When I got out of a battered old máquina cab outside a cruisy meeting spot by La Rampa theatre, I expected—but failed—to spot any rainbow flags. Instead, it took a traipse through the side streets in the neighborhood of Vedado to discover a group of people decked out in colorful sparkles, sheltered from the intense heat in sparse but shady foliage.
In the space wedged between the steep rock of the Hotel National and crashing waves along the Malecón esplanade, the gathering gradually began to multiply into a thousands-strong crowd. A giant rainbow flag unraveled as a rumba band sauntered along and swigged rum, ready to provide a rhythm. Both were soon overtaken by a motorbike-riding drag queen dressed as a witch.
It was May, and Havana was playing host to a conga slash march to commemorate International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. We waited patiently in the heat for the guests of honor: trans US actress Candis Cayne and Cuban president Raúl Castro's daughter, Mariela. The latter is an MP and the leader of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), a health-oriented government-funded organization that has advocated LGBTQ rights since 1989. (Homosexuality was decriminalized in Cuba in 1979.)
After an extensive press photo call, the conga set off; the sound of drums, whistles, and salsa roared along the Malecón. The marchers stayed in formation, with one hand on either an oversized rainbow flag or a Cuban one, while others casts fists upward in the air. Shouts of "socialism yes, homophobia no!" rang out. By the side of the road, a mechanic in overalls downed his tools and ran into the crowd to dance with a man in sequinned spandex.
As the march reached its destination at the Pavilion Center, lesbian activist Mercedes Garcia was keen to differentiate it from a typical Pride parade. "This is not a Gay Pride, this is a Cuban conga," she told me. "For a Gay Pride is no longer inclusive and a conga will always be diverse."
Despite the celebratory atmosphere, I sensed a touch of tense anticipation. Cuba may be opening up and experiencing its first ripples of free enterprise in over half a century, but the regime continues to wield immense power. Though there is growing awareness of LGBTQ rights, activists are up against a predominantly Catholic population and huge social stigma. Up until the mid 70s, the Castro regime sent queer people to labor camps for 're-education.'
Mariela Castro's LGBTQ advocacy draws from her mother, Vilma Espín, a feminist revolutionary who founded the Federation of Cuban Women and supported gay marriage. At a 2012 forum in San Francisco, Castro told US medical professionals and trans rights activists: "If we don't change our patriarchal and homophobic culture…we cannot advance as a new society, and that's what we want, the power of emancipation through socialism."
A year after her mother's death in 2007, Castro convinced the government to cover gender reassignment procedures underneath the state's universal health care system. Though only a limited number of surgeries have been performed, the change in legislation has fostered support for trans rights in Cuba—evident, perhaps, from the numbers of trans women attending the conga.
Unfortunately, the Cuban government only sanctions official gatherings (such as this conga) under Mariela's aegis, refusing to recognize other LGBTQ groups and celebrations. Frustrated, activist and writer Yasmin Portales was driven to set up her own independent organization, Proyecto Arcoiris (Spanish for "Rainbow Project").
"Most of the achievements that we have had until now—because we don't have real democracy—came from her or from her father. So if you remove Mariela from the equation, we would be pretty much like the anti-racist movement, which means being quoted maybe once or twice a year in the news and nothing more," Portales said. "Government limits, specifically CENESEX's need to take a health-based approach to LGBTQ issues, prohibits her and her colleagues from addressing the political roots of homophobia in Cuba."
Read more: Deep Inside Loveboat, Asia's Lesbian Oasis
Despite this, Mariela Castro seems determined to continue leading the charge for LGBTQ rights. The conga followed on from her support of a mass same-sex wedding earlier this month. "The Cuban people are prepared," she told reporters at today's march, "to advance themselves."