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Mariette Pathy Allen | Cuba

Celebrating during "The Week against Homophobia and Transphobia", Ciego de Avila

This series of photographs represent nine trips to Cuba, take from 2012 to 2019 My book, “TransCuba, was published in 2014 but I became so eager to continue my involvement with the people who became my friends, that I continued to go. On my first trip, I went to the Las Vegas Cabaret where I met the three transwomen who became the focus of the book. As soon as I met Amanda, Nomi, and Malu, I spent almost all of my time in their company. Like most of the people who transition from male to female in Cuba, they work as prostitutes; Cuban law doesn’t permit name change, and limits the kind of work they’re allowed to do after transitioning. All three are HIV positive, as are over 90% of the transwomen in Cuba. Fortunately, thanks to the work of Mariela Castro, a sexologist and president Raul Castro’s daughter, and The National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), the organization she runs, provides counseling, discussion groups and medical attention for LGBT people, and organizes scholarly conferences on sexuality.


I have been involved with gender nonconforming people as a photographer, writer, advocate, ally, and friend for over forty years. My focus remains the same as when I started: the appreciation of gender variant people, both for themselves and for the outside world. Just in the process of living their lives, people who are gender nonconforming make profound questions visible: What is the relationship between body and mind? What does “man” or “woman” really mean? Finally, what is the essence of a human being?

Although most of my work has been done in the United States, I have been active in other countries as well, and in January, 2012, I took my first trip to Cuba, to attend a sexology conference with members of “The World Professional Association for Transgender Health” who were invited to Cuba by Mariela Castro Espin. She is the head of Cenesex, an organization that offers legal, medical, and psychological services for transgender and homosexual people. It’s headquartered in a beautiful old building in a quiet neighborhood in Havana, where it serves as a gathering place for this community.

As part of the conference, we were invited to the Las Vegas Club, one of Havana’s liveliest drag performance venues. Within the club’s fanciful décor, female impersonators in spectacular outfits poured their hearts out as they lip-synched to tragic, romantic music. Enthusiastic groups of gender non-conforming women, looking stylish and original, cheered them on and mingled with the rest of the mostly male audience. I was eager to meet the women, and was immediately drawn to Amanda by her obvious charm and her less polished appearance, which made me feel that she might be easier to get to know. We had an instant connection, and she held my hand as we walked to the bar. Then, through another photographer, I met Nomi, who was brimming with energy and good will. I was very impressed to discover that she had taught herself to speak English.

I ended up spending most of the next week in the company of Amanda and Nomi. We walked miles around the city, over Havana’s dramatically uneven streets, visiting places and people they knew, or standing in long lines waiting to change money or to charge their cell phones. On my last night in Havana, as we were walking to my hotel, we were stopped by a policeman. He asked Nomi and Amanda for their identity cards, and wrote the information in a book. They accepted the situation with dignity. “We’re used to it. He probably thinks it’s strange that we’re here with you,” Nomi explained.

I met Malu on another night at the Las Vegas Club, but I didn’t get to know her until my next visit, in February 2013, because Amanda had become her roommate. Malu is a natural leader, organized, determined, and generous. As “the best known transgender person in Cuba”, she introduced me to most of the people I met on my next three visits.

As Cuba transitions from strict communism to a more inclusive socialism, private enterprise is gradually becoming acceptable, and outside influences are palpable. Sexual minorities in this macho-inclined country are becoming more visible and less despised. Gone are the work camps where individuals of “corrupt morals” were sent to provide free labor to the Revolution. Many of these workers were homosexual or transgender. It was a time before the term “transgender” was understood, much less accepted as part of the language.
It seems to me that the changes being made by the Cuban government are most obvious when we look at the people who, by their nature, need to transition from their birth gender. I see transgender Cubans as a metaphor for Cuba itself; people living between genders in a country moving between doctrines. As restrictions decrease, discrimination against people who are gender nonconformists is becoming less prevalent. A lot of credit for making their lives easier belongs to Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela, a sexologist. She is making her own revolution by revitalizing Cenesex, creating anti-discrimination campaigns and celebrations, working to improve legal, psychological, and medical treatment including gender reassignment surgery, and fostering closer connections between sexual minorities in Havana and around the country.
Malu, Amanda, and I traveled around Cuba together. We visited their families and friends, including the only person they knew who transitioned from female to male. We went to the beach, to performances and other special events. One night in Camaguey we checked out a cruising area in a beautiful public park replete with stone sculptures and a monument. We spent a few evenings at Havana’s Malecon, in the area where men go to look for gay boys or trans women, and we spent four days participating in the annual celebration of “The week Against Homophobia and Transphobia”.

Malu organized visits with many remarkable people who were open to sharing their lives with me. I found that the further we traveled from Havana, the more prejudice the women encountered, and in many cases their poverty level was alarming. When someone transitions from living as a man to living as a woman, work opportunities dwindle and prostitution becomes one of the only ways to survive.

Although all the women I met are highly individual, they all seemed to want the same thing romantically: a cute teenage boyfriend whom they referred to as their “husbands.” On the other hand, if the transgender woman was very young, she wanted a much older man. I hardly found anyone who wanted to be involved with someone her own age, and I never met anyone who was attracted to women or other transgender women. When I asked the women why they wanted these young boys, most said, “They’re so beautiful!” To me, this romantic tradition is one more variation along the gender identity and sexual orientation continuums, and I love the blurring of sex and gender stereotypes.
The people who comprise what we understand as transgender have always existed, but the understanding of who they are and how they can participate in society is new. As the Cuban population as a whole gains greater personal freedom, it will hopefully continue to be reflected in the treatment of sexual minorities. I can envision a future time when mainstream society will be so free of judgment and prejudice that gender variant people will be appreciated as teachers who show the rest of us how to liberate ourselves from the rigidity of gender roles and find alternative ways of integrating mind and body. For now, though, I just want to celebrate the inherent beauty, artistry, and humor of the Cubans I was so fortunate to meet.

This piece was written after m fourth trip to Cuba. Unfortunately, the optimism and joy was no longer easy to find on my ninth trip, in 2019. Our government closed the doors to friendship between Cuba and the US by strictly limiting access to the country including the visits of cruise ships. The Castros are no longer in power, although Mariela continues to run Cenesex, Last year, the parades celebrating “the Week against Homophobia and Transphobia” were cancelled and the events were limited to transpeople instead of being shared with the general population. It seems that the religious right has shown up in Cuba now, and the police have become more violent. Right now, since nobody can be out on the streets, transpeople are starving.

Mariette Pathy Allen




Twitter: @AllenMariette

Instagram: @mariettepathyallenofficial


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