Cuban transsexual elected to public office

News from Cuba | Sunday, 18 November 2012

"Sexual preference does not determine whether you are a revolutionary or not. That comes from within."

A Cuban transsexual has become the first known transgender person to hold public office in the country, winning election as a delegate to the municipal government of Caibarien in the central province of Villa Clara.

Adela Hernandez, 48, hailed her election in a country where gays were persecuted for decades and sent to rural work camps as another milestone in the gradual shift away from macho attitudes in the years since Fidel Castro himself expressed regret over the treatment of people perceived to be different.

Hernandez, who has lived as a female since childhood, served two years in prison in the 1980s for "dangerousness" after her own family denounced her sexuality.

"As time evolves, homophobic people - although they will always exist - are the minority," Hernandez said by phone from her home town. Becoming a delegate "is a great triumph", she added.

Because she has not undergone sex-change surgery, Hernandez is legally still a man in the eyes of the Cuban state: Jose Agustin Hernandez, according to the civil registry. Hernandez, who switched back and forth between feminine and masculine pronouns when referring to herself during an interview, said she had not yet decided to seek an operation but had not ruled it out.

Hernandez won office in early November by taking a runoff vote 280-170. Her position is the equivalent of a city councillor, and her election makes her eligible to be selected as an MP in early 2013.

For years after the 1959 Cuban revolution, authorities hounded people of differing sexual orientation and others considered threatening, such as priests, long-haired youths and rock 'n' roll enthusiasts. But there have been notable changes in attitudes toward sexuality.

"I would like to think that discrimination against homosexuals is a problem that is being overcome," Castro told an interviewer some years ago.

Since 2007, the island has included sex-change surgery under its free healthcare system. Last year, a gay man and a transsexual woman whose operation was paid for by the state garnered headlines for their first-of-its kind wedding.

The country's most prominent gay rights activist is Mariela Castro, Fidel's niece and daughter of the president, Raúl Castro.

As director of Cuba's National Centre for Sex Education, she has launched awareness campaigns, trained police on relations with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and lobbied parliament to legalise same-sex unions.

Born in a sugar town in central Cuba, Hernandez was disowned by her family and said it was her own father who reported her to the authorities, leading to her imprisonment. She had to move away and defend herself physically from attacks.

Over the decades she found work as a hospital janitor, then as a nurse and most recently as an electrocardiogram technician. She also established herself in the community and as a longtime member of her neighbourhood watch committee, which helped her win acceptance and laid the groundwork for her election.

"My neighbours know me as Adela, the nurse," Hernandez said. "Sexual preference does not determine whether you are a revolutionary or not. That comes from within."

As an elected official she promised to campaign for her constituents' interests, but said she also wanted to be a voice for gay rights.

"I represent a community but I will always keep in mind the defence of gays," Hernandez said.

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