2Inclusive SLGBTQ+ church in Cuba welcomes all in a country that once sent homosexuals to forced labor camps


Proud to wear a rainbow-colored clerical stole and a rainbow flag on her clerical collar, the Rev. Elaine Saralegui welcomed everyone to her 2SLGBTQ+ inclusive church in the Cuban port city of Matanzas.

“We are all invited. And no one can exclude us,” Saralegui told same-sex couples holding hands while sitting on wooden benches at the Metropolitan Community Church where she had recently married his wife.

These words and this type of gathering would have been unimaginable before in the largest country in the conservative and largely Christian Caribbean, where anti-gay hostility is still widespread.

Cuba repressed homosexuals after its 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro and sent many to labor camps. But in recent years, the communist island banned discrimination against gays, and a 2022 government-backed “family law,” passed by popular vote, allowed same-sex couples the right to marry and adopt.

Members of Cuba’s 2SLGBTQ+ community say it marked a milestone that has allowed them to embrace their gender identity and practice their worship more freely in a country that for decades after the revolution was officially atheist. Over the past quarter century, it has gradually become more tolerant of religions.

“It’s huge. There are not enough words to say what an opportunity it is to achieve the dream of so many,” said Maikol Añorga. She was with her husband, Vladimir Marin, near the altar, where at a Friday service they joined other parishioners who They took turns placing offerings of white and pink wildflowers to thank God.

“It’s the opportunity for all people to be present here,” he said, “to come together and participate regardless of gender, race or religion.”

The Catholic Church, in its doctrine, still rejects same-sex marriage and condemns any sexual relationship between gay or lesbian couples as “intrinsically disordered.” However, Pope Francis has done much more than any previous Pope to make the church a more welcoming place for 2SLGBTQ+ people.

In December, the pope formally approved allowing Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples, a policy change aimed at making the church more inclusive while maintaining its strict ban on gay marriage.

Family law in Cuba faced opposition from the country’s Catholic church, as well as the growing number of evangelical churches that have multiplied throughout the island.

Anti-2SLGBTQ+ rights protests have faded since 2022. But back then, evangelical pastors spoke from the pulpit and handed out Bibles and pamphlets in the streets invoking God’s “original plan” for unions between men and women and calling homosexual relationships a sin.

Still, the measure was overwhelmingly approved by nearly 67 percent of voters. It came after a massive government campaign of nationwide briefings and extensive state media coverage amid food shortages and blackouts that have led thousands to immigrate to the United States during one of the worst economic crises ever. has affected Cuba for decades.

At the time, President Miguel Díaz-Canel told Cubans in a video message that he was pleased by the broad support the measure received despite difficult economic challenges. He celebrated by tweeting: “Love is now the law.”

For years, the 2SLGBTQ+ rights movement has been proudly led by Cuba’s best-known gay rights advocate: Mariela Castro, daughter of former President Raúl Castro and niece of his brother Fidel.

“This just brings happiness. This simply makes people feel truly worthy, respected, loved, considered, a true citizen with their rights and duties,” Castro told The Associated Press.

“I think we have taken a very valuable step forward.”

Long before same-sex couples were granted the right to marry, Castro was advocating for it, training police on relations with the 2SLGBTQ+ community and sponsoring symbolic ceremonies in which Protestant clergy from the United States and Canada blessed unions as part of the annual Pride parade.

“It was a beautiful spiritual experience for me, and I think for those people too,” said Castro, who directs Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education and is a member of the National Assembly. “First, our campaign was: ‘Let love be the law.’ Now love is law and we are going to continue celebrating it.”

In 2010, his uncle, then-retired leader Fidel Castro, admitted that he had been wrong to discriminate against homosexuals. When asked about this, he said it helped mark a turning point in public attitude.

“I think it was honest. “It was good and healthy for him to say this because it helped others who were still holding on to prejudices to understand that this type of thinking can change,” she stated.

“Even in a revolutionary leader like him, prejudices arose and he was able to understand them and help pave the way for change.”

In the early years after the 1959 revolution, homophobia in Cuba, he said, was no different from the rest of the world. In the United States, psychiatric authorities considered homosexuality a mental disorder and gay sex was a crime in most states. Currently, Russia (a major supporter of Fidel Castro when it was the core of the communist Soviet Union) is bucking the global trend of greater acceptance of 2SLGBTQ+ with a multi-pronged crackdown on 2SLGBTQ+ activism.

The previous Cuban Family Code, which dates back to 1975, stipulated that marriage was between a man and a woman – not between two people – which excluded lifelong partners from inheritance rights.

The new law goes beyond equal marriage – which activists tried to include in the Constitution in 2019 without success – or the possibility of homosexual couples adopting or using surrogacy. It also expanded the rights of children, the elderly and women.

The first members of Saralegui’s congregation began meeting on the terrace of a house in Matanzas more than a decade ago to sing and pray.

“The sky was our roof and when it rained, we all went into a small room,” Saralegui said. In 2015, with the support of the US-based 2SLGBTQ+ Metropolitan Community Churches, they converted a house into their church, decorated with wooden pews and a stained glass cross hanging above the altar. Below, a local Tibetan Buddhist group that meets here during the week puts away their musical instruments in an example of interfaith partnership.

“This church is a family,” said Saralegui, who has a tattoo of the Jesus fish on one of his forearms and wears a Buddhist bracelet. “It is a sacred space, not only because there is a cross or an altar, but because it is the most sacred space that these people can go to: it is where they come to have a safe space.”

After receiving Communion, congregant Nico Salazar, 18, said he was glad to have found that safe space here after members of an evangelical church he attended growing up asked him not to return as he embraced his identity. of genre.

“It’s the essence of the Bible: God is love, and other churches should emphasize that instead of repressing and harming others with supposed sin,” said Salazar, who was born female and began hormone treatment this year.

“Sin and love are not the same thing,” said Salazar, who wore a cross-shaped earring.

“And loving,” he added, “is not a sin.”

Associated Press religion coverage is supported through AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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