Cuba’s Vibrant LGBT Community

SANTA CLARA, CUBA — As summer kicks off on this communist island, tall transvestites in short sparkling dresses and high heels line up at El Mejunje nightclub, a ruined hotel that turns into a sanctuary on Saturdays for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders.

Some patrons start shaking their hips to the beat of American hip-hop, but this is not the vibrant and multicultural capital of Havana. This is edgy Santa Clara, a small Cuban city known for its shrine to Che Guevara, the revolutionary hero who captured this town in 1958.

This is also the town where Cuba hosts its only official drag show and beauty pageant known as Miss Transvestite, every March.

Yuri Herrera, 24, a gay hairdresser in Santa Clara, brushes his eyelashes with his finger before entering the club.

“Although Cuba is a macho society, people don’t bother me because most of them accept us,” he said. “Things have changed quite a lot here in Cuba and there’s just a minority of machos, but we don’t mix up.”

Cuba has provided gender reassignment surgery for free since 2008. The Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), a government-funded institution, selects candidates for the procedure.

Cuba is also considering legalizing same-sex marriage in this predominantly Catholic region where only four nations already do. The LGBT minority on the Caribbean island has increased its visibility by participating in international events, such as Gay Pride and the International Day Against Homophobia.

Another sign that Cuba is tolerant of gay lifestyles as it resumes diplomatic relations with the United States: The island nation’s first gay choir, Mano a Mano, is currently on a cross-country U.S. tour.

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