If there's one person whom I've always wanted to meet, one straight ally who has been a staunch advocate and supporter of LGBT causes, it's Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and niece to Fidel Castro.
As director of Cuba's National Center for Sex Education she has worked to secure the rights of Cuban lesbians, gays and bisexuals. She has been North America's biggest transgender advocate, successfully advocating for and securing funding for the Cuban health care system to provide free gender counseling and transitioning for those who identify as transgender. In the United States there are still places where it is illegal for transgender individuals to have sex reassignment surgery.
And this year she has introduced a same-sex marriage bill into Cuba's National Assembly, to be voted on later this year. But why I am mentioning all this? It's because Mariela Castro is coming to the United States.
The State Department has granted her a visa so she may come and speak at a conference at the Latin American Studies Association in San Francisco May 23-26 where she will chair a panel on sexual diversity. However there are those who would wish to prevent such a staunch ally of the LGBT community and a renowned human rights activist from coming to this country.
Right-wing politicians such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., have been rallying for the visa to be revoked.
I am very familiar with Rep. Ros-Lehtinen's respected position in the Florida LGBT community. Why then would she deny human rights advocate Mariela Castro the honor of speaking at a diversity conference? Not only does this visit strengthen American-Cuban relations by promoting a path towards normalization and removal of the unjust U.S. embargo against Cuba, but it promotes an exchange of cultural and human right ideals.
Mariela Castro has done so much for Cuban sexual minorities who were no more than 10 years ago subjected to harassment and abuse. Gays and lesbians can march in government-sanctioned pride parades, counseling and health services are available to LGBT people at no cost, and this year the bill on same-sex marriage was introduced, with included anti-discrimination provisions.
The arguments of people like Rep. Ros-Lehtinen make no sense. The congresswoman claims Mariela Castro and other pro-government Cubans are anti-American. Really? Mariela Castro recently offered praise to President Obama for speaking up in support of marriage equality.
And you know what? If we removed the embargo and stopped our rampant imperialism, I think the Cubans would be more than willing to welcome us to to the inter-American community from which we have been isolated. We can learn a lot from people like Mariela Castro. I guarantee it.
In some respects Cuba and much of Latin America have become more developed than the United States in LGBT rights.
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela passed LGBT discrimination protections in a new labor code. Additionally there is recognition of relationships through a civil union known as "association by cohabitation." Colombia has legalized same-sex common law marriage and passed anti-discrimination laws, and that was under the conservative government!
Argentina and Brazil have banned discrimination. In Argentina same-sex marriage is legal. And in Brazil civil unions provide many of the benefits of marriage. In Chile a recent hate crime against a gay man which resulted in death spurred the passage of anti-discrimination laws and a proposal for civil unions. Uruguay has legalized civil unions and same-sex adoption.
In Ecuador leftist president Rafael Correa provided for civil unions in the new constitution. Additionally he has banned the harmful "ex-gay" movement from the country, and shut down dozens of those clinics. In Mexico same-sex marriages performed in Mexico City must be recognized nationwide. In Costa Rica the government is considering civil unions as well.
We should be welcoming people like Mariela Castro with open arms! People like her bring knowledge and ideals to this country that would benefit us immensely. Instead we resort to imperialist and fear-mongering. We assume everything about Cuba is bad ,and it leads to racism and homophobia, in the service of imperialism.
It's time to dialogue. It's time to listen to what the Castros have to say. It's time to end the embargo. Take a lesson from gays and lesbians in Cuba. I don't know about you, but I stand by Mariela Castro and her right to free speech and free association, to speak and share her knowledge and values in this country where we supposedly value freedom and diversity.
Photo: Mariela Castro talks with reporters during a celebration marking the 10th anniversary of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) in Havana, Cuba, Aug. 12, 2011. Franklin Reyes/AP