Gays and lesbians march in Havana

Hundreds of gay and lesbian activists marched and danced through the streets of Havana on Saturday, two days before the International Day Against Homophobia.
People march in Havana as part of the events leading up to the International Day Against Homophobia. ((Franklin Reyes/Associated Press))
Hundreds of gay and lesbian activists, some dressed in drag and others sporting multicoloured flags representing sexual diversity, marched and danced through the streets of Havana on Saturday along with the daughter of the Cuban president.

The event was part of a celebration aimed at eliminating homophobia around the world.

Some of the marchers played drums and others walked on stilts as they made their way down a wide avenue in the capital's hip Vedado neighbourhood, where they have held a series of debates and workshops ahead of the May 17 celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia. On that date in 1990, the World Health Organization stopped listing homosexuality as a mental illness.

"We have made progress, but we need to make more progress," said Mariela Castro, a campaigner for gay rights on the island and the leader of Cuba's National Centre for Sexual Education. She is also the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro.

Cuba has come a long way in accepting homosexuality. In the 1960s, shortly after the revolution, homosexuals were fired from state jobs and many were imprisoned or sent to work camps. Others fled into exile.

But that began to change in the 1980s, in large part to the work of Mariela Castro's centre. Recently, the government has even agreed to include sex change operations for transsexuals under its free national health system, another project championed by the centre.

The workshops and debates on Saturday dealt with issues such as adoption by gay and lesbian couples and whether to legalize gay marriages, a step Mariela Castro has been pushing for years, so far without success. The week of celebrations ends Monday.