DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Cuba has been known, among other things, for being homophobic. So it is worth considering one of that country's most outspoken advocates for gay rights and equality. She's Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and niece of former President Fidel Castro. Over the weekend in Philadelphia, Mariela Castro received an award for work on LGBT issues.
NPR's Jasmine Garsd was there.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: To understand the significance of Mariela Castro's award, you have to go back to the '60s. During that time, gay people, along with anyone considered counterrevolutionary were sent into forced labor camps. But gay activist Ada Bello says, even before the Cuban Revolution, intense homophobia made Cuba a bleak prospect for her.
ADA BELLO: If I was going to live my life as a full person, obviously I could have remained in the closet. But I was somehow not thrilled with that idea.
GARSD: Bello left for the U.S. in 1958, right before Castro took power. Now, more than 50 years later, in Philadelphia, Bello sat on a panel, next to Fidel Castro's own niece. Mariela Castro was featured at this year's Equality Forum, a global LGBT summit. She was there to co-host a discussion on gay rights in Cuba, and to pick up an award for her work advancing LGBT issues on the island.
MARIELA CASTRO: (Foreign language spoken)
GARSD: Mariela Castro, a member of the Cuban government, is also the director of Cenesex - Cuba's National Center for Sex Education - which campaigns for AIDS prevention and the acceptance of LGBT rights. In 2008, her proposal for state-funded sex change operations became law.
Yale Professor Jaffari Allen, who studies sexuality in Cuba, points out that the cultural shift is noticeable.
JAFFARI ALLEN: What has happened is a tremendous difference in terms of visibility of LGBT people in the press, on television, to remind other Cubans that they are part of the nation and part of families.
GARSD: In 2010 Fidel Castro apologized for his regime's treatment of homosexuals. Mariela Castro says she hopes changes in attitude will soon translate into concrete laws, like gay marriage rights.
CASTRO: (Foreign language spoken)
GARSD: Castro, a straight mother of three, says she felt gay rights were a blind spot in Cuba's revolution, so she decided to take action. Yet critics of the Castro regime say her mission ignores a larger problem: human rights violations against all Cubans.
JAMES KIRCHICK: The list of human rights abuses goes on. And I think it's repulsive that gay people in the United States would be honoring a member of this Mafia that runs this country.
GARSD: James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy organization. Kirchick says the changes in Cuba don't go far enough.
KIRCHICK: Significantly better in the sense that there're no concentration camps, where gay people are being murdered wholesale. And I find it pretty sad that this is now what we're considering success.
GARSD: Back at the panel, gay activist Ada Bello says the picture is more complicated.
BELLO: Whether this is something that is being done to make the government look better, or because they have in fact evolved, the reality is that it's happening.
GARSD: She says, whatever happens next, it's too late to turn back the clock on gay rights in Cuba.
Jasmine Garsd, NPR News.
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