Images of Political and Gender Non-Conformity in “TransCuba”

July 8, 2015 in inQueery

This month, Rayko Photo Center in San Francisco is featuring “TransCuba,” a photo exhibition by Mariette Pathy Allen. A longtime artist and advocate for transgender people in the U.S., Allen expands her work to portraits of transwomen that she met during her travels in Cuba. In her accompanying monograph, she articulates her desire to remove the “freak” stigma from gender non-conforming individuals by documenting their everyday lives. Her vibrant photos achieve this goal, but perhaps most powerful are the transcripts, in both English and Spanish, of each subject’s personal narrative.

Historically, Cuban sexual and gender minorities have had to contend with two major, oppressive structures in their country: the Communist Party and the Catholic Church. After the 1959 Communist Revolution, LGBTQ people were openly persecuted. Gay people were often forced into work camps, and Fidel Castro declared them to be “agents of imperialism.” Far-left political leaders of the 20th century were perhaps even more homophobic than the conservative right, as they believed that gender non-conforming individuals did not have the proper moral qualities upon which to build a militant Communist society. For decades, any deviance was criminalized.

These policies began to soften in the late 1990s, and this liberalization is usually discussed in the context of declining religious sentiment, creative activism, and expanding economic development. Spurred by more progressive Latin American countries, such as Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil, Cuba began to adapt their legal code to reflect more neutral policies toward LGBTQ people. Still, these ideological shifts only really benefitted people in the capital, Havana; rural Cubans continue, then and now, to face discrimination on the basis of their sexual and gender preferences.

Allen’s book features a preface taken from a speech by Mariela Castro Espín, the daughter of current Cuban president Raul Castro and a vocal activist for LGBTQ rights. Castro Espín is a major ally for the trans community in Cuba, and she is responsible for many of the policy changes (state-paid hormone treatment and sex reassignment surgery) that have made Cuba a leader in transgender health care. As the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), she has received attention and financial support from international sources, such as the governments of Norway and Belgium and the U.S. Equality Forum. Most recently, she sponsored a very public “blessing ceremony” for gay couples in Havana, though same-sex marriage is still illegal throughout the country. TransCuba reverently alludes to Castro Espín’s activism and puts full faith in her capacity as a revolutionary; it is filled with palpable optimism for newfound freedom of expression and the promise of a better life.

Even so, LGBTQ rights in Cuba are a complicated issue. The people in Allen’s photos are old enough to remember a Cuba in which a person could be arrested for being gay, jailed for wearing makeup in the streets. Though the monograph reflects a sense of liberation, it is clear that her subjects still struggle to meet basic needs and suffer hardships related to their transgender status on a daily basis. Several of her interviewees relate stories of imprisonment or prostitution, which is often the only viable means of employment for transwomen in Cuba. Despite the visibility of Castro Espín’s advocacy, less-prominent figures in the LGBTQ rights movement still regularly face violence at the hands of the government as well as the public. For this reason, critics are skeptical and equate her activities to “pinkwashing” a country that, while improving, is by no means a bastion of LGBTQ tolerance.

Allen offers TransCuba at a particularly relevant moment, as Cuba undergoes a transition of its own to a more relaxed Communist government and toward normalized relationships between the U.S. and other Western democracies. Though it is important to understand the complexity in which her photographs take place, one can just as easily appreciate the ownership that each woman takes of her personal story, and the sensitivity with which Allen documents their essence. This exhibit runs until July 31, 2015 and books are available for purchase.

Katherine Fox is a Contributor at InQueery and a volunteer at the Pacific Center. You follow her other work at about.me