03/16/13 - NYTimes - A Transgender Elected Official Reflects an Evolving Cuba
By VICTORIA BURNETT
CAIBARIÉN, Cuba JOSÉ AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ may not be precisely the kind of New
Man whom Che Guevara pictured shaping Cuban socialism.
Ms. Hernández, 48, who identifies as a woman and goes by Adela, would
sooner cut a lazy bureaucrat to size with her sharp tongue than chop sugar
cane with a machete. And you would more likely catch her hauling water to
her house in platform heels than trudging the streets in fatigues and work
So Ms. Hernández was more than a little tickled when she became the first
transgender person to be elected to public office in Cuba, a country whose
government once viewed homosexuality as a dangerous aberration and, in the
1960s, packed gay men off to labor camps.
"It's a huge achievement," said Ms. Hernández, referring to her election in
November to the municipal council in this coastal town where she represents
the 2,000 or so residents of her destitute neighborhood. She raised her
painted eyebrows, saying, "For a country that has been so homophobic to
change so dramatically - it's unheard of."
As modest as Ms. Hernández's official new powers are, her ascendance to the
first rung of Cuba's political ladder is a measure of how attitudes have
evolved here, especially in the past decade, as the Cuban leadership
gradually moved away from old prejudices, the Internet created new
connections among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and Raúl
Castro's daughter, Mariela Castro Espín, took up their cause.
"Times have changed," said Alberto Hernández, 53, a farmer who lives near
Ms. Hernández, but is no relation. He nominated her because she was blunt
and hard-working, he said, adding, "Her sexuality is her business."
NOT everyone shares this view. Luisa Cardenas Del Sol, 72, a retired
nursery school teacher who lives outside Ms. Hernández's constituency, said
she would not have voted for her.
"I respect her personal life," Ms. Cardenas said. "But for her to represent
us in the municipal government? No."
Even as she grew up amid the rural conservatism and discrimination of a
central Cuban sugar-town, Ms. Hernández said she developed an early
interest in women's clothing and had her first sexual contact with a
21-year-old man at the age of 7 - an encounter she now regrets as "too
young" but denies was rape.
She said she was often beaten by her father, a distillery worker, who
turned her over to the police when she was 16 - in the vain hope, she says,
that jail might change her gender expression. She spent two years in jail
on charges that she described as "social dangerousness" and then started a
new life in Caibarién, where she lived as a woman.
"She landed like a bomb in this fishing town full of macho men," said Pedro
Manuel González, a local writer. "It was a complete scandal."
Ms. Hernández's honesty and boldness won over her neighbors, though, Mr.
González and other residents said. She got a job cleaning hospital floors
and, later, trained as a nurse. An avowed communist, she even became head
of her block's Committee for the Defense of the Revolution - the
associations that, among other things, police residents' political
These days, Ms. Hernández juggles her work as an electrocardiogram
technician and her occasional cabaret appearances as a drag queen with the
needs of her neighborhood of cinder block houses and open sewers. So far,
she has persuaded the authorities to install running water at the local
clinic, which used buckets for six years; secured some lights for the main
street; and got the ration store to order extra milk for children.
While these were local concerns, Ms. Hernandez instantly became a national
symbol for Cuban activists promoting broader rights for L.G.B.T. people.
Ms. Castro, director of the National Center for Sex Education, sent a
representative in November to see Ms. Hernández and bring her information
about gender-reassignment surgery, which, since 2008, has been available
free in Cuba's public health system. Ms. Hernández, who has grown breasts
thanks to female hormones, is considering surgery; until she has it, she is
legally considered male.
"HER election proves that Cubans can overcome their prejudices when it
comes to voting for someone," Ms. Castro said in an interview. Ms. Castro,
who was elected to the National Assembly in February (in a process critics
dismiss as artificial because only one candidate appears on the ballot for
each seat) is lobbying the legislature for the legalization of same-sex
Many credit Ms. Castro's activism with helping soften the official posture
toward gay men and lesbians. Fidel Castro, in an interview with the Mexican
newspaper, La Jornada, in August 2010, took responsibility for what he
called a "great injustice" committed against homosexuals. Cubans remain
unapologetically macho, and "queer" is a liberally used jibe, but L.G.B.T.
people now hold government jobs and congregate openly in nightclubs or at
Such openness was tested recently by a highly explicit show of homoerotic
art at a state-owned gallery in downtown Havana. More than 1,000 people
mobbed the opening in January to see an installation by a Havana artist,
Humberto Díaz, that involved two women swathed in plastic wrap performing
oral sex on the floor of the gallery.
"This would have been impossible 10 years ago," said Piter Ortega, the
show's curator. "The social context just wasn't ripe."
Not that the show escaped the authorities' attention: Mr. Ortega said state
security and Communist Party officials had visited the gallery and demanded
a report on a photograph of a black man and a white man leaning in to kiss
behind a cap bearing the insignia of the Cuban National Police.
Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a prominent gay blogger, said the Internet had
advanced gay rights by connecting gay people across the island and creating
a forum for debate. Most Cubans do not have Internet access, but many
download articles and share them on memory sticks.
But rights must be enshrined in Cuban law, Mr. Rodríguez said. "It's not
enough that you tolerate me," he said, pointing to the fact same-sex
couples were not recognized in a recent census. "By law, you should have to
Some argue that gay rights have been fast-tracked while little has changed
in areas like freedom of expression, political activism and democracy.
"This show is a form of dissidence - gay dissidence," said Mr. Ortega, the
curator. "But if it had been about political dissidence, it would never
have been hung."
That is not to say that Ms. Hernández has not encountered resistance. A few
days after her election, she overheard a neighbor complaining that there
was a homosexual in government.
"I walked straight into their house and asked him, 'Which would you prefer,
a queer or a thief?' " she said, referring to her predecessor's reputation
Her time, she said, will be consumed by the problems in her neighborhood,
where houses have no running water and routinely flood during rainstorms.
Ms. Hernández was not picked from the lists of town councilors for the
National Assembly in February, so her political life will, for the next few
years, be restricted to Caibarién.
But her presence on the council - and in the national and international
media - will smooth the path for other L.G.B.T. people to have a more
prominent role in public life, she said.
"I have opened the door," said Ms. Hernández, standing in front of the
one-room wooden house with no toilet and no phone where she lives with her
21-year old partner, Uvaíl Rodríguez. "Behind me, there is a space now that
others can walk through."
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