Castro’s daughter sponsors blessing of Cuban same-sex couples

Rev. Roger LaRade, of the Eucharistic Catholic Church in Canada, blesses a gay couple as they lean in to kiss each other in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, May 9, 2015.

Rev. Roger LaRade, of the Eucharistic Catholic Church in Canada, blesses a gay couple as they lean in to kiss each other in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, May 9, 2015. Desmond Boylan, AP

Mariela Castro, center, daughter of Cuba's President Raul Castro, takes part in a parade with Cuba's LGBT community in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, May 9, 2015. A day before Cuban President Raul Castro visits the Vatican, his daughter sponsored a blessing ceremony for gay couples on an island where gay marriage remains illegal.Desmond Boylan, AP

Mariela Castro, center, daughter of Cuba’s President Raul Castro, takes part in a parade with Cuba’s LGBT community in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, May 9, 2015. A day before Cuban President Raul Castro visits the Vatican, his daughter sponsored a blessing ceremony for gay couples on an island where gay marriage remains illegal.

HAVANA — The daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro sponsored a blessing ceremony Saturday for gay couples on an island where gay marriage remains illegal.

Nearly two dozen gay couples held hands or embraced, some crying, as Protestant clergymen from the U.S. and Canada blessed them as part of official ceremonies leading up to the Global Day against Homophobia on May 17.

Rev. Roger LaRade, of the Eucharistic Catholic Church in Canada, blesses a gay couple as they lean in to kiss each other in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, May 9, 2015.Desmond Boylan, AP

Rev. Roger LaRade, of the Eucharistic Catholic Church in Canada, blesses a gay couple as they lean in to kiss each other in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, May 9, 2015.

Members of Cuba's LGBT community take part in a gay pride parade in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, May 9, 2015.Desmond Boylan, AP

Members of Cuba’s LGBT community take part in a gay pride parade in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, May 9, 2015.

Castro’s daughter Mariela heads Cuba’s Center for Sex Education, which has been pushing for gay rights in a country with a history of persecuting homosexuals.

While she was careful not to call Saturday’s ceremony a wedding, the event had most of the trappings of matrimony.

Luis Enrique Mederos and his partner for 14 years, Alain Morales, approached clergyman including Troy Perry, founder of Los Angeles‘ gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, and held hands beneath a canopy while the pastors blessed their relationship.

“Luis, I give you my life,” Morales said, as the crowd of 300 applauded and cheered.

“It’s a step to strengthen our relationship because we’re both religious, believers,” said Mederos, a 47-year-old graphic designer. He said he saw the ceremony as an important step toward the eventual legalization of gay marriage in Cuba.

“It’s a dream for the Cuban gay and transgender community that one day it won’t be just a symbolic and we can get married, because we’re also part of this changing world,” he said, embracing Morales, 38.

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Uruguay, Argentina and a string of U.S. states, along with several in Mexico, have legalized same-sex marriage or civil unions.

Gays were hounded and persecuted during much of the presidency of Fidel Castro. After handing power to his brother Raul, the elder Castro said he regretted his treatment of gays, and Cuba has been granting increasing rights to gays in recent years.

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