizen participation that many heterosexual people have joined. Its greatest impact lies in having been able to mobilise national and international public opinion in discussion on these issues, as well as the creation of spaces for participation by activists with non-heteronormative sexualities.

Participation for constructing citizenship: “Everybody counts”

Participation is fundamental to the process of constructing citizenship, and specifically sexual citizenship. In our republican and socialist constitutional order, participation is a basic pillar for exercising the sovereign and democratic power of the Cuban people. According to Valdés Paz in his book El espacio y el límite (Space and Limit, Havana, 2009), participation involves the following moments:
Having a voice: opinions are expressed about issues of interest to the actors.

Being able to make consultations: opinions and ideas are expressed about proposals or matters emanating from a leadership level.
Demand and adding demands: demands are expressed for services, goods, and organisational or government measures, etc. Includes participating in adding demands that are specific or related to one’s environment.

Making proposals: proposals are drawn up for measures, priorities, and candidates, etc.

Decisions or decision making: decisions are made on applying policies, plans or programmes, implementing measures and priorities, etc.

Fulfilment or execution: participating in the fulfilment or execution of decisions.

Democratic control: control is wielded over the socio-political process in general and policies that are implemented in particular, as well as the participation process itself.

Evaluation: participating in the assessment of the outcome of the implementation or execution of strategic and tactical decisions, both general and specific, and the democratic development underway.

During the first five editions (2008-2012) of the Cuban Campaign against Homophobia, the voices of people with non-heteronormative sexualities were heard in public forums, via the formulation of demands for social and political recognition of their bodies and sexualities. CENESEX and other governmental and nongovernmental organisations have conducted surveys that take into account the opinion of a representation of people with non-heteronormative sexualities, including anti-patriarchal and non-heteronormative postures of heterosexual citizens. It could then be said that, from this perspective, we found ourselves in the first two moments of participation.

During the first two editions of the Cuban Campaign against Homophobia (2008 and 2009), the most significant demand was for the availability of sites for meeting and socialising, with the inclusion of heterosexual people. Note how the conquest of public space becomes essential for the recognition of citizenship. Since then, the content of demands has moved from the initial necessity of recreation, socialisation, and visibility to greater political significance of bodies and sexualities.

The formation of social networks of activists for sexual rights by CENESEX, with a focus on human rights based on the principles of equality, non-discrimination, human dignity and solidarity, contributed to promoting the right to sexual citizenship in an institutional framework. Among the challenges still faced by activists who make up the sexual rights networks are the implementation of training programmes in non-institutional scenarios, fundamentally in communities, and being able to participate broadly in advocacy actions and political influence with respect to sexual rights. Also, horizontal participation strategies need to be coordinated based on dialogical education that harmoniously combines institutional objectives and the specific needs of human groups toward whom the actions are targeted.

The emergence of other non-institutional initiatives, although with a limited scope, also has impacted the construction of sexual citizenship, and is an expression of the need to strengthen civil society in terms of these issues.

Public speeches by leaders expressing opinions against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity also have shown progress in the past decade in Cuba. The most significant of these figures have been Mariela Castro, director of CENESEX; Ricardo Alarcón, when he was speaker of the National Assembly of People’s Power; Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal; and intellectual and writer Miguel Barnet, president of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), among others. In 2010, Fidel Castro admitted in an interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada that homophobic policies implemented during the time of the Revolution in Cuba “are an injustice,” and he assumed responsibility for those events. During the 6th Campaign against Homophobia, René González, a Hero of the Republic of Cuba, expressed during the opening gala one of the most beautiful and radical ideas in recent years with respect to this issue:

 “We are waging a battle here against forms of behaviour that have made many people suffer. Suffering because of not having freedom unites us. Every sort of discrimination and lack of freedom must be eliminated.” (The underlining is mine.)
René’s clear allusion to suffering and its relationship to restrictions on freedom is related to the cost generated by discrimination toward non-heteronormative sexualities and its unquestionable limitation on the enjoyment of citizenship and full human emancipation.
One of the most important political impacts stemming from the campaign for respect for free sexual orientation and gender identity was the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Working Goals of the Communist Party of Cuba during the party’s first national conference in 2012. Even though recognition of gender identity as a cause of discrimination was proposed during the institutional consultations that were made, unfortunately that was not achieved. This shows us the long road that we have ahead for raising awareness among our political decision makers regarding the central importance of gender identity in personal identity and the right to citizenship.

With respect to foreign policy, the Cuban State has modified its position on human rights in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, expressing its political will to work for its recognition and respect during the two Universal Periodic Reviews in the U.N. Human Rights Council, as well as other forums.

One unprecedented event in the nation’s history occurred when a trans person was elected as a delegate to a Municipal Assembly of People’s Power (city council) in October 2012. Her name is Adela, and she was elected with a wide majority of votes as a result of her acknowledged leadership in the fishing community of Caibarién in Villa Clara province. Her candidacy was proposed by a local member of the Communist Party. Adela’s sense of social justice and empowerment are an example of how people with non-heteronormative sexualities can exercise their citizen rights through political participation in the transformation of Cuban society toward more equitable paradigms.

These facts signify the existence of the Cuban State’s political will to eliminate all forms of discrimination. However, major challenges and resistance remain in the complex process of recognising sexual citizenship in our country; some of these will be summarised below.

The recent Population and Housing Census had the slogan of “In Cuba We All Count”; however, homoparental families and other variants related to sexual orientation or gender identity were not taken into account. CENESEX and some activists advocated for the inclusion of people who were models of non-heteroparental families. This demographic data would be one of the inputs needed for deciding whether or not policies should be implemented for ensuring recognition of different family models.

The updating of the 1975 Family Code is one of the legislative proposals that are still pending for discussion by the Cuban Parliament. In the version that was proposed by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) and the Cuban Union of Jurists more than five years ago, family models were updated and legitimised, frameworks for the custody and guardianship of children were redefined, and gender-based approaches were added, as was the recognition of different emotional/erotic orientations among the members of a family within a context of equality, among others. It has also been proposed that the hereditary rights of same-sex unions be recognised, but it is not clear whether or not they are in a disadvantageous position compared to marriage. In fact, no broad, transparent consultation process has been made for learning about and discussing its content, a basic question that would support the right to citizenship, especially relating to the new proposals.

It is known that the concept of same-sex marriage was not included in the draft Family Code. What is not precisely known is the perception of this issue held by people with non-heteronormative sexualities in Cuba, for whom it is a violation of their citizen rights if they should want to legalise their union.

At the international level, organisations that advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons consider it urgent to fight for the right to egalitarian marriage, and it is considered as a variable that measures the state of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the world. Nevertheless, some activists and academics consider that matrimony is constructed on patriarchal precepts, an invention as historical as heterosexuality.

According to Carole Pateman (1940- ), liberal ideas invoked what Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) called the social contract between citizens and the State, but what should be understood is the presence of a “sexual contract” legitimised by marriage, in which the husband is the citizen and the wife is constructed as a subordinate. From this perspective, some advocate for state recognition of other forms of association based on full gender equality, ensuring the full enjoyment of human rights. Another aspect that constitutes a flagrantly inequitable proposal in the draft Family Code is the apparent negation of the right to adoption by homoparental couples. While the draft Family Code eases existing regulations to that effect in Cuba, no consensus among decision makers was reached on the matter. If the abovementioned were to be confirmed, the decision was based on homophobic and transphobic prejudice and was never consulted with the citizens involved, in addition to the fact that no scientific evidence exists of any limitations or potential harm in homoparental unions raising and taking care of their children. In fact, numerous international scientific associations  have shown that this situation produces no psychological harm whatsoever to children, and that in some cases, it produces benefits, by raising them with the values of equality and non-discrimination.

It is also not clearly known what critical route has been followed by the draft Gender Identity Law, which was proposed eight years ago for technical and political review. The current model in Cuba permits a legal identity change only via surgical change of genitalia, after a biomedical diagnosis has determined a gender identity disorder, including transsexuality. Since 2008, these procedures have been endorsed by the Public Health Ministry (MINSAP), and they are used as evidentiary facts for a legal process to adjust all identity documents according to the person’s gender identity.

A large number of transsexual people have benefited from these procedures, and without question, recognition of their gender identity provides them with access to the exercise of their citizen rights, and significantly eases the anguish they suffer from discrimination based on their gender identity.

Nevertheless, there are many ways of feeling and expressing trans identities that are not taken into account by biomedicine or legal regulations, with the consequent limitation of their enjoyment of citizenship. Many transsexual persons do not want surgery, while others want partial modifications of their body but want to keep their genitalia intact. It is also known that some prefer to submit to partial transition treatments, given that they do not want to lose their reproductive abilities, while others do not self-identify as transsexuals and want their gender identity to be recognised, even if it has nothing to do with their body.

A gender identity law would update Cuba’s legislation on registration of legal identity and would more comprehensively represent the country’s complex social fabric. As was briefly mentioned above, recognition of legal identity and legal status are based on one’s sex category (biological aspects that define us as female, male, or a combination of both). Sex is assigned at birth according to the external aspect of the genitalia, and in very specific cases, according to one’s chromosomes. However, it is not strange or necessarily pathological that those two criteria do not correspond with other biological factors (hormonal, enzymatic, etc.) that also determine sex. This throws off the legal assignation of sex as a defining factor throughout the life of a person’s identity. Meanwhile, the construction of gender identity does not always correspond to the assigned sex, and it is a key aspect in the construction of personal identity. All of this complexity, diversity, and malleability of the sex and gender categories would lead us to rethink legal regulations without taking into account the binary division between masculine and feminine, but in today’s context its implementation would be quite utopian and not very practical. One proposal in the draft gender identity law would be to maintain sex as a category for legal registration and to allow gender identity to be changed according to the construction with which a person identifies, without any medical intermediation, via an administrative process and independently of agreement with that person’s sex assigned at birth. That has been established in Argentine law, without affecting the nation’s higher interests, and without conflict with the country’s established legal order.

Full emancipation: many Cubas, all Cubas

According to Mayra Espina, “Cuba is a laboratory for policies of equality.” That is why the generation of specific policies is needed — both legal and structural — and why broader, systematic educational and politically influential actions are needed regarding sexual diversity and human rights.

It is not a question of imposing a law on citizens without at least a minimum of consensus. However, the Cuban State also must generate policies in the context of human rights, and to consider that when a numerous group of citizens exists that are not included in those policies, their recognition is urgently needed, just as the rights of women and black people were recognised when the Revolution was victorious, without the Cuban people “being prepared” for such radical changes.

Additionally, we repeat the need for articulating structural changes with those that must be carried out — more slowly — in culture. It makes no sense to pass laws that become a dead letter or that involve the reproduction of hegemonies of non-heteronormative sexualities over heteronormative ones.

True equality is achieved through the emancipation of human beings from a more complex standpoint, one that takes into account the intersection of other determinants that limit citizen rights, including skin colour, gender, nationality, economic status, age, religious belief, disabilities, and others. That was raised by Graciela Pogolotti (“Otra década crítica” [Another critical decade], in La Gaceta de Cuba (1):3-8, 2013.)

“Emancipation projects are dispersed into unconnected fragments, gender studies, gay and lesbian movements, and the demands of indigenous people and those of African descent. Inclusiveness is discussed while airtight compartments are built, without taking into account that only genuine human emancipation will break the barriers accumulated by history.” (2013)

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