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Mariela Castro and LGBT Leader Rea Carey: Conversation, Yes -- But Please, Not in a Vacuum

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Tonight, the New York Public Library will host a program called "LGBT Rights in Cuba, the United States and Beyond: Mariela Castro and Rea Carey in Conversation."

Mariela Castro, of course, is the daughter of current Cuban President Raúl Castro, and the niece of Fidel Castro. She has established a record of support for the LGBT community in Cuba and has been a voice and a force for substantive change within Cuba on issues affecting LGBT people, from promoting general LGBT visibility and acceptance to advancing HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, from obtaining sex reassignment surgery coverage by the national health service to advocating for legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

Rea Carey is the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and is, in my opinion, one of the most accomplished and inspiring leaders of the movement for LGBT civil rights in the United States.

Here in Miami-Dade County, news of Mariela Castro's U.S. tour to San Francisco and New York has generated some controversy among Cuban-Americans and others, including among many LGBT Cuban-Americans as well as some other LGBTs and allies. Particularly troubling to some here is her upcoming public conversation with Carey.

NGLTF has a strong history with the LGBT community of Miami-Dade County. As a Miami-Dade resident who is a former member of the board of directors of the Task Force's 501(c)(3) arm, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Foundation, I have therefore been saddened to learn of some of the local reactions to the upcoming Castro-Carey conversation, both from friends and from people I do not know, such as the Foundation member who was recently reported to have e-mailed Carey to say he would stop renewing his membership unless she pulled out of the event or at least "vigorously question[s] [Castro] about why she supports a despicable dictatorship that denies basic freedoms to its citizens."

Moshe Dayan once noted, "If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies." I believe that that observation is equally applicable if you want to encourage change by regimes which violate human rights. Refusing even to engage in dialogue with those with whom one disagrees never seems to yield results. I therefore cannot agree with those -- such as LGBT-ally Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) -- who wholly oppose Castro's visit and her participation in dialogues here.

Nor can I -- or, I think, any reasonable observer -- deny what positive impact Mariela Castro has had in improving the lives of LGBT Cubans.

Nonetheless, that's simply not the whole story, because whenever the language of human rights passes from Castro's lips, one has to wonder how her brain can process such obvious cognitive dissonance.

Castro has not been shy in her defense of her family's regime, dismissing all criticisms of its ongoing denials of basic freedoms as being just lies perpetrated by the "Cuban mafia" in Miami -- even when the criticism comes from within Cuba. (These basic freedoms -- such as freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of association -- are internationally recognized human rights norms to which Cuba itself nominally subscribes, and the fact of their denial in Cuba is simply not something about which reasonable people can agree to disagree.) She has served as an unapologetic apologist for the regime, famously maligning such outspoken voices for freedom within Cuba as the brave blogger Yoani Sánchez, who is herself an LGBT ally. (Sánchez, who is not permitted to travel outside Cuba, last week tweeted that she had been denied a visa to attend the 2010 conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) conference -- the very organization whose 2012 conference Castro freely attended last week in San Francisco.)

Ergo, the cognitive dissonance: Mariela Castro's deployment of the principles of human rights is fundamentally contradicted by and irreconcilable with her simultaneously serving as a high-profile international apologist for her family regime, with its continuing and routine human rights violations.

Personally, I would love to see Castro have a conversation not with Carey but with the Damas de Blanco, the "Ladies in White" who are female family members of Cuban political prisoners and have become in their own right a dissident voice and moral conscience in Cuba -- and who periodically pay the price for it, whether in the custody of the police or at the hands of regime-encouraged thugs.

It is wonderful that a Cuban transgender person can now transition with the costs covered, and that LGBTs are no longer herded off to labor camps by the regime, and that HIV-positive individuals are no longer kept in de facto imprisonment in sanatoriums. It will be wonderful if and when the first same-sex Cuban couple legally weds. Cuba is indeed bettering some aspects of its LGBT citizens' lives, and Castro deserves credit for her leading role in many of the improvements.

None of that, however, changes the fact that LGBT Cubans, like all Cubans, remain today at all times subject to monitoring, arrest, detention, and even imprisonment for attempting to exercise their basic civil and human rights, such as those of assembly, expression, and association.

Indeed, bans on independent political organizations, events, and speech of course also extend to the LGBT community. No Cuban analogues to other countries' LGBT non-governmental organizations -- such as NGLTF itself -- have been or would be permitted, and groups like the Observatorio LGBT de Cuba must operate outside the law. The same is true for Pride parades and festivals. Although last year an independent Pride parade was organized by the Observatorio LGBT (actually, without permits, it was reportedly more of a group stroll) and publicized to the world by Yoani Sánchez, the government dissuaded people from attending. Mariela Castro has opined that there is no need for independent LGBT marches in Cuba, and only government-controlled marches are conducted, under her institution's aegis, even if fawning reports in the United States often omit that fact.

In short, to discuss LGBT rights in Cuba in complete isolation and detachment from the larger reality of Cuba's human rights violations and its missing freedoms for all citizens, both LGBT and otherwise, would be intellectually dishonest and would whitewash the regime's repressions.

Of all of the national LGBT organizations, it is NGLTF that ought to understand this best. A key component of the Task Force's philosophy and of its work has long been the principle of "intersectionality," which understands various forms of oppression to operate not independently of each other but rather in a larger, intersecting system, an interlocked "matrix of domination," as Patricia Hill Collins termed it.

In other words, in keeping with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s wisdom that "no one is free until we are all free," LGBT rights and the LGBT struggle are not understood as existing in isolation from other folks' rights or from other struggles for justice.

Many in LGBT Miami and beyond -- both Cuban-Americans and those who, like me, are not -- will be watching and waiting to learn what transpires at the New York Public Library on Tuesday night. Based on the Task Force's understanding of intersectionality and on the moral leadership I have seen from Rea Carey, my best guess -- and my strong hope -- is that Carey will not approach LGBT rights (whether in Cuba, the United States, or beyond) in a vacuum, isolating them from the larger context of human and civil rights in each society, and that she will not flinch from politely -- but frankly and firmly -- looking Castro in the eye and speaking universal human rights truth to the Cuban regime's power.

And make no mistake: Mariela Castro represents the Cuban regime's power.