Out in the World: Cubans say 'yes' to marriage equality in historic election

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday September 30, 2022
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Wendy Iriepa, a transsexual woman, wears her wedding dress and holds a rainbow flag while riding in a classic car in Havana, Cuba, on December 18, 2018, after the last attempt to legalize same-sex marriage in the Caribbean Island nation's new constitution was defeated. Photo: AP/Javier Galeano<br>
Wendy Iriepa, a transsexual woman, wears her wedding dress and holds a rainbow flag while riding in a classic car in Havana, Cuba, on December 18, 2018, after the last attempt to legalize same-sex marriage in the Caribbean Island nation's new constitution was defeated. Photo: AP/Javier Galeano

Days before Hurricane Ian ripped through Cuba and caused major damage September 27, voters there approved same-sex marriage in a sweeping family code referendum that will also allow LGBTQ couples to adopt.

The measure — which contains more than 400 articles — was approved 66.9% to 33.1% September 25, the president of the National Electoral Council, Alina Balseiro Gutiérrez, told official news media, though returns from a few places remained to be counted, NPR reported.

Ian struck two days after the vote, and has caused widespread damage and power outages from which the country is struggling to recover. Power was initially knocked out island-wide, NPR reported.

In terms of the referendum, it means that Cuba's revamped family code is now among the most progressive pieces of legislation in Latin America.

Before the hurricane, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel celebrated the passage of the package, tweeting his approval, "Love is now the law."

"We will be a better nation," he wrote.

Diaz-Canel's response to the vote and his actively campaigning and getting the Caribbean country's government backing for the bill's passage potentially signals a new era for Cuba's communist government, observers said.

More than 60 years ago the late Cuban President Fidel Castro's communist government forced LGBTQ Cubans into labor camps for "re-education." At the time, it would have been hard to imagine Cuba's president and government pushing to pass legislation that would usher in marriage equality and family rights for LGBTQ Cubans, among many other rights for marginalized Cuban communities. Castro, who died in 2016, took the blame for the way LGBTQ people were treated and apologized in 2010.

Diaz-Canel and government officials campaigned hard for the legislation to pass. The government hosted 79,000 town hall conversations from February to April that inspired 300,000 suggestions from citizens, reported the Washington Post. Cuban lawmakers amended the bill based on those suggestions.

The new 100-page legislation is a major overhaul of Cuba's 1975 family code with more than 400 articles modernizing the law.

Even before the hurricane, there had been dissent among Cubans hit hard by economic hardship and experiencing long power outages and lines for food, medicine, and fuel. That was likely reflected in opposition to the reform package.

The election results could not be independently verified. Cuban elections do not have independent observers, however, Reuters reported that Cubans are allowed to monitor their local polling stations. The media outlet reported sporadic district tallies of election results on social media that appeared to correspond with official results.

The Associated Press reported the election was a modest turnout. Most Cuban elections — in which only the Communist Party is allowed to participate — return victory margins of 90% or more.

Cuba's parliament, the National Assembly, approved the measure in July after years of debating similar reforms, but it fell short not making it past the 50% margin of support it needed to take effect, reported the Washington Post. The referendum was then sent to voters.

The new family code defines marriage as a union "between two people," grants adoption rights, surrogate pregnancies, and extended protections to women (such as protection from domestic violence), children, and the elderly, including rights to grandparents regarding grandchildren among the comprehensive law.

Cuba decriminalized homosexuality in 1979. Today, it's illegal to discriminate in the workplace based on sexual orientation; the public health system provides free gender reassignment surgery; and other rights have been won, but stigma against the LGBTQ community remains in Cuba.

In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church and a growing evangelical movement have taken root and become more vocal against LGBTQ rights in the Caribbean Island country. The conservative religious movement successfully squashed a draft same-sex marriage bill before Mariela Castro, a National Assembly member, could introduce it to the assembly floor in 2018.

Mariela Castro, Fidel Castro's niece and daughter of former Cuban President Raul Castro, is director of the National Center for Sex Education and is one of the most ardent allies of Cuba's LGBTQ movement.

In 2019, a peaceful LGBTQ rights parade was broken up by police due to not having permission to march.

The Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops described the proposed law as "permeated" by "gender ideology" that "people want to impose by force onto reality, and wind up distorting it," reported the Post.

The bill represented a couple of firsts for Cuba. It was the first time Cubans voted on a law other than the country's Constitution. It was also the first time Cubans voted since the internet was made widely accessible, and they could get information about the issues and hear opposing points of view. Cuba has had web access since 1996, although it wasn't until 2018 when mobile data connected many Cubans to the internet.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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