SAN FRANCISCO - In remarks greeted with vigorous, repeated applause, Mariela Castro Espin, director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, told a standing-room-only crowd here of the progress Cuba has made toward equal rights for its LGBT community, and the great amount of work that lies ahead to win full equality.
Her May 23 presentation at the S.F. Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center was among several Bay Area appearances this week. On May 24 Castro, who is among dozens of Cuban scholars participating in the Latin American Studies Association's annual meeting, chaired a panel there on sexual politics. Earlier in the week she met with medical professionals and transgender advocates at S.F. General Hospital.
Speaking in Spanish, Castro told the audience that a resolution the Cuban Communist Party passed at its conference in January, to fight against all forms of discrimination including that based on sexual orientation and sexual identity, "opens the door to begin to create public policy."
She called the resolution "a beginning, but an important beginning."
Castro has also reintroduced a bill for civil unions in the National Assembly.
She said the Federation of Cuban Women and the Federation of Cuban Jurists are calling for giving same-sex couples the same rights as opposite-sex couples. Married and unmarried opposite-sex couples already have the same rights.
"We first proposed marriage," she said, "but legal scholars, and some Communist Party members, were up in arms. So as not to lose the fight, we proposed equal recognition of same-sex couples."
A proposal on adoption was also postponed. "So we have to go step by step," she said, "but the important thing is to win rights."
Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and the late Vilma Espin, and niece of former President Fidel Castro, is married, with three children. She said her longstanding concern for lesbian and gay rights grew both from "the sense of social justice that we grow up with in Cuba," and from her mother's work for gay and transgender rights.
Castro also said her mother, as president of the Federation of Cuban Women, had long ago proposed that marriage be defined "as the union between two people"- a concept that has yet to catch on.
Asked her reaction to President Obama's recent statement supporting same-sex marriage, Castro said she is "heartened" by the president's decision. Marriage equality can be a political issue in elections, she said, "I think he speaks from his heart, it is something he really believes in."
She said Cubans "celebrate" Obama's loosening of some restrictions including travel, but observed that the president hasn't been able to return U.S.-Cuba relations to the level during the Carter administration.
To great applause, Castro urged Americans to fight for normalization because the current situation violates not only international law but also the rights of the U.S. people.
"All over the world, people have to continue to fight for different expressions of democracy. This is one of them," she said.
If she had the chance to meet with Obama, Castro said, she would say, "Give me Five! And that's the five political prisoners who infiltrated groups in the U.S. planning terrorist attacks against Cuba."
Anti-Cuba activists have protested the State Department's issuance of a visa to Mariela Castro, in view of restrictions barring visitor visas to Cuban government or Communist Party officials. One such protest, by U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, came despite Ros-Lehtinen's strong support for gay and transgender rights.
Photo: Castro with program MC Liam Mayclem. Marilyn Bechtel/PW