Cuba: Transvestites and Crossdressers Key Workers Against AIDS

(IPS) – Activism against AIDS is uniting a group of transvestites and crossdressers in western Cuba in a project that is going beyond peer education and making inroads into the world of culture.

"The time has come to take us seriously. We are in a position to demand our place in society, to contribute to AIDS prevention through our art, and to be respected for our abilities and knowledge," a Cuban transvestite, whose artistic name is that of Mexican actress and singer Ninel Conde, told IPS.

"I never felt so sure of myself as I do now. When I used to dress in male clothes, I would always hang my head. Since I put on a pair of high heels, I have felt proud of being who I am. I began to be happy with myself, and I walk down the street with my head high," she said.

A volunteer worker at the state Provincial Centre for Prevention of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV/AIDS at Pinar del Río, 162 kilometres from Havana, Ninel Conde won one of the prizes at Transarte, a cultural festival that concluded with a performance at the city’s main theatre.

Fourteen crossdressers and transvestites took part in the Mar. 10 gala, along with some of the best-known singers in Pinar del Río, with a panel of judges made up of personalities from the world of culture.

At the event, tribute was paid to three of the first men in this town in western Cuba who dared to dress as women in public.

The message of AIDS prevention, with strong emphasis on the impact of HIV, the AIDS virus, on the community of men who have sex with men, reached the nearly 500 people who filled the Teatro Milanés, an emblem of national culture, built in 1837.

"We have shared the message with all the wide variety in the world of men who have sex with other men. This kind of artistic performance, which tries to educate people about the ethics of responsible sexuality, and also elevate aesthetic levels, is both important and timely," said poet Nelson Simón, from Pinar del Río.

Simón, considered one of the greatest national figures of homoerotic poetry, said that "the gay world continues to lack places to socialise," even though Cuba is a country "mature enough to learn to live with all kinds of different options."

The issue becomes particularly important in the context of the national campaign against AIDS. By late 2007, the number of HIV-positive people diagnosed in the country amounted to 9,039, of whom 81 percent were male.

Out of these men, 86.1 percent said they had sex with other men, according to Public Health Ministry sources.

The situation is unique in the province of Pinar del Río, where only 68.7 percent of HIV-positive men say they have sex with other men. Nationwide statistics show that 14.3 percent of HIV-positive men define themselves as heterosexual, compared to 31.3 percent in this Cuban province.

Given this situation, "we’ll have to start to talk more about masculinity and take actions aimed not only at men who have sex with other men but at the heterosexual population, too," Geidy Díaz, an expert at the provincial AIDS prevention centre, told IPS.

Since the first Transarte festival last year, 18 crossdressers and transvestites from Pinar del Río have graduated from training workshops as health promoters. This year’s Transarte courses included hairdressing, modelling, corporal expression, development of social skills and civic education.

According to Díaz, the community of men who have sex with men in Pinar del Río is motivated toward AIDS prevention by its close association to the transvestite world. "They (transvestites) are ideal teachers in peer education for this group. They join in most of the community activities we carry out, and have a representative on the expert advisory council," she said.

As part of the project, the provincial centre has helped to find courses and jobs for transvestites who, in many cases, leave the educational system and labour market because of social rejection. Lack of education and the impossibility of working dressed as women leads them to prostitution, and quite often, AIDS.

The local initiative is part of an integrated strategy for addressing the needs of transvestites, transsexual and transgender people, promoted nationwide since late 2005 by the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX) with the involvement of a wide range of other state bodies.

Another group of transsexuals and transvestites, working with CENESEX on AIDS prevention tasks in several provinces, played an unprecedented role in this country in January, when they acted as recording secretaries and gave presentations and testimonies at the Fourth Cuban Congress of Sex Education, Orientation and Therapy.

"It was a high point for me. I felt as though the stage had become smaller than when I danced at the filming of the Cuban film ‘La Bella de la Alhambra’ (Enrique Pineda, 1989). But I was the one who had grown larger," a crossdresser from Pinar del Río with the stage name Siarah Morel told IPS.

A dancer and a graduate in artistic direction, Morel received tribute at the first Transarte festival, and has been a local legend ever since she first appeared, at age 18, dressed as a woman on top of a carnival float representing the fishing industry, in 1976. "I never thought I would appear in the city theatre as I really am," Morel said.

Simón, the poet, said that holding Transarte in a cultural institution like the Teatro Milanés "brings into the centre of the city what for a long time has been relegated to the margins."

A space for participation is being opened up "in a country which must become, and is increasingly becoming, an inclusive rather than an exclusive society," he told IPS.