Transvestites and Crossdressers Key Workers Against AIDS
CUBA: Transvestites and Crossdressers Key Workers Against AIDS
By Dalia Acosta
PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba, Mar 17 (IPS) – Activism against AIDS is uniting a
group of transvestites and crossdressers in western Cuba in a project
that is going beyond peer education and making inroads into the world of
"The time has come to take us seriously. We are in a position to demand
our place in society, to contribute to AIDS prevention through our art,
and to be respected for our abilities and knowledge," a Cuban
transvestite, whose artistic name is that of Mexican actress and singer
Ninel Conde, told IPS.
"I never felt so sure of myself as I do now. When I used to dress in
male clothes, I would always hang my head. Since I put on a pair of high
heels, I have felt proud of being who I am. I began to be happy with
myself, and I walk down the street with my head high," she said.
A volunteer worker at the state Provincial Centre for Prevention of
Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV/AIDS at Pinar del Río, 162
kilometres from Havana, Ninel Conde won one of the prizes at Transarte,
a cultural festival that concluded with a performance at the city's main
Fourteen crossdressers and transvestites took part in the Mar. 10 gala,
along with some of the best-known singers in Pinar del Río, with a panel
of judges made up of personalities from the world of culture.
At the event, tribute was paid to three of the first men in this town in
western Cuba who dared to dress as women in public.
The message of AIDS prevention, with strong emphasis on the impact of
HIV, the AIDS virus, on the community of men who have sex with men,
reached the nearly 500 people who filled the Teatro Milanés, an emblem
of national culture, built in 1837.
"We have shared the message with all the wide variety in the world of
men who have sex with other men. This kind of artistic performance,
which tries to educate people about the ethics of responsible sexuality,
and also elevate aesthetic levels, is both important and timely," said
poet Nelson Simón, from Pinar del Río.
Simón, considered one of the greatest national figures of homoerotic
poetry, said that "the gay world continues to lack places to socialise,"
even though Cuba is a country "mature enough to learn to live with all
kinds of different options."
The issue becomes particularly important in the context of the national
campaign against AIDS. By late 2007, the number of HIV-positive people
diagnosed in the country amounted to 9,039, of whom 81 percent were male.
Out of these men, 86.1 percent said they had sex with other men,
according to Public Health Ministry sources.
The situation is unique in the province of Pinar del Río, where only
68.7 percent of HIV-positive men say they have sex with other men.
Nationwide statistics show that 14.3 percent of HIV-positive men define
themselves as heterosexual, compared to 31.3 percent in this Cuban province.
Given this situation, "we'll have to start to talk more about
masculinity and take actions aimed not only at men who have sex with
other men but at the heterosexual population, too," Geidy Díaz, an
expert at the provincial AIDS prevention centre, told IPS.
Since the first Transarte festival last year, 18 crossdressers and
transvestites from Pinar del Río have graduated from training workshops
as health promoters. This year's Transarte courses included
hairdressing, modelling, corporal expression, development of social
skills and civic education.
According to Díaz, the community of men who have sex with men in Pinar
del Río is motivated toward AIDS prevention by its close association to
the transvestite world. "They (transvestites) are ideal teachers in peer
education for this group. They join in most of the community activities
we carry out, and have a representative on the expert advisory council,"
As part of the project, the provincial centre has helped to find courses
and jobs for transvestites who, in many cases, leave the educational
system and labour market because of social rejection. Lack of education
and the impossibility of working dressed as women leads them to
prostitution, and quite often, AIDS.
The local initiative is part of an integrated strategy for addressing
the needs of transvestites, transsexual and transgender people, promoted
nationwide since late 2005 by the National Centre for Sex Education
(CENESEX) with the involvement of a wide range of other state bodies.
Another group of transsexuals and transvestites, working with CENESEX on
AIDS prevention tasks in several provinces, played an unprecedented role
in this country in January, when they acted as recording secretaries and
gave presentations and testimonies at the Fourth Cuban Congress of Sex
Education, Orientation and Therapy.
"It was a high point for me. I felt as though the stage had become
smaller than when I danced at the filming of the Cuban film 'La Bella de
la Alhambra' (Enrique Pineda, 1989). But I was the one who had grown
larger," a crossdresser from Pinar del Río with the stage name Siarah
Morel told IPS.
A dancer and a graduate in artistic direction, Morel received tribute at
the first Transarte festival, and has been a local legend ever since she
first appeared, at age 18, dressed as a woman on top of a carnival float
representing the fishing industry, in 1976. "I never thought I would
appear in the city theatre as I really am," Morel said.
Simón, the poet, said that holding Transarte in a cultural institution
like the Teatro Milanés "brings into the centre of the city what for a
long time has been relegated to the margins."
A space for participation is being opened up "in a country which must
become, and is increasingly becoming, an inclusive rather than an
exclusive society," he told IPS. (END/2008)