Havana (AFP) – Gay rights in Cuba have come a long way since the early years of the Communist revolution, when countless people were marginalised or forced to flee because of their sexual orientation.
Now, the island’s LGBT community is pinning its hopes on new leader Miguel Diaz-Canel to fight their corner in the battle for equal rights – with same-sex unions the ultimate goal.
The first Cuban president from outside the Castro family in over 40 years, Diaz-Canel was groomed within the Communist Party and was little known to the wider world before he assumed top office last month.
At home, however, the 58-year-old is known for having signalled support for the LGBT community when he was a provincial secretary for the party.
Journalist and gay rights campaigner Francisco Rodriguez said Mr Diaz-Canel had been strongly supportive of a cultural center in Villa Clara called El Mejunje, known as a haven for the local LGBT community.
Cuba has a troubled history when it comes to gay rights: after Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries came to power in 1959, gay people were stigmatised, and many were forced into re-education camps.
Socially marginalised and barred from public jobs, many LGBT intellectuals and artists were forced to flee in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
By the early 2000s, however, the tide had started to turn, and a watershed came in 2010 when Fidel Castro – in a rare instance of self-criticism – admitted responsibility for the “injustices” perpetrated against homosexuals.
After Mr Fidel’s brother Raul took over the presidency in 2008, Mr Raul’s daughter Mariela Castro became a powerful advocate for gay rights as the head of the government-funded National Center for Sex Education, Cenesex – fighting against political discrimination towards the LGBT community, and in favour of marriage equality.
The lawmaker credits her late mother, Raul Castro’s wife Vilma Espin, for making the first efforts to change the status quo by raising awareness of the issue among the party’s younger generation which included a youthful Mr Diaz-Canel.
LGBT rights in Cuba have evolved in leaps and bounds in recent years, from the army opening up its ranks to gay soldiers, to the state covering the costs of gender reassignment surgery.
In 2012 a transgender woman became the first to win municipal office, as a city councilor in Caibarien, in Villa Clara province.
But while the Communist Party now officially bans employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, same-sex civil unions remain beyond reach. Obtaining legal recognition for same-sex marriage is now the main goal of Cuba’s gay rights movement.
Mr Rodriguez has high hopes that Mr Diaz-Canel will take things further by being the first Cuban president to openly acknowledge and address the LGBT community, and the challenges it faces, in his speeches.