50.50: Feature

Equal marriage has improved our lives, says LGBT Cubans

Cuba’s new Family Code approves marriage, adoption and assisted reproduction rights for same-sex couples

Eileen Sosin
Eileen Sosin
6 April 2023, 9.00am

Evelin Rosales and Rocío Baró got married in Havana in 2022


Courtesy of Massy Carram

Rocío Baró and Evelin Rosales made history last year, when they were among the first same-sex couples to get married in Cuba since equal marriage was legalised in September.

Their first few days as a married couple didn’t feel that different, said Baró, 29, and Rosales, 24, because they have shared a home and daily life from the very start of their relationship, three years ago.

“But from a legal and rights protection point of view, the change is very big,” said Baró, a digital marketing specialist. “When it comes to carrying out any official procedure, being married is not the same as being an ‘unrecognised’ couple.”

Same-sex marriage came into force on the Caribbean island on 27 September 2022, two days after a referendum involving three-quarters of the electorate approved a new Family Code by 66% to 33%. As well as equal marriage, the new code recognises other rights previously denied to the LGBTIQ community, such as adoption and assisted reproduction.

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Between 27 September and 9 March this year, 513 same-sex couples have married, according to official figures.

The possibility of allowing same-sex marriage had been raised in 2018, during discussions on reforming the country’s constitution. One draft proposed changing the definition of marriage to “a union between two people” rather than between a man and woman, but this was dropped following pressure from religious fundamentalist groups. Cuban society’s deep-rooted conservatism was also a factor in replacing the definition with vaguer wording.

Same-sex couples had to wait another four years for the new Family Code and its approval by popular vote. “When the law was passed, a lot of doors were opened, not only for me, but for many people who had been waiting years and years for something like this to happen in Cuba,” Rosales, an artist, told openDemocracy.

Cuban LGBTIQ+ magazine Q de Cuir applauded the new legislation, predicting that the number of same-sex marriages will continue to grow, and “an act so simple but so in demand will lose its novelty to settle into the natural rhythm of legal life in the country”.

A new divide

To date, nine of the 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have granted equal marriage rights to same-sex couples: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay.

In Cuba, the possibility of granting equal rights to LGBTIQ couples and families opened up a relatively new divide in a country previously characterised by a wedge between the single-party communist government and political dissident groups, considered illegal by the state.

The process pitched LGBTIQ, feminist and rights-based groups alongside progressive actors within faith communities and the state against anti-rights religious groups, conservative state actors and non-religious but traditionally conservative people, according to a 2020 article by Cuban feminist researcher Ailynn Torres Santana.

Baptist, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Methodist churches showed for the first time how wide their reach is in a country where Catholicism is estimated to be the main religion. They preached in churches, circulated letters and flyers, organised petitions and campaigned on social media against equal marriage and in favour of the “original design” of the family “as God created it”.

When the government announced this issue would be defined in the Family Code and decided by popular vote in a referendum, these Protestant groups followed the examples of other conservative Christian organisations elsewhere in Latin America. That is, they forged alliances and regional connections, and found common ground with the Catholic Church, which has long expressed its rejection of equal marriage.

Same-sex marriage encountered other obstacles: some of the political opposition actively campaigned against it, arguing that other human rights and regime change had priority over it, and some citizens, upset by the current economic crisis, voted against the government’s proposals.

Amid this backlash, one silver lining came in the various initiatives of LGBTIQ activists and their allies, who fought hard to win support for the Family Code. They also criticised the government’s attempt at ‘pinkwashing’, saying that human rights are not subject to the majority’s will and Parliament should have just approved a law on equal marriage.

Rights beyond marriage

For many couples in Cuba, getting married is not only a way to celebrate their love, but also a real chance to realise their life and family goals – such as having children.

Baró and Rosales have talked a lot about becoming mothers. “It gives us tremendous joy that we don’t have to manage this ourselves and have access to assisted reproduction. And also that any boy or girl born as a result is recognised within this marriage, that they know they have two mothers and that's how their family is composed,” Baró said.

Until the change in law, adoption and assisted reproduction were available only to heterosexual couples. The new regulations cover (non-commercial) surrogacy, which applies to people united by family or emotional bonds, women with a medical condition that prevents them from gestating, infertile people, single men and male couples.

Equal marriage also means more freedom for LGBTIQ couples to live abroad legally. Being married, and having the document to prove it, can make all the difference.

“For my husband and I, being married is of great importance in practical terms,” Adiel González, a theologian and LGBTIQ activist now living in Brazil, told openDemocracy. To bring his husband over to Brazil, he can now apply for a family reunification visa.

Laura Bustillo, a camera operator who moved to Spain with her girlfriend last year, explained the migration process has been difficult for them. Her girlfriend has a scholarship so can apply for residency status –that could have been extended to Bustillo if they had been married before leaving Cuba. But they didn’t. The timing was unfortunate, she said: “We left Cuba on 23 September, just two days before equal marriage was approved.”

Likewise, when Baró went to study in the UK a year ago, Rosales could not travel with her because they were not married. Now, finally, they can exercise a right that should have belonged to them. “If tomorrow I went abroad on another scholarship, Evelin could be with me there, for however long it lasted,” she said.

Some Cubans who have married foreigners abroad have also expressed a desire to have their marriages recognised in Cuba, according to the authorities. One of them is Ernesto Carrodeguas, a Cuban engineer living in Argentina, where he got married in 2011. Now, he would like to get married in his own country.

“My husband, with whom I have lived for almost 23 years, has the right to make decisions about my health, if I can’t,” he told openDemocracy. “And then there are hereditary rights. We live in a world governed by those rights, which have not been full for homosexual relationships. I have all that sorted out in Argentina. In Cuba, not yet.”

For him, same-sex marriage is also a tribute to those who fought for this right for so long. Lawyer Darsi Fernández, who has just married her partner Liliana in Cuba, after 13 years of being together, echoed this point.

“Neither of us has a special appreciation for the concept of marriage,” Fernández told openDemocracy: “We decided to marry as a kind of homage to all the people who couldn't do it, who wanted to and couldn't.”

Fernández and her wife sometimes forget they are married. “I keep introducing Liliana as my girlfriend, and so does she; and we also joke about it: ‘if I knew this, I wouldn't have gotten married!’.”

Years ago, even when he didn’t have a partner, economist Ahmed Ación fantasised about the idea of getting married; he wanted a wedding with an open-top car that would travel all over Havana, for everyone to see. “Now I look at marriage in a more pragmatic way; it is a contract that makes life easier in many ways,” he said.

Whatever the motivation for getting married, the ability to decide and plan is now available to everyone in Cuba.

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