“It’s a huge achievement. For a country that has been so homophobic to change so dramatically — it’s unheard of.” ADELA HERNANDEZ, the first transgender elected official in Cuba, as told to VICTORIA BURNETT of The New York Times.
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 boots.
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 loyalties.
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 unions.
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 the beach.
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 respect me.”
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 for corruption.
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.”