Fidel Castro’s niece Mariela Castro Espín on the LGBT Cuban cause and Day Against Homophobia & Transphobia

It may perhaps come as a surprise to many that one of the most vocal voices coming out of Latin America in support of LGBT rights is that of a straight woman named Mariela Castro Espín. Yes, as in that Castro. Daughter of current Cuban president Raúl Castro and niece of Fidel Castro, Mariela is a force of nature in her own right. A member of Cuban parliament, she is also the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX)—and so, so much more.

We caught up with Mariela ahead of her lecture at the University of Toronto yesterday evening. We talked LGBT activism, U.S. interventionism, media misinformation and more. Political junkies: read on.

Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban president Raul Castro, talks to the press at the National Hotel in Havana on July 24, 2013. Rumours circulated this Thursday morning saying that Mariela Castro was aboard the Air Algerie Flight which crashed in Mali. AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE        (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images So, who or what inspired you to work towards promoting the civil rights of LGBT people in Cuba?

Mariela Castro Espín: Ever since I was a little girl I heard that there were people who suffered these problems and that a lot of people rejected them. I always wanted this to be resolved, but I didn’t know how. I saw it as a big challenge. I didn’t think I was going to be the one to tackle it, but it made me uncomfortable and I thought, “Somebody has to fix this problem.”

And then being the director of CENESEX I was dealing with a bunch of child and adolescent issues. It was my mother, who was working on these issues. When she got sick, I realized that she wasn’t going to be able to take on these issues. That’s when I started to get more involved.

I realized that this was going to take some study and that I needed some theoretical tools. I really needed some serious studying to know how to deal with it in the best way possible. I knew that things had to change and I wanted them to change, but I really didn’t know how to approach it.


AE: As an ally but not a queer woman yourself, when you began your work with the LGBT community, did you ever feel a sense of resistance? Particularly because you come from a bit of a privileged background and people might have thought, “How can she understand us?”

MCE: First of all, I don’t believe I do have a privileged background. I went to the same schools as every other kid. I took the same bus. I guess there would always be some things that might be different, but I was always living among other people and I think there were no doors closed to me. Growing up with people opened doors. And having been a social activist really all my life, and my links with communist youth and all kinds of student activism, I’ve always been involved. This also opened doors. It put me in contact with people. It gave me social relationships.

I never felt any rejection from LGBT people because I tried to help them. The opposite–I think I was really welcomed and I feel the support of a lot of these people. When I started this work through CENESEX there was really no activist program. There were individual actions that people did. Institutionally there was no forum. I started organizing this work through a state institution, which involves civil society groups that I was a part of and other civil society groups that I wasn’t a part of. This started to encourage activism. We trained people to be activists for sexual rights, and that opened many doors.

Really, the people who didn’t like me were the homophobes. And I think they’re still bothered by me.

The Director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) Mariela Castro (C), daughter of President Raul Castro, participates in a march against homophobia on May 10, 2014 in Havana  AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE        (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

AE: I think so too. Cuba–it has a well-known isolationist history. I’ve read accounts of LGBT Cubans saying that they didn’t even know that people lived openly elsewhere in the world or that they felt safe being out. With that being said, when you first started your work with the LGBT community, did you find some were reluctant to join you in a public fight?

MCE: Yes, and I think it’s exactly because of this that this kind of activity didn’t spontaneously start from within the LGBT community. That’s why I got involved with a state institution that is making all this happen. I make it easier for these people to feel safer to come out of the closet.

We have a lot of activities to discuss this process. “How do you feel about coming out of the closet? What are the difficulties you face in coming out of the closet?” And then, “How do you feel after you’ve overcome that?” All of a sudden it’s in fashion to say, “Come out of the closet!” I say, “Leave people alone and let them take their time and have their process.” Because they have to process it with their family, their friends, at their place of work–that takes time.