Published by GlobalPost, June 29, 2012

HAVANA, Cuba — Niurka says she is “halfway out of the closet” as a lesbian in Cuban society. She doesn’t talk about her sexuality in public, and she’s thankful nobody asks at work. But with her curly cropped hair and more masculine dress — most notably gym shoes on an island where most women prefer sandals — she says she can’t conceal it.

On the streets of Havana, people sometimes call her “tortillera,” she says, at first just mouthing the prerogative Cuban Spanish term for a lesbian. Niurka repeats the word in a whisper, leaning across the institutional waiting room chairs so that nobody else can hear her on the broad, airy porch at the Cuban National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX).

CENESEX, a government-funded institution founded in 1989, made headlines in the United States last month when Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro and director of the center, met with American gay rights activists and chaired a panel on sexual diversity at an academic conference in San Francisco. The visit drew criticism from several US leaders, including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who called Castro “a vociferous advocate of the regime and an opponent of democracy.”

“If we don’t change our patriarchal and homophobic culture…we cannot advance as a new society, and that’s what we want, the power of emancipation through socialism,” Mariela Castro said. “We will establish relationships on the basis of social justice and social equality…It seems like a utopia, but we can change it.”

Angeli Carmen Bravo
Angeli Carmen Bravo is one of the first people to receive a sex change under Cuba’s universal health care system.

The Cuban government now touts its record on LGBT rights, including the governing Communist Party’s endorsement of an International Day Against Homophobia march last month, but its history bears many wounds for gay Cubans. …