Jonathan Wolfe, on assignment in Cuba
On a sweltering, rainy afternoon in Havana Ignacio Estrada, a gay man who is also HIV positive, and Wendy Iriepa, a transgendered woman, became the first gay couple to be legally married in Cuba. The couple said their marriage was a present to Fidel Castro who celebrated his 85th birthday on the same day.
Same-sex marriage is illegal in Cuba, but the government has recently permitted marriage between transgendered individuals who have changed their sex and wish to marry someone of the opposite sex. Although Iriepa, previously Alexis, is now a woman the couple insists on calling their union a gay marriage.
The island nation has seen years of abuse against the gay community including sending homosexuals to labor camps in the 1960´s. The atmosphere in Cuba is still very oppressive toward LGBT individuals.
The wedding was made possible by the support of CENESEX, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, which is led by Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro and niece of Fidel. CENESEX has pushed for a measure that allows transsexuals to change their gender
on their official identification documents as well as receive government funded gender reassignment surgery. In 2007, Iriepa became one of the first women in Cuba to receive to receive the free surgery.
However, the relationship between CENESEX and the couple has recently soured. Iriepa was recently fired from her job at CENESEX. The couple believes this was because of her choice to marry Estrada, 31, a member of the group LGBT, vocal critic of CENESEX, and a gay man. Yoani Sanchez, a well-know blogger, replaced Mariela Castro, who was to be the witness at the wedding.
When questioned by the press about the relationship, the bride, breathless from the heat and swarm of photographers, politely said, “I hope that this marriage will not be seen as an insult to Mariela.”
The couple first met on May 13 at a meeting at CENESEX. Both were in what Iriepa described as “suffocating” relationships and quickly decided to leave their partners and start a relationship together. Three months later they are now husband and wife.
Although Estrada affirms his homosexuality he speaks openly about his love for Iriepa and how she is a “completely functioning woman.”
Many people in the couple’s neighborhood of La Sera have approached Iriepa’s sister and ask why she would marry a dissident and man who is HIV positive. Iriepa responds that, “people think that AIDS is a ferocious wolf, a bug that is coming to eat you. He is not the first positive man I have shared my life with. In the meantime I use a condom and protect myself, so I don´t have a problem with it.”
Iriepa arrived to the event enthroned on the back of a Ford and held a huge rainbow flag that matched the ribbons tied to her bouquet of red roses. Smiling and waving to onlookers, she seemed completely unaware of the rain that was soaking her white dress.
Many groups who are well known for criticizing the Castro government attended the celebration of around one hundred individuals. Women from The Ladies in White, a group of relatives and wives of political prisoners mingled with members of the gay community and dissident bloggers.
A representative from the United States Interests Section in Cuba was also in attendance with his wife.
At the reception, when asked about the significance of the wedding, witness and blogger Yaoni Sanchez said, “this is a first step, but now it is up to others to follow [the couple] from behind.”
When asked about their plans for the future Estrada said, “we would like to make something together but we are not sure exactly. I think what we will create will be a foundation, a space for everyone. A space for youth.”