Cuba is a country of stark social and political conflicts and paradoxes, and perhaps no one epitomises those contraditions better than the few transsexuals living in the country’s capital. Despite major advances and the staunch support of Mariela Castro Espín (Raúl Castro daughter), Odette, Juani and Malú they still face religious intolerance, discrimination, sexism, poverty and sometimes a life in prostitution. Meanwhile, they wait for surgeons from Belgium and the Netherlands to perform a much-coveted sex change surgery on them.
These transsexuals have to reconcile a number of forces in their lives: Catholic faith, the army, a dictatorship and prejudice. While washing the dishes, Odette explains that she is the most experienced tank operator in the nation. She is not referring to a kitchen storage appliance; she operates war tanks instead. She also has to battle her family who are reluctant to accept her choices. They strongly discourage her from engaging in the irreversible and life-changing operation.
These powerful characters are fighting to turn the religious and political argument in their favour. They believe that God loves them all the same, and that sexual revolution in intimately connected to values of their country. They claim: “there is no sexual revolution without social revolution”. This has strong echoes of Magnus Hirschfeld’s sexual research in Berlin after the German revolution in 1919, a century later. It is also is a major achievement. Decades earlier, Mariela’s uncle Fidel Castro actively persecuted homosexuals; he has now expressed regret and accepted the blame for such oppression. Now the Cuban government supports sexual diversity and even pays for the surgery of the most committed transsexuals.
In total, only 27 Cubans have undergone sex-reassignment surgery and there are 19 more on the list. On average, only five surgeries are carried out every year. This number might be small, but it carries a very strong social message. It’s not just the transsexuals that are being transformed. In reality, the whole country is transitioning.
Odette is elated when Raúl Castro and Barrack Obama signal that they will thaw the relations relations between the US and Cuba, which have been frozen for 56 years. She can now use the Internet and communicate with people in all parts of the planet. She feels liberated, and so does the rest of the country. Previously – and mostly due to the American embargo – , these people did not even have access to testosterone and transition drugs. The once ostracised and neglected nation is now opening up, and its proudly brandishing its trans community as a testament of its modernisation.
Transit Havana showed this week at the London East End Film Festival. You can watch the film trailer below: