"I've lived with my partner for six years, but people in the street see us as an aberration," Arianna Diaz, a 31-year-old nurse from Guantanamo, Cuba, told VICE News. "Things have changed a bit in recent years, but not as much as we would like."
Diaz, who has lived in Havana for seven years, was one of an estimated 1,000 people who took to the streets on Saturday for a massive celebration organized by Mariela Castro Espin, a prominent Cuban sexologist and the outspoken daughter of President Raul Castro.
This year marked Cuba's eighth annual LGBT pride parade, and hundreds came out against homophobia, demanding "workplaces that are free from discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity," and equal marriage rights.
But the highlight of Saturday's parade for many spectators — some holding signs that read, "Yes to socialism, No to homophobia" — was a series of mock weddings held in downtown Havana, complete with priests who blessed the crowd.
Four pairs were officially selected to be "wed" — one heterosexual and three gay couples — but dozens soon joined in as couples in the crowd were symbolically mass married in a "ceremony of public commitment."
During the non-binding weddings, each partner swore "in the name of God" to love the other forever. The ceremonies were conducted in an improvised "temple" next door to a bar, which during the few short hours of festivities seemed to sell a large volume of beer.
A group of more than 50 Protestant students formed a conga line led by Mariela Castro. Together with colorfully dressed dancers from across the gender spectrum, they marched through the city to celebrate diversity and tolerance.
Yet, despite increasing support for the LGBT movement in Cuba, the national assemblywoman has been unable to influence a redefining of the Cuban Family Code, which does not currently recognize the right to same-sex marriage.
A couple celebrate tolerance in Havana. Photo by Rosario Maseda
Cuba has, however, made strides in recent years toward a broader definition of what constitutes a union between partners. In 2011, Cuba celebrated its first legally recognized non-traditional marriage, after a post-op transgender male was legally recognized as female and allowed to wed her partner, a homosexual male.
"We have demonstrated that our project is not impossible," Mariela Castro said on Saturday to droves of supporters. "If I were a lesbian or transgender, this [work] would be much more difficult. The fact that I'm heterosexual allows me to reach heterosexual people."
She did, however, acknowledge that among her beneficial traits, "being able to talk to the president on a random Sunday also helps."
Castro has been an integral figurehead for the Cuban LGBT community since becoming the director of Cuba's sexual education center, Cenesex, in 2000. Former Communist leader Fidel Castro spoke out publicly in 2010 on his revolutionary government's persecution of "ideological deviants" decades before, regretting the role he had played in this "great injustice."
And many have argued that Mariela is in a privileged position to influence policy, as Raul's daughter and Fidel's niece.
"Does anyone really believe that she could close off La Rampa" — as the main road in downtown Havana is known — "for this parade, if she weren't the daughter of who she is?" commented a woman watching the crowd from the side of the road.
But Mariela attempted to discredit this recurring argument on Saturday.
"What if instead of Castro my last name were Perez?" she said. "I am always told [by my father] that I have to fight. 'I cannot help you,' he says, 'because you're my daughter.'"
Hundreds to the streets of Havana to celebrate the annual parade. Photo by Rosario Maseda
Regardless of a changing culture, members of the LGBT community emphasized that they still face challenges on a daily basis.
"Sometimes men offend us, or even offer us money to kiss each other in the street or to go home with them," Arianna Diaz said. "They don't understand that we are two women who openly love each other. I'm hoping that once the ties between Cuba and the US are reestablished, it will help make people more conscious that gay people should have more rights, and that Cuban society will improve in many ways."
While skirting past the crowded Havana boardwalk on Saturday, a cab driver reacted with disdain to the hundreds of colorful characters who marched through downtown Havana, a reminder of the historic machismo in Cuba.
"This is fucked," he said. "Once it gets dark out, you can't tell who's a man or a woman."
"There are transgender Cubans living in Miami who come visit us," Angelica Carmen, who underwent free sex-reassignment surgery in Cuba in 2000, told VICE News. "Once [President] Obama's policy shift happens, this exchange will increase."
For Carmen, this could lead to widespread change in the way people on the largely isolated island view gender definitions and roles. Another couple who were chosen to participate in the mock wedding ceremony, Lazaro Gonzalez and Ariel Gonzalez, agreed Cuba is seeing a positive shift in the right direction.
"Before, there would have been people screaming blasphemies at us," 25-year-old Ariel told VICE News. "The people who know us, know that we are a homosexual couple who love each other, and that we're not afraid of what people think."
"We are now being visited by American activists, who are helping bridge the gap," his partner Lazaro said. The couple hopes that Cuba will eventually approve legal adoptions for non-traditional families. "This is one of the revolutions that this country needs to see happening now."
For those who spoke to VICE News, this wave of optimism within the LGBT community seems to hinge on one date, which many referred to as a crucial "before and after" moment for Cuba — December 17, 2014, the day that President Barack Obama made the historic announcement that the two countries would work together to normalize relations following an embargo that lasted more than six decades.
"The US is a country that is more than 60 years ahead of us with the progress it has made," Lazaro said. "If the Americans and Cubans continue to come closer together, it will without a doubt benefit our cause."