After his victory in 1959, Fidel Castro promised the Cuban Revolution would be for the working class, the poor and the humblest Cubans… as long as they were straight. Cuban officials saw homosexuality as a sign of counterrevolutionary, bourgeois decadence. The new regime sent homosexuals, political dissenters and religious minorities to labor camps known as UMAPs, and kept in place public decency laws that prohibited any form of transgender or gender-nonconforming behavior. Homosexual Cubans like poet Reinaldo Arenas were among the thousands of Cubans who went into exile on the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.
Fast forward to 2015. From her post as director of the Cuban National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), sexologist Mariela Castro, Fidel’s niece and Raul Castro’s daughter, has spearheaded lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans rights. Cuba now stands out as somewhat of a haven in the Caribbean, compared to neighboring countries like Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, where homosexuality is still illegal.
LGBT political dissidents have called Mariela’s work “a benevolent face the world can see calling for tolerance while the regime’s usual brand of everyday totalitarianism continues.” That LGBT activism is not possible outside of the Cuban government’s oversight and despite the official protection, lesbian, gay, bisexual and especially trans Cubans still face the challenges and discrimination of a historically machista culture.
Maria Hinojosa talked to photographer and trans rights activist Mariette Pathy Allen about her work documenting the lives of transgender women for her book TransCuba (Daylight Books, 2014).
Mariette Pathy Allen is a New York City based photographer, former painter, and occasional writer. Although she has photographed a range of subjects, her work on gender variation has been the most consistent. Mariette is the author/photographer of “Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them”, E.P. Dutton, 1990, and “The Gender Frontier”, Kehrer, 2004. “TransCuba”, Daylight, 2014, Mariette’s third book comes at a fortuitous time in Cuban history; strict communism is being replaced by a more open-minded socialism. This is reflected in the gradual reduction of discrimination against gay and transgender people.
Mariette has worked on five documentary films as a consultant and still photographer, has had solo and group exhibitions internationally, including her current solo exhibition in Cuba, and makes slide presentations worldwide.
Here are some photos featured in the book:
Nomi and Miguel, partners, watching television at Malu’s apartment, Havana
In Amanda’s bedroom, Havana
Anais De Trevis aka Arnoldo, performer, outside the apartment he shares with his partner, Enrique, Havana
Miguel observing Amanda and Henry, at Malu’s apartment, Havana
Miguel at a barber shop, Havana
Laura at home, Havana
Malu with her parents and sister, in front of their home, Cienfuegos
Erika at home, Cienfuegos
Walking at night, Havana
Charito at home with one-week-old piglet, Camaguey
Alsola, Santiago de Cuba