Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuba's current president (and the niece of its former one), made a trip to the U.S. in May, which included a presentation at the LASA conference in San Francisco followed by a supposedly public talk at the New York Public Library (the main branch at 42nd Street).
Many Cubans in the NY Metro area attempted to get tickets to her talk to engage her in a real debate but were told inexplicably that the event had already reached capacity.
Some of them sent a letter to the NYPL demanding an explanation and a public hearing.
In response, last Saturday, the Schomburg Center - the Harlem branch of the NYPL - hosted an event entitled, "LGBT Lives in Contemporary Cuba," that served as a forum for some of the independent, academic, and exile LGBT voices that had been shut out of that previous event.
There were two independent LGBT activists who joined us via phone from Havana, Leannes Imbert and Ignacio Estrada, along with Jafari Allen, Achy Obejas, Mabel Cuesta, and Emilio Bejel who took the stage. Maria Werlau of the Cuba Archive helped to coordinate the event and acted as intrepid interpreter.
Achy's comments came last and amounted to a powerfully devastating combination of personal reflection and narrative together with a point-by-point enumeration of the repressive and homophobic laws and practices that have characterized revolutionary Cuba's policy toward the LGBT community.
At the close of the Q&A session, I asked the panelists to comment on the level and virulence of homophobia among the Cuban population both in Cuba and in exile, naming Miami as a proxy for exile.
While my question was aimed at getting the panelists to focus briefly on the socio-culural side of homophobia (in Cuban and in Miami) after they had expertly described and roundly condemned state sanctioned homophobia in Cuba, I now realize that in that particular context my question was understandably taken as a provocation by many of the already aggrieved Cubans in the audience.
At the close of the event and in many e-mails, blogs posts and comments, and Facebook updates since then, some of these Cubans (many of them friends) have tried to make me to understand the depth of the hurt (dolor) and terror (horror) that they carry inside in relation to this particular issue.
Of the many comments I received, the following one from an old friend named Monica was perhaps the most eloquent and helpful. I translate part of it into English below as a way of sharing her valuable point of view (you can read the entire original comment in Spanish here):
"In regard to the Cuba-Miami thing, I understand both points of view. Your question is perfectly pertinent in a purely academic setting, but what happened was the event was in some sense an attempt at healing and I suppose had the aim or expectation of showing the other side of the issue.
In all sincerity, I tell you that it is necessary to take this into account when you put together a question. You can't forget the horror - the word is not at all an exaggeration - that many people lived though in that country.
HORROR Ted, absurd physical and psychological abuses that that same woman who responded from the audience to your question must have suffered. Each suicide, recorded or not, is a life lost, and we have our own.
There were many of them Ted. There was a time in which there were many suicides because of this. Students full of talent, good children, friends, lovers...
How many victims and how much suffering caused by the intolerance of a few simple fanatics who hijacked the future of the country and now want to rewrite history.
Always, even in the face of the most virulent comments, I have learned to respect the pain of the victims of dictatorships, especially the Cuban one because it is my own, because it is so absurd, but above all because it has lasted so long.
No one, and nothing can compensate for the suffering endured by generation after generation with nothing to hope for. Even today, we all are still paying in one way or another.
It was this pain and these experiences of horror which generated the responses you got to your question. I think that in order to ask such a question, it was first necessary to make clear your academic approach that was going beyond the scope of what had been discussed up to that moment.
Also, perhaps you should have asked a different question knowing that yours would be the last one. Don't you think?
In the end, I write you this note so that you can see that - even without intending to provoke a confrontation - legitimate pain and suffering can result, and that as long as there are still victims it is necessary to speak with delicacy and respect."