HAVANA, Cuba — On a sweltering, rainy afternoon in Havana, Ignacio Estrada, an HIV positive gay man, and Wendy Iriepa, a transgender woman, on Saturday became the first gay couple to be legally married in Cuba. The couple said their marriage was a present to Fidel Castro, who celebrated his 85th birthday on the same day.
Photo: Jonathan Wolfe
Same-sex marriage is illegal in Cuba, however the government has recently permitted marriage between transgender individuals who have changed their sex and wish to marry someone of the opposite sex.
Although Iriepa, previously Alexis, is now a woman, the couple consider their union a gay marriage.
The wedding was made possible by the support of CENESEX, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, which is led by Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro and niece of Fidel. CENESEX has pushed for a measure that allows transsexuals to change their gender on their official identification documents as well as receive government funded gender reassignment surgery.
In 2007, Iriepa became one of the first women in Cuba to receive the free surgery under new laws passed with the support of CENESEX.
However, the relationship between CENESEX and the couple has recently soured, and Iriepa was recently fired from her job at CENESEX.
The couple believes this was due of her choice to marry Estrada, 31, a member of the independent gay rights group LGBT, vocal critic of CENESEX, and a gay man. Sanchez believes that because CENESEX receives direct orders from the Communist Party, their work is done “in order to gain acceptance in the gay community that has been so sadly marginalized.”
Yoani Sanchez, a well-know blogger, replaced Mariela Castro, who was to be the witness at the wedding.
When questioned by the press about the relationship, the bride, breathless from the heat and swarm of photographers, politely said, “I hope that this marriage will not be seen as an insult to Mariela.”
The couple first met on the 13th of May at a meeting at CENESEX. Both were in what Iriepa described as “suffocating” relationships and quickly decided to leave their partners and start a relationship together. They spent their first night together on the 17th of May. Three months later they are now husband and wife.
Although Estrada affirms his homosexuality, he speaks openly about his love for Iriepa and how she is a “completely functioning woman.”
Iriepa began dressing as a woman at ten years old so she says she has plenty of, “tolerance, all of the tolerance in the world”.
Many people in the couple’s neighborhood in Havana ask why she would marry a dissident and man who is HIV positive. Iriepa responds that, “people think that AIDS is a ferocious wolf, a bug that is coming to eat you. He is not the first positive man I have shared my life with. In the meantime I use a condom and protect myself, so I don´t have a problem with it.”
Photo: Jonathan Wolfe
Iriepa arrived to the event seated on the back of a red convertible and held a huge rainbow flag that matched the ribbons tied to her bouquet of red roses. Smiling and waving to onlookers, she seemed completely unaware of the rain that was sprinkling her white dress.
Many groups that are well known for criticizing the Castro government attended the celebration of around one hundred individuals. Women from The Ladies in White, a group of relatives and wives of political prisoners mingled with members of the gay community and dissident bloggers.
A representative from the U.S. interests section in Cuba was also in attendance with his wife.
At the reception, when asked about the significance of the wedding, witness and well-known dissident blogger Yaoni Sanchez said, “this is a first step, but now it is up to others to follow [the couple] from behind.”
When asked about their plans for the future Estrada, who has plans to open a center for LGBT individuals, responded, “we would like to make something together but we are not sure exactly. I think what we will create will be a foundation, a space for everyone. A space for youth.”
Cuba has seen years of abuse against the gay community including sending homosexuals to labor camps in the 1960´s, and the island nation is still oppressive towards LGBT individuals.