Cuban physician Alberto Roque in S.F. to talk of gay issues

Julian Guthrie  |  SF Gate  |  May 26, 2014

Dr. Alberto Roque, a physician in Cuba, has faced few problems living as an openly gay man in his neighborhood in Havana. But he knew his experience was not the norm for gays, lesbians and transgender people in his machismo land.

In 2003, Roque began working as a gay and transgender activist and is now one of Cuba’s best known advocates on gender issues and equality. He worked with the Cuban National Center for Sex Education from 2003 to 2013, and in 2010 founded Hombres por la Diversidad, an advocacy and reflection group.

Roque, 44, is in San Francisco this week to talk about the challenges facing the LGBT community in Cuba.

Q: What got you into this field?

A: I’m a medical doctor. I’m openly gay. I live with my partner of 15 years. I was chief of the ER at my hospital in Havana, and I didn’t have problems being open. I decided to work on these issues because I wanted to help the community, to help people whose rights were denied or not recognized.

Q:Is Cuba largely homophobic?

A: People today are more tolerant regarding sexuality and sexual orientation. But discrimination based on gender identity is very strong. I would say that Cubans today are more trans-phobic than homophobic. You see a lot of gay people working and living openly. We have neighbors who are gays and lesbians. There’s progress.

Q:How important has it been to have Mariela Castro – daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and niece of former President Fidel Castro – as an advocate for gay marriage and transgender equality?

A: She’s a congresswoman now. She is an advocate, but she doesn’t say she supports gay marriage. The proposal now is for gays and lesbians to have the same rights as heterosexual people, even if you don’t call it marriage. She’s also about fighting other forms of discrimination, such as racial discrimination.

Q:What are some of the gay rights victories in Cuba?

A: There are major victories. The Communist Party and the state have recognized sexual orientation and gender identity as a source of discrimination. So that’s a big and outstanding issue. This is very good. And the Ministry of Health now recognizes all health care for trans people. All procedures are universal and free of charge for transsexual people, from medical to psychological treatments.

Q:What are the remaining challenges?

A: Marriage for people who are interested in marriage. Another issue is for hate crimes to be clearly recognized under the penal code. Another issue is the right to adoption in the family code. In my opinion, this is very discriminatory. Also, if you are in the army and you say you are gay, you will be fired.

Q:What about educational programs?

A: We need to improve education strategies, to have more participation of the community, of neighborhoods, concerning gender and sexual identity. You can have a lot of revolutionary laws, but if you don’t change people’s minds, it won’t be possible to really tackle homophobia. We need to erase all sorts of discrimination that are still alive in the Cuban way of thinking.

Q:Is Cuba any closer to marriage equality?

A: I don’t think so, yet. Though we are closer in terms of recognizing same-sex unions. There is a lot of opposition from government officials, from churches, and from the Cuban population to the marriage of gay, lesbian and transgender people.

Q:What can the LGBT community of San Francisco learn from your story? And what can Cuba learn from San Francisco?

A: There is a lot of misinformation about what is going on in Cuba. We have a lot of problems. But we can share our experiences. Although we are very different, we have some things in common, and it’s a good opportunity to exchange ideas and strategies on how to fight against homophobia.

Dr. Alberto Roque: “Dissident Sexualities in Cuba: Historical Background and Current Challenges.” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Donation suggested but not required. Answer Coalition Space, 2969 Mission St., S.F. 7 p.m. Thursday. Free LGBT Community Center, 1800 Market St., S.F.
Julian Guthrie is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @JulianGuthrie

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