By Michelle Zenarosa
After being granted a controversial visa by President Barack Obama, director of the Cuban national Center for Sex Education and Cuban gay rights advocate, Mariela Castro, visited the United States to speak about and promote LGBT equality.
The decision by the president to grant Castro a visa to attend the Latin American Studies Association’s International Congress, where she chaired a panel on sexual politics, was met with criticism from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“The Obama administration’s decision to grant a visa to Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban dictator Raul Castro, is a slap in the face to all those brave individuals in Cuba who are enduring relentless persecution for fighting for the universal rights we Americans hold dear,” Romney’s policy director, Lanhee Chen, said in a statement.
Her first stop was San Francisco, where she spoke at a conference entitled, “A Look at Sexual Diversity from the Political Point of View.” Castro included the S.F. LGBT Community Center on her tour. She also spoke at a doctors’ forum and met with medical professionals and transgender advocates at S.F. General Hospital.
In the past, Castro has been skeptical about Obama’s presidency, but applauds his latest stance supporting gay marriage.
“I think in some circumstances gay marriage can become a political issue during campaigning and elections. But I think he is sincere, I think he speaks from his heart, I think it’s something he truly believes in,” Castro said at the event at the Center, where she was greeted with a standing ovation.
Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and the late Vilma Espin, and niece of former President Fidel Castro, is married, with three children. She has said that her advocacy for lesbian and gay rights grew both from “the sense of social justice that we grow up with in Cuba,” and the work her mother laid out in advocating for gay and transgender rights.
In 1979, it was Castro’s mother who successfully pushed for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Castro also said that her mother, as president of the Federation of Cuban Women, had proposed that marriage be defined “as the union between two people,” which has yet to catch on in the country.
Castro has continued her mother’s legacy by pushing for more recognition and acceptance of homosexuality in Cuba, as well as campaigns for effective AIDS prevention.
In 2005, she proposed a project to allow transgendered people to receive sex reassignment surgery and change their legal gender, paid for by the government. The measure became law in June 2008. Reforms made after her Fidel Castro’s death, led by Mariela, have made Cuba one of the most progressive countries regarding gay rights in Latin America.
“We know that her advocacy has been very important within Cuba, which has a very unfortunate history in regard to gay people and LGBT rights,” Roberta Sklar, spokesperson for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission told ABC News. “The fact that she has played a central role in changing hearts, minds, and impacting parliament to change legislation in Cuba itself is very encouraging.”