Cuba is having a sexual revolution—a far change from the history of violent discrimination and machismo against the gay and trans community.
The legalization of civil unions is currently being debated by lawmakers.
Many of these changes come under the guidance of Mariela Castro, the director of CENESEX, the National Center for Sexual Education, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Public Health of Cuba aimed at creating programming to promote sexual education, health and liberation and to advise policy makers.
She is also the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro—and niece of Fidel Castro—who has proposed putting a clause into the nation’s labor code that would prohibit gender identity or sexual orientation discrimination.
But while things are changing for the gay community, trans-people, although not officially counted in national census’s have the highest rates of HIV in Cuba, a country with the lowest rates of HIV in the western hemisphere.
Malu Calabrara is a transgender woman who is an activist for transgender rights. She works with CENESEX and Castro to run the TransCuba network. Started in 2001, it is the only national social network for trans people in the country, designed to build social awareness, HIV prevention and family counseling.
The TransCuba Network is comprised of about 3,000 people and of those people “more than 90 percent of the transgender people in Cuba live with HIV,” Calabra said before one of the workshops she and TransCuba are running in Havana.
Malu—who is HIV positive herself—attributes these numbers to the amount of trans-people practicing prostitution. “I left my house at a very early age, when I was 13 years old,” Malu remembered. “Then I came to live in the Capital City—of course I had a life full of prostitution, of crazy things,” she added.
Many trans-people move to Havana from the outer provinces and rent apartments. However, there is a price for sexual liberation in the more accepting capital city. Rents are high and as a result many turn to prostitution.
Malu explained that as a result of the high rents, “many of these relations you have to exercise in not the most proper places, for example in crumbled buildings, in parks, in the stairway.”
She went on to attribute misuse of condoms to the circumstances of transgender prostitutes in Havana. “As a consequence in many cases, the client that practices the transactional sex does not demand the use of condoms.”
At a TransCuba meeting a Malu’s house, Angelina with long black hair and a glittering dress is one of these people, although she says she has not contracted HIV yet.
Through her relationship with CENESEX, she holds a job as a clinician in a lab. “I work in the hospital and I rest for two days,” she said. But in order to pay her high rent, she turns to prostitution at night. “I am from another province and I rent here and my salary doesn’t cover the rent, “ Angelina explained. “So I do it because it’s necessary.”
When she came to Havana five years ago from Oriente, Angelina was trying to escape the prejudices of her small hometown. She says this is a common story for trans-people. “Many have to leave their homes,” she reported. “They don’t have a place to live so they become prostitutes.”
But while socially, trans people still have an uphill battle in Cuba, the free public health system takes care of all healthcare needs, including HIV. Furthermore, surgical and hormonal sex changes are free and accessible for every transgender person who wishes to undergo the process.
While Malu does not wish to do a full transformation, she did receive breast augmentation. “No limitations,” Malu said.
“Of course there is a procedure, a protocol for a minimum of two years of feminization or masculinization,” she clarified. “You talk to specialists, for example psychologists who do accompany you through all this process of change.” For every question one might have in the process, a trained professional provided by the public health system is there to help. “Their role is not to question what you want to be, but answer what you want to know,” she said.
Surgeons and doctors in Cuba started receiving training to be able to perform sex changes starting in 2007, according to Malu. “The doctor may not feel comfortable dealing with the trans-person, but he will attend you,” Malu says. ”On account of being transsexual you will not be denied the medical services.”