The following post is written by Reality Tours Summer Intern Bryan Weiner. Bryan traveled to Cuba with Global Exchange and the Monterey Institute of International Studies for a graduate studies class.

San Francisco Pride Celebrations. Photo by Cary Bass.

San Francisco Pride Celebrations. Photo by Cary Bass.

Last week was marked by landmark Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States. These decisions have been celebrated around the United States during the gay pride marches that typically occur in the month of June. But what is the state of the LGBT rights movement in the rest of the world? Through a Global Exchange Reality Tour to Cuba with the Monterey Institute of International Studies, I had the unique opportunity to look at the complicated situation of gay rights in this complex Caribbean nation.

Bryan Weiner in Cuba

Bryan Weiner in Cuba

When I was preparing for my trip to Cuba, I heard many different, contrasting viewpoints on the status of the LGBT community, which seemed to fall in line with the very diverse opinions that I heard about every other segment of Cuban society after the Revolution. Many, both within and outside of Cuba, have held up the LGBT movement in Cuba as an example for the rest of Latin America to follow, while others have claimed that homosexuals are still facing extreme levels of discrimination and abuse. I knew that, like everything else that I had heard and read about Cuba, the truth of the matter probably fell somewhere in the middle of the highly polemical rhetoric.

The persecution of homosexuals began immediately after the Revolution and lasted for a number of decades. The revolution came in to restore the dignity of the Cuban population, including the excesses they were subjected to from brash Americans coming down to the island looking for a good time often in gambling casinos and houses of prostitution.  Gay and lesbian people were seen as tied to loose morals and the anti-revolutionary spirit of this period prompting an immediate crackdown on this community by the Castro regime. Many Cuban homosexuals were sent to re-education camps, in a period that was described in detail by famous gay Cuban exile author, Reinaldo Arenas in his groundbreaking work, Before Night Falls. This period however, was also a time where homosexuals all over the world, including in the United States, were experiencing active persecution on the basis of their sexual identity. As attitudes began changing around the world, they did so in Cuba as well.

gaycubaflag copyHomosexuality was officially decriminalized in Cuba in 1979 and gay liberation attitudes started to emerge in the 1980s. This began the process that was to end with Cuba being one of the countries at the forefront of the LGBT rights movement in Latin America. One of the most significant advances was the 1993 release of the extremely popular movie, Fresa y Chocolate. This movie dealt with the relationship between a gay Cuban and a straight young revolutionary. While its take on homosexuality seems dated when looked at from a modern perspective, it was historical not only because the socialist Cuban government allowed its production, but because the film argued that the LGBT community was an important part of revolutionary Cuban society.

Now, Fidel Castro has officially apologized for the abuses that the LGBT population faced during the early decades of the Revolution and there is an active gay community and LGBT rights movement on the island. Cuba signed on to the historic 2011 United Nations Resolution calling for the declaration that LGBT rights are human rights. The most well-known leader of the Cuban LGBT movement is Mariela Castro, the daughter of President Raúl Castro and niece of Fidel Castro. She  is also the director of CENESEX (Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual). She has been a gay rights activist who has received awards and acclaim in Cuba as well as in the international community. Among her notable accomplishments is the fruition of a state sponsored sex reassignment surgery program for those who want the procedure. She has also been advocating for the legalization of  same-sex marriage in Cuba, but the government claims to be waiting for ”the right time.”

While Cuba has had a mixed history with regards of its treatment of sexual minorities, it has in many ways gone much farther much faster than many other countries. Cuba is constantly looking for ways to demonstrate that the government is a progressive regime that respects the basic rights of the Cuban population, thereby making the US embargo/blockade of the island  even more ridiculous and outdated. Perhaps now that so many other Latin American countries have legalized or are moving towards same-sex marriage, the time is finally right and Cuba can use same-sex marriage as another stab at US oppression?

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Malia in Oahu

Update 11/28/12: A few photos of our bon voyage Malia staff lunch are now posted on Facebook.

“If you come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. If you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” —Lilla Watson

In 1991 as a graduate student of International Relations, I signed up for a Global Exchange Reality Tour to Cuba. I wanted to learn about the impacts of the U.S. embargo on Cuba and understand what the current socioeconomic realities of the Special Period were on the nation. That trip dramatically expanded my understanding of the power of travel.

While I had backpacked to over 30 countries before that Reality Tour, I had never experienced that type of life sharing journey before. I engaged with grandparents, doctors, teachers, artists, musicians and politicians. In effect Reality Tours changed my life.  I experienced connection and insights, and returned to the United States committed to advocate for sane U.S. foreign policy. Once home, I promptly cut out and placed Lilla’s quote (see above) on my fridge. Little did I know that six years later I’d start working at Global Exchange, where Lilla’s quote found a new home on the Global Exchange office wall.

Ethical Traveler Tour to Cuba

Visiting Art and Hope in Cuba, with Ethical Traveler

Today it is my bittersweet honor to announce that after almost 16 vibrant years I am transitioning out of Reality Tours. Being the Director has been a true vocation. I’ve had the unique opportunity to combine my skills as an educator, social justice activist and alternative travel business woman to build up Reality Tours’ travel destinations, themes and reach.

Looking back I sit and smile thinking of all the talented, opinionated and solidarity minded people that ebbed and flowed through the Reality Tours department in San Francisco. And I think of the everyday heroes in the U.S. and all around the world whose  generosity of spirit welcomed us, collaborated with us and compelled us to meet them as brothers and sisters. We learned about their struggles, successes and aspirations which inspired us to seek changes in U.S. foreign and economic policies.

Princeton University in Mostar, Bosnia, 2012

I know the model of socially responsible travel to educate and inspire advocacy works. In fact, I could fill volumes based on my personal experiences and those often brilliant, joyful and incredibly painful moments of learning.

From the jungles of the Amazon and the struggle of the Sarayuku nation, to the healing and rehabilitation efforts in IDP camps of Northern Uganda; from facilitating thousands through migration in Havana and sharing the incredible tenacity of spirit of Cuban’s through the “fruits” of their Revolution and in their models of sustainability post “peak oil” to learning about how poachers become conservationists in Tanzania; from the smiles and solemn survival stories of children saved from the sex tourism industry in Cambodia, Nepal, Peru & Thailand to the important organizing efforts of elders training the next generation of leaders in Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam… I leave Reality Tours personally and professionally enriched with memories and experiences, and breathtaking vistas.

Malia with Yury, Ecuador Reality Tours program officer

To each of the program officers who so diligently work to take care of every creature comfort, airport transit, hotel reservation, and days and days of program confirmations, thank you for your solidarity!  It is such necessary work, yet it is painstaking and not so glamorous. When Reality Tours runs a 100 departures a year and 98 go off perfectly, nobody knows how much work it takes to make that happen! You are all stars.

Reality Tours would not exist without our members and supporters. Sometimes I’ve called you strangers, then associates and later friends, collaborators, teachers and alumni. I’ve shared some of my deepest human connections beside you, and cultivated some of my closest friendships.

Some of you “serial trippers” know I will miss traveling with you! Again, I could write volumes on what I have seen as humans blossom, when we disconnect from the phones, computers and to-do lists and when we truly spend time to talk, share and push our comfort zones to be and to grow. How many times have I lead a group when each person typically required 1-2 feet around them to have their “zone” of comfort, only by the end of a tour to see everyone touching arms and hugging their new friends good-bye? There are so many surprising rewards on a group travel experience.

Suffolk Univeristy group visiting an orphanage in Busia, Uganda

Suffolk Univeristy group visiting an orphanage in Busia, Uganda

For those of you I giggled with trying to find a bathroom to wash my fingers after blue ink was all over my face in Tehran, or scrambled to find  “relief” in the fields of Nagpur, India or tried out bartering in crafts markets in Amman knowing but a few words in Arabic, I thank you. To those I cried with, flooded by the power of the human spirit hiking through the Cu Chi and the Sarajevo tunnels; trying to get through check points from the Occupied Territories in Palestine into Israel; and being permeated by the horrific human costs of war in the War Remembrance Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and in Pyong Yang, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg… I thank you. To those I just held hands with as we heard the testimonies of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, and walking through the Killing Fields, I thank you. And, for those that I dragged out to teach salsa dancing to over and over, ya tu sabes, gracias.

Kevin and Reede being “Good Sports” as my sons dress up

Words cannot express my deepest appreciation to the Global Exchange founders Kevin Danaher, Kirsten Moller and Medea Benjamin to whom I  have been so blessed to work with. They each are hard working visionaries and phenomenal human beings, yet they are also friends, babysitters and cuddlers, and mentors. How I love and admire each of you!

Global Exchange has been a family to me. To all the members and staff, and especially to those that serve and have served on the Board of Directors, you are brothers and sisters and I thank you for your commitment to make this world a better place. Because of your tenacity and persistence, I know “another world is possible”.  I am who I am because of my years at Global Exchange, and I  look forward to moving forward pa’lante and continuing to using my life in service to humanity and to the planet, because its liberation is bound up with mine!

With Aloha,
Malia Everette