In the crumbling suburbs of Havana, Jorge and Alfredo’s apartment is a hidden paradise.
Behind the head-height chain link gate, latched with a twist of fencing wire, is the footpath that leads past their neighbour’s front doors – all of them open, and spilling out Cuban music into the sultry evening air.
Alfredo has placed pot plants along the walk, the cool lush entrance a welcome contrast to the heat and humidity of Havana.
In their courtyard; a tiny rainforest, with ponds full of Japanese carp and turtles, aviaries of parrots and cockatiels, and a wandering peacock.
And dogs. Lots of dogs. Alfredo breeds bichon habeneros. “It’s Cuba’s native breed,” he says.
For a long time, Alfredo was the president of the breeders’ association.
“There was a lot of mixing with street dogs. We spent years bringing it back to pedigree,” he says.
It’s Alfredo’s apartment in name. But he and Jorge – both in their early forties – have been together here for 18 years.
And, like all other gay couples in places where gay marriage is illegal, they face the same problems.
“If I died tomorrow, Jorge would have a difficult time,” Alfredo says.
“He might be able to get the apartment because of how long he’s lived here – but not because of our relationship.”
There were some gay marriages in Cuba last year, but they’re not recognised by the state.
What’s surprising about Cuba is what is accepted – indeed, sanctioned – by Cuba’s communist government.
Havana has a gay beach, for example. It has around eight or nine gay nightclubs – open every night, hiding nothing, with transgender shows most evenings.
In fact, the nightclubs have direct links to a Cuban government ministry which, among other things, helps to place transgender Cubans into the workplace.
But perhaps most surprising of all is that the department provides free sex change operations to Cubans who want them. Around five or six are performed every year.
Gia has been through the system.
When she walks into Jorge and Alfredo’s courtyard, everyone else gathered looks horribly underdressed.
Gia says she knew since she was “an egg” that she was not the boy she was born as.
She is partway through the process of transforming herself into a woman. And she’s showing it off to full effect.
ABC cameraman Dan starts taking photos. Gia pulls out her compact and adjusts her perfect makeup.
“I began buying oestrogen from the government pharmacies in 2006,” she says.
Gia applied for gender reassignment surgery, and began the process of preparation: including psychological testing, and medication to prepare her body for the change.
But in the end, she didn’t go through with it.
It’s hard not to notice those very real-looking breasts – especially in that top she’s wearing.
“These implants were brought in from overseas by a friend. Undercover,” she says.
“I paid $500 for them, then $300 to a surgeon to put them in.”
A surprisingly large investment, given that most Cubans earn less than $50 a month.
Gia a secret from family of rich businessman boyfriend
How did she pay for them? What’s her job?
Jorge laughs out loud and answers for her: “She’s a kept woman!”
Gia’s benefactor is her boyfriend – a rich Cuban businessman. It was he who didn’t want her to go through with the full operation.
“There are a lot of men who don’t want a fully changed partner,” she says.
“They want to have the experience with another kind of woman. If you have the full change, you’re just another woman. Whereas I am more… multi-faceted,” she laughs.
Gia’s boyfriend has a wife and three children. And no, his family does not know about Gia.
Gay life ‘more or less normal’ but machismo culture still alive
While the government may have a liberal approach to things like gender reassignment surgery, this is still Latin America. And the machismo culture is still very much alive here.
“It’s better than it was 50 years ago, when the revolution was new,” Alfredo says.
‘Back then, there was repression of gays. You could be thrown in jail for having long hair if they thought you were gay.”
Dan notes that Che Guevera wasn’t exactly sporting a buzz cut at the time.
“That was a long time ago,” says Alfredo.
“It’s changed a lot. I’ve seen older gay couples, in their fifties and sixties – even maybe two or three generations before ours – who could live a life that was more or less normal in Cuba.”
Except when it comes to the police.
Even now, Alfredo says, if police stop you in the street and realise you’re gay, a whole different attitude comes into play. Jorge agrees.
“If we go to the gay beach, police will ask for my ID card. That never happens anywhere else,” he says.
“The government kiosks charge twice the amount for drinks as they do anywhere else in Cuba. They say they’re doing it to ‘take care of us’, and ‘keep the undesirables out’.”
But even Gia says in the times she’s been taken to the police station – for undisclosed reasons – she’s never experienced aggression or mistreatment.
Adoption a ‘foreign concept’ in Cuba
So are they allowed to adopt? The short answer is – no.
“But there is very little adoption in Cuba anyway,” Alfredo says.
“The whole concept of an abandoned child is a really foreign concept to Cuban culture. Children born out of wedlock are invited into the family.
“I would have loved to have my own children – but Jorge doesn’t.”
Jorge agrees with a laugh: “I’m a pig!”
“And it’s really expensive to raise kids in Cuba. Even something like milk is not always available,” he adds.
All three say they live a normal life. But even with the government’s relatively liberal approach, they say things haven’t advanced very much.
Nor do they think they will.
“The conditions aren’t yet created for something like gay marriage to happen,” Alfredo says.
“The most important thing in Cuba is politics. Any other discussion is secondary.”