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Cuba to Legalize Gay Marriage? by Lili Zemplényi

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Cuba to Legalize Gay Marriage?

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In a rather unexpected move, the National Assembly of the People’s Power of Cuba opened door to legalize gay marriage and allow same sex couples to adopt children. The series of changes the Cuban legislation voted on might bring about greater freedom for women (it promotes equally sharing household duties), better protection for children, (parents have a ‘responsibility’ instead of ‘custody’ of children) while it might also allow same sex marriage. To approve the proposed changes, a referendum will be held on 25 September on the country’s new family code. The new family code would replace the earlier legislation that dates back to 1975.

In a prelude to the proposed changes, several Cuban politicians praised same sex marriage and stood up against homophobia. Cuban President Raúl Castro declared that the fight against homophobia is one of the government’s chief goals, while critics pointed to high poverty rates and the lack of freedom as major challenges in the country. Last year, the Cuban health ministry flew a rainbow flag on the International Day Against Homophobia in support of the island’s LGBTQ community. All these examples mark a dramatic change in the regime’s attitude towards same sex couples. During Fidel Castro’s reign in the 1960s and 1980s, gay people were interned and HIV-positive individuals were sent to state sanatoriums.

On these community meetings around 62 per cent of the participants supported the changes

The referendum on the new family code is preceded with community meetings where Cubans can debate the proposal. According to the organizers on these community meetings around 62 per cent of the participants supported the changes. While it is a majority, the enthusiasm for legalizing gay marriage is much lower than how much support government initiatives usually receive in Cuba. Typically, the government’s policy proposals—when put on referendums—receive around 90 per cent of support from the population, so the current support for the regime’s same sex marriage proposal count as unusually low.

Among Latin American countries Cuba counts as ‘liberal’ on family and women issues. The country offers up to two months of maternity leave for women, while females make up 60 per cent of professionals in the country. In addition, Cuba already offers free access to abortion for women, while the new legislation also proposes to allow surrogacy (although not for commercial purposes). In Latin America, seven countries have passed similar laws to Cuba’s proposed new family policy. That is to say, gay marriage is already legalized in countries, such as Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Costa Rica. In Mexico, some states already allow same sex marriages, while Chile recognized gay marriage in March this year.

The decision in Cuba might come as a surprise given its strong Catholic traditions. The majority of the country is Christian (around 61 per cent of the population is Catholic, although actual church-going is low) while both spiritists (folk religion) and none-religious people constitute over 15 per cent of the population. Currently, the Catholic church seems to be the most influential opponent of the proposed changes. Immediately when the reforms were prompted, the Christian community challenged the legislation, raising concerns about how it might affect families, the development of children and also whether churches will have a legal obligation to marry same sex couples.

Christian churches’ disapproval of the matter should not be underestimated. Back in 2019 when Cuba accepted its new constitution, LMBTQ+ activists pushed for including same sex marriage in Cuba’s constitution; however, back then churches did manage to stop recognizing gay marriage. Given the churches’ objection, the government has removed the legalization of same sex marriage from the constitution in the last minute. During the recent consultations on the referendum, Cuban Catholic bishops have maintained that marriage is between a man and a woman, opposing the proposed changes.

The proposal in Cuba also prompted a debate on whether communism is a friend or foe of gays

The proposal in Cuba also prompted a debate on whether communism is a friend or foe of gays. In Russia when Soviets seized power, they soon abolished sodomy laws, thereby decriminalizing same sex relationships. The “liberalization” did not last for long, however, in the 1930s, Stalin recriminalized same sex relations and sent thousands of gay people into Soviet jails. The second decriminalization of homosexuality did not happen in Russia until 1993. The issue of homosexuality remained similarly ambiguous in other communist countries, too. While Poland had a rather relaxed attitude towards sexual minorities during the state-socialist period, in Romania homosexuality was considered a criminal activity throughout the existence of the regime. Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro’s controversial and very different approach to same sex marriage just continues communists’ ambivalent relationship with homosexuality.

Lili Zemplényi is a graduate of University College London (UCL). Currently, she is completing her MA at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Previously, she worked as an intern at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Institute for Political Science.