On June 11, 2016 organizers with the Fire This Time Newspaper were invited to a meeting in Seattle, Washington, USA to meet Isel Calzadilla Acosta, a Cuban lesbian activist and coordinator of the group "Las Isabelas" in Santiago de Cuba. The Seattle event was organized by the US-Women and Cuba Collaboration who gave me the honour of acting as Isel's translator for the event. Over 40 people gathered to hear Isel speak about her experiences as woman and LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Trans*) activist in Cuba. After a successful and inspiring meeting, I had the chance to sit down with Isel and ask her some more in-depth questions on behalf of Fire This Time Newspaper.
Fire This Time: On behalf of Fire This Time, our newspaper, thanks for talking with us. Please, tell us a little more about your organization, "Las Isabelas" and how it was formed.
Isel Calzadilla: Well my name is Isel Calzadilla, I am the coordinator of the first group of lesbian women in Cuba founded in 2000, but officially in 2003, when we asked for the advice and support of CENESEX, the "National Center for Sex Education" [in Cuba]. Since then we used that date as the foundation of the group.
The name "Las Isabelas" was chosen because of a place in Santiago de Cuba where all of the groups and people in the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Trans*) community get together. It is a cafeteria featuring traditional Santiaguera music, and is a meeting place called "La Isabelica". So we had a meeting with all the girls and decided on "Las Isabelas" because of this meeting place.
FTT: Great, thank you. So, what kind of work you do with your organization?
IC: Our main work is aimed at lesbian and bisexual women over 18 and up to any age, there is no limit, we have no problem. Also, people who would like to help and give us any type of support are welcome to participate, whether heterosexual, gay or trans. Our work is aimed at improving our sexual health and to defend our rights in general. We work in the LGBT community and communities with the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC - which is the organization that all of us Cuban women over 12 years old belong to in Cuba) and through this work we give more visibility to our group. We also participate with other groups that exist in Cuba in other provinces where we share our work. All of our groups count on the support of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), where we are given training in national workshops, where all of us women activists from different groups come together. Generally we select 10 ladies from each group and then they participate in these national workshops, which are taught by the best specialists in health and rights issues, and thus give us the tools to work in activism.
FTT: As a lesbian woman in Cuba, what kind of achievements and challenges have you encountered throughout your life?
IC: The main challenge was myself, because of the prejudices, taboos and upbringing we have in our country, we often keep ourselves completely in the closet. Then you move forward learning and knowing yourself and you come out of the closet. I have a son, now 22, and my first major challenge, the first thing that happened to me, was to be able to tell my son that I am a lesbian woman. As a child, he was raised by my mother, where there was a lot of homophobia and many things, but little by little I was teaching him that the world is very diverse, and gradually was showing him this other side. When he turned 15 he became a health promoter, so he was learning and understanding these issues. So the moment came when one day he asked me and I said, 'Look, yes, I am a woman who loves another woman,' and he already had very good relations my partner at that time, and so that was my first challenge.
Equally in the workplace, as people begin to imagine, when you know there are lots of parties and things, and you do not go with a compañero [a male friend/comrade]. No worries, my behavior has always been the best possible and with a lot of respect to me and to others. I've never had any problems with anyone, I have lived my life based on respect. I think that in this way people have also respected me.
Yes, many women with regards to the family, have many challenges being out of the closet in their family or at work. For many people, once you express your sexual orientation they will no longer treat you equally, because of prejudice and taboos. But we are gradually educating the population to not think this way.
FTT: Good, can you tell us about the achievements of Las Isabelas and CENESEX to change this mindset in society?
IC: Yes of course. When we started the group, Las Isabelas, I'm a nurse by profession, and many of us are professionals in different fields, and everyone has expressed the desire to know more, to learn more, to work and research on our own sexuality. If we do not do the research ourselves about lesbians, there is very little literature on this. So we have learned to do scientific research and to present the work in universities and scientific events. It has been one of our most important achievements, that several women in the group have already written scientific work on the subject of lesbian women.
Besides this, assuring that every person who is in the group is involved and integrated into society, either through study, work, courses, or workshops of any kind. Once you have become part of the group you learn many interesting and necessary things, such as the laws, which previously nobody knew about. Ignorance is what can allow your rights to be infringed on. This has been one of our most important gains. Our infinite thanks to CENESEX! which has enabled us to learn about these issues, which help us to have a better life.
FTT: Outside the LGBT community in Cuba, do you have support from different organizations and networks?
IC: First, we have the support of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) that supports us specifically as lesbians and bisexual women. We also have a network of lawyers, which has been one of the best networks that CENESEX ever took the initiative to form. We have a series of lawyers, legal minds, who support us and know the laws and can defend us when there are any cases of discrimination or violations of rights, it has been very important.
We also have a network that is supporting us a lot, which is the network of social workers for sexual rights. These people are mainly concerned with LGBT people who are living at home alone or without family, etc. this network is doing a good job with respect to this. The network of for youth rights, which are university students and pre-university students, who have the knowledge or who want to learn about rights and are support us.
Also the different ministries for public health, who always support us, and psychologists, who are also always with us in our events and all the things we do. We also include people involved in cultural work through the different peñas [cultural groups] that exist, other artists that approach us as well. In the end, we are always obtaining more support.
Now we are also doing good work with women educators, because we are all women. Especially kindergartens, where they are showing a lot of interest in having us train them on these issues, because these women are educating boys and girls in children's centers, and we want to convey real knowledge about sexual diversity so that we do not continue handing down from generation to generation all the prejudice and taboos that we have been dragging around with us for a thousand years.
FTT: Do you have a message you want to bring here to the United States or to the readers of our newspaper in Canada and around the world?
IC: I mean, the most important thing is to give my eternal gratitude to the group of American women supporting the Cuban revolution, especially Moon and Cindy, [two leading organizers with US-Women and Cuba Collaboration] who have made my trip to the United States possible.
I should also say, to all who read your newspaper, please support us in putting an end to the U.S. blockade against Cuba, which is so damaging to all of the Cuban people, but especially to women. The blockade is one of the things that continues to damage us every day in our work and our lives.
FTT: What do you see for the future of the LGBT community in Cuba?
IC: In Cuba I see a good future regarding these issues. The work we do as activists to defend our own rights, is moving forward little by little. Sometimes in slow steps, other times with speedy steps, but never stopping. I think in the future we will conquer more, much more space, much more momentum than we have now. Always with the support of the government, which we currently have. Our government supports us in everything we do. Also state institutions such as CENESEX, an agency of the Cuban government, which has opened doors for us, which has given us qualifications, helped us, medically, socially, and in many other ways. I think yes, we can move forward and we will continue with success.
FTT: Thank you Isel, for a very educational and interesting interview.
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